The remarkable Danish-American pianist, composer, and teacher, Gunnar Johansen, who was born into a musical family in Copenhagen, was taught first by his father. He made his public debut at the age of 12 in Copenhagen, where he studied with Voctor Schiøler. He then he went to Berlin when he was 14, becoming a member of the Ferruccio Busoni circle, spending his apprentice years under the guidance of Egon Petri. After further piano studies with Frederic Lamond and Edwin Fischer, he completed his training with Petri at the Hochschule für Musik from 1922 to 1924.
From 1924 to 1929 Gunnar Johansen toured Europe, and then settled in the USA. He first settled in California giving weekly recitals for N.B.C. in San Francisco. Along with composing, he played extensive Chamber music series under the auspices of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. He pursued an active concert career, gaining particular distinction for his series of 12 historical piano recitals encompassing the piano literature from Girolamo Frescobaldi to Igor Stravinsky, which he presented in San Francisco, Chicago University, and Columbia University in New York in the late 1930's. After presenting this series at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he was offered a chair as Artist in Residence-the first of its kind to be offered by any university to a performing artist.
In this specially created post, which he held from 1939 to 1976, Gunnar Johansen has been able to freely follow his musical ideals. His time has been divided between composing, broadcasting, recording and lecturing. A list of series presented at the University include: Complete Chamber Works of L.v. Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Schubert and Arnold Schoenberg; L.v. Beethoven 32 sonatas for piano (1945-1946), Schubert sonatas and other piano works (1946-1947), Mozart complete piano works (1947-1948), Chopin centennial complete piano works (1948-1949), Bach bicentennial - a presentation of entire piano works for the first time in a chronological order (1950-1953), "Tape Tapestries"-twelve improvised sonatas recorded directly onto tape (1953-1954). The chief fruits of these years, were the complete works for piano by J.S. Bach, played on a two keyboard piano. On January 14, 1969, he produced a sensation when he substituted on short notice for a colleague as soloist in the piano version of L.v. Beethoven's Violin Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in New York. In 1986 he appeared at the Indianapolis Romantic Music Festival playing works of Franz Liszt in commemoration of the composer's death a century before.
As a pianist Gunnar Johansen performed widely and to considerable acclaim, and excelled in works of transcendental difficulty. He was the first pianist to record the complete keybosrd works of J.S. Bach (on 43 LP's). He also played and recorded the complete solo piano works of Franz Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni (including F. Busoni's Bach transcriptions) and Ignaz Friedman. He recorded his own composed keyboard works. All told there are about 150 recordings here, all produced in Johansen's own studio and issued on his own label Artist Direct.
Gunnar Johansen was a composer of fantastic fecundity; among his compositions are 3 piano concertos (1930, 1970, 1981); East-West Cantata for women's voices, piano, woodwind and percussion (1943); Pastorale in 4 movements for full orchestra, piano and recorders (1946-1948); Trilogie der Leidenschaft for piano, commissioned by University of Illinois for Goethe bicentennial (1949); 44 piano sonatas (1941-1954); 42 Psalms of David for Piano improvised on tape (1955); and 515 piano sonatas improvised directly on the keyboard and recorded on tape (1952-1982).