The composer

Hugo Alfvén the composer

by Lennart Hedwall

from “Hugo Alfvén”, Stockholm 1997

Few Swedish composers have achieved such widespread popularity both at home and abroad as Hugo Alfvén, and his compositions have come to stand out as the most typically representative examples of national romanticism in Swedish music.

Nevertheless, strictly speaking, his reputation rests on relatively few but often performed works such as Midsommarvaka (Midsummer Vigil), Festspel (Festival), Elegy, Vallflickans dans (The Shepherd-girl’s Dance), Sveriges Flagga (Sweden’s Flag) and Roslagsvår (Spring in Roslag) together with a few songs, such as Skogen sover (The Forest Sleeps) and Du är stilla ro (You are Tranquil Peace), and several well-known folk song arrangements for choir. Of these, Festspel has come to be used as a kind of official festival piece at various national events, and Elegy has increasingly been used as official funeral music. On the other hand, Roslagsvår and several melodies from Midsommarvaka (folk melodies which have been partly transformed by Alfvén) have quickly become as well-known as popular songs. However, Alfvén’s output is considerably broader and richer than this limited assortment would indicate, and most important of all, his artistic personality is much more complex than is commonly believed.

Pioneer: symphonies

Alfvén was a pioneer in at least two forms in Swedish music – two forms which in themselves can be said to be rather distant from each other: symphonies and songs for male choir. Even his first symphony (1896) reveals great breadth of expression and an unusual knowledge of orchestration, whereas the second symphony (1897-98), with its powerful fugue finale into which is interwoven the hymn, Jag går mot döden, var jag går (I walk towards death wherever I walk), was a near-enough unique work, representing a major break-through for a Swedish composer. The nationalistic features are hardly noticeable here, but rather the symphony creates at first hand a personal situation in an appropriate and emotionally eventful way for that time, while remaining within a disciplined classical-romantic form. An altogether greater orchestral imagination and restraint is demonstrated in Midsommarvaka (Midsummer Vigil) (1903) and in the symphonic poem, En skärgårdssägen (A Tale from the Archipelago) (1904). The former is not merely a rhapsody on Swedish folk-songs, but also a musical painting of summer in Sweden, where nature and men reflect each other; whereas the latter, with its night scenes of the ocean, at the same time represents a human love tragedy.

The third symphony is light and vital, having been inspired by the country in which it was written – Italy. But Alfvén’s orchestral output culminates in what are probably the foremost creations from an orchestration viewpoint that a Swedish composer has ever achieved, namely the symphony “Från havsbandet” (From the outskirts of the Archipelago) (No. 4, 1918-19), and the ballet-pantomime Bergakungen (The Mountain King), (Royal Opera, 1923). The symphony is a programmatic depiction of a love story of a young man and a young woman, which is acted out against a symbolic background of sea and sky, where nature yet again reflects human experiences and dreams – a similar conception was already to be found in En skärgårdssägen, as previously mentioned. The symphony consists of a single movement and uses clearly defined leitmotifs, which are constantly varied, transformed, combined with or played against each other in various ways. Very large orchestral forces are used, completed by two voices, a soprano and tenor whose wordless parts are interwoven into the orchestral movement. Alfvén uses a still larger orchestra in Bergakungen, which for many reasons should be classified with his symphonic output. It is true to say that the work contains various self-sufficient dance episodes – among them the well-known Vallflickans dans (a few others are built on Swedish folk tunes) – but the music is on the whole symphonically conceived and includes the use of leitmotifs for the chief characters in the action, which tells of the old folksaga “The Girl Imprisoned in the Mountain”. 
Of Alfvén’s later orchestral works, the fifth symphony (1942-52) has a retrospective character. The first movement is often played separately and is almost completely built on themes from Bergakungen. The Dalarapsodi (1931) can be regarded as a serious counterpart to the humorous qualities of Midsommarvaka, in which Alfvén had made use of folk melodies, above all, as building-stones in a musically artistic and richly contrasting movement with much use of counterpoint. But here, the melodies are allowed to speak for themselves even if the composer’s feeling for harmony and orchestration have given them a very individual and often clearly characterised setting. Even Dalarapsodi can be regarded as a symphonic poem, telling of a young shepherd-girl’s dreams and visions in the loneliness of the mountain pasture.

Pioneer: male choir

Alfvén wrote his earliest works for male choir during the first years of this century, and from amongst them Frihetssång (Freedom), based on Bishop Thomas’ well-known Song of Freedom poem from the fifteenth century, and Här är landet (Here is the Country), to the text of Wilhelm Nordin, have remained in the current repertoire. From the remaining works of this period, the setting of Stagnelius’ Lugn i tron (Rest in Faith) is worthy of mention. But it was only when Alfvén became the conductor of the internationally renowned Uppsala male choir Orphei Drängar (OD), in 1910, and its composer-in-residence upon the completion of the poignant Gustaf Frödings jordafärd (G. Fröding’s Funeral, words by Verner von Heidenstam) in 1911, that he became really involved with this medium and developed an artistic consciousness that few composers had achieved before him. He thought that it should be possible to regard male choir songs as a suitable medium for describing modern man’s experiences of life. Amongst the large number of musically important and chorally significant compositions for male choir is the dynamic Gryning vid havet (Dawn over the See) to a text by Sten Selander, in which the choir is deliberately and effectively used as a vocal orchestra. Other songs include the serenade-like Min kära (My beloved) (Sten Selander) and Lindagull (Bertil Gripenberg), the deeply serious and darkly coloured Vaggvisa (Lullaby) (Erik Blomberg) and the lively, humorous Tattare-Emma (Gipsy-Emma) (Jeremias i Tröstlösa). Even the short epithets give an idea of the enormous range in Alfvén’s choral music. In addition, there are a large number of patriotic hymns and festival songs of various kinds, and certainly of extremely mixed quality though always written very carefully. However, according to his own words, Alfvén had an even greater interest in the larger and more varied colours of the mixed choir, in spite of all his epoch-making work with OD and his conducting of the Svenska Sångarförbundet (The Swedish Male Choir Association).

Of the many songs for mixed choir, two impressionistic settings must be mentioned – Stemning (Mood) to a text of J. P. Jacobsen, and Aftonen (The Evening) by Herman Sätherberg. Both these works, more than most of his later compositions, show, through their northern, lyrical nineteenth-century settings that characteristic musical style that he never abandoned. It should be added that Alfvén wrote the majority of his choral songs for both mixed choir and male choir. Very often, both versions were to all intents and purposes composed at the same time – and the same is true of most of his well-known folk song arrangements.

Choral works with orchestra also form an important part of Alfvén’s output, and even if most of the compositions are of an occasional nature, they still mark a new era. Immediately after the success of the second symphony at its first performance in 1899, Alfvén received a commission for a turn of the century cantata and during the first decades of this century, he was given nearly all the larger assignments for cantatas of a more official nature. Other cantatas were written during his office as director musices at Uppsala University between 1910 and 1939. His best choral works include Uppenbarelsekantat (The Revelation Cantata), written for the inauguration of the Uppenbarelse Church in Saltsjöbaden in 1913, and the Reformation Cantata in memory of Martin Luther (Uppsala 1917); also noteworthy are the University Cantata, for Uppsala University’s 450th anniversary in 1927, and the Riksdagskantat (The Parliament Cantata), for the 500th anniversary of the Swedish Parliament in 1935.

Other works resulting from commissions include the oratorio, Herrans bön (The Lord’s Prayer, 1899-1901), based on a section from The Martyrs, a play by E. J. Stagnelius in which the deep feeling of the richly coloured romantic poem is combined with the superb counterpoint, which Alfvén learnt from his severe teacher, Johan Lindegren. In several cantata movements strict polyphonic forms recur as frequently as in the symphonies mentioned above. These forms also occur in an all too little known choral motet, Väktare på Sions murar (Guardian of Zion’s walls) (1914). As a result, at the turn of the century Alfvén was regarded simply as someone who had received a good technical training and a highly serious young composer who allowed gloom and brooding to dominate his music too much. It is even said that it was an accusation that Alfvén lacked humour which gave rise to the composing of Midsommarvaka, in which the polyphonic elements show themselves to be a determining factor in the basic humorous character. But generally, the cantatas and most of the separate choral songs reflect a homophonic, choral element which is built on a highly developed expressive harmony and an unfailing sense of balance in choral writing. There is also a purely practical reason why his choral music is always considered to be extremely suitable for choirs. In the same way that OD’s near-professional capacity inspired him to use unusual sound combinations in many of the male choir songs, so the choir which came into existence through the merger of the church and district choirs from around the Lake Siljan area and which Alfvén conducted for more than half a century (1904-57), has clearly influenced his choral-writing technique in the songs for mixed choir and the folk song arrangements.

But still this does not exhaust the versatility of Alfvén’s output. In his youth, he was an accomplished violinist, for whom an international career was predicted by his teachers. Furthermore, he had composed a sonata, full of drama and romantic expressiveness, and a Romance for his own instrument. Alfvén was employed as a violinist in Hovkapellet (The Royal Opera Orchestra) between 1890 and 1892 and he regarded the sonata, which he himself had performed in 1896, as his opus one. More important are his songs, although with a few exceptions they are relatively unknown and unjustly overshadowed by the popular but musically (and even poetically) very uneven songs to poems by Ernest Thiel (2 collections, Op. 28 and Op. 32). Alfvén found it difficult to steer clear of a declamatory pathos in his more intimate romances, but nevertheless he often creates an unusual atmosphere and shows an extremely varied richness in both the vocal lines and the accompaniment. Not least, the piano accompaniment to the well-written vocal lines is both sensitive and carefully produced.

Art songs

Amongst the best of Alfvén’s art songs are three Österling songs, Bön (Prayer), Pioner (Peonies) and Minnesskrift (In Memorial) all from 1905, Marias Sånger (Maria’s Songs) to poems by Emil Aarestrup, 1903-04, and several individual pieces such as I bruset (In the Rush) by Birger Mörner (1920), I stilla timmar (In Quiet Hours) by Jarl Hemmer (1940) and Saa tag mit Hjerte (So Take my Heart) by Tore Ditlevsen (1946).

Points of interest also exist in earlier collections such as the 10 Songs (Op. 4), the Ellen Lundberg songs (Op. 8) – which includes the popular Sommardofter (Summer Scents) – and the Forsslund songs (Op. 9), all from the 1890’s. But by far the best vocal composition is probably the setting of Oscar Levertin’s En båt med blommor (A Boat with Flowers) for baritone and orchestra (1925). Here, the poem’s visions of beauty, dreams of love and corrupt thoughts are woven into a landscape, which Alfvén draws with a purely impressionistic imagination for sound and subtle, tastefully simple orchestration.

Stage works

The ballet Den förlorade sonen (The Prodigal Son, 1956) was inspired by a 19th century wall painting from Dalecarlia. In it Alfvén used folk tunes, some of which he wrote down in the 1890s in addition to his own melodies. He has also written the music for several plays, the most well-known being that for Ludvig Nordström’s Gustavus Adolphus festival play “Vi” (We) (1932), which is commonly advertised on concert posters as the Gustaf II Adolf Suite. It not only contains the well-known Elegy but also the great battle scene, Breitenfeld, and some elegant quasi-pastiche dance movements, Sarabanda, Bourré and Menuett. Alfvén moreover composed successful film music on several occasions, e.g. for Synnöve Solbakken (1934), Mans kvinna (1945) and Singoalla (1949). The first two are often played in their concert suite arrangements.

His many smaller-scale occasional pieces for orchestra include Festspel (Festival), written for the inauguration of Dramaten in 1908, Drapa, in memory of Oscar II (1908), the elegy At Emil Sjögren’s Funeral (1918) and the Festival Overture for the inauguration of the theatre and concert house in Malmö in 1944. To his traditional but far from insignificant piano music belong Pictures of the Archipelago (1901-02), Sorrow (1901) and Nocturne (1911).

The darknes in our temperament and in the Swede’s melancholic character

Alfvén is often regarded as a “festival” composer, and it is true to say that it is the display of colour in his orchestra works, and the “Great-Swedish” magnificence of many of his vocal works that have made the greatest impression on the public. But even if he willingly accepted this as his role during the later years, and in addition often stressed the importance of trying to give people light and warmth in his music – as stated in an interview in 1942 – nevertheless, the real basis of his music is something quite different. Throughout his whole output, under the surface there is a stream of anxiety, and he stressed continually, either directly or indirectly, that the counterpart of life is death. It is almost as if in his striving after beauty and technical perfection, he wanted to invoke perishableness. The hymn, I walk towards death, wherever I walk, which is used in the second symphony in the 1890’s played a similarly large role in the fifth symphony fifty years later.

Something in this connection that is perhaps even more noticeable is that Alfvén, whether consciously or unconsciously, worked out a signature-theme at an early stage, which recurs in nearly all his most important works. This consists of the “wailing motif” with two falling minor seconds which received such a prominent rhythmical figuration in the Elegy, and which is used in exactly the same form in the fourth and fifth symphonies. In variation or another harmonisation, it takes a central position in instrumental works or appears at key words in vocal works. This means almost continual lamentation, fear, anxiety or desperation. In the Elegy, it depicts the pain of remembering; in En båt med blommor, it is sung to the ambiguous words “intet avsked, intet tack, du kära” (empty parting, empty thanks, dearest). This is scarcely how a superficial composer of festival music should express himself, and when one looks at Alfvén’s works as a whole, one attaches more and more importance to the fact that, despite everything, he remained faithful to the seriousness and ideals of his youth, when with true romantic ardour, he declared: “My best ideas have come amidst the stormy waves at night, and, in particular, the wild autumns have been my most wonderful times for composition”. It is the same voice that speaks when Alfvén, in conjunction with the recording of his rhapsodies in the 1950’s, said that the Dalarapsodi, which describes “the darkness in our temperament and in the Swede’s melancholic character”, stands closer to his heart than the light, exhilarating Midsommarvaka. In his music, there is a hot-blooded and “bohemian” artistic temperament that is combined with a longing for beauty that borders on perfection – something that seeks a precision of presentation with an intensity already raised to an artistic quality.

A calligraphic handwriting

Alfvén’s exquisite manuscripts have become legendary. Several of his works have been printed directly from the manuscript. In his youth, he did not know for a long time whether to choose painting or music. He belonged to the 1890’s artistic generation, which, in its technical control and its popular style, had the gift and advantage to reach out to all types of people – to experts and “ordinary” people alike, which is something the later generation lacked. Therein lies one of the most important facts of his greatness which only seems to increase the more one gets to know his principal works and the more one learns to listen to and understand the man behind them.