Monday, February 11, 2019

Hugo Alfvén

Mainly due to people asking me what I want for my birthday, I've managed to build up quite a stock of music by the Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén (1872 - 1960). I'm not much good at writing about classical music, but this post gives me a chance to arrange the various pieces on these CDs into chronological order. They are all either orchestral or for chorus and orchestra.

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 11 (1898-1899)

At the time this was the most ambitious Swedish symphony. At this date Alfvén was not so far behind the musical developments of other European traditions: it's late romantic, chromatic, and Alfvén brought a new virtuosity of orchestral handling into Swedish music (comparisons with Strauss don't really do him much service, though). There's a slight lack of balance: the first, third and fourth movements hang together as a fine medium-to-bold symphony, but the long second movement aims at being positively heroic, or should I say Eroic?

Vid sekelskiftet (At the Turn of the Century), Op. 12 (1899)

Cantata for soprano, choir and orchestra, with text by Erik Axel Karlfeldt. Very enjoyable!

Klockorna (The Bells), Op. 13 (1900)

A rather dramatic ballad for baritone and orchestra. (Text by Frithiof Holmgren)

Midsommarvaka (Midsummer Vigil), Op. 19 (Svensk rapsodi nr. 1) (1903)

Doubtless the best-known piece of Swedish classical music outside Sweden, this is an irresistible popular piece, book-ended by folk-dances with a serene Nordic night between.

En skärgårdssägen (Legend of the Skerries), Op. 20 (1904)

Stormy tone-poem depicting autumn night on the skerries. (To some extent intended as a contrast to the preceding piece.)  Probably my single favourite piece by Alfvén: everything develops so naturally and inventively from the opening calm. The composer has such a stock of good ideas in these early years, and his orchestral skills make for very satisfying elegant pieces... Scandinavian-design sofas and shelving units.

Alfvén was very fond of messing about in the Stockholm archipelago (the skerries). The locale also inspired his Symphony No. 4.

Symphony No. 3 in E major, Op. 23 (1905-06)

Alfvén's sunniest symphony, written in Italy and in love. Very attractive and enjoyable. I would say more if I didn't seem to have lost the CD. (When I opened the case, I found Act I of Aida instead.)

Uppsalarapsodi (Uppsala Rhapsody), Op. 24 (Svensk rapsodi nr. 2) (1907)

A charming and cheerful piece based on students' songs, evidently recalling Brahms' Academic Festival Overture, but much less elaborately composed. The luminous colours make some atonement for that.

Kantat vid Reformationsfesten i Uppsala 1917 (Cantata for the 1917 Reformation Festivities in Uppsala), Op. 36 (1917)

The text for the final section (Luthers hammare) is by Karlfeldt. Its late arrival meant that Alfvén wrote a stark and dramatic arrangement, in effective contrast to the more elaborate choral writing of the first two sections.

Symphony No. 4  in C minor "Från havsbandet" (From the Outermost Skerries), Op. 39 (1918-1919)

To some this is his greatest work, along with the ballet Bergakungen (see next). His first three symphonies had been easy to enjoy as symphonies. In this case the four movements flow together and all share the same melodic material. It's a symphony that's trying to be a large-scale tone poem, including sections with two wordless voices and a sort of skeletal narrative.

"My symphony tells the tale of two young souls. The action takes place in the skerries, where sea 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."

 I find these two quite different forms difficult to meld in my head while I'm listening. Harmonically it's his most "advanced" work, reminding me of Scriabin sometimes.

whelm   reproach    4
  beach    hull
then   arose   cliff
 hall      shake   wrack
weeps the arm stretch
tendrils mutiny
we cried      we kissed
  tempest     autumn

Suite from Bergakungen (The Mountain King) (1916-1923)

Alfvén worked on the ballet pantomime Bergakungen (Op. 37) from 1916 to 1923. This concert suite has just four pieces; the breakneck Vallflickans dans (Herdmaiden's Dance) is one of his most popular pieces, often performed separately.

Dalarapsodi (Dalecarlian rhapsody), Op. 47 (Svensk rapsodi nr. 3) (1931)

The last of the three rhapsodies, a comparatively melancholy piece, based on Dala folk melodies from the area north of Lake Siljan. Alfvén outlined a program (a shepherdess's memories and thoughts, returning with a crash to present melancholy). The composer, though born in Stockholm, made his home in Dalarna for much of his life.

Elegy from "Gustav Adolf II", Op. 49 (1932)

Written for the play "Vi" by Ludvig Nordström, later part of a suite called "Gustav Adolf II", but this Adagio is often performed on its own. The motif of two falling chromatic seconds also occurs in the 4th Symphony (the young man's theme).

Festival Overture, Op. 52 (1944)

A triumphal piece for a popular audience.

Symphony No. 5 in A minor, Op. 54 (1953...)

I can't help thinking about Sibelius 8. That of course was abandoned/destroyed.  Some might think that Alfvén should have done the same with this, but I'm so glad he didn't because it is fascinating. It was performed in 1953, but the ageing composer still wasn't satisfied and withdrew it for further tinkering. The first movement is an impressive charred slab of what Alfvén does, but more chromatic, dominated by a descent of three semitones ("det minst dåliga jag gjort"..."the least terrible thing I have produced"). Here, as in the other movements, it may strike you that the symphony is eking out quite a small stock of melodic material (and even so, some of it is recognizable from earlier works).The idea of being trapped, of being caught in the workings of a clock; we experience this at the same time as quite different emotions. The third movement has a sarcastic motif like a joke that continues to turn out wrong; the second movement is understatedly beautiful, the fourth tries to be an optimistic celebration; but nothing is quite what it seems. No point in listening to it with a furrowed brow, and when I set out to just enjoy each movement for its colour and its simplest aspirations, then that's when the experience is most worthwhile. (Assuming that private listening to old-fashioned music is ever worthwhile: a moot point.)

Concert suite from Den förlorade sonen (The Prodigal Son) (1957)

The ballet was based on folk pictures of the biblical parable. Alfvén at 85 was unable to compose a complete ballet from scratch (I don't think it was given an Opus number). He re-used some pieces of earlier music as well as adding new material based on folk melodies, which is what we get in the very attractive concert suite. The polka and final polska are a delight.

There's some inconsistency about the names of the seven sections. These are the most complete ones I can find.

1. Gånglåt från Leksand — Sonens gånglåt
2. Polska från Orsa
3. Drottningens av Saba festmarsch
4. Polketta
5. Steklåt
6. Polka från Roslagen
7. Final: Polska



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