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8.553729 - ALFVEN: Symphony No. 3 / Legend of the Skerries
Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960)
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.
He spent the first part of his life in Stockholm, however, and from the age of fifteen studied the violin at the Conservatory. During the 1890s he also had private lessons in composition from Johan Lindegren, the foremost master of counterpoint. At the same time he was engaged as a violinist at the Opera. This gave him ample opportunities to acquaint himself with the nature and possibilities of different instruments. His colourful and virtuosic mode of orchestration has been favourably compared with that 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 a teacher of composition in Stockholm, settling instead in Uppsala where he was appointed Director Musicesat 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 (Servants of Orpheus) known as OD, whose conductor he remained until 1947, bringing the choir international renown through tours in Europe and the United States. He also conducted other well-known choirs, such as Allmänna Sängen and Siljanskören. Thus for half a century Alfvén played a dominant rôle in Swedish choral tradition, not only as conductor but also as composer and arranger.
Alfvén's talents were not solely restricted to music. He was a fine water-colourist and in his youth seriously considered taking up painting instead of music. He also wrote a lively and interesting autobiography in four volumes in which you catch glimpses of his contemporaries in music.
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 aspect of his character. His First Symphony, composed in 1897, has a melancholy Sturm und Drang mood that is to recur at intervals throughout his life as a composer, but there is also a buoyant vitality that was to flourish, two years later, in his Second Symphony. These two compositions were radically to change the face of Swedish music. Following almost a century of relative isolation from continental trends, they marked the beginning of a greater international influence on orchestral music. Stenhammar, Natanael Berg, Rangström, Atterberg, Peterson-Berger and others were to follow.
Alfvén spent much time in the Stockholm archipelago, where he felt at home and where he found inspiration for many of his principal works. As early as 1894, at a rural wedding on Svartnö, he had heard a farm-hand sing some of the lunes that would, in time, be the frame-work of Midsommarvaka, a depiction of "the wanton merry-making and yearning love of Midsummer's Eve, an apotheosis of the pure, serene poetry of the luminous Swedish summer's night, the beautiful, happy festival of ail nature", as he himself described it.
After Midsommarvaka Alfvén wanted to paint its counterpart "the skerries in the darkness of the autumn night, the stonns and the elegiac moonlight". The result was the emotionally charged tone-poem En skärgårdssägen (Legend of the Skerries), completed in 1904 and performed by the Royal Opera House Orchestra the following year, conducted by the composer. "My innermost self belongs to the skerries" Alfven writes. "I have had my best ideas when sailing on dark and stormy nights. The wild autumn has been my greatest inspiration." His tone-poems are not intended as detailed descriptions but he emphasizes that there is more to them than the outward shape. 'The impressions of nature are constantly linked to the dark joy of human passions". The constant changing of nature becomes a metaphor for love, invigorating and ecstatic but even more desperate and sad. Against the background of the dark and threatening sea a fateful drama of the vanity of human love is enacted. Alfvén was to return to this theme in his Fourth Symphonyfifteen years later.
Following the completion of En skärgårdssägen, Alfvén began to plan a new symphony, but he needed a change of surroundings and chose Italy, the nature and culture of which had impressed him strongly during earlier visits. It was there that he met his future wife Marie Kroyer, at the time married to the alfresco painter Peter Kroyer.
In the summer of 1905 Hugo and Marie returned to Italy. In Sori, just outside Genoa, the Third Symphony began to take shape. Once again love was the inspiration, only this time as a wholy positive force: the symphony became one of his most brilliant and harmonious creations. Alfvén says. "The symphony has no programme, it depicts neither concrete nor abstract. It is an expression of the joy of living, an expression of the sun-lit happiness that filled my whole being". The beauty of the Italian countryside and the presence of the woman he loved - what could be more stimulating to a creative mind? Alfvén conducted the first performance in December 1906 in Gothenburg. A few months later he again conducted the symphony, now with the Royal Opera House Orchestra in Stockholm.
The Dalarapsodi (Dalecarlian Rhapsody) of 1931 belongs to the composer's later years. Like so many other compositions from this period it is nostalgic and rather sad. There is a muted feeling in this description of "the dark nature and the melancholy temperament of the Swedes". As so often, the artist Alfvén depicts a specific setting, this time the lonely woods and majestic mountains north of Lake Siljan. The melodies are mostly from that part of Dalecarlia.
"I imagine a shepherd-girl sitting on the grass at her mountain farm in the quiet and deserted woodlands, blowing her horn. I want to depict her dreams, her longing. In the distance she hears a bridal procession pass by and in her dreams she is once more among her friends down in the village. She remembers merry dances in the evenings and church on Sundays and the exalted solemn hymns. She shivers as she remembers the night when a strange man appeared among them, seized a fiddle and played wild and strange tunes that made the people go mad. It was the Devil himself. The shepherd-girl starts up with a cry of fear, then she wakes from her horrible dream and looks around in confusion. Quietly she takes up her horn again. I hear the same melody as in the beginning. And the woods answer her, sighing deeply." Alfvén conducted the first performance of this, the last of his three Rhapsodies, in Stockholm in 1932.
English translation: Kerstin Swartling
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
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