A selection of articles previously published in English, mostly CD booklets

or new translations. More items will follow.

Copyright the authors and the Hugo Alfvén Society.

Downloading is permitted if the source is mentioned

0. A national composer with a complex
00. Hugo Alfvén und die Idee der absoluten Musik
001. Hugo Alfvén between two symphonies
002. Hugo Alfvén and folk music
01. Midsummer’s Vigil
02. Upsala rhapsody
03. Dalecarlian Rhapsody
04. Drapa
05. A legend of the Skerries
06. The Prodigal Son
07. The Mountain King
08. Symphony No.1
09. Symphony No.2
10. Symphony No.3
11. Symphony No.4
13. Orchestral Suites: En bygdesaga, Synnöve Solbakken, Singoalla
15. Cantatas: Vid sekelskiftet
16. Cantatas: Cantata for the 1917 Reformation Festivities in Uppsala
17. Cantatas: Revelation Cantata
18. Cantatas: Cantata for the 450th Anniversary of Uppsala University
20. Klockorna (The Bells)

0. A national composer with a complex. By Carl-Gunnar Åhlén

Before the age of radio and gramophone, the composer’s soirée was as essential to the budding composer as the opening exhibition was to the unknown artist. It was the moment of truth, when the result of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lonely hours of work was presented to the public ear, to be scrutinised, criticised and, at best, to be praised. At the same time it was an invitation to a form of public debate.

The programme of the Swedish Royal Opera Orchestra’s Sunday matinée on the 25th January, 1903, has certain similarities with a typical composer presentation. But Hugo Alfvén was not making his début; he was already a chosen favourite with the public and one of the young symphonists on which Sweden put great hopes, since the national need for self-assertion at that time was associated with the symphonic medium. All three works on the concert programme had been performed previously and been favourably received, in particular the Second Symphony with which Alfvén had made his breakthrough as a symphonist in the spring of 1899. Before the turn of the century the score had been published by Schott in Mainz.

Nevertheless this concert was a début for Hugo Alfvén, namely in the role of orchestral conductor. That a composer should take up the baton was not in itself unusual; it was common practice in those times. However, for Alfvén thiswas an important step in his career, and he had prepared himself with utmost care.

The urge to master the art of conducting probably stemmed from his own social handicap. Hugo Alfvén lost his father at an early age and grew up under straitened circumstances in a poor home. His mother meant so much to him that he never, not even in his old age, reconciled himself to the thought that she was dead, even though she lived long enough to follow his progress and stand by him until he had attained the position where in the eyes of the people he was undoubtedly Sweden’s national composer.

Every year on the anniversary of his mother’s death he used to honour her memory in an all-night vigil.

He was therefore forced to search outside the home for male figures that he could look up to. Some became father figures to him, such as his violin-teacher Johan Lindberg, the composition teacher Johan Lindegren to whom he went for private lessons and Otto Hesselbom who gave him lessons in landscape painting. Another father figure was the theology professor Oscar Quensel, who would later successfully lobby him into Uppsala’s academic world and smooth his path to the coveted post of Director Musices at Uppsala University.

In the diaries he kept sporadically, Alfvén reveals his huge inferiority complex in the presence of those artists he admired and tried to imitate, and how strongly they influenced him. One of these was Wilhelm Stenhammar, his senior by only one year, whom Alfvén regarded as a genius. While he himself was playing in the Royal Opera Orchestra, first as second violinist during the 1890/91 season and then as first violinist and deputy for the leader Lars Zetterquist in 1891/92, Stenhammar had made a brilliant career: a young god at the piano and the first Swedish composer whose works had attracted the attention of Europe’s finest orchestras.

With no formal training, only his own studies, Stenhammar had made a highly successful début as an orchestral conductor on the 16th October, 1897, and had thereby made himself a champion of less fortunate composers, including Alfvén. It was Stenhammar who was responsible for the huge success of Alfvén’s Second Symphony; similarly it was Stenhammar who had given the first performances of Alfvén’s orchestral ballad Klockorna (The Bells) and the socalledSekelskifteskantat (Cantata for the Turn of the Century) during his one-year appointment as conductor at the Opera for the 1900/01 season. These three works now made up the programme when Alfvén made his own début as a conductor.

Before the First World War there was no qualified training for conductors in Sweden; such training had to be sought in Germany. Alfvén chose Dresden, where for six months, from October, 1901, to March, 1902, he trained baton technique and studied orchestral scores under the very demanding surveillance of the conductor Hermann Ludwig Kutzschbach (1875-1938). Alfvén’s ideal was already clear in his mind after having observed Arthur Nikisch’s way of conducting the Philharmonic Concerts in Berlin five years earlier:

To me he stands out as the most brilliant conductor I have ever seen, Alfvén wrote in 1946 in Första satsen (The First Movement), the first part of his memoirs.

His flexible arm and wrist movements were a delight to the eye, never violent or bombastic but moderate or even small, yet charged with an incredible electricity. He never made a superfluous movement but only those that were necessary to achieve the effect he was after at that moment. His technique was fantastic in its strict economy, but his greatest strength lay in his eyes, with which he magnetised the orchestra. And there was always the freshness of improvisation about his penetrating interpretations, which meant that one and the same work appeared in a new light at a repeat performance.

Alfvén’s début as a conductor was no less successful than Stenhammar’s. Suddenly he was over-whelmed with offers – to lead the Philharmonic Society in Stockholm, for example, and to take over the teaching of counterpoint and composition at the Conservatory and also to begin reviewing concerts for Svenska Dagbladet, the national newspaper. But he didn’t want to be a teacher or a music critic or a full-time conductor; he was anxious not to lose his freedom as a composer, even if it didn’t produce any income.

The First Symphony, written and performed when he was twenty-five, had to be revised and he started on that now. And in Skagen, during the late summer of l903, a work was composed of which he would not reap the full economic rewards until he had passed his eighty-third birthday (thanks finally to the Swedish Performing Rights Society’s successfull lawsuit against an American plagiarist), namely his first Swedish Rhapsody for large orchestra, Midsummer Vigil, op.19.

For Alfvén Midsommarvaka came to have the same symbolic value as the first Rumanian Rhapsodyhad for George Enescu, or the Dances of Galánta had for Zoltán Kodály. In each case it is a question of a brilliant orchestral number which, thanks to its masterly orchestration, has legitimised the professional status of its composer throughout the world.

At the same time, due to the ethnic character of the music, every foreign listener feels that they are experiencing a sort of idealised visualisation in music of the people the composer represents.

On the 10th May, 1904, just over a year after his début as a conductor, Hugo Alfvén once again stood in front of the orchestra which he for sentimental reasons looked upon as his ‘own’. The programme was entirely new: besides a collection of songs accompanied at the piano by Märtha Ohlson, the newly revised version of the First Symphony was presented and the Midsommarvaka was given its première performance. On this occasion the programme was more reminiscent of the usual composer’s soirée.

However, this was in fact the start of something completely new in Swedish musical life, and a phenomenon that placed Hugo Alfvén in the same category as Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Max Reger and, here in the North, Edvard Grieg and Jean Sibelius. Krzystof Penderecki and Mikis Theodorakis are present-day successors. What all these composers have in common is that to a great extent (sometimes even exclusively), they have given concerts consisting entirely of their own works. It is a privilege which has been granted to very few composers in the history of music.

How did Alfvén accomplish the feat of conducting concerts devoted entirely to his works on more than fifty occasions in a country like Sweden, where there was such a shortage of symphony orchestras? A fifth of all the orchestral concerts which Alfvén conducted during his lifetime consisted of ‘Alfvén concerts)!

The answer is that he ritualised them; he made them into a recurring event, thereby creating a ‘tradition’. The in itself unique achievement of creating such a demand, that during the 30s and 40s the Stockholm Concert Hall recorded that concerts were sold out (1785 people came to the 60th anniversary concert, 2021 to the 75th anniversary concert and no less than 2035 to the 80th birthday concert) is in no way diminished by the fact that Hugo Alfvén only had a handful of works to offer: in practice no more than four symphonies, three rhapsodies, a couple of orchestral suites, some songs with orchestra, two symphonic poems, a festival overture and – on certain occasions – one of his far too numerous cantatas.

This was certainly skilful economising with a creative vein, a vein which by no means flowed freely, however, but which required increasingly large doses of folkloristic melodic material to be kept open at all, and which finally transformed the strikingly original symphonist into a no less skilful arranger of other people’s musical ideas (or even older ones of his own). He managed to make what he wrote between his thirty-third and thirty-seventh year suffice for a conducting career that was unique, not only from a Swedish perspective.

But it was a sluggish start. He only succeeded in getting his third ‘annual’ Alfvén concert (on the 3rd March, 1905) off the ground by first cooling his heels in the Crown Prince’s antechambers, an underhand dealing which was frowned upon by the Royal Opera Orchestra, and Alfvén was not offered the post of principal conductor as Stenhammar had been earlier.

The Royal Opera Orchestra was the only professional orchestra in existence in Stockholm, and Alfvén was therefore forced to make a fresh start with the newly founded symphony orchestra in Gothenburg. Here he was more successful.

Thus the Alfvén concert on the 10th April, 1905, was followed by no less than three Alfvén concerts during 1906, of which two were extra concerts inserted to give the general public the chance to hear the Third Symphony, which had been premiered in Gothenburg. Another extra concert was organised in December, 1907.

By 1914 the capital city could at long last also boast a professional symphony orchestra of its own, with which Alfvén did not neglect the opportunity to create new rituals. Only four months after its formation he conducted his first concert, and annual Alfvén concerts followed in 1915 and 1916, in addition to all his other appearances, either as conductor of a completely classical programme or as conducting composer, responsible only for his own contribution in a mixed programme.

Throughout his long life Alfvén gave concerts in fifteen countries, usually together with his beloved student choir from Uppsala, But his first guest appearance in neighbouring countries took place in the double role of composer and conductor at the first Swedish concerts in Copenhagen in 1906, in Dortmund in 1912 and in Stuttgart in 1913. He also travelled to Helsinki on his own behalf as guest conductor in 1906 and 1913. The second guest appearance caused such a demand that the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra was forced to arrange an extra concert.

For many years past Alfvén’s name had figured in the headlines – he was of course an official figure whose words and deeds were reported in all kinds of newspapers. Over the course of time this excessive publicity evidently contributed to Hugo Alfvén’s unproductiveness and sense of isolation, while at the same time making him dependant on the prevailing goodwill of an unhealthy dilettantism. But behind the facade of sycophancy a great artistry was hidden, and also – as can be observed on his own recordings – a rare ability to lead and inspire a symphony orchestra.

No-one has provided a better description of the conductor Alfvén than the Finnish publicist Gustaf Mattson, who was chief editor of the daily newspaper Dagens Tidning and who died shortly after Alfvén’s guest appearance in Helsinki had come to en end. Mattson’s analysis is worth quoting in full:

”Alfvén belongs to the calm, though not in the least phlegmatic, type of conductor. In contrast to (Robert) Kajanus’s large, albeit controlled, right arm movements and rather vague left hand technique, and also in contrast to (Georg) Schneevoigt’s well-known, and in my opinion strongly attitudinising, often almost bombastic ‘dramatising’, Alfvén achieves just that style of conducting which at least a part of our music-loving audience yearns for, if I may make so bold as to express my own and others’ opinions.

In Alfvén’s hand the baton does not say much to the audience. But to a well-disciplined, intelligent orchestra it says quite enough. However Alfvén puts his true vitality as a conductor into the refined activity of the left hand. It is exquisitely expressive, for example, this way of coaxing the first violins to a stringendo by means of a rapid succession of mustering finger movements, with the upturned hand held close to him. One can positively see how through him the semiquavers come whirling faster and faster from the united violin section. From time to time he throws out a marcato, a sforzando, with seldom more than a finger, never with a stabbing fist or gnashing teeth. When the arm is used in its full length, it always seems to be completely justified. There was a section in the symphony (No. 3 in E major), for instance, which he took brilliantly. Here the violins had a rapid ascending figure – then a caesura, and after that a marked climax. How he brought it alive! Without storming forwards in the least or underlining the point with the baton. Furthermore, Alfvén has a special way of ‘conducting before it starts’, which is interesting to watch, as, for example, when the scherzo movement of the symphony was about to start and he needed to get the orchestra’s complete attention for the extremely precise and rapid entry. While the auditorium thought that the conductor was standing still and pausing, he was already well into the attacca, and the orchestra with him.

Alfvén also has a habit of giving small, almost unnoticeable nods to individual sections or soloists of the moment to calm, support and inspire them. In short, one has the impression of a calm, commanding general, one who does not want to build up a visual ego on the rostrum, not to ‘create so that it shows’, but who nonetheless provides a living spirit and a rousing centre. It also seemed as though the orchestra under Alfvén’s leadership played particularly con amore.” (Reproduced in the evening newspaper Aftonbladet, 28.12.1913)

Where could Alfvén have learned this art? Hardly in the opera pit, even though the Royal Opera Orchestra’s conductor Conrad Nordquist was capable of directing with a firm hand and discreet gestures. The answer is: during his studies in Dresden. With Kutzschbach at the piano the pupils were requested to conduct an imaginary orchestra. In Tempo furioso, the second part of his memoirs, Alfvén recounts:

I had to learn to beat anatomically correctly, so to speak. Every superfluous gesture was forbidden, everything had to be determined by necessity, by an urgent need – if it was a question of keeping the orchestra together, for instance, or because of an increase or decrease in emotion ( . .) Countless times he impressed upon me that the secret of a conductors technique was not in the elbow or the shoulder but in the wrist. To show a musician who was counting bars when to come in, he usually confined himself to a quick glance, accompanied by a nod of the head which passed unnoticed by the audience. But if a larger group had an entry – in particular if the dynamic level was forte or fortissimo – then the size and strength of the beat that brought them in had to be in proportion to the effect one wanted to achieve. My teacher was relentlessly pedantic until every type of beat had been carefully learnt and repeated ad infinitum, but he relaxed the pressure when he began to teach us how to study a score.

The first scores to be studied were Alfvén’s own which he had brought with him (probably the first two symphonies and the first two cantatas) which ”for me (was) a lesson of utmost importance for the future. Then he went on to other composers, to their symphonies and lesser orchestral works, which he knew by heart ( … ) Month after month he led me deeper and deeper into the orchestral repertoire, and by way of a change I was sometimes allowed to beat through an opera or two.”

The very word opera touches on a trauma in Alfvén’s life. Alfvén – the inspired writer of melodies and painter of sounds, who had learnt the fundamentals of the art of orchestration in the opera pit and who had such profound knowledge of the properties of the human voice, he must surely be predestined to compose the national Swedish opera?

The trouble was that everyone was of the same opinion. Great authors such as Verner von Heidenstam, Selma Lagerlöf and Frans G Bengtsson picked out suitable subjects for him. But the only effect the mass media’s steadily increasing expectations had was to deepen the black pit of his creative crisis, with the result that he grabbed every possible opportunity that came his way to shelve the project in question.

Another factor should also be mentioned here: Alfvén’s own shortcomings as an opera conductor. Fiasco is perhaps a more adequate description.

The situation at the Stockholm Opera certainly appeared to be ideal at the time of Alfvén’s début. There was an acute lack of conductors, and the management was searching high and low for young conductors. Alfvén needed only mention one word about the crisis in connection with a newspaper interview to immediately be sent two opera scores, together with a request for him to conduct some trial performances.

He was well familiar with Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Verdi’s Otello from the time when he himself played in the opera pit, and now he began to study Mozart’s dramma giocoso. On the 19th December, 1906, he conducted the first of two trial performances.

Music critics from eight newspapers were sitting in the auditorium, none of whom was directly hostile but all of whom had sharp pens at the ready. Alfvén was a person who expected a great deal from others, and now a great deal was expected from him. Their unanimous verdict was crushing:

He had not added any noticeable personal touch to it all (Svenska Dagbladet)

It was not possible to perceive any personal intention, nor did it seem as though the spirit of the opera was in the baton. (Aftonbladet)

For the most part Herr Alfvén kept to well-established practice with only two conspicuous changes. Moreover these did not seem well justified (Vårt land)

His uncertainty yesterday evening was surprising. (Social-Demokraten)

The overall impression of the evening’s conducting was also that we were not witnessing any new interpretation. (Stockholms-Tidningen) For the most part Herr Alfvén’s conducting kept to the old well-tried routine regarding tempi and dynamics, which were generally too loud and heavy, in addition to which there were several differences of opinion, and on one occasion – in the first duet between Don Giovanni and Leporello – the whole thing was threatened by total collapse. (Stockholms Dagblad)

What was the explanation for this? Had Alfvén’s earlier mission to the palace antechambers damaged his previously excellent relations with the musicians? Was the working climate at the Opera too tough after all for the basically sensitive and insecure Alfvén? Or had he simply taken Kutzschbach’s and Nikisch’s lessons too literally, and conducted in a manner too subtle for an operahouse? Such a hypothesis is in fact corroborated by the critic of the Nya Dagligt Allehanda:

With this trial performance his unsuitability as an opera conductor must have been amply proved even to the most undecided ( . .) Herr Alfvén’s conducting was limited entirely to beating time. He hardly dared take his eyes off the score, and he made no attempt to show the soloists or the orchestral instruments their entries, or at least only very sparingly. Even less was it possible to see that his leadership had any influence on the performance or the dynamics.

For once Wilhelm Peterson-Berger was quite moderate, though no less devastating, in his judgement in Dagens Nyheter:

His attitude throughout was (. . .) that of a beginner’s; that as a composer he is as far removed as possible from the Mozartean musical ideal means less in this case than the fact that as a musician he has not so far needed to take any greater interest – nor has he shown any interest – in any music other than his own.

For Alfvén’s part there were no further opera performances apart from these two, and Otello, the score of which can still be seen on Alfvén’s bookshelf, was never staged that season. That the failure really affected him deeply is shown by the fact that none of the reviews mentioned were stuck in the scrapbook, and the event has been repressed in his otherwise open-hearted memoirs. The trial performance is only mentioned as a merit in his application to the post of Director Musices. The first person to bring the embarrassing event into the limelight is Lennart Hedwall in his fact-filled Alfvén biography from 1973.

However Alfvén bore a life-long grudge against the more honest than tactfull Peterson-Berger, which was reciprocated when Peterson-Berger was the only Swedish composer of merit to be explicitly excluded from the grand Swedish Music Festival which the newly appointed Director Musices Hugo Alfvén organised in Uppsala (May, 1911). He was appointed to the post on the 7th June, 1910, and remained for twenty-seven years. In the light of later years’ diminishing ambitions, this gigantic two-day manifestation, during which he himself conducted four concerts with different programmes, involving a hundred musicians and 350 singers, in other words everything that could be scraped together in Uppsala and the surrounding region in the way of amateurs and professionals,restaurant musicians and musicians from the opera orchestra, can be seen as a qualified example of cultural and political obsequiousness.

But statistics are one thing, crass reality another. On the 25th January, 1934, when he literally only had a few pence in his pocket and debts which exceeded the Swedish government’s entire yearly grant to all the professional Swedish composers, he poured out his rancour in the pages of his diary:

If you hold the position of Director Musices and train a handful of more or less unskilled amateurs, then you receive a yearly salary of 5.400 from the State, plus free lodgings. But then your life is wasted, because you also have to look for other occupations in order to survive. And anything more suicidal for a musician than to have to rehearse with swotting young students, who leave after playing in the orchestra for a couple of years and are replaced by amateurs of steadily decreasing standard – there is nothing more soul-destroying.

When you die, what are the fruits of your life work? What value did the State get for the money it gave you for this work? None at all!

The position of Director Musices was demanding and the only assignment that he was exempt from was being responsible for the music in the cathedral. Apart from this, the description of his duties differed little from those which had been drawn up by Olaus Rudbeck the Elder in the 17th century. Alfvén was obliged to give a lecture once a week, he had to rehearse with aspiring students twice a week and teach them how to play their instruments (which he is reported to have done gladly; he retained his excellent Belgian violin technique and full-bodied tone till late in life), and he was also responsible for the ceremonial music in connection with the Faculty of Philosophy’s conferment of doctors’ degrees in the university assembly hall at the end of each spring term.

That the Music Festival of 1911 was never repeated was not only due to personal factors but also to lack of resources and for reasons of cultural policy.

In 1909 the Royal Swedish Academy of Music had appointed a committee, which made inquiries to the municipal authorities in larger towns in the form of a questionnaire concerning the activities of orchestras in the respective towns. Unfortunately Uppsala was not among the towns that answered the questionnaire – this was the year before Alfvén’s appointment as Director Musices – but already in the autumn following the big Music Festival he began to take action. After meetings in November, 1911, a society was formed to work towards the founding of a professional orchestra in Uppsala consisting of 35 musicians.

Meanwhile the Academy’s inquiry had been presented to the Swedish Government, and the result was a proposition to the 1911 Parliament. In 1912 grants were given to orchestras in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö, Helsingborg and Gävle. In 1913 Norrköping also received a government grant.

But Uppsala’s application was shelved, together with a dozen similar applications from other interested parties, and was forgotten when the First World War broke out.

Thus Uppsala’s hopes of playing a leading role in Swedish musical life came to nothing, and from then on Alfvén had to make do with the Akademiska Kapellet’s meagre resources. When Alfvén took over, the orchestra consisted of only 24 players: a flute-player, an oboist, a clarinettist, thirteen violinists, three viola-players, four cellists and the bassplayer Carl Ruff who owned a music shop and was the only professional musician. The rest were amateurs, that is to say, they did not get paid. Restaurant and cinema musicians were hired for the three or four annual concerts, as well as some skilled military musicians from the infantry and artillery regiments in Uppsala who could also play stringed instruments. On occasion the players numbered 40-50 musicians, and Alfvén quite often called in members of the Royal Opera Orchestra, as for example on the 1st March, 1914, when he presented the challenging Brahms symphony which he loved above all, namely the Second Symphony, to the residents of Uppsala.

It was not until 1933 that he dared confront his own musicians with the same challenge. In the anniversary publication The Akademiska Kapellet during 350 years, one of the orchestra’s permanent members and soloist on repeated occasions, the flute-player and future professor of philosophy Ingemar Hedenius, later recalled how strongly Alfvén was affected by the music he performed:

When we rehearsed Brahms’s symphony, and got to that place, he broke off, and was so moved that he had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘it is so fan t a s tic ally beautiful: Just that passage, which he had imitated in his own second symphony. I liked him for that.

This was the sentimental inside aspect of the concerts, so to speak, but there was also a more cynical exterior. In a copy of a programme which has been preserved in the university library’s fragmentary collection, an irritated concertgoer has noted the following:

Skandalously badly rehearsed and badly performed beyond all measure; several times the whole thing was on the verge of collapsing completely. In all probability the person who wrote these words was the music historian Carl-Allan Moberg, who openly attacked Alfvén’s reactionary programme policy, but who on the other hand had reduced Alfvén’s workload by taking over the compulsory weekly lectures.

Hedenius offers the following explanation:

I find it quite natural that Alfvén did not suffer from a mediocre performance of Brahms, to the same extent that he would have done from hearing his own music performed badly.

That Alfvén only cared about his own music, as Peterson-Berger claimed, is certainly true of the period before he became Director Musices. A letter from Kutzschbach among Alfvén’s surviving papers in the Carolina Rediviva Library seems to indicate that Alfvén probably asked his former teacher in Dresden to give him some advice on current works that he could present in Uppsala. He received a list with a dozen names, most of whom have since been forgotten, such as Richard Wetz, Edgar Istel and Felix Draeseke. But even Debussy’s three Nocturnes and Mahler’s Second Symphony were not only beyond the resources of Uppsala but also beyond Alfvén’s own horizons.

What the university town expected of him was that he should take over the male voice student choir Orphei Drangar and the town’s half comatose, half over-aged oratorio choir, the Philharmonic Society. Later on the Allmänna Sången and Uppsala’s mixed student choir also fell to his lot. With these choirs he was confronted with a repertoire with which he was not previously familiar, such as Bach’s St. John Passion, The Creation by Haydn, Handel’s Messiahand Max Bruch’s Gustavus Adolfus oratorio, whose patriotic subject must have been near to his heart.

Hugo Alfvén’s interest in Edward Elgar is particularly noteworthy. Even allowing for the difference between a march and a polonaise, there are many similarities between Alfvén’sFestspel and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. I, and Alfvén was in fact responsible for introducing The Dream of Gerontius to Stockholm in 1912. But there were also social similarities: both came from simple circumstances, both strove for recognition from society. If Elgar was the facade-painter of the British empire, Alfvén to a similar degree cherished the superficial aspect of Swedish musical life, as the supplier of national festival music. The magnificent choral festivals and international choir tours were a part of the realisation of this ambition, even though they sapped his energy for composing.

By way of compensation his important birthdays were raised to the status of national festivals, with his own compositions obviously forming the central attraction. He did not show any interest in any other Swedish music either; the Music Festival in Uppsala in 1911 should be viewed as a kind of party political truce with such colleagues as Stenhammar and Rangstrorn. The only other Swedish works in his repertoire were diverse festival pieces by Josephson, Lindberg, Liljefors, Norman and Söderman.

Edvard Grieg was the Nordic composer he valued most highly. For the yearly conferment ceremonies he put together a small selection consisting of the march from Sigurd Jorsalafarand three songs arranged for string orchestra, which like meditative music played during Holy Communion could be repeated a suitable number of times.

Another favourite was Beethoven. Four Beethoven overtures were performed, four piano concertos (always with Ejnar Haglund as soloist), six symphonies, the Triple Concerto, the Violin Concerto and also the Choral Fantasy. He performed surprisingly little by Mozart: mostly overtures, a couple of symphonies, two or three piano concertos – and everything that Ingemar Hedenius could play on his flute. Nine late Hadyn symphonies were also performed and Mendelssohn was represented by a couple of excerpts from the music to A Midsummer Nights Dream and the Italian Symphony, with its perhaps not coincidental likeness to his own Third Symphony. A drop of Schubert was added during the anniversary year of l928, while Wagner prevailed in 1914 and during the 30s. Handel and Bach appeared so sporadically that Hedenius’s claim that Alfvén was not interested in baroque music was basically correct.

Nevertheless Alfvén was both ambitious and quick to take offence, which can be deduced from a caustic battle of words in the Sydsvenska Dagblader in March, 1925, following the Lund critic Alf Nyman’s insinuating comments on Alfvén’s choice of tempi in the Handel Concerto Grosso in G minor, op. 6:6:

.. the second movement of the concerto is marked Allegro non troppo but that he for his part played it faster, which was also the case with the Musette which is marked Larghetto. This never realised interpretation I duly supplement by pointing out that to me personally a Handel style implies something weightier and more majestic, with more of both robustness and restraint than Herr Guest Conductor now had time to incorporate in his interpretation. . (SSD 3.3. 1925)

Alfvén then won points with a wealth of facts regarding the tempo markings of various Handel conductors and various Handel editions. His fast tempi would assuredly have met with a more favourable response today than in Lund’s academic world, which was a priori negatively disposed towards anything that came from Uppsala.

Thus no pioneering spirit could be perceived in Uppsala in Alfvén’s time. It was to be found in another part of the country, with the conductors Wilhelm Stenhammar, Ture Rangström and Tor Mann in Gothenburg. And also in the choral music – that should not be overlooked.

Alfvén’s work with the choirs took their tribute of his total commitment and filled his time schedule to the brim. At the same rime his achievement became a landmark in music history. Just as the history of Swedish choral singing takes into account a ‘before Eric Ericson’ and an ‘after Eric Ericson’, so Hugo Alfvén’s achievement became a dividing line which separated his brilliant epoch from the previous one. This was due to his abiliry to listen and to direct:

When conducting an orchestra I have nearly always used a baton in order to achieve the highest possible beating precision with its point, but to me choral conducting is quite a different matter, Alfvén explained in Dur och moll (Major and Minor), the third part of his memoirs from 1949. He continued:

What the singer needs is a psychological sign which affects his feeling, which stimulates him. The choral conductor must not only be able to show the beat, he must simultaneously mould a sculpture of the musical phrase with his two hands in accordance with his interpretation, bring it alive and infuse the soul of the singer with his own musical being. To reach this goal one hand is not enough – I need both hands, anyway. This explains why when I conduct a choir I never use a baton, which kills the hands’ means of expression.

In other words Alfvén makes a sharp tactile distinction berween choral conducting and orchestral conducting, which possibly explains his dualistic attitude to the profession.

During his travels in America in 1938 he in fact received the most flattering offer of his life. At the railway station in Chicago a delegation stood waiting from the city’s famous symphony orchestra, who wanted him immediately as conductor at the orchestra’s summer residence in Ravinia.

I considered the professional conductors laborious path, with year after year spent incessantly drilling all the music of the world into ones head. That path has never appealed to me, because it would have brought about my death as a composer. In the capacity of orchestral conductor I had mostly only performed my own works, and left it to professional conductors to perform the works of others. And now, at the age of sixty-six and in a strange country, to start on a new enterprise as director of a musical treadmill which would constantly be turning at fatal pace – the mere thought filled me with distaste. (Dur och moll, 1949)

As early as 1902, while studying with Kutzschbach, he had made up his mind on this point, namely the great danger for a composer to ‘be so filled daily with all the music of the world, that in the end he cannot distinguish between mine and thine.’ (Tempo furioso, 1948)

The problem cannot be formulated more clearly. There is probably an objective reason why Alfvén devoted his exceptional talent as a conductor almost entirely to performing his own works rather than the works of others.

But in Hugo Alfvén’s case it was a question of keeping two equally strong forces in check: the need to assert his integrity and the need to shield his integrity. While fighting this battle on two fronts the creative artist in him suffered, and this painful process was registered in the Fifth Symphony. It should originally have been premiered in the spring of 1938. After considerable effort he managed to have the first movement ready for the 70th anniversary concert at the Opera, and the premiere performance of the symphony at this concert was preserved in a radio recording. Alfvén, filled with happy experiences from a whole festival week,wrote about the concert in the following words:

When I turned to the orchestra I couldn’t keep back a slight smile, because every musician’s eyes shone with the desire to do musical battle. It was like blue flames blazing in the magnetic field between the orchestra and me, and with that feeling I raised my hand for the Festspel (. . .) The trumpets, horns and trombones blared forth with unparalleled splendour in the opening fanfare, and in the trio’s sensual cantilena the strings sang out with Italian passion and intensity. That was exactly how the Festival sounded in my head when I composed the piece. I cannot give the orchestra higher praise than that. And the Royal Opera Orchestra performed the entire instrumental part of the programme in the same exceptional manner (1942)

The symphony is not mentioned again until the 1st November, 1951: Today I shall begin work on the second movement of my Fifth Symphony.

The well of inspiration has dried up.

During the last seven years I have composed nothing, with the exception of a small improvised song.

I shall try, however, even though I have nothing but misery, despair and premonitions of death to write about. No, the score will end up in the fireplace.

But that was not to be; the symphony was premiered and became a sad memento of the tragic fate of a composer and – as his recordings show – a brilliant, often inspired, conductor.

Carl-Gunnar Åhlén. English translation: Cynthia Zetterqvist. CD booklet Phono Suecia, PSCD 109, 1997


00. Hugo Alfvén und die Idee der absoluten Musik. Von Jan Ling


001. Hugo Alfvén between two symphonies. About aesthetic ideals of music in turn-of-the-century Sweden. By Jan Ling

002. Hugo Alfvén and folk music. By Gunnar Ternhag

The name of Hugo Alfvén is widely associated with folk music, and especially folk music from Dalarna, sometimes to such a degree that he is demoted to the status of a composer wholly dependent on folk music, which of course is untrue and unfair. So when the authors of Sweden’s National Encyclopaedia write that Alfvén’s “interest in Swedish folk music and the Swedish folk idiom permeates most of his output,” they are barking up the wrong tree. The manifestly strong connection between Hugo Alfvén and folk music has twin foundations. The first is obvious: compositions of his which are based on or inspired by folk music. Pride of place here is taken by his much-loved choral settings of folk songs, but we also have frequently performed orchestral works such as Midsommarvaka (Swedish Rhapsody No. 1/Midsummer Vigil) and Dalarapsodin. The second foundation is Alfvén’s homes in Leksand, Dalarna. He lived in Leksand for many years, and consequently has come to be included in the symbiosis between Leksand and folk music. Of course, associating Hugo Alfvén with folk music is not entirely wrong, but it represents a constriction, not to say a distortion, of his musical horizons. Even so, and at the risk of further underscoring the invidious link, this is the subject which will be addressed in the following pages. The music Now to the wellspring. First his music, and then his own words in the matter. Compositions based on folk music are adumbrated early on in Alfvén’s career. The piano piece Minne från Åsen, Dalarne (1893) and the solo song Gammalt kväde från Hälsingland (in the collection entitled Tio sånger, 1899) point the way. Neither of these compositions includes folk music in the sense of folk tunes noted down – not even the latter piece, deceptively entitled “Ancient ditty from Hälsingland,” both the words and music of which were new, though the words are unattributed. Both compositions mirror the regionalism of the 1890s, with its predilection for stationing art in Swedish places and provinces. The first of Alfvén’s compositions to be based on folk music is his rhapsody Midsommarvaka, which appeared in 1903 and is based on melodic material collected by the composer at a wedding feast in Roslagen in 1894. We know, with Hedwall, that this rhapsody was primarily conceived of as a genre painting, not as a composition resting on folk-music foundations. Accordingly, the composer took quite extensive liberties with the original material, as was clearly manifested by the legal ins and outs connected with the American band leader Percy Faith’s Swedish Rhapsody. In a letter to the publishers Wilhelm Hansen Musik-Forlag, Alfvén writes concerning this best-known melody: ”In other words, I have not used the tune in its original form but have shaped it according to my own musical taste, given it my purely personal imprint” (Hugo Alfvén, Brev om musik. Utgivna av Gunnar Ternhag 1998, p. 155). This axiomatic liberty was soon to be replaced by a different approach implying far greater respect for collected folk tunes as works in their own right – a change with no slight bearing on the proper understanding of Hugo Alfvén’s relation to folk music. In the summer of 1904 he wrote two compositions for the Leksand Local Heritage Society Chorus: Och hör du unga Dora and Herr Peders sjöresa, of which Hedwall writes: “These two adaptations of folk ballads were the first instances of a genre to which Alfvén would later devote much time and energy” (Lennart Hedwall, Hugo Alfvén – En svensk tonsättares liv och verk 1973, p. 43). Both songs are so-called medieval ballads. Alfvén took them from a collection edited by Erik Gustaf Geijer and Arvid August Afzelius, Svenska folk-visor från forntiden, a collection which he would subsequently return to several times with the same end in view. Thus far there is nothing very remarkable about Hugo Alfvén’s perception – and treatment – of folk music. He did the same as several other composers at that time, occasionally using folk-tune material which he could treat as he pleased. Alfvén’s approach to folk music changed a few years after the turn of the century. Ernest Thiel, banker and patron of the arts, introduced him to the artist Anders Zorn, and he received his first invitation to Mora, Dalarna, in 1902. In1907 Zorn asked him to be one of the judges at a folk music  competition there (cf. Alfvén 1948, pp. 380ff; Hugo Alfvén berättar. Radiointervjuer utgivna av Per Lindfors 1966, pp. 87f). This brought him into contact with the “Folk Music Movement”, the foremost of whose representatives, Nils Andersson, lawyer and folk-music collector, was also one of the judges. “Folk Music Movement” (spelmansrörelsen) is the collective term commonly applied to a successful bid to collect and publicise instrumental folk music. The movement, which was not so much a regular organisation as a series of initiatives, organised fiddler competitions (referred to, from 1910 onwards, as “folk-musician gatherings – spelmansstämma) and published collected folk music (the anthology Svenska låtar being the best-known of these publications). The first indication of Alfvén taking real action in the spirit of the Folk Music Movement is already to be seen in a letter he wrote in the spring of 1906: And then I intend travelling up to Dalarna and visiting some remote parts to note down ancient folk music which never gets put down on paper; and I must hurry, before all the old men of Dalarna are dead, for we cannot afford to lose any of the treasures of our folk music. (Hugo Alfvén, Tempo furioso 1948, p. 165.) The oldest surviving folk-music transcriptions in Alfvén’s hand – apart from the Roslagen ones – are three tunes written down as played in 1908 by the fiddler Lekatt Mats, a neighbour of Alfvén’s in the Leksand village of Tibble. In 1910 he did likewise with Gädd Jonas (Jonas Norin) in Tällberg.. Hugo Alfvén never became truly active as a collector of folk music. He never became a big name in the Folk Music Movement either, despite being personally acquainted with several of its leading lights. But he was affected nonetheless by this upsurge of interest in folk music, as witness, above all, his compositions. Aside from the choral adaptations, the compositions which Alfvén based on folk music are not all that numerous. In fact they are soon counted. In 1914 he wrote a small collection of piano pieces, Några låtar från Leksand, based on the tunes, mentioned above, noted down after Lekatt Mats. (In 1934 he arranged this work for small orchestra.) The free-and-easy piano style puts the original tunes across to the listener, but the folk musicians’ melodies are treated just like any other melodic material. Thus there is no hint of fiddle-playing in these pieces. In the autumn of 1931 Alfvén composed the companion piece to Midsommarvaka, namely Dalarapsodin (Op. 47). Here, unlike his first rhapsody, the melodic themes come from a variety of sources – some from Alfvén’s own notebooks, some from other people’s folk-music collections. For all the differing origins of the tunes, he weaves them together into a continuous fabric. If he took liberties with the tunes in Midsommarvaka, he showed greater respect for the tunes from Dalarna. In his memoirs he addresses the subject in the grand style and with almost exaggerated reverence: I cannot […] mock things that are sacred to me, nor seek to improve that which is perfect. And so in Dalarapsodin I have not altered a single note of the beautiful, sinuous melodies, any more than in the polska dances, with the exception of a brief interjection in Djävulspolskan. (Hugo Alfvén, Final 1952, pp.51 f.) This change of attitude can doubtless be traced back to his experiences during the heyday of the Folk Music Movement, but also to his growing intimacy with Dalarna and its folk music, an intimacy which led him to view the music of the province with increasing humility. Living as he now did, in the midst of folk music, he could no longer do as he had done formerly, at a distance from the home ground of the Dalarna tunes, either in Uppsala or abroad. On the other hand, as usual, categorical statements by Hugo Alfvén should not be taken entirely at face value. His verbiage is often as dazzlingly colourful as his music, thereby concealing shades of action. The fact is that he did tamper with some of the Rhapsody tunes, and not only with Djävulspolskan (transcribed after Hjort Anders Olsson from Bingsjö), the biggest modification being an introductory syncopation in the third repeat which is not to be found in the original transcription. Another notable change occurs in the bridal march from Orsa, the second theme of the Rhapsody, Alfvén’s glitzy version of which is far removed from the Orsa fiddlers’ more legato bowing. These may seem petty cavils, but they are prompted by the composer’s reference to “things sacred” which may not be modified. Other instrumental works based on folk music include a Potpourri över svenska folkvisor och låtar for instrumental trio, written in 1950. It seems fair to term this suite a speculative venture, for Alfvén knew that his own name coupled with Swedish folk music would attract both performers and listeners. The potpourri contains a good deal of melodic material used previously, complete with earlier settings. So too does the composition which proved to be Alfvén’s last, namely the music for the ballet Den förlorade sonen (The Prodigal Son), which he completed, aged85, in February 1957. The choral folk-song arrangements, then, greatly outnumber their instrumental counterparts. Alfvén wrote 50 or more choral arrangements altogether, many of which are still being performed regularly. Some are even part of the standard repertoire of Swedish choirs. The summer choral concerts are few and far between which do not include Kristallen den fina, Glädjens blomster, Tjuv och tjuv det skall du heta or Uti vår hage. So too are the choral singers not knowing their parts off by heart. Hugo Alfvén, as we have already seen, began writing in this genre at quite an early stage of his career. All through his active life he returned at regular intervals to choral arrangements of folk songs, but there was one period when these works featured especially frequently on his writing desk. In the late 1930s and the first half of the 1940s he went in for what can really be termed mass production. The long succession of choral arrangements which then materialised includes several of the best-known pieces.  These pieces were written to raise cash quickly for a recently purchased and far too expensive motor car! The choral arrangements were usually written for both male-voice and mixed choir – in that order, as a rule. Alfvén conducted both kinds, which gave him a direct reason for nearly always producing two versions of an arrangement. But underlying this duplication there was also the hope of the arrangement achieving wider circulation if it could be performed by choirs of both kinds. Alfvén needed the money. Hugo Alfvén was by no means the first composer to write choral arrangements of folk songs. The genre had existed for something like a century when he embarked on his own copious output (see Leif Jonsson, Ljusets riddarvakt. 1800-talets studentsång utövad som offentlig samhällskonst.  I: Studentsången i Norden 1990, pp. 105ff). Nor can Alfvén be termed a renewer of the genre. Stylistically, his works do not deviate from earlier or contemporary settings. No, Alfvén’s recipe for success did not consist in his being an early starter or pursuing new departures, but in his arrangements being practical and, quite simply, beautiful. The practicality was deliberate and is illustrated by the tremendous circulation achieved by these settings. But without their inherent beauty they would go unsung, no matter how well they came within the vocal range of the individual choir member. Statements about folk music The question is whether Hugo Alfvén did not speak and write more about folk music than he composed under its influence At all events, it is not hard to find statements, lines of correspondence and memoir excerpts addressing folk music. Perhaps, then, the powerful association between Alfvén and folk music can also be put down to his own rhetoric on the subject. Not all shades of meaning in Alfvén’s verbal intercourse with folk music can be accommodated here, but two things will be highlighted, namely his most widely quoted statements and his attitude to folk song. The best-known Alfvénism about folk music has to do with the accordion. These are effervescent words, often quoted on the subject of opposition to the instrument. They come in an article which Alfvén wrote concerning his experience of the folk music competition in Mora in 1907 (an article subsequently incorporated in the second volume of his memoirs), and the words are addressed to one Lång Lars from Älvdalen: “Chop up all the accordions you find along your way, trample them underfoot, cut them in pieces and throw them into the pigsty, for that is where they belong” (Alfvén 1948, p. 387). However, the rest of Alfvén’s pronouncement, explaining the outburst, is less frequently quoted. As he saw it, the limited tonal and harmonic resources of the accordions of the time trivialised many traditional tunes. He exemplifies this with the Oxberg March. Anyone trying to play it on an accordion is constrained to “squeeze the minor melody into his diatonic major scale and harmonise it with his three major chords. That done, the march is disfigured and counterfeited beyond recognition” (ibid.). Alfvén’s fears may seem justified, even though, with the wisdom of hindsight, we know them to have been clearly exaggerated. Either way, this one statement does not make Alfvén an accordion hater aspiring to put the folk-music clock back, as the assiduous quotation of the first sentence often implies. On the other hand, the quotation can be used to illustrate the influence of the Folk Music Movement, for this rejection of the foremost instrumental symbol of industrialism had been in the movement’s rucksack before it entered Alfvén’s pocket. Alfvén’s contact with the Folk Music Movement, however, should not be overstated. His approach to folk music can be schematically divided into three periods. In earlier years he had a quite unreflective attitude which he shared with many other members of musical society at that time. His interest in folk music emanated primarily from musical preferences, i.e. he applied musical criteria in his judgement of the folk music he came across. His contact with the Folk Music Movement in about 1905 generated a distinctly ideological involvement. Folk music now became, to him, a value-laden symbol of Swedish culture (with the emphasis on Swedish). But after a time this involvement faded and Alfvén’s abiding great interest in folk music could be coupled with a more pragmatic approach. The symbolic side of folk music was toned down in favour of its musical content. From the years soon after 1900 when he discovered Dalarna and encountered the Folk Music Movement, and for the rest of his days, Alfvén retained a veneration for folk song; instrumental tunes do not seem to have acquired the same status in his eyes. In his memoirs he writes of the Siljan Choir: “It is if anything this choir I have to thank for my perception of the spirit of folk song and the depth of its melodic perspective. And from these perceptions, the harmonic colouring which I use in my folk-song arrangements has blossomed forth of its own accord” (Hugo Alfvén, I dur och moll 1949, p. 138). Even though this sentence was written late in life and therefore bears the imprint of retrospect, it still contains something essential. He held folk songs in almost religious respect, but, be it noted, primarily ballads which he found worth arranging. This solemn respect is embedded in the arrangements, which, in consequence, are neither bold nor burlesque (with one or two exceptions). Not even in his veneration of folk song was Alfvén first in the field. That veneration can if anything be traced back to the attitude of the pioneers of folk-song collecting in the early decades of the 19th century. Their respectful stance lived on throughout the century and after it, also becoming a hallmark of Hugo Alfvén’s choral writing. Not even on this point, then, was he a trail-blazer. Instead he was a skilled traditionalist. This is a shortenend translation by Roger Tanner of the article “Hugo Alfvén och folkmusiken” which was first published in Hugo Alfvén – en vägvisare ed. Gunnar Ternhag & Jan Olof Rudén, Gidlunds, 2003, pp. 61-67.

01. Midsummer’s Vigil

A Midsummer’s Vigil. By Hugo Alfvén

Editor’s note: In Sweden, Midsummer’s Day is a national holiday. Originally celebrated on June 24th, it has since 1953 been a fluctuating holiday, varying each year from June 20th to 26th so that it will always fall on the Saturday after the summer solstice. The day is celebrated in memory of the birth of John the Baptist, but even in heathen times it was held sacred because of its proximity to the solstice. While Midsummer’s Day is the actual holiday, Midsummer’s Eve, with its accompanying festivities, is in folk tradition second only to Christmas cherished as an annual observance.

”I got my first inspiration for the ”Midsummer’s Vigil” rhapsody during the years 1892-1895, when I used to spend the summers in the outer Stockholm archipelago, and frequently associated with the people of the islands. Out there, the light summer nights are strangely attractive. Green islands, gray skerries – the surrounding sea seems almost musical, laughing when the alburns spawn among the rocks, rippling and foaming like the chords of a harp when the wind caresses the verdure of the islands, roaring when the storm lashes furious waves against the rocks and gravel of the shores. But the most beautiful time of all is when the air is so quiet that the sea and sky seem to have merged, forming a taut, spherical Chinese lantern, and the horizon is no longer discernible.

On many of these islands there is much gaiety at Midsummer time. From the newly mown timothy and clover, heavy with honey, comes a strong and heady scent, to which the youths are particularly susceptible. Their bodies grow restless, and they want to dance To satisfy this urge, they wander off to the barn, which according to old tradition among the islands is the only right place for amusements of this kind. The barn might, indeed, have been built for summer night dancing; the floor is even, and pleasantly cool air is wafted in through the open doors. For those whom the ardent leaps have tired, the hay loft provides a pleasant haven. There one might glimpse the dim light of the moon through the cracks in the wall, and in quiet peace enjoy the beauty of nature and of one’s girl.

I have been present at innumerable such dances, mostly as spectator but sometimes as musician, for I had the repertoire of the barn dance at my fingertips. At that time I used to play the violin, and was already greatly interested in our folk music.

Gradually I came to feel an increasing urge to express in music something of the delight of the Midsummer’s Eve, the abundance of poetic moods and impressions that I had received through the years. I wanted to sing the praise of the Swedish character and the beauty of Swedish nature at Midsummer, write a hymn of joy in the idealizing language of music. I set to work as in a dream.

The Midsummer’s Vigil is a rhapsody, but more precisely termed it is a symphonically constructed tone poem, based on a purely visual program, whose contents are as follows:

A group of excited youths is marching along the road on their way to the barn. A number of people have already gathered there, for it is Midsummer’s Eve, and there is going to be dancing, and the beer and akvavit are already flowing. A hoarse bass tries to start the ”Pointing Dance” but does not hit the right notes. People laugh. The squeaky voice of an old woman makes the same attempt, but she also fails, which evokes hilarity among the others. Then the fiddlers take over, and the dancing begins. But tempers have begun to flare, and the first notes of the Pointing Dance are the signal. The quarrel increases in volume, and soon the shrill, whining voices of the old women mix with the roaring of the berserk. They pant and bark in each other’s faces. The excitement rises to the boiling point, and the first blow falls. This releases the anger. With laughter and noise the trouble-makers are thrown out, and the dancing continues.

But a young man wants to steal away from the throng with his girl to the peace and the dense bushes of the forest. He whispers in her ear, and she nods agreement. He skips out from the barn on the rapid sixteenths of the first tune, and she follows close behind on the same theme; it is a so-called canon. At the same time the Pointing Dance is sporadically heard in the depth of the orchestra. The dance music gradually fades as they run away from the barn, and soon they hear only the quiet murmuring of the forest. Spellbound, they listen to a melancholy melody, breathed forth by the spirit of the forest with the timbre of a shepherd’s reed. From far away, another of nature’s voices replies with the tone of a lure. Then they hear a gust of wind approaching, and the melody is sounded by the enormous organ of the forest, playing with all stops pulled.

But now it is growing light. The sun rises. Its rays make the drops of dew on the flowers sparkle, the buzzing of bees fills the air, all nature is waking up. This makes the two young people return to reality. Now they want to return to the barn and have one last dance before the fiddlers have to be carried up to the hay loft. Soon they hear again the merry rasping of the fiddles, and as they arrive at the barn the last dance, the’ whirling Jössehärad Polska, is just beginning. The boy is dancing as he never danced before. He is dancing so that his heels hit the back of his neck, and he twirls his girl as easily as if she were a reed. The other youths are not far behind them – shoes crack against the floor, skirts are flying, there is screaming and crying when the girls are thrown up in the air. A tornado rages over the floor”.

The Midsummer’s Vigil ends with this whirling climax. It is, I repeat, a paean to the Swedish character and Swedish nature at Midsummer time.

This translation was originally published in Music in Sweden = Musikrevy international 1954, p. 11-12 later reprinted in Swedish music past and present = Musikrevy international 1967, p. 12-14 and finally in Facsimile av originalskissen till Hugo Alfvén’s Midsommarvaka, Stockholm 1972.


02. The Swedish Rhapsody No.2, ”Upsala Rhapsody”

The Swedish Rhapsody No. 2, ”Upsala Rhapsody”. By Stig Jacobsson.

The Swedish Rhapsody No. 2, ”Upsala Rhapsody” was written for a festival organized by Uppsala University in May 1907 on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Carl von Linné. It turned into an Academic Festival Overture in the manner of Brahms, based on student songs.

The festival public reacted in two ways to the first performance. Some of them were privately amused; others were angered – depending on the degree of earnestness which they attached to their dignity. For Alfvén had selected a number of drinking songs as his starting-point. He himself let it be known that he had considered them in a purely musical context, but the increasing degree of inebriation which they display renders his statement less than entirely trustworthy.

The Rhapsody starts with one of the most popular melodies of Swedish romanticism, Adolf Fredrik Lindblad’s ”Över skogen, över sjön ”, first from the horn quartet and then, fully saturated, from the strings. Prince Gustaf’s Student Song is next, with a hint of Gunnar Wennerberg’s ”Hör oss Svea”. Three Bellman quotations come next: ”Ulla min Ulla”, ”Jochim uti Babylon” and ”Drick ur ditt glas”, and thereafter we find a fugue in which the basses ”try to give the illusion of raucous brandy basses” above another melody by Wennerberg. Its text, ”Hur länge skall i Norden … ” (How long shall in the North … ) was better known. from the parody ”Hur länge skall på borden, den lilla nubben stå … ” (How long shall the wee dram remain on the table … ). And thus it continues, with descending figures in the woodwind to support the progress of the liquid down the throat. As a conclusion to this orgy of drinking there is a ceremonious, academic apotheosis. To a much greater extent than the Swedish Rhapsody No.1, ”Midsommarvaka”, the Upsala Rhapsody is a potpourri, but with its humour and shining orchestral colour it remains an attractive piece.

Translation Andrew Barnett. CD booklet BIS CD-395, 1988.


03. Swedish Rhapsody No.3, Dalecarlian Rhapsody

Swedish Rhapsody No.3, Dalecarlian Rhapsody. By Stig Jacobsson.

Hugo Alfvén was a many-faceted artist. He was not only a brilliant composer but also a painter of sensitive watercolours and an author with luxuriant style. He often wrote about the origins of his compositions in his memoirs and it is in the following terms that he describes his Swedish Rhapsody No.3, ”Dalecarlian Rhapsody”:

”When once I looked out across Lake Orsa from the hills at Oljonsby and observed the indescribably beautiful rock formations on the opposite side, there awoke within me a longing to attempt a depiction in music of this melancholy scene of nature. A new rhapsody began to sound within my ears. It was to be built upon the folk music in the parishes north of Lake Siljan, but principally from Orsa, where I had found melodies which had a peculiarly ancient effect upon me. The rhapsody was thus to have a thoroughgoing visual character:

I see a herd-maiden, sitting alone up in the hut. She pines for her beloved down in the village. She takes her cow horn and plays a melody to pass the time, but oh! how oppressed it sounds! She listens … far away she hears a wedding march. It approaches but quickly dies away again. She falls, weeping, then calms down again and sinks into daydream. Now she hears the watersprite play in the rapids below the little watermill, now she dances with her beloved in the dancing hall. Now she sits with the congregation in church and sings her old pastoral hymn – the most beautiful hymn she knows. Old women are crying; old men sigh with guilt. This melody can tear into the depths of the human soul! But – what is this? She is once more at the dance among the girls and boys. Suddenly the door opens and a man of strange appearance enters. He has a goatee beard and drags one foot on the floor. He grabs the fiddler’s violin and breaks into a polska, the like of which has never before been heard. The music becomes ever wilder, the girls’ eyes glow and the boys reach up towards the roof with their fists and yell as if intoxicated with brandy. Now flames are leaping from the bow, and the young people are whirling around like mad things … The herd-maiden leaps up with a cry of horror, presses her hand to her heart, wakes up from the ghastly dream and looks around in confusion. She has returned to the solitary hut. Gently she picks up her horn again, and I hear the same melody that she blew at the beginning. And the forests answer it with a deep and melancholy sigh.”

The rhapsody was completed in the early spring of 1932 and on 27th April of the same year the composer led its first performance in the Stockholm Concert Hall.

Translation Andrew Barnett. CD booklet BIS CD 455, 1989


04. Drapa

Drapa. By Stig Jacobsson.

In Drapa Alfvén had taken a quite different course. The instrumental splendour is kept on a tighter rein, for the work was commissioned by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music’s ceremonies on 16th May 1903 and bears the subtitle ”Memory of King Oscar II”. The orchestral forces are extremely large and the composer wished for six harpists to tackle the two very wide-ranging harp parts.

The harps also give rise to the title ”Drapa”, which means an ancient Scandinavian ballad. There is much Nordic melancholy in the shifts between major and minor and also in the brooding orchestral sounds. The situation demanded great seriousness and more rhetoric than really suited Alfvén – though he also wrote many magnificent mourning compositions and sometimes the tragedy is more akin to stage scenery than reality, even though it is extremely well-painted.

Translation Andrew Barnett. CD booklet BIS CD-395, 1988.


05. A Legend of the Skerries

A Legend of the Skerries. By Stig Jacobsson.

For Hugo Alfvén nature was often a prerequisite for inspiration, whether he was composing music, painting (very successful) watercolours or cultivating his lively, racy style as an author. In his memoirs he writes engagingly about the rich experiences of his childhood and youth in the Stockholm archipelago. In particular the stormy autumn nights he spent with his brothers in small boats gave. rise to attractive musical motifs. On such boats he composed large sections of his Second Symphony , of En skärgårdssägen (‘A Legend of the Skerries’) and also of the Symphony No. 4, ‘Från havsbandet’ (‘From the Outermost Skerries’). His impressionistic piano suite Skärgårdsbilder (‘Images of the Skerries’ – 1901) with its movement titles Solglitter, Natt and Böljesång (‘Sun’s Sparkle’, ‘Night’ and ‘Song of the Waves’) is a further attestation to his love for this unique island landscape. His longing to write a sea symphony was already awakened; his restlessness and desire were already embedded in his music: in the choral song Gryning vid havet (‘Dawn by the Sea’) too he depicts the coastal landscape in a highly-charged and gripping manner.

In 1903 Alfvén had just finished work on his first Swedish Rhapsody, Midsommarvaka when ‘a quite different kind of music started to ring in my head. Once again the archipelago of Stockholm appeared in my mind’s eye, but this time in gloomy, autumnal attire. I yearned to write an epos which would depict this nocturnal tragedy in storm and moonbeams above the straits and bays; it was my wish to show something of that which I myself had experienced out there among the skerries. Impelled by the longing to drink from the source of inspiration itself, I journeyed out to Elfsten – the favourite dreaming and working place of my youth – and there, over the course of some weeks, I gathered the material for the symphonic poem which was to receive, in due time, the name so indicative of its content: En skärgårdssägen,’

The piece is, of course, a grandiose and vital depiction of nature, but Alfvén was a highly subjective artist for whom personal experiences were a necessary source of inspiration. Thus there is also a love story in the background, a personal experience closely related to the archipelago: ‘The depiction of nature is here constantly synonymous with human emotion … ‘

En skärgardssägen was first performed on 31st March 1905 at the Royal Theatre in Stockholm with the composer himself as conductor.

Translation Andrew Barnett. CD booklet BIS CD 505, 1991


06. The Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son. By Stig Jacobsson.

The Prodigal Son (Den förlorade sonen) was Alfvén’s last great test of strength. The ballet was premiered at the Royal Theatre in Stockholm in spring 1957 in connection with the composer’s 85th birthday – but the music is vital and youthful as never before, and it is said that the composer was especially moved to notice the surprise on the audience’s faces when his well-known tune Johansson cropped up in the form of a Polka from the Roslagen district. Alfvén had been inspired to write the ballet by folk paintings and he tried to emulate the frequently returning motif of the prodigal son who leaves his father’s estate to seek his fortune out in the world, his journey to wealthy Arabia and reception by its Queen, his eventual return home and his father’s pardon. All of this is reproduced with charming naiveté.

”I sought out melodies which I knew would suite these folk paintings, and where folk music did not suffice I wrote music myself. I have bound together genuine folk music and my own free composition in such a manner that I do not believe that many will be able to say which music is mine and which is not.”

From the full-length ballet the composer selected a concert suite in seven movements, of which the Festive March (the entry of the Queen of Arabia) is a highlight. ”The orchestra grew upon the manuscript paper and I derived tremendous satisfaction from writing sounds which I knew would produce the effect of gold, silver and pink; for I see music mostly in colour.”

Translation Andrew Barnett. CD booklet BIS CD 455, 1989


07. The Mountain King.

The Mountain King. By Jan Lennart Höglund.

It is somewhat remarkable, but barely a coincidence, that the inspiration for one of the most suggestive and colourful Swedish orchestral compositions on the grand scale should have come from John Bauer, the celebrated fairy-tale illustrator and the haunting illusionist of the troll-bound forest. When in 1915 he asked Hugo Alfvén to collaborate on the ballet about the bewitched herdsmaid which he had suggested in response to a commission from the Stockholm Opera, he must have done so in the realisation that Alfvén was the only Swedish composer with the craftsmanship and superb mastery of grand orchestral sound necessary in order to depict, bring to life and do full justice to the breathtaking adventures of the old folk ballad. Alfvén for his part did not need asking twice, and he completed the sketches for the three acts in September 1916 and in February and August of the following year. But his work was not finally completed until 17th January 1923, after long intermissions for travel and for other compositions.

The music which now welled up was to be poured forth in one of Alfvén’s most inspired and sophisticated compositions ever. With the full resources of a complete Royal Orchestra at his disposal, he could indulge in whatever sound effects he fancied. Eventually the forces came to comprise four pairs of woodwinds, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, a tuba, two harps and a celesta, as well as percussion and strings. Perhaps this orchestral array was built lip during the prolonged modification and augmentation of the libretto after Bauer’s death. In the post-premiere quarrel concerning the alleged disregard of his copyright, Alfvén insisted that Bauer’s idea had been that of a Singspiel comedy – which, presumably, would have required nothing like such a large orchestra – and that it was himself who had given the final version its deeper, more dramatic dimensions.

If so, this was definitely an adventure to his own liking. If he had previously been denied the opportunity of uniting his predilections for the genuinely popular and traditional, and for sensuous indulgence, for almost demonstrative erudition and, equally well, for good showmanship, these were the very things in which he could revel when describing how the chaste herdsmaid was abducted by the monstrous Mountain King as the exquisite centre-piece of a riotous happening in his banqueting hall, until she was delivered by her herd-boy, armed in Wagnerian style with a magic sword. Later on Alfvén himself was to look back on this period as ”months of happiness” when he was able to portray the things in life which were dearest to him: ”Young, healthy, earth-fragrant love, personified by the herd-boy and the herdsmaid; sensually passionate, demonic love, personified by the troll maiden; the young peasantry dancing in the sunset to our finest folk tunes; the elves at play by the moonlit tarn in the enchanted forest; gentle summer rain, the blissful summer sunrise, the devastating blizzard and icy sunrise of winter – nature in its most varied moods – and man’s eternal struggle against powers of evil, against the Mountain King and his hideous trolls.”

Alfvén was also to lend intense, full-blooded expression to young, healthy and earth-fragrant love in his Fourth symphony, written at the same time (1918-1919). Remarkably, as pointed out by Lennart Hedwall in his biography of Alfvén (1973), Bergakungen and the Fourth Symphony were to be the sole compositions achieved by Alfvén on a level with his best inspirations for nearly half a century. A rare act of self-immolation.

But in Bergakungen and in the symphony, both of which Alfvén looked on as the ”least bad” things he had written, we find, as is so often the case with him, a symbiosis of the sublime and the down-to-earth, of creative invention and ”déjà entendu”. It can be a peculiar experience, as in the case of Bergakungen, to find oneself alternatively engulfed by the firm, uncomplicated peasant tunes of the first scene, the Wagnerian luxuriance of the victory music in the final climax of the second act, the graceful dances in folk idiom performed by the herdsmaid in the Hall of the Mountain King, and the turbid Richard Strauss tapestry lending such full-blooded colour to the voluptuous movements of the troll maiden. The rest of the world, insofar as it has had any chance of hearing the music from the beginning to end, has varied in its reactions to such a roller-coaster of styles. One thing is clear: the musical adventure in the orchestra pit is well abreast of the excitement on stage.

Perhaps indeed it would have been impossible to unite all this diversity if Alfvén had not included a number of scarlet threads to reconcile all the different stylistic departures and trains of events, aided by the ”leitmotifs”, using that term in an unpretentious sense, with which he endowed the boy, the girl and Humpe. These ”leitmotifs” do not create the psychological profundity associated with Wagner, but their appearance and reappearance pull together the events occuring in between the numerous choreographic set pieces.

The herdsmaid’s two repeated downward fourths, followed by a falling minor third (sometimes a second), are first presented by energetic violins when, after a calm introduction, she comes running onto the stage, but subsequently her motif assumes several more gentle guises. The herd-boy’s boldly rising fanfare rings out immeditately after this, first on the horn and then on the trumpets, as he comes running hard on the girl’s heels, breathless and lovesick. Humpe’s rather lolloping dotted motif is first presented by a single bassoon, when he crops up in the dark, weird forest conjured forth by the stage setting of the second scene. This is gradually converted into a typical, curt ”two short and one long” motif from the deep instruments.

There has been great uncertainty regarding the boundary between authentic tradition and Alfvénian invention in all this folk-sounding music, because in time Alfvén became increasingly adept at striking an idiom of his own which is very hard indeed to distinguish from genuine folk music. Where the music to Bergakungen is concerned, Hedwall has gone to great pains in plotting the boundary, and his explorations have revealed the following indisputable borrowings. When the young people march in during the first act, they do so to a ”steklåt” from Älvdalen, collected by Lars Åhs. The first dance is freely based on the socalled ”Boggdansen” after Timas Hans, and the last one is an Ore ”polska” as rendered by the same musician. All the rest appears to be Alfvén’s own work, even when it bears a suspicious resemblance to other traditional and familiar tunes.

The overdue premiere performance of Bergakungen, on 7th February 1923 at the Stockholm Opera, was vigorously acclaimed by the audiences but variously received by reviewers.

The latter included two fellow-composers of Alfvén’s. Kurt Atterberg was impressed, declaring that Alfvén had succeeded admirably in uniting his great battery of expressive devices. Wilhelm Peterson-Berger was critical, especially of what he regarded as patent imitations. If Alfvén himself was disposed to a modicum of selfcriticism, he ought to have appreciated some of what ”W.G.” had to say in the magazine Ur Nutidens musikliv. ”Alfvén’s music never lacks interest. His sense of symphonic style and architecture, his virile musicality and his eminent orchestrating ability are of course qualities which we have already had occasion to admire and appreciate earlier; they are also very much in evidence in Bergakungen. In it an almost inexhaustible wealth of melodic inspiration and thematic ideas is intertwined and developed by a skilled contrapuntalist … and his tonal idiom is unmistakably recognisable in many places, but at the same time the eclectic is also evidenced by thematic and textural structures in a less personal vein. Wagner and Strauss appear to be the precursors, while some of the dances put one in mind of the Russian Novators. Most effective are the first scene, depicting a bucolic festival… and above all the final tableau and its winter landscape, in which a plaintive elegy of intense loveliness celebrates the memory of the young couple’s happiness in love. Here he gave the best of his art.” Today, many years afterwards, one still has to credit the observer with a good measure of insight.

Alfvén himself realised that he had given a great deal of his very best. Indeed, several of the most important themes of the ballet were so fresh and so full of development potential to his mind that he used them again more than 20 years later when he returned to orchestral writing on the grand scale of his Fifth Symphony, in which they provide the bulk of the material for the whole of the first movement. Over the years, however, his gratification at having created something great and unique was to be mingled with growing disappointment. Following 19 performances during its premiere year, Bergakungen did not reappear on the repertoire of the Stockholm Opera until 1931, when it was given three performances, followed by the same number the next year, after which – apparently – it disappeared for good. Occasional radio broadcasts of a tape recording of the full ballet and the suite compiled from it by Alfvén himself have done little until now to save one of this composer’s finest works from oblivion.

The content 

This is what happens in the folk-ballad saga after it has been turned into a grandiose ballet:

Act one. A tranquil introduction provides a beautiful reflection of the first stage setting – a magnificent sunset over a green meadow in summer. The herdsmaid comes running on stage, closely followed by the herd-boy, both of them exhilarated by love. They kiss and fondle one another and exchange rings. The herding horn from the introduction sounds again for a few moments before they start up and, laughing, move off stage. A group of young people then enter, to the strains of the ”steklåt” from Älvdalen, to dance in the meadow, solemnly and reticently at first, and then more and more vigorously. A few wrong steps by one of the boys provoke a short brawl before order is restored. The herd-boy and his girl have cropped up during the dance, but when he kisses her in the middle of the crowd she hurries off, embarrassed and blushing, and moments later the boy follows her.

During the agitated, gruesomely wailing interlude which carries the music over to the second scene, the young couple have strayed into an enchanted forest where they try in vain to find each other. The curtain rises again to reveal Humpe, the woodland troll, prowling around in the same forest, looking for something to eat. First a frog hops out, only to be chewed and swallowed to an unmistakably graphic sound from the orchestra, and then comes a snake. Mermaids now rise up between the tree trunks, taking their places for a dance together with the small trolls which pop up, one by one, from a crevice, accompanied by upward-wriggling movements from the deep instruments. A remarkable, protracted forest ball ensues in the moonlight until, finally, the participants scatter at the break of the dawn. The stage remains empty for a moment until the herdsmaid enters, tired and downcast. She blows her horn, listening vainly for the boy. Comforted by the sunrise, she begins picking flowers in the meadow, and there Humpe catches sight of her. He watches her hungrily, scattering berries and flowers on the ground where she walks. When she hears the birds twittering she begins dancing to the light pirouettes of the flute. Then, as she tries to find a way out of the forest, Humpe follows her, but he is dazzled by the sunlight and falls over. The girl feels sorry for him and covers his eyes with moss. The mermaids also come to his assistance, rising once more out of the water and, their arms raised heavenwards, invoking dark clouds, so that a gentle rain begins to fall.

Act Two. Once again the atmosphere is idyllic and peaceful to begin with, as we see the herdsmaid in the same forest combing Humpe’s hair between her fingers. When she asks him the way out of the forest, he gestures which way she is to go, and they begin walking together. Suddenly they see a brilliantly shining doorway in the forest darkness. It opens to a thundering chord from the wind instruments and the Mountain King appears. When Humpe tries to defend the girl, the Mountain King pushes him away, seizing the girl and handing her over to the pack of mountain trolls who have streamed forth. Humpe makes another desperate attempt to rescue the girl, but she is lifted up onto a golden dish and carried into the mountain. The door slams shut and Humpe collapses powerless to the ground. He gets up again in a new outburst of rage when the boy enters, exhausted after his long search in the forest. While the orchestra re-capitulates the musical development from the beginning of this act, Humpe tells the boy what has happened. The small trolls of the forest gather round, listening more and more sympathetically. When Humpe has finished his tale, the boy draws his knife in futile anger. The trolls bring forth an oddly shaped tree trunk which, during the ritual dance which they then perform to invocatory music, gradually turns into a sword, until finally it shines like gold and its edge throws off a shower of sparks. Humpe makes dash for the sword, but the boy is quicker and snatches hold of it. Jubilantly he swings it over his head before charging to attack the door in the mountain, which he cleaves at a Single blow. Closely followed by Humpe he runs inside.

Meanwhile the sound of the orchestra rises to an intoxicating paean of victory, which however is rapidly toned down into a Singularly plaintive, gentle conclusion.

Act Three. The Mountain King sits enthroned in his great hall, surrounded by his trolls. High up under the roof the herdsmaid is shut up in a golden cage. The trolls watch her silently as she dances to the soft music of the woodwinds. Afterwards they applaud joyfully and the King commands that the cage be lowered down. In vain the girl beseeches the King to set her free, and instead he orders her to go on dancing. An almost high-spirited, lilting ”polska” on the strings is followed by the famous, frantic dance to the impetuous sound of the violins (The herdsmaid’s dance) which has come to be the most famous section of the Bergakungen music. Immediately afterwards the troll maiden, undressed and jealous, tries to capture the interest of the Mountain King in a voluptuous dance concluding with gestures of hate directed towards the herdsmaid. During the revelry which now ensues, the dance eventually becomes more and more frantic, and just as it culminates in a great orgiastic outburst, the mountain is shattered by a tremendous blow from outside and the herd-boy rushes in. He levels the sword at the King, who staggers and stops dead in his tracks, as do the other trolls. The boy and the girl dance happily in the sunlight which floods in, before hastening out through the opening together with Humpe.

During the interlude preceding the second scene, Humpes original motif is proudly reiterated by the horns,perhaps as a hint of his painful contribution to what is finally destined to happen. Sombre music from the strings underlines the atmosphere of the twilight forest on stage. The boy and the girl enter. The girl is quite exhausted and the boy comforts her. Humpe, who now seems to be up to no good, follows them at a distance. When the boy leaves the girl for a moment in search of a way out of the forest, Humpe creeps up on her and tries to drag her off. But the boy returns and throws Humpe to the ground. When, in his fury, he threatens him with the sword, Humpe makes a terrified gesture and disappears into the bushes. The boy leads the exhausted girl to a stone, where they both sit down and soon fall asleep with their arms round each other. Humpe reappears but does not dare to approach. Instead, with magical gestures, he invokes winds and snow trolls which dance round the sleepers. The wind rises and the snow begins to fall more and more heavily to a rising orchestral accompaniment featuring the curt and now also menacing Humpe motif, repeated by the bass instruments. During the great culmination when the stage is engulfed by a blizzard, the boy’s and the girl’s motifs are heard on the brass before the storm subsides and the snow ceases to fall. In the early light of dawn we see them snowed over and petrified in the position in which they fell. Asleep, transformed into a weird and wonderful sculpture.

Translation: Roger Tanner. CD booklet Musica Sveciae, MSCD 614, 1991

The Ballet Bergakungen. By Anna Greta Ståhle .

The first heyday of National Romanticism came in the mid-19th century, when folk songs were collected in Scandinavia, collections of traditional tales were published and artists were sent out to paint the everyday lives and festive occasions of villages and country folk.

The Danish choreographer August Bournonville had an appreciation of folklore in all its manifestations. For example, he combined Danish trolls, elves, the bewitched and the changeling in a ballet entitled Et folkesagn (A Folk Tale), in 1854. In Sweden it was Singspiel with dances which, right down to the 1950s, remained a Christmas tradition at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. The dances still form part of the repertoire of the folk dance movement.

At about the turn of the century there came a new upsurge of National Romanticism, beautifully manifested in John Bauer’s illustrations for the fairytale collection entitledBland tomtar och troll. The ballet Bergakungen, initially codenamed ”Den bergtagna” (The Bewitched), just as in Ivar Hallstroms opera from 1874, was intended as part of a magnificent project. It was now 1914 and the Russian choreographer Michail Fokine was visiting the Stockholm Opera. He was much taken with the Swedish dancers and it was agreed that he was to lead the company on an international tour. Fokine wanted the Swedes to have a national repertoire, so as to make an exotic impression on foreign audiences. (The Ballets Russes, of course, had taken Paris by storm with a programme strongly redolent of Russian folklore and culture.)

The Royal Opera turned to John Bauer for inspiration, and he wrote a libretto based on the theme of Den bergtagna. He also prepared sketches for the stage design. He took Humpe the troll straight out of Bland tomtar och troll, giving him a leading role. Music was commissioned from Hugo Alfvén, whose Midsummer Vigil gave him the best possible credentials for the task. But the outbreak of war that year put a stop to all plans for a foreign tour. The Stockholm Opera did not abandon the idea of Bergakungen, but unfortunately Bauer and the director, Harald André, fell out before long. Bauer was edged out by the Opera management. Only Humpe was left.

The premiere performance of Bergakungen, on 7th February 1923, caused a stir in more ways than one. The artistic sensation was Prince Eugén’s beautiful stage designs, not least the forest tarn surrounded by birch trees. The beautiful costumes designed by Anna Boberg were also widely acclaimed. But Stockholmstidningen’s reviewer, Kurt Atterberg, castigated the Opera for using a great deal of Bauer’s libretto without acknowledgement. Bauer was no longer alive, having drowned in 1918 during a storm on Lake Vättern, but to the end of his days he had defended his role in Bergakungen, both verbally and in writing.

Generous coverage was given to Alfvén’s music, which Atterberg found brilliant but Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (writing for Dagens Nyheter) unduly eclectic. Atterberg praised Alfvén’s capacity for combining Swedish folk idiom with the free play of his colourful musical fantasy. ”The Dalecarlian tunes employed are harmonised with a genuine appreciation of their worth. The various figures are aptly characterised in the music, the burlesque Humpe being outstandingly fortunate in this respect,” he wrote.

Choreographer for Bergakungen was Jean Börlin, known internationally as the ballet master of the Ballet Suédois (1920-1925).This bold enterprise, undertaken by Rolf de Maré, was a fulfilment of the ideas from 1914, presenting Swedish folklore to its audiences. By the time Börlin returned home to direct Bergakungen, he had created the pastiche of the traditional Dalecarlian paintings entitled De fåvitska jungfrurna and Midsommarvaka in 1920, as well asDansgille in 1921, all three of them major successes. As a student and dancer at the Royal Opera, Börlin had also acquired a wealth of experience of Selinders dances and he too was interested in folklore.

The plot of Bergakungen was none too easy to vitalise, but Börlin obviously did his very best. During the dance in the meadow he interposed a fight between the country boys, elves hovered round the forest tarn and mermaids rose through trapdoors in the stage. Inside the hall of the Mountain King, the lovely Ebon Strandin had a sensuous solo number as a jealously love-sick troll maiden, in contrast to the gracious blonde Siri Österholm, the herdsmaid at the centre of the story. Humpe the troll – Emil Stiebel – was given any number of rib-tickling antics to perform.

Translation: Roger Tanner. CD booklet Musica Sveciae, MSCD 614, 1991


08. Symphony No.1.

Symphony No.1. By Lennart Hedwall


09. Symphony No.2.

Symphony No.2. By Jan Olof Rudén

His was a magnetic personality and he quite measured up to the nineteenth century ideal of the artist – not only as a composer. As a young man he was also a violinist, with, intermittently very frequent concert performances. He was an orchestral conductor, choir conductor, lecturer, artist and writer. But above all he was a composer – is there anybody unacquainted with his Midsummer Vigil and his choral settings of folk songs? Hugo Alfvén also tends very often to be associated with the province of Dalarna, but in fact he grew up in Stockholm and its archipelago, and this has left its mark on his Symphony No.2. This was the composition which, at its premiere performance on 2nd May 1899, the day after his 27th birthday, established Alfvén’s reputation as a composer. The performance was directed by a conductor and composer of almost equal age – Wilhelm Stenhammar – on Sweden’s most prestigious platform, the newly opened Opera House in Stockholm. One doubts whether the audience fully realised what a significant work this was in the history of Swedish symphonic music or what an achievement it represented on Alfvén’s part.

Hugo Alfvén, the son of a mastertailor, was born on 1st May 1872 in the family’s summer home on the island of Djurgarden in Stockholm. Their winter home was in the Old Town, but they usually spent their summers in the Stockholm archipelago.

In 1887, at the age of 15, Alfvén was admitted to the Stockholm Conservatory. For a long time, though, he hesitated between painting and music. He was already a member of the Royal Orchestra (i.e. the orchestra of the Stockholm Opera) in the autumn of 1890, thereby realising one of his highest ambitions. And yet very soon afterwards, in the spring of 1891, he resigned his seat in the second violins in order to study composition with the composer Johan Lindegren and concentrate on his own concert performances. At the same time his violin tutor, Lars Zetterkvist, leader of the Royal Orchestra, nominated Alfvén as his stand-in for the 1891/92 season. His period of service in the Royal Orchestra greatly expanded this receptive young man’s knowledge of the repertoire, and at the same time it made him closely familiar with the scope and potentialities of the instruments of the orchestra, thus laying the foundations of his by common consent, extraordinary grasp of the art of orchestration.

Travel scholarship

In May 1896 Alfvén was awarded one of the national travel scholarships for composers that had been endowed a few years earlier. Not that he travelled abroad that year, but he did produce a symphony: Symphony No. 1, first performed on 14th February 1897. After further concert performances in the spring of 1897, he started work on his second symphony while spending the summer in the Stockholm archipelago. One of his musical sketch books contains what later became the themes of the first and fourth movements.

In 1897, with his travel scholarship renewed, he set off for Berlin, where he composed the prelude to the fourth movement. While in Berlin he visited the opera and concerts conducted by the great Arthur Nikisch. His real destination, however, was Brussels, where he began taking violin lessons with César Thompson. His time was thus fully occupied, and so his composition work was put aside. Since, however the terms of the scholarship stipulated a palpable result, no further payments were forthcoming in 1898.

It was when Alfvén received this news that, quite suddenly, the whole of the final fugue of the symphony came to him.

Symphonic music in Sweden

Premiere performances of Swedish symphonies in Stockholm are few and far between during the 1880s and 1890s. The Opera – otherwise known as the Royal Theatre – was the main institution for both operatic and symphonic performances at that time. No other permanent orchestra existed, in Stockholm or elsewhere in Sweden during the 1890s, which, in terms of size and performing standards, could be compared with the Royal Orchestra. At that time, operatic performances took place at the Swedish Theatre, on Blasieholmen in Stockholm, because the old Opera House, built in the reign of Gustav III, had been demolished in 1891 to make room for the existing one, officially opened in 1898.

Two Swedish symphonies, by Joseph Dente and Anton Andersen, had been given their premiere performances in Stockholm in 1888. Nine years were then to pass until the next occasion. That was in 1897, when, at one and the same concert by the Royal Orchestra, Hugo Alfvén’s First Symphony and a Symphony in D major by Ernst Ellberg, four years his senior, were performed for the first time. In Alfvén’s case one discerns the stylistic influence of composers like Brahms, Dvorak, Sinding and Svendsen. Here, at the age of 25, the composer had the opportunity of showing his symphonic paces.

The next symphonic premiere in Stockholm, featuring Alfvén’s Symphony No. 2, came in 1899.

Brahms had already come to be known in Stockholm during the 1880s through his symphonies and choral compositions. His Violin Concerto was performed in 1894. The operas of Richard Wagner had become part of the Stockholm scene during the 1890s. Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, as writer and reviewer, was one of Wagner’s most eloquent devotees in Sweden. It was not until after the introduction of Wagner’s music that Hector Berlioz’ works were able to make themselves understood. His Symphonie Fantastique, for example, was repeatedly given in the capital from 1888 onwards.

A Swedish Berlioz

Viewed from a distance, Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique and Alfvén’s Second Symphony have a certain amount in common. They can both be looked on as musical dramas in four acts. Each of them culminates, in the final movement, with variations on a melody alluding to death. ”Dies irae”, in Berlioz’ case, and in Alfvén’s an old German chorale tune. Berlioz has read a programme into his Symphonie Fantastique, and Sven E. Svensson, for example, in his biography of Alfvén, takes the first movement of the Symphony to be a depiction of the bright hopes of youth, the second the earnestness of life, the third the efforts of the young man, with the hands of fate upon him, to shake off, in a hectic round of pleasure, the impressions left by tragic experiences, and the fourth the final combat between life and death.

A programmatic interpretation like this accords well with Alfvén’s statement, in his old age, that virtually everything he had written was programme music. This composition can also be looked on as a symphony in four movements, in the Classical-Romantic tradition and with a personal touch, even though it reminds one, not only of Berlioz but also of Beethoven, Brahms, Franck, Wagner and even Mahler.

From Idyll to Fury

The first movement, Moderato, is cheerful to the point of being carefree. It reverts to moods and melodies occurring to Alfvén while sailing in the archipelago. There is nothing of the fin-de-siecle atmosphere here, but rather a resemblance to the naturalist lyricism of plein-air painting. A distinct thematic pattern is tossed between the different instruments but not developed to any great extent. The second theme, with its descending movement, is reminiscent of Brahms and, because this theme dominates the development section, the whole movement takes on a Brahmsian, almost classical tinge.

The basic mood of the second movement, Andante, is demonic, in the manner of Beethoven and Berlioz, and then, just before the end, is relieved by a ”Scandinavian” tone. This is a long movement and its theme employs – unconsciously? – the same outline intervals as in the opening of Bach’s A Musical Offering. Wide leaps and ”sombre” instrumentation give it a character touching on Berlioz’ ”Marche au supplice” in Symphonie Fantastique.

Third Movement, Allegro, is placed at the point in the symphony where one might expect a rumbustuous scherzo. True, though this movement has a trio section and a rapid, buoyant tempo, but the atmosphere is not so much jocular (scherzo) as grotesque. The main theme is the same Musical Offering opening as in the second movement, but with the rhythm recast. Shrieking woodwinds accentuate the sense of despair. In contrast there is a bright, sweeping theme in the trio section, resembling the trio section in Alfvén’s Festival Polonaise(Festspel).

The shades of Berlioz hinted at previously are all the more obtrusive in the final movement, which bears comparison with the closing movement, ”Songe d’une nuit de Sabat”, in Symphonie Fantastique – not in terms of content but as regards outward characteristics. Berlioz’ hero hears the Dies irae, which is put through grotesque variations and also occurs in a fugato section. With Alfvén too, it is wrath (Ira) which specifically leads to the fugal form of the movement and, moreover, introduces what he used to call ”the counter-subject of life”, the chorale tune, in the middle of the fugue.

Alfvén himself, in his memoirs, has vividly described his feeling about this final movement: ”In Berlin, late that autumn, I wrote the prelude to the fugue. I felt at the time rather like a torero receiving the sacrament before venturing into the arena to face the bull…Hidden Swedish enemies represented the bull, which I wanted to get to grips with, and the double fugue was the edged weapon I had chosen.”

The years of his contrapuntal apprenticeship now came into their reward. Those were the years when Alfvén had laid the foundations of his technical mastery of the art of composition. The final movement opens with a slow, majestic Prelude (mostly for strings) in fugato style – something of the calm before the storm. Before long the first theme of the fugue is embroiling one instrument after another. And then, at the very culmination of the drama, the chorale is introduced, in slow note values, only to be converted, shortly afterwards, into a new fugal subject thrown into the hunt. The movement comes to the same affirmative conclusion as a Beethoven symphony, but in the minor key.

Reactions to the symphony

This is Alfvén’s Sturm und Drang Symphony, a good deal more mature than the First Symphony composed two years earlier. If reviewers of that symphony had been somewhat reticent, this time they were unreservedly complimentary. And, by virtue of the ”Substanzgemeinschaft” occurring in its themes, this composition is more close-knit than his ”Italian” Third Symphony from 1905, without being as uni-thematic as Symphony No.4 (1918-19), without disintegrating into its component parts like Symphony No.5 (1942-53}

The Second Symphony was one of the first of Alfvén’s compositions to be published – in 1900, by Det Nordiske Forlag, Copenhagen. It was soon put on the repertoire in Copenhagen, Gothenburg, Kristiania (Oslo), Uppsala (1901), Montreux (1902), with a repeat at the Stockholm Opera in January 1903 when Alfvén made his first appearance as a conductor, at Beddingstoke in England in 1903, at the Stockholm Opera again in 1905, and in Helsinki and Gothenburg in 1906. These last three performances were also conducted by the composer in person.

Among Alfvén’s other works, this symphony bears the closest affinity to the symphonic poem A Tale of the Skerries (En skärgårdssägen), which, although not written until 1904, reverts to experiences and sketches from the same period. The main theme of the first movement in Symphony No. 2 and that of A Tale of the Skerries are very similar in character. The difference is that the symphonic movement is more idyllic and classical, whereas A Tale of the Skerries is more dramatic and High-Romantic.

In one and the same manuscript book containing sketches for both these compositons, one finds that Alfvén has noted down popular dance tunes from the Roslagen region (north of Stockholm). The interesting folk music adaptations, which where to dominate the popular image of him later on, had already germinated before the turn of the century.

But it was this Second Symphony which showed Alfvén, a man of many parts, where his future lay. First and foremost he was a composer, not a violinist or an artist.

Translation Roger Tanner. CD booklet Musica Svecicae, MSCD 627, 1989


10. Symphony No.3.

Symphony No.3. By Stig Jacobsson

After writing two serious academic symphonies – which belong among the earliest of the great modern Swedish symphonies – Hugo Alfvén started work on his Symphony No.3 during the summer of 1905. He was in Sori Ligure in Italy, and can thus be included in the rich tradition of Nordic artists who went in search of the sun. In more than one case – one thinks of Sibelius’s Second Symphony (1901-02) or Stenhammar’s Serenade for Orchestra (1907) – Nordic sunworshippers have been inspired to their most optimistic, light and gleaming compositions in Italy.

But in Alfvén’s case there was a further happy source of inspiration – he had fallen in love with Maria, the wife of the Danish painter Peter Severin Kröyer – and it was in Denmark that the symphony was completed in 1906. ”This symphony has been a great source of happiness for me; and during its creation I lived for a time from inner, spiritualised joy as never before in my life … It was a hymn to joy.”

Nevertheless it is not surprising that the earnest, academic symphonist was now successful in composing a piece of positive and directly appealing music. After the Second Symphony he had composed the Swedish Rhapsody No.1, ”Midsommarvaka” and the orchestral fantasy En skärgårdssägen, pieces which had safely established his reputation as an orchestral virtuoso. He had now mastered the art of orchestration to perfection; but even so the new symphony did not escape criticism entirely, for his ability to work out his themes was not regarded as having attained the same level.

In spite of the ”sunshine”, Nordic elements are by no means lacking.

In the first movement we come across fiddlers’ waltzes and in the second movement a ballad-like melody adds a melancholy touch. Alfvén said of the finale: ”I dreamed that I was a knight in a distant land, riding thoughtlessly homeward at a great pace – a wild journey, now through a sunny landscape, now through a dismal pass – until the moment I reached the goal of my dreams.”

The first performance took place in Gothenburg on 3rd December 1906 under the composer’s direction, and before long rumours were circulating that the theme of the second movement was based on ”Home, sweet home” or on another American gospel song. Alfvén strenuously denied any such influence and today the debate has receded into insignificance. It is more important to observe that Alfvén here created a symphony which takes up the challenge of sonic fantasy and emotional temper rather more than that of symphonic unity and evolutionary thematicism.

Translation Andrew Barnett. CD sleeve BIS CD 455, 1989


11. Symphony No.4.

Symphony No.4. By Stig Jacobsson

In the years around the turn of the last century many composers wrote music inspired by the sea – for example Glazunov (The Sea, 1889), Elgar (Sea Pictures, 1899), Debussy (La Mer, 1904), Bridge (The Sea, 1910), Vaughan Williams (A Sea Symphony, 1910) and Sibelius (The Oceanides, 1914) – but it is questionable whether any of them had as much experience of the sea as Alfvén: ‘In the depths of my soul I am an archipelago-dweller …’, he wrote in a letter to a friend. In many respects we can see En skärgårdssägen as a preliminary study for the Fourth Symphony, ‘Från havsbandet’. He sketched the first motifs in the archipelago as early as 1908 and he revised them somewhat in 1913. New sailing trips were, however, necessary to provide inspiration for the final concentration of effort. ‘I wished to experience the outer skerries once more before I started to depict them in music.’ He took a four-month sabbatical (16th November 1918 until 16th March 1919) from his post as director musices at Uppsala University and was then able to work feverishly: ‘those four months became an uninterrupted, happy dream, when I lived isolated from the world in my music room in the Linnéanum. The desire which I had cherished for nineteen years was now to become a reality.’ His working schedule was a demanding one: ‘I worked from around nine in the morning until two or three the following night, and I must have been working very hard,’ the composer related in a radio interview in which he also revealed that his wife and daughter had one day discovered him unconscious beside his piano.

On this occasion too, heated young love plays a central role. ‘My symphony tells the tale of the love of two young souls. The action takes place in the skerries, where the sea rages among the rocks on gloomy, stormy nights, by moonlight and in sunshine – the moods of nature are no less than symbols for the human heart. In the long single movement one can discern four separate sections. The first depicts the burning desire of the young man in an obscure, nocturnal atmosphere; the second (shows the dreamy longing of the young girl – this is also a nocturnal mood but it is more tender, interwoven by moonlight and the murmuring play of the waves. In the third section it is dawn; the sun rises above the first and last day of the happiness of love, when two lovers have found each other and they are thrilled with heavenly bliss. The fourth part, shaken by storms and heavy seas, shows the tragic conclusion – the destruction of happiness. The four movements play without a break, and the inclusion of two human voices (soprano and tenor singing wordlessly) in the large orchestra (quadruple woodwind, eight horns, four trumpets, celesta, two harps, piano … ) calls to mind Carl Nielsen’s Third Symphony from 1910-11. It had been played in Stockholm and Alfvén cannot have been unaware of the similarities.

The first performance took place before an invited audience at the gala of the Stockholm Musical Academy on 4th November 1919, and it was first heard in public at the Royal Theatre on 23rd January 1920. Many Swedish critics of the time found the depiction of love undisguisedly erotic and bordering upon pornography – an assertion which the composer rejected absolutely by reference to the dedication of this programmatic symphony to his fourteen-year-old daughter Margita.

‘From the Outermost Skerries’ soon gained international renown. It was performed in Paris as early as 1920, in Frankfurt and Vienna (twice) in 1921 and in Berlin in 1922. In these cities critical reaction was unreservedly positive.

Translation Andrew Barnett. CD booklet BIS CD 505, 1991


13. Orchestral Suites: En bygdesaga, Synnöve Solbakken, Singoalla. By Carl-Gunnar Åhlén

Hugo Alfvén did not have any really deep understanding of the distinctive character of film music. His medium was the concert platform, not the optical soundtrack and the cinema loud-speaker. The wide brush strokes of the symphony orchestra and the transparency of choral sound were best suited to his temperament.

It was Alfvén’s immense popularity and the quintessentially Swedish symbolic power of his music which earned him the commission to write music for three Swedish feature films, two of which were launched internationally. His music satisfied an illustrative need in the patriotically minded films of the period.

The first of these assignments was the incidental music for the film Synnöve Solbakken, a joint Swedish-Norwegian production based on the novel published by Björnstjerne Björnson in 1857. Between July and October 1934, Alfvén produced a 125-page score comprising 18 ‘complexes’. The film had its premiere screening at the Skandia Cinema, Stockholm, on nnd October 1934, and the Norwegian language version, with a partly different cast, was first shown at Filmteatret, Trondheim, on 3rd December that year.

The next occasion, in the spring of 1944, followed the premiere performance of Vilhelm Moberg’s dramatisation of Mans Kvinna, the novel he had written just over 10 years earlier. The film music comprised 23 complexes, 21 of which were actually used. The sketch was completed two days before Christmas and the premiere screening took place at the Röda Kvarn Cinema in Stockholm on 5th February 1945.

The third time Alfvén was engaged by a film company, he was unequal to writing a completely new score because, following an accident, he was now suffering from rheumatic numbness in his right hand. His colleague Albert Henneberg (1901-91) filled the gap by putting together a collage of appropriate Alfvén excerpts from Midsummer Vigil, the Dalecarlian Rhapsody,Bergakungen, the Second, Third and Fifth Symphonies and even Synnöve Solbakken.

In the Swedish-French prestige project Singoalla, Alfvén’s well-worn themes gave rise to remarkable and sometimes ridiculous anomalies of style. Even though Alfvén composed some minor additions, the whole thing was no more than a re-hash of old ideas. The 77-year-old composer did at all events feel fit enough to direct the recording personally, but the slightly different French version was conducted by Roger Desormière, directing the Orchestre Nationale de Paris.

The Swedish version of Singoalla was first shown at the Regal Cinema in Stockholm on 13th December 1949, the French version on 6th February 1950 in Stockholm and on 21st June in Paris. An English version was also produced, endowed with various fantasy titles: The Wind Is My Love, The Mask and the Sword, Gypsy Fury.

None of these three ‘Alfvén films’ can be termed a masterpiece. ‘The cows, the landscape scenes, (the actor) Victor Sjöström and Hugo Alfvén’ were the salvation of Synnöve Solbakken, in one writer’s opinion. Mans Kvinna was less well received: tedious and predictable was the verdict. But Alfvén’s music, conducted by the Danish exile Erik Tuxen, was widely commended. Singoalla was a flop and was re-christened ‘Sorgbarn’ (Child of Sorrow) after one of the main characters in the book.

The music for Singoalla, then, was not an original composition, but the composer put together an orchestral suite from each of the other two film scores. Synnöve Solbakken was turned into a suite of six movements for small symphony orchestra, cut down to drawing room orchestra by Eduard Hladisch in 1939, and also a slightly different piano version arranged by Yngve Sköld (1899-1992) in the same sequence as the film. Of the 171 pages of the score for Mans Kvinnathe composer discarded 32, enlarged the orchestra slightly and named the resultant suite En bygdesaga, Op. 50.

It is tempting to believe that film music was unknown territory to the composer, but in fact Alfvén was no tyro in the melodramatic vein. In January 1923 he had completed his biggest composition, the mime drama Bergakungen, Op.37, a full-evening ballet which kept him occupied for more than six years and which he used as a kind of reservoir of ideas for the ensuing decade. There developed, as it were, a network of motifs inter-linking Bergakungen, the two film suites and the Fifth Symphony, Interminable self-borrowings testify to an immense writer’s block which grew steadily worse when he was about 50.

But he also drew on other sources. In Synnöve Solbakken he used, for example, Ludvig Lindeman’s Norska Fjeldmelodier and, of course, The Song of Synnöve by Halfdan Kjerulf. When the huntsmen set off in pursuit of the wolf in En bygdesaga, they do so to the accompaniment of a melody called Mandom mod och morske män (Manliness, Boldness and Men of Courage).

Mans Kvinna is an eternal triangle drama set in Värend during the 1790s. Märit, the farmer’s wife, is living in a frustrated marriage to the older and graver Påvel. Håkan, the neighbouring farmer, arouses her passions, but their secret trysts are revealed by the maidservant whom Håkan has jilted. Påvel puts away his wife, who until then he has regarded as his property. In the film, Märit and Håkan walk away across the fields towards a melodramatic liberty which, in practice, means that they are outlawed and will be hunted like beasts. The novel ends differently.

Alfvén allots each of the three main characters an individual motif which he proceeds to develop in the dramatic, post-Wagnerian film suite. Påvel’s motif, known as Påvel’s cry, comes in the second movement. And the third movement is built up around Märit’s and Håkan’s motifs.

Synnöve Solbakken is about gentle Synnöve of Solbakken and her love for the choleric Torbjörn from gloomy Granliden, which his grandfather dissipates for drink. Torbjörn has a rival, Knut Nordhaug, whom Synnöve’s mother wants to see as her son-in-law. In a fight between them, Torbjörn receives a stab wound which paralyses him, but the paralysis vanishes when he sees his father’s cart turn over. The families are reconciled and Torbjörn and Synnöve are happily united.

There is an unmistakable Norwegian idiom about this suite, coupled with an elegiac mood which is only intermittently punctuated by the temperament which is otherwise Alfvén’s.

Translation Roger Tanner. CD sleeve Sterling CDS-1012-2, 1996


15. Cantatas: Vid sekelskiftet(At the Turn of the Century). By Inger Mattsson

Vid sekelskiftet, Op.12. Cantata for soprano, choir and orchestra to words by Erik Axel Karlfeldt. Composed in Stockholm in December 1899 and premiered on 1st January 1900 at the Royal Opera, with Carolina Östberg as soprano soloist, Conductor: Wilhelm Stenhammar. At later performances often called ‘Nyårskantat’ (‘New Year Cantata’).

The text for the cantata At the Turn of the Century reached Alfvén so late that he only had sixteen days to compose and produce a fair copy of the work. The cantata was, however, performed as planned on New Year’s Day alongside Beethoven’s Fidelio. Alfvén’s piece consists of four movements, the choral items Livets välde (Life’s empire) and Seklens färd (The passage of the centuries), a soprano solo entitled Världarnas offer (The worlds’ offering) and a Final Chorus (Till det nya århundradet [To the new century]). Alfvén subsequently allowed the hyper-Romantic soprano solo to be performed separately on numerous occasions.

In general the work was received quite well. In the journal Svensk Musiktidning the cantata was reviewed on 15th January 1900:

‘The composer has kept the opening chorus in an old-fashioned, simple, ceremonial style, reminiscent of Handel and Gluck. The chorus that follows is lively with colourful orchestration and is attractive, especially its first half. The solo is quieter by nature, in a popular style with beautiful melodic strophes between the declamatory passages. Mrs. Östberg performed this solo with great skill, although – in terms of pitch – the writing constantly made great demands upon the singer. The final chorus, though lively and strongly orchestrated, was less striking owing to the dance-like rhythm of the music, which did not fully accord with the content of the text.’

Alfvén himself wrote about the first performance: ‘Both the new public favourite, John Forsell, and the opera singer and director Johannes Elmblad, made me very happy. The latter was then a world-famous name. [ ... ] Both of these singers had been so captivated by my cantata that without further ado – without the slightest pressure from me – they joined the ranks of the opera choir, so that they might participate, in the modest role of choral singers, in the performance of the cantata.’ The soloist in the third movement of the cantata was Carolina Östberg, one of the Royal Opera’s foremost singers. ‘She had an exceptionally high and beautiful soprano voice and also looked magnificent, voluptuous and powerful – a genuine thoroughbred. I went to her home one evening to go through the solo passages. On the table in the drawing room was a massive bronze paraffin lamp from the eighties. When, after conversing pleasantly for a while, it was time for us to enter the darkened room in which the grand piano was located, I went to the table in order to carry the lamp, but Mrs. Östberg was quicker than me. She picked up the lamp in one hand and said – without the slightest trace of irony:

- Thank you for your help, my dear Mr. Alfvén, but this is so very heavy.

I had never before been crushed in such an endearing manner; but I did not feel offended, as she had meant it well.’

Translation: Andrew Barnett. CD booklet Sterling CDS-1036-2, 1999


16. Cantatas: Cantata for the 1917 Reformation Festivities in Uppsala. By Inger Mattsson

Kantat vid Reformationsfesten i Uppsala 1917,Op.36. By Inger Mattsson

Composed in Uppsala in October 1917. Text assembled by Archbishop Nathan Söderblom ‘from the 1695 Hymn Book, plus the poem ‘Luthers hammare’ (Luther’s Hammer’ by Erik Axel Karlfeldt. First performed in Uppsala on 31st October 1917, conducted by the composer, who directed a 200-voice male chorus with members drawn from the Philharmonic Society and Orphei Drängar; and (the strengthened) Academic Orchestra. The baritone soloist was Petrus Österberg.

In 1917, in the context of the annual doctoral degree ceremonies at Uppsala University, it was decided to arrange festivities to commemorate Martin Luther’s reformation four hundred years earlier. Alfvén had been director musices at Uppsala University since 1910 and took the new cantata commission very seriously – partly because it affected ‘his own’ university, and partly because he himself was being awarded an honorary D. Phil degree. The festivities were set for 31st October, exactly four hundred years after Martin Luther nailed up his 95 theses on indulgences on the church door in Wittenberg.

‘The cantata!. .. The cantata!. .. in any case, it was ready in time … ‘ The Cantata for the Reformation Festivities consists of two sections which were performed separately at the premiere, one beginning and one ending the ceremony. Three Luther chorales play a central role in the composition. The first part is constructed around two elements: a fugue based on the hymn Av djupsens nöd (From the deepest distress) – one of the composer’s finest examples of contrapuntal writing, which he originally wrote as an exercise for his much-admired teacher Johan Lindegren and now presented in revised form – and a chorale setting of Var man må nu väl glädja sig (Each man may well now rejoice). The text of the second part was a newly written poem by Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Luthers hammare (Luther’s Hammer), but the work culminates with the chorale Vår Gud är oss en väldig borg (Our God is a safe stronghold). The score of the work was completed just five days before the celebrations took place.

The composer wrote: ‘[ ... ] naturally a cantata was also included in the programme. It was my fifth such work, but this time with a very complicated technique involving a large-scale fugue and contrapuntal arrangements of Lutherian chorales in addition to the orchestral introduction and intermezzo. And the form grew and grew until its length matched that of a medium-sized symphony. [ ... ]

The cantata consisted of two parts. The first began with an orchestral introduction, and featured a large-scale fugue and chorale arrangements. The text for this movement had been assembled by Nathan Söderblom, who had delivered it to me in plenty of time. Therefore I could, at leisure, immerse myself in the polyphonic forms that were so dear to me, and set them in the way that my inspiration directed. I myself thought that I had succeeded in achieving what I set out to express in this first part.

Erik Axel Karlfeldt had promised to write the text for the second part. It was to be a poem named Luthers hammare (Luther’s Hammer), and I intended to make preparations with this hammer, step by step working forwards to the chorale Vår Gud är oss en väldig borg (Our God is a safe stronghold), with which the cantata was supposed to end. But this time was just like before. The text was delayed, delayed for days, delayed for weeks. Eventually I was quite desperate; any hope I had of getting the cantata finished, the parts written and the work rehearsed by the specified date had been extinguished. [ ... ] That very day, however, the poem arrived, accompanied by a letter from Karlfeldt in which he apologized for the delay. [ ... ]‘

I read through the manuscript. [ ... ] The poem was magnificent; unfortunately, however, I saw no possibility of managing to compose the music for it. Too late ..

All the same, I could not prevent myself from reading the fascinating poem again – and again – and again. In the fountain of my imagination a ripple began; it started to surge; the words tempted me ever more strongly .. perhaps I might after all try … try to do the impossible? Of course this was the voice not of reason but of the joy of creation that spoke to me thus, a joy which obeys only its own laws. I had to manage it! And that was that.

To save time, I revised my structural ideas completely. Polyphony yielded to homophony; a baritone solo and unison choral writing – to lend the work weight and substance – were used for long stretches of music, which in turn were bound together by simple interludes. Their principal function was to prepare the way for the final chorale. I worked night and day. Four copyists sat in {he hall down below, writing out the orchestral parts as I sent down the pages of score. But I had to have more copyists, and I recruited them from among the ranks of the Academic Orchestra’s students, who were familiar with musical notation. When the full score for choir and orchestra was ready, I wrote a separate choir score which was immediately dispatched to Almqvist and Wiksell for reproduction. It was produced in record time, and then the choir rehearsals could begin – with some two hundred participants. Of course I was now ready as far as the process of composition was concerned, but still there could be no rest because the copyists complained that they didn’t have enough time. I then had to devote all the time at my disposal to help them with writing out copies of the many string parts. Things looked bleak; even by the evening before the Reformation festivities, the writing out of parts was not finished. I kept going until midnight, but then I had to get some rest because I had to be in more or less acceptable shape for the performance of this lengthy cantata the following day. The last musicians left at three o’clock, and the last military bandsman [ ... ], the regimental music sergeant-major Berg, did not leave until seven. He too had to snatch a few hours’ sleep, as he was going to play the first horn part in the cantata. Before he staggered off, he roused my excellent and reliable caretaker, Wilhelm Eriksson, from the bed to which he had just retired. Mr. Eriksson was a fine cornet player who could also write out parts; indeed, for this reason, he had slaved away with the others for as long as he could manage. Now he had to get dressed again to finish off the two oboe parts – the last ones that remained to be written out. All the same, he took up the task again with good humour and promptly returned to his desk.

The ceremonies in the hall had started, and the time had come for the performance of the first part of the cantata, but Mr. Eriksson was nowhere to be found. I had to begin without the participation of the two oboists. My fear intensified with each bar that passed; soon I would reach the fugue – but already, in my soul, I could hear the basses’ sombre invocation: ”From the deepest distress, O God, may I call to you and lament.” At that moment one of the stage doors was opened gently, near where the timpanist was sitting. I recognized the face of Mr. Eriksson, covered in sweat. A few pages of music were hurriedly handed to the timpanist, who passed them on to a trumpeter, who sent them on from one player to another until they reached the oboists. Then, at last, I could devote all my attention to the musical aspects of performing the cantata.’

When the first part was over, Alfvén handed over the baton to a graduate who was to conduct the music during the degree ceremony itself. He liked to claim that it was one of the happiest moments of his life when the laurel wreath was placed on his head, and the choir and orchestra stood up and paid tribute to him. During the banquet afterwards, however, his exhaustion began to make itself felt, and the composer left early, went home and slept almost uninterrupted for a whole week.

Translation: Andrew Barnett. CD booklet Sterling CDS-1036-2, 1999


17. Revelation Cantata (Uppenbarelsekantaten). By Lennart Hedwall

The second cantata that Alfvén composed was written in the spring of 1913 for the consecration of the newly built Uppenbarelsekyrkan (Church of the Revelation) in Saltsjöbaden, near Stockholm. Nathan Söderblom, who at that time was professor of theology in Uppsala, had assembled a text from the Bible, and he was encouraged by the congregation and by the bank director Knut Wallenberg to ask Alfvén to write the music. In 1903 Alfvén had completed a major oratorio on Stagnelius’s poem Herrans bön (The Lord’s Prayer), a work which is by nature religious but not confessional. In 1914 he was to write a Motet for Söderblom’s ordination as an archbishop, and in the Reformationskantaten (Reformation Cantata) of 1917 he would also return to religious themes. We do not know whether he was genuinely interested in composing church music in the true sense of the term, and neither do we know much about his own attitude to religion. From his memoirs it is clearly apparent that he did not have any considered philosophy of life, even though the chorale Jag går mot döden, var jag går (I walk with death where’er I go) remained in his consciousness like a constantly present ‘counter-point to life’. The fact that Alfvén dedicated his Revelation Cantata to his strictly religious mother does, however, suggest that he took this task very seriously, and he also said that ‘there was already music in the words themselves’.

The Revelation Cantata was first performed on 18th May 1913 under the composer’s own direction, . with singers and players from the Royal Theatre in Stockholm. The piece is scored for bass and baritone solos, two choirs, organ, harmonium, harp, celesta and string quartet. The use of two choirs was determined by Söderblom’s arrangement of the Bible text: one four-part mixed choir with organ accompaniment serve as the ‘earthly voices’, whilst a ‘semi-coro’ of three first and three second sopranos, three altos and three ‘tenori assoluti’, plus the other instruments, represent the ‘celestial voices’. Correspondingly, the bass soloist utters earthly thoughts, whilst the baritone soloist utters words of heavenly wisdom. In short sections, often laid out as dialogues, the cantata tells of human torments and celestial delights, and the contrast between the two spheres is emphasized by the positioning of the ‘earthly voices’ in the organ loft or some other easily visibly place, whilst the ‘celestial voices’ should be positioned in such a man¬ner that they are invisible or, at least, as far as pos¬sible from the ‘earthly voices’ – an idea that implies a kind of ‘ideological stereo’.

The cantata is divided into three large sections.

The piece begins with a three-part organ prelude based on the chorale Gud trefaldig, statt oss bi (God of Three Shapes, Be Our Saviour). The brief outer sections reproduce motifs from the chorale melody, and the middle section develops them in a fugue that rises to two mighty climaxes. The choir and orchestra then depict in dark colours mankind’s fruitless unease, and a short bass solo sings of our lack of trust. The soloist’s words are repeated and the mood of despair is intensified by the choir, after which first the soloist and then the choir, in a recitative-like, subdued and tormented tone, cry out in the utmost desperation: ‘Då prisade vi de döda, som redan fått dö, lyckliga framför de levande, som ännu leva’ (,Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead, more than the living which are yet alive’). The composer wanted this passage – which he claimed to be ‘wholly Catholic in sound, like a number of other places’ – should sound as though it were ‘whispering, without tone’, but for some reason he did not indicate this in the score. The invisible ‘celestial’ instruments intone a hymn to the Creator, but the bass soloist once again expresses his distress, which is emphasized by the organ with numerous musically illustrative details. The ‘celestial choir’, meanwhile, has many comforting words to impart, and the passage that follows is as light and pure in tone as the preceding section had been dark and gloomy. Alfvén subsequently extracted this section as a separate orchestral piece with the title Andante religioso. The mild, Romantic harmonies, and sonorities that resemble an organ’s mixture stop, here produce an almost spiritual, serene atmosphere. An antiphonal passage for the two choirs then begins, which gradually turns into a united song of jubilation.

The second part starts with an anguished lament from three ‘celestial voices’ who, together, represent the voice of God. Alfvén requires an alto, a tenor and a baritone to sing in unison, a refined tonal mixture that arose from his unwillingness to allow a single voice to utter God’s own words. The ‘earthly choir’ reacts to God’s reproach with a prayer, both humble and agitated, for the forgiveness of all trespasses and sins (a choral passage in 5/4-time), after which God’s voice, now lighter in tone, grants forgiveness. Delighted at this proof of God’s goodness, the choir strikes up a song of praise written as a fugato and, when the lower voices tell of darkness over the earth, they are immediately answered comfortingly by the ‘celestial voices’ – and so the second part of the cantata, too, reaches a jubilant conclusion.

The third part starts with a baritone solo, in which Christ himself speaks of the importance of obeying and loving him, and the work is then rounded off by a brief concluding chorus on St. Paul’s words that man shall live and die in the Lord, followed by a restrained song of praise which leads to three light ‘Amen’ chords. And thus the work ends with the conviction that there is a power that is greater than either life or death, and that mankind has the opportunity to achieve communion with this power, which is called God.

The cantata is undeniably one of Alfvén’s most personal and distinctive works. Whatever his attitude to its confessional content, we can say that – like so many artists in similar situations – when he wrote the piece, he was seized by genuine religious inspiration.

A brief episode from the first performance is worth relating. John Cederlund, a coach at the Royal Theatre, was directing the ‘celestial choir’ which was placed in the sacristy. He related that, on the way there, he was stopped by one of the bishops present, who suspected that he and those with him intended to disrupt the performance of the cantata.

The sculptor Carl Milles, together with Olle Hjortzberg, had been responsible for the artistic decoration of the Church of the Revelation (the building itself was designed by Ferdinand Boberg). Milles, who was also present at the church’s consecration, fashioned a portrait of Alfvén from granite in 1911 and, in 1926, was inspired by the composer’s Second Symphony when designing the Industry Monument in front of the Technical College in Stockholm. In a letter to Nathan Söderblom, Milles described his impressions of Alfvén’s cantata:

‘You know, I have seldom been so moved. I sank down in my pew, my cheeks grew moist and, to avoid being seen, I did not dry them. The music was as heavenly as the occasion demanded, great and original and as I expressed it to Hugo, I was eternally fond of the fact that there were no ”melodies” – i.e. compositionally it was surprisingly impossible to express in words, magnificent and rich like the clearest drop of spring water that came from on high. It was the harp chords that moved me most, a supernatural shower of diamonds that all fell in different phases. You see, Alfvén is monumental and great.’

Translation: Andrew Barnett.CD booklet Sterling CDS-1058-2, 2003


18. Cantata for the 450th Anniversary of Uppsala University

(Kantat vid Uppsala Universitets 450-årsjubileum). By Lennart Hedwall

In several cases, Alfvén’s cantata writing was connected with his position as director musices at Uppsala University. This applies to the Kantat vid reformationsfesten i Uppsala(Cantata for the Reformation Festivities in Uppsala) from 1917 and, to an even greater extent, the Kantat vid Uppsala Universitets 450-årsjubileum (Cantata far the 450th Anniversary of Uppsala University) from 1927, and the cantata he wrote for the centenary of the Royal Agricultural Society of the Uppsala Region in 1915 can in its own way be included here too. The university cantata is a setting of a multi-faceted text by Gunnar Mascoll Silfverstolpe. It gave him the opportunity to compose music that was Romantic in nature yet with a Nordic sonority, which at the same time strives towards the ceremonial and lofty – especially as Alfvén chose to compose a mostly homophonic setting which closely follows the text’s strict rhythmic patterns. As Alfvén wanted the work to end with an impressive climax, he had difficulties with Silfverstolpe’s modest final strophe and thus turned back to the opening of the cantata, where he had taken the ringing of Uppsala Cathedral’s bells as his musical point of reference.

This bell motif, which is intoned by the percussion and four pianos, acts as a basso ostinato that dominates the opening chorus of the first movement, a passage that has elements of a processional hymn with a somewhat archaic coloration. The majestic, heavy writing is interrupted by an intimate idyll at the words ‘Vem räknar alla kvällar’ (‘Who counts all the evenings’). A transition passage leads back to music of a hymn-like character, and in this section – which deals with the way thoughts are formed into poetry – we find a hint of the counterpoint that, for the composer, ought to have been the obvious illustration of the text. A baritone solo begins, in the same pure spirit as the preceding choral passage but also tightened up, with a certain stateliness. This is followed by another choral section in which an ‘Alma Mater’ motif, a rhythmic, repeated D, is introduced. This motif serves as the point of departure for a brief two-part passage for tenor and soprano, followed by a recitative-like, chromatically ascending section that culminates in an effective tutti. A postlude leads to one of the finest episodes in the cantata: a four-part female choir, accompanied by flute, clarinet and bass clarinet, sing in sensitive harmonies ‘Seger vanns i de ödemarker’ (‘Victory was won in the wilderness’); this is taken up by the male voices of the choir, with interspersed entries from the women’s voices. The ‘Alma Mater’ motif returns and leads the first part of the cantata to a mighty conclusion.

The second part begins with an alto solo which, in simple but expressive phrases, tells of memory and remembrance. The sound of bells is heard again, now in a slowly ascending accompanimental figure (in contrast to the descending scale motif from the opening of the work). Alfvén himself characterized the first choral passage as a hymn of departure, and it becomes increasingly hymn-like, with a heavy forcefulness, only interrupted by a dramatic outburst with hints of polyphony on the words’ Än skummar världen hård’ (‘The world is still o’erfoaming’). When the chorale setting ends (its second phrase includes the rather surprising use of a socalled ‘false cadence’), the composer – as mentioned above – takes up to the bell motif once more; the choir repeats the opening words of the last choral section and then returns to the beginning of the second strophe to end the cantata in the optimistic ‘nya tankars eld’ (‘fire of new thoughts’). In the final bars from the orchestra, the ‘Alma Mater’ motif is combined with stately trumpet signals. Uppsala University spread its 450th anniversary celebrations over three days, starting on 15th September 1927, and the next day the stage was filled with a choir of 200 and a strengthened Akademiska kapellet (University Orchestra) – although there was only space for two of the four pianos that Alfvén had wanted. The composer himself conducted his cantata which, according to the score, he had completed on 5th September even though he had been working on it for almost all of the previous year. The soloists at the premiere were Elsa Larcén, alto, and Sam Waernulf, baritone. The cantata was played again in more traditional concert circumstances two days later, and in March 1929 it was also performed in Stockholm.

Translation: Andrew Barnett. CD booklet Sterling CDS-1058-2, 2003


20. Klockorna (The Bells). By Inger Mattsson

Klockorna (The Bells), Op.13. Poem for baritone and orchestra to a text by Frithiof Holmgren. Composed in Berlin in 1900 and dedicated to the composer’s friend John Forsell, who was also baritone soloist at the premiere at the Royal Opera in Stockholm on 17th November 1900, conducted by Wilhelm Stenhammar.

Hugo Alfvén orchestrated many of his solo songs, but only two were originally composed with orchestral accompaniment: Klockorna and En båt med biommor (A boat with flowers, Op. 44, to a text by Oscar Levertin). In these works Alfvén carries on the tradition of the large-scale orchestral ballad that had started with August Söderman’s Kung Heimer och Aslög (King Heimer and Aslög).

In the spring of 1900 Alfvén paid a brief visit to Berlin, where he completed Klockorna, a work in which the orchestral sonority is of central importance. The poem, by Frirhiof Holmgren, had attracted the composer’s interest principally because it gave him the opportunity to try to depict orchestrally the various sounds of bells – an experiment which fascinated Alfvén greatly. Among the instruments he employed were tam-tam and two pianos; from the latter he demanded a refined pedal technique, whilst the former’s role is to follow up the piano chords and be coloured by them. In the orchestral palette we hear various bell effects: on the sabbath, as a call to arms, in victory and to the grave. A hymn-like calmness is offset by sonic complexity, clothed in Romantic garb. Alfvén was satisfied with the result, and had the work performed on numerous later occasions, for instance in Gothenburg and Copenhagen, probably in order to show off his own skill as an orchestrator. On lst December 1900, Svensk Musiktidning reported: ‘The song is very expressive, and the skilled orchestral writing depicts, with accurate variety, the sound of bells. Mr. Forsell rendered the solo part with great power, and both he and the composer were called back to the podium many times.’

Translation: Andrew Barnett. CD booklet Sterling CDS-1036-2, 1999