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8.225214-15 - HALLSTROM: Duke Magnus and the Mermaid

Ivar Hallström (1826-1901)

Ivar Hallström (1826-1901)

Hertig Magnus och sjöjungfrun (Duke Magnus and the Mermaid) (1865)

A Swedish National Opera

It was with Hertig Magnus och sjöjungfrun (Duke Magnus and the Mermaid; 1865) that Ivar Hallström (1826-1901) and his librettist Frans Hedberg (1828-1908) created the first Romantic Swedish opera, a work that was first given in January 1867. It was not, of course, the first time that Swedish music theatre had turned to themes of a national character: such ideas had previously been found in such works as the divertimento Balder (1819) by Valerius/du Puy, in Agne (1842) by Ling/Ahlström, in Ett National-Divertissement (A National Divertimento; 1843) by Böttiger/J.F. Berwald, in Engelbrekt och hans dalkarlar (Engelbrekt and his Dalecarlian Men; 1846) by Blanche/ Ahlström and, naturally, in Värmlänningarna (The People of Värmland; 1846) by F.A. Dahlgren/Randel. These works are perhaps best described not as operas but as musical plays, modelled on the German Singspiel. Nonetheless, they indicate a conscious attempt to create national music drama.

Before writing Hertig Magnus, Hallström had already completed two works for soloists and choir: the idyll Blommornas undran (The Flowers’ Wonderment; 1860, with piano accompaniment) and the ‘ballad on a Swedish folk-song’ Herr Hjalmar och skön Ingrid (Mr. Hjalmar and Fair Ingrid; 1865, with orchestra), both to texts by Oscar Fredrik — in other words the future King Oscar II. Both of these pieces demonstrate a striving towards a national musical tone, and this is to a large extent intentional. In them we find tender, minor-key melodies with a hint of folklore — a technique that Hallström was to develop masterfully — but the musical style itself is strongly reminiscent of Mendelssohn and Schumann. This applies especially to Blommornas undran, which displays much of the salon style found in Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words or Schumann’s piano pieces.

In Herr Hjalmar och skön Ingrid, however, we can perceive the opera composer that Hallström was to become. Here we find all the stylistic features that were to manifest themselves in Hertig Magnus and develop further right up to Liten Karin (Little Karin; 1898), Hallström’s last operatic work of a national character.

In Hertig Magnus, Hallström and Hedberg took pains to give the work a national character. The subject matter itself is Swedish: there are allusions to historical events surrounding the so-called Vadstena-bullret (Vadstena ‘rumble’); the work is set in Vadstena Castle and depicts the classic antagonism between the aristocracy and the people. The theme of the fairy-tale/ ballad — the duke who thinks he hears a mermaid calling him from the waves of Lake Vättern and throws himself into the water — is also found in other European cultures, but even in Swedish folk-music there are other versions with textual deviations and different melodies. Hallström chose not to exploit these: instead, he created his own imitations of folk-music, in which capacity he proved to have great skill. This stylistic technique is often called ‘the folk style in art music’ and developed strongly in the mid-nineteenth century, especially in the solo song genre.

In Hertig Magnus, which is subtitled ‘A Romantic Operetta in Three Acts’, i.e. musical numbers separated by spoken dialogue, each character is given his or her own musical dialect. Lisa sings (often virtuosically) in popular song and polska style. The dance song of Lisa and Ulf with chorus in Act III has such an authentic folk style that the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation even included it in the anthology Den medeltida balladen (The Medieval Ballad), sung by a lady from Hälsingland (‘Och hör nu vännen min’ / ‘Listen here, my friend’). Peder the fisherman and the chorus of fishermen also use this folk style. On the other hand Anna — the presumed mermaid — keeps to the more old-fashioned ballad style with refrain, for example the melancholy ‘Och kungason gick invid grönskande strand’ (‘And the King’s son walked along the verdant shore’), with its alternations between major and minor serves as a kind of leitmotif for the opera and also forms its gentle, ethereal conclusion.

Brynolf’s two romances also have hints of the folk style. With Magnus and the Monk, however, we transfer ourselves to the European operatic style, straight into grand opéra and Italian Romantic opera. Here, rhythmic accents and bright colours are of great importance in the vocal texture. Even if the other characters also use the musical style of ‘traditional’ Romantic opera, the clear polarization of Swedish folk style and Central European opera contribute to the sharpening of contours between the various characters and their positions in society.

From the point of view of music drama, Hedberg’s and Hallström’s opera is well constructed. The first act contains the traditional presentations of the characters in a well-judged sequence of duets and arias. The various couples are always introduced in pairs (Peder and Ingrid, Lisa and Ulf, Brynolf and Anna) rather than individually as tradition would have demanded. We are also introduced to the characters on a rising scale of social status: Peder the fisherman, Lisa, Ulf the cook, Anna (whose social status is not as we are first led to believe), Brynolf the knight and finally the Duke himself. It was a stroke of genius on the part of Hedberg and Hallström to delay the appearance of the title rôle until the finale of the first act. The relatively short arias, duets and choruses that precede his arrival allow the Duke’s monologue more space without creating a formal imbalance within the act. The opera’s evil genius, the Monk, also appears in the first act. He is heard in a short scene with Peder, including a ‘revenge’ aria, and thus comes across as the opposite extreme in the opera: as a threat to the idyll and to the weak Duke. The Monk’s character is so concisely presented, both musically and dramatically, that he is only required on stage again once briefly before the end of the opera — another stroke of genius from Hedberg and Hallström.

In the second act, the second part of which is set at Vadstena Castle, we also meet the characters in ascending order: the courtiers, by way of lord high constable Sten, to the Duke, who here too enters for the finale. With his effective choral writing, Hallström rapidly creates the atmosphere and feeling of an elevated, somewhat remote social setting — a clear contrast with the folk-like choral style in the first act. Swedish folk music is wholly absent from the scene depicting the meeting between the lord high constable, Peder and Anna at the castle; instead, a dramatic, Italianate operatic style is observable. Hallström presents the dispute between the offended Duke and the two lovers, Anna and Brynolf with a rare concentration and dramatic nerve. Here, too, the drama has been constructed in such a way that the Duke’s entry in the finale gains the weight and impact that his status demands. The conclusion of the second act is worthy of any opera by Verdi, and is without equal in Swedish Romantic opera.

In the third act, all the characters’ true opinions and relationships are revealed. Here the spoken dialogue is kept to a minimum, and the course of musical events is the determining factor. After a few brushstrokes depicting Ulf’s proposal of marriage to Lisa, we return to the principal sequence of events. Anna and Brynolf are dreaming on the shore, unaware that the Monk is lying in wait, ready to stab Brynolf. Just when he is about to do so, the lord high constable and his men arrive, as does the Duke, and all is revealed. Hallström portrays everybody’s amazement and consternation in a radiant Largo concertato (‘O häpnad och fasa’/‘I am seized by amazement and horror’), an ever-present element in Italian opera, in order to concentrate, emphasize and capture the spirit of an important event. The stretta that follows, in which everybody’s rage and hate is expressed, is almost like the finale to an act. This is a conscious effect, as the ensuing real finale instead becomes a melancholy apotheosis for the Duke who — after hearing the mermaid’s song once more — returns to his castle. Originally Hedberg and Hallström had planned that the Duke should be invited to the wedding festivities of the two couples (Anna-Brynolf and Lisa-Ulf), and the original version of the opera ends with a chorus of praise. At a late stage in the rehearsals, however, Hedberg and Hallström chose another solution. When Anna’s song is over, the chorus and soloists take up the last phrase of her melody, and the Duke’s sad exit is accompanied by a diminuendo chord — a much more believable conclusion than a traditional, bombastically hollow chorus of praise! In his last opera, Liten Karin (Little Karin; 1898), Hallström was to use exactly the same technique.

There are, therefore, many reasons to call Hertig Magnus a national opera, at least from the stylistic and formal viewpoints. The conditions for Hertig Magnus were indeed propitious. It offered a rich expressive outlet for Swedish history, music, moods and characters. One might therefore imagine that the work would rapidly establish itself in the repertoire. Hallström even made a reduced version in which the large Romantic opera orchestra was pared down to just 25 players, in case any touring opera company should show an interest in the piece. This was a normal course of action for Hallström; he did the same with Den bergtagna (The Bride of the Mountain King). The opera’s fate, however, was determined by wholly extra-musical circumstances. The production was not especially lavish: it was Hallström’s first one and, moreover, the Royal Theatre had economic problems. Costumes and sets were borrowed from other productions, and the rehearsals did not begin until eleven days before the première. On the other hand, the singers were among the finest that the theatre had at its disposal. Fritz Arlberg sang Duke Magnus; Oscar Arnoldsson (the Royal Theatre’s first Faust and Lohengrin) sang Brynolf; and Fredrika Stenhammar sang Anna. The performance was awaited eagerly, and the weekly Ny Illustrerad Tidning reviewed both the performance and the work itself with nothing but praise. The scale of the opera made it one of ‘the greatest dramatic tone poems that our musical literature can offer, and it is also an occurrence of great importance in that, in terms of its content and subject, it is wholly national’. For his contemporaries, Ivar Hallström came to be seen as the creator of Swedish national opera. Adolf Lindgren, writing in Svensk Musiktidning, stated that Hallström had created a unified Swedish musical mood. Twenty years later, however, Lindgren was to become more negative — indeed malicious — towards Hallström’s musical idiom.

The première on 28th January 1867 was certainly a success, but the third performance — which was to have been attended by King Oscar II — had to be cancelled because Fredrika Stenhammar had fallen ill. There were no reserve soloists, and so the programme had to be changed and the opera could not be performed until a month later. It was only heard a few times: after a total of just six performances it was taken off. Not until 121 years later was it revived and performed at the Vadstena Academy and, in July 1988, at the most appropriate place of all — Vadstena Castle.

© Anders Wiklund

English version: Andrew Barnett

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