About this Recording
8.553962 - ALFVEN: Symphony No. 1 / Uppsala Rhapsody / Mountain King
English 

Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960)
Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 7; Suite from Bergakungen
Festival Overture; Uppsala Rhapsody

The music of Hugo Alfvén has always been close to the hearts of the Swedish people. More than any other composer he is regarded as representing the spirit of the country. This might also be due to the fact that for many years he lived in Dalecarlia, the province where genuine folk-music tradition is at its strongest.

Alfvén came in fact from Stockholm, and from the age of fifteen studied the violin at the Conservatory there. It was thus on the violin that he supported himself during the 1890s whilst taking private lessons in composition with Johan Lindegren, the leading contrapuntalist of the day. He earned his daily bread as a violinist at the Opera, and his time in the orchestra there gave him comprehensive insights into the nature and possibilities of different instruments. The colourful and virtuoso orchestration skills he developed have been compared with those of Richard Strauss.

From 1897 Alfvén spent ten years travelling in Europe, partly financed by a Jenny Lind scholarship. In Brussels he polished his violin technique, and in Dresden he studied conducting. He declined a post as teacher of composition in Stockholm, settling instead in Uppsala where he was appointed Director Musices at the University in 1910. He was to stay there for thirteen years.

In Uppsala Alfvén began a collaboration with the male, mostly academic, choir Orphei Drängar (‘The Servants of Orpheus’), known as OD, remaining its conductor until 1947, and bringing the choir to international renown through tours in Europe and the United States. He also conducted other well-known choirs, such as Allmänna Sången and Siljanskören. Thus for over half a century Alfvén played a dominant rôle in Swedish choral tradition, not only as a conductor, but also as a composer and arranger.

Alfvén's talents were not confined to music alone. He was an accomplished painter of water colours and had in his youth contemplated a career as a painter. Furthermore he proved to be an engaging writer with an autobiography in four volumes which describes Swedish music life at the time, as well as his own life.

Many music-lovers know Alfvén best as the popular, cheerful entertainer in compositions such as Midsommarvaka (‘Midsummer Vigil’) (the best-known piece of Swedish music outside Sweden), Vallflickans dans (‘Dance of the Shepherd Girl’), the ballet Den förlorade sonen (‘The Prodigal Son’) and a great many choral songs. His five symphonies and his symphonic poems reveal a different, more elegiac and often more dramatic side. His First Symphony, composed in 1897, has a melancholy Sturm und Drang mood that recurs at intervals in his later compositions, but there is also a life-affirming side that flourished in his Second Symphony, two years later.

Most artists know how difficult it can be to find the right ideas if the subject does not appeal. A lack of ideas is far more trying than the labour of composition itself. It was failing inspiration that threatened the genesis of Alfvén's Festspel, commissioned for the opening of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm in 1908. The project obsessed him for a long while without any creative impulses coming to him, and he began to fear that the music would not be written in time. It was a visit from the poet Verner von Heidenstam finally inspired him. They were talking about the time of Charles XII, and immediately blaring fanfares and a lively polonnaise rhythm sprang to mind. A day later the piece was finished, in plenty of time for the opening. The Festspel has now long been used as official music at a multitude of solemn occasions in Sweden.

Of Alfvén's three Swedish Rhapsodies it is the middle one that has remained the least known. It was composed in 1907 for the celebrations at Uppsala University of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Linnæus. The original commission was for a vocal work, for which the poet Karlfeldt was invited to write the text. This time it was the poet who was uninspired and was eventually obliged to decline the invitation. The University instead proposed that Alfvén write an Academic Overture of the type that Brahms had written.

Like his predecessor Alfvén began with a handful of student songs and other popular melodies by the likes of Bellman, Lindblad, Wennerberg and Prince Gustavus (‘Oscar I's musical son’). In contrast to the rigid and artfully constructed Midsommarvaka, the Uppsala Rhapsody is a loosely constructed cavalcade. The overture, however, did not receive the reception Alfvén had expected. The Dean of the University, literary historian Henrik Schück, took exception to certain themes that were known as drinking-songs. The composer was poking fun at academic dignity, he maintained. Perplexed, Alfvén assured Schück that he had not thought about the texts at all, focussing rather on the melodies' suitability as rhapsodic themes. That this was not an entirely truthful answer is betrayed by the work's bachanalian exuberance. Towards the end of the piece the horns paraphrase the drinking song Helan går (‘Down in one’), and, with the help of the clarinets, they describe the passage of the schnapps down the throat. This he later admitted to, with thinly disguised delight.

Alfvén used the sound resources of the later romantic orchestra in the most virtuosic ways in his Fourth Symphony and the ballet-pantomime Berga-­kungen (‘The Mountain King’) which he worked on between 1918-19 and 1917-1922 respectively. The ballet is based on the legend of Den Bergtagna, the shepherdess who is abducted by the mountain king and rescued by her beloved. They are aided by a troll, who, however, indignant at not getting the girl himself, lets them die in a snow-storm. The subject was popular in the romantic era, and had been used fifty years earlier in an opera by Ivar Hallström, which was also the first Swedish opera to use folk music as its base.

Alfvén used as inspiration the work of John Bauer, the illustrator whose work in the children's story-book Bland tomtar och troll (‘Among goblins and trolls’) shaped a whole generation's images of the mystical creatures of the forest. The première at the Stockholm Opera in 1923 was choreographed by Jean Börlin, the internationally renowned moderniser of ballet and a major force behind Les ballets suédois in Paris. When the work later fell from the repertory Alfvén constructed the concert suite recorded here. The central movements belong to some of the most magical moments in Alfvén's output, while the final Vallflickans dans (‘Dance of the Shepherd Girl’) has become one of the most treasured lollipops in Swedish music. Not least as an indispensable encore for Swedish orchestras on concert tours abroad.

Bergakungen was Alfvén's last major work. Although he lived for another forty years, almost nothing from the later years can compare with the great works from the previous decades. The only exception is the Dalarapsodi (‘Dalecarlian Rhapsody’) from 1931. He did return to Bergakungen on a number of occasions but seldom added anything new, although the Fifth Symphony clearly bears a number of similarities.

Symphony No. 1 was first performed in 1897 by the Hovkapellet and its principal conductor Conrad Nordqvist. Ever since the time of the pioneering Roman in the 1730s, it was the orchestra of the Royal Opera, the Hovkapellet, which had been responsible for virtually all larger-scale concert performances, and Stockholm did not get a proper symphony orchestra until 1914, when the Konsert-forening (Concert Society) was formed.

To understand the impact that the symphony made a hundred years ago, one should bear in mind that during the nineteenth century Swedish music-life was, apart from opera, almost completely dominated by such intimate genres as solo singing, men's choral groups and chamber music. Few wrote for orchestra; the symphonies of Berwald and Lindblad were little known. That a relative youngster of 24 chose to express himself in such an exacting form did little to quell the surprise and curiosity of people at such an event.

The success was substantial. Only a few smaller works of Alfvén had previously been heard, among them a pleasing but traditional violin sonata. Alfvén's personality is clearly expressed in the symphony. The movements are carefully defined and the form, although of considerable dimensions, holds together well. Traces of Berlioz and Wagner can be discerned, but perhaps most clearly the work of Johan Svendsen, well-known in Stockholm, served as inspiration, all three being masters of instrumentation. It is difficult to know what the symphony sounded like, as Alfvén was dissatisfied with it and reorchestrated the work seven years later, and it is this version that has been used ever since.

Today the first performance of a symphony may be important for its composer, but it is seldom of such major importance that it has long-lasting consequences. The concert in 1897, together with the première of the Second Symphony two years later, fundamentally changed the music climate in Sweden. Following almost a hundred years of isolation from continental trends, these events initiated a move towards orchestral music of a more international character. The genre was soon to be enriched by Stenhammar, Natanael Berg, Rangström, Atterberg, Peterson-Berger and others.

English Version: Andrew Smith


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