Artiklar

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

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)
21. A national composer with a complex
22. Hugo Alfvén und die Idee der absoluten Musik
23. Hugo Alfvén between two symphonies
24. Hugo Alfvén and folk music
25. Hugo Alfvén as composer of solo songs

BACK

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.

BACK

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

BACK 

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.

BACK

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

BACK

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

BACK

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

BACK

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

BACK

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

> BACK

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

BACK

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

BACK

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

BACK

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

BACK

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

BACK

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

BACK

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

 

BACK

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.

BACK

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

BACK 

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.

BACK

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

BACK

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

BACK

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

BACK

08. Symphony No.1.

Symphony No.1. By Lennart Hedwall

BACK

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

BACK

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

> BACK

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

BACK

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

BACK

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

BACK

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

BACK

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

BACK

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

BACK

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

BACK