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8.553898 - SVENDSEN: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2

Johann Svendsen (1840-1911)
Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2

The Norwegian conductor and composer Johann Svendsen was born in 1840 in Christiania, the modern Oslo, where his father was a bandmaster. He had his early instrumental teaching from his father, learning a number of instruments and writing his first compositions at the age of eleven, dances and marches influenced by the repertoire of the local dance orchestra in which he had started playing two years earlier. By the age of fifteen he was able to follow his father's profession and joined the army, serving as solo clarinettist in the regimental band, although his first instrument remained the violin, which he played in the Norwegian Theatre orchestra and also for dancing-classes for which he provided arrangements of Paganini and Kreutzer studies. He was able to experience repertoire of a different kind when, between 1857 and 1859, he played in a series of subscription concerts, taking lessons now in order to improve his growing abilities. In the latter year he met the violinist and composer Ole Bull, whose encouragement had set Grieg and the young Rikard Nordraak on their careers.

At the age of twenty-one Svendsen set out to tour Sweden and North Germany as a violinist, but was finally obliged, during the course of a winter in Lübeck, to apply to the Swedish-Norwegian consul, Leche, for assistance. The consul was impressed enough by Svendsen's playing to arrange a scholarship for him from the king, allowing him to study the violin from 1863 at the Leipzig Conservatory, where his teachers included the violinist Ferdinand David, Spohr's pupil Moritz Hauptmann, Ernst Friedrich Richter, soon to become Thomascantor, and the composer and pianist Carl Reinecke. Unlike Grieg, Svendsen, as Grieg later remarked, made good use of his time in Leipzig, his interests gradually leaning towards composition, an interest accentuated by a temporary weakness in the left hand that prevented him for a time from playing. With David's encouragement he was able to gain further experience in conducting and his compositions, which now included a string quartet, a quintet and an octet, were well received. It was in Leipzig in 1867 that, now completing his studies, he finished the composition of his Symphony No. 1 in D major, Opus 4, a work that Grieg later described as showing scintillating genius, superb national feeling and really brilliant handling of an orchestra; everything, Grieg continued, had my fullest sympathy and forced itself on me with power that could not be resisted. The experience led Grieg to withdraw his own symphony from further performance and to write on the score the injunction, obeyed until relatively recently, Must never be performed.

During the summer of 1867 Svendsen travelled in northern Europe, meeting Niels W. Gade in Copenhagen and visiting Scotland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. His symphony was heard in Christiania in October, the occasion of Grieg's overwhelmed reaction, but the general reception of the concert of his own music that he had conducted was discouraging. He now returned once more to Leipzig for the winter, moving early the following year to Paris, where some of his chamber music was heard and where, with Camille Saint-Saëns, he gave a performance of the violin sonata that Grieg had written for him. Further travel took him to Weimar, where he met Liszt and Carl Tausig, and had his Octet performed by a group of musicians that included the violinists David and Hellmesberger and the cellist Grützmacher. A return once more to Leipzig for the season of 1870-71 brought a successful performance of his symphony in a Gewandhaus concert. There were further compositions, a violin concerto and a cello concerto, engagement to the American Sarah Levett, and in 1872 participation in the performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony under the direction of Wagner at Bayreuth, marking the laying of the foundation stone of the new theatre. Wagner and his wife Cosima, indeed, served as godparents to Svendsen's Jewish wife when she became a Christian, after the couple's wedding in America and subsequent return to Leipzig.

In 1872 Svendsen returned to Christiania, at first sharing with Grieg the duties of conductor of the Norwegian Music Society concerts, for which two years later he undertook sole responsibility. The period was a fruitful one for Svendsen as a composer, bringing, among other orchestral works, the Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Opus 15. Grieg makes it clear, however, that there were always difficulties with the Norwegian public, which showed a distinct preference for the display offered by visiting soloists over any more substantial repertoire. After 1877 he undertook various journeys. In the autumn of 1877 he conducted his new symphony in Leipzig, moving for the winter to Rome. After this he spent time in London and in Paris, returning in 1880 to Norway, where he wrote what was later to prove his most famous work, the Romance. During these years he was establishing himself not only as a composer but also as a conductor. In 1883 he accepted the position of conductor at the Royal Danish Opera and earned further international distinction for his work there over the following 25 years, retiring only in 1908. His marriage had brought some unhappiness, which he had long confided in Grieg's wife. It was said that his wife destroyed the manuscript of a completed third symphony, an incident that suggested a similar incident in Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler. In 1901 his first marriage was dissolved and he then married the ballerina Juliette Vilhelmine Haase. He died in Copenhagen in 1911.

Inevitably the last third of Svendsen's life left relatively little time for composition, but in his earlier work he had seemed to Grieg to complement his own work as a composer, providing a repertoire that brought together Norwegian inspiration with the sound principles that he imbibed in Leipzig, qualities evident in his handling of the orchestra and in his command of traditional classical forms.

The Symphony No. 1 in D major, scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings, opens with an effective Molto allegro, in text-book sonata-allegro form. The repeated exposition with its principal and secondary themes is exploited in a central development, which ends in mounting excitement as the principal theme returns in recapitulation. The strings start the A major Andante, the longest of the four movements of the symphony, with a strongly felt melody, in which clarinets, bassoons and French horns join. This provides the chief substance of the movement, as it returns in various guises, in part or in whole, in Elgarian grandeur or in sparer textures. There is a further shift of key to G major for the Allegretto scherzando, with its opening peasant dance. There is a succeeding section in B flat, exploring the higher registers of the flutes and a shift to A major for a passage accompanied by the softest of plucked strings. There are further changes of key before the return of the first material and the passage accompanied by softly plucked strings, with which the movement ends. The last movement starts with a slow introduction of increasing intensity and excitement, introducing the sonata-allegro form movement, with its syncopated principal theme and contrasting secondary theme, introduced first by the strings. The material is duly explored in a tightly constructed development, to return in the expected recapitulation.

Svendsen's Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, written some ten years later than the first of his symphonies, further establishes his position as a major symphonic composer. Similarly scored, the work absorbs and transforms something of Wagner's influence into a classical structure, the first subject first heard from cellos and French horn makes its first return, after the central development, with the flute, while the secondary material, first heard in the woodwind, makes its return with the help of the strings. The slow movement, heralded by the sombre notes of the French horn, entrusts its first theme to the clarinet, in music that owes much of its colour to the deft handling of the woodwind. The sound dies away, with a change of key from the E flat of the Andante to F major for the Intermezzo, a country dance, with its suggestions of Norway and its contrasting trio sections. There is a slow introduction to the Finale, suggesting something of what is to follow and leading, with a crescendo, to the Allegro con fuoco, with its cheerful principal subject and contrasting secondary material, duly and dramatically developed, to re-appear in recapitulation.

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