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8.554287 - Swedish Romantic Violin Concertos
Franz Berwald is regarded as the most gifted musician of the nineteenth century in Sweden and yet his work was little understood by his contemporaries. This was partly because symphonies, the genre in which he excelled, were little appreciated. Of the four he wrote in the 1840s, the Symphonie sérieuse was the only one to be performed – once, badly rehearsed and with a reduced orchestra. Thus the only opportunity for audiences to hear his mastery was lost.
As early as 1829 Berwald had left the country and worked for twelve years in Berlin, not with music, but in one of several other professions he had to follow to support himself. This was physiotherapy, which he practised with significant success. He moved to Vienna in 1841, where an interest was taken in his music again. He began to compose once more, producing two symphonies, four orchestral fantasies and the opera Estrella de Soria. Some of the works were performed immediately. The reception in this cosmopolitan city was more positive than anything he had experienced before.
A year later Berwald returned to Sweden, perhaps in the hope that the musical climate had changed during his thirteen-year absence. It transpired that this was not the case, and Sweden seemed provincial and old-fashioned to him. The few compositions he did manage to have performed met with little success. Some works were deemed to be uninteresting, others the works of an eccentric outsider.
Another period abroad, begun in 1846, brought results in France, Germany and Austria. Berwald was warmly received in Vienna and appeared together with Jenny Lind. In Salzburg he was made an honorary member of the Mozarteum, a rare honour for a Swede.
Economic difficulties forced Berwald to return to Sweden for good in 1849. For seven years he managed a glassworks in Angermanland in Northern Sweden. His failure to gain an audience for his larger works caused him to concentrate almost completely on chamber music. The only exception to this was the opera Drottningen av Golconda (‘The Queen of Golconda’), which had to wait 100 years for its first staged performance.
The Violin Concerto is one of Berwald's youthful works, written when he was 24 He had been playing the instrument since childhood, taught by his father who played in the Royal Opera Orchestra in Stockhohn Something of a child prodigy, he was perfon11ing from the age of nine. He continued his studies with Edouard Dupuy, who had moved to Sweden from France, and whose Violin Concerto Berwald performed at the age of foutteen Dupuy employed him two years later in the opera orchestra, where he remained, on and off, until 1828.
It was in his twenties that Berwald began to compose in earnest. He appears not to have had any formal training, but learnt his craft by studying scores by Gluck, Mozart, Cherubini, Beethoven and others. His work at the opera and contact with accomplished colleagues served to make him familiar with all instruments and with an orchestra's way of working. In 1817 he wrote a double concerto for himself and his brother August, two years his junior. A string quartet followed soon after, as well as a Quartet for piano and winds and the Violin Concerto.
The Violin Concerto is exceptional in several ways. Its key of C minor is unusual and not especially practical for the soloist and several technical difficulties are uncharacteristic of Swedish music of the time. These were allegedly written by Berwald for his boastful cousin Johan Fredrik, who claimed that he could master anything. However it was Berwald's brother August who gave the work its first performance in 1821. On the same occasion a symphony was performed, of which a large part of the first movement is all that survives.
The press were not enthusiastic. The Concerto was deemed to be too unwieldy and the soloist to lack any feeling for melody – except in the central movement, in which the accompaniment was so ridiculous that some members of the audience burst out laughing. The music was soon forgotten and the Concerto remained unplayed for almost ninety years (the symphonic fragment for twice as long). It was not until 1909 that it was played again by the French-German violinist Henri Marteau, who then toured with it throughout Europe. In Sweden he actively contributed to the Berwald revival that had been started by Tor Aulin and Wilhelm Stenhamrnar.
Stenhammar too ranks as one of the leading figures in Swedish music, with a small but particularly fine body of work. His mature works can be characterized as aristocratically measured, sometimes wilful, rich in feeling but without unbridled sentimentality or play for effect. Among his sources of inspiration were Bruckner and even Sibelius.
Few genres were unfamiliar to Stenhamrnar. His œuvre encompasses two symphonies, a large-scale orchestral serenade, two piano concertos, operas, music for the theatre, cantatas, songs, chamber music and works for piano. In his six string quartets a development can be traced from reminiscences of Beethoven to an austere polyphony which looks forward to the newer currents from between the wars.
Stenhammar's small creative output can be partly explained by his extensive activities as a practising musician. Ten years as a conductor in Stockholm were followed by fifteen years as Principal Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. Today internationally renowned, the orchestra enjoyed its first golden age under Stenhammar. In addition Stenhammar was one of the leading pianists in Scandinavia.
The violin romance as a genre has a long history. Two of the earliest are by Beethoven from 1802-3, but there were even earlier examples. The original model can be traced back to the central movements of French concertos just after 1750. When the title was used towards the end of the nineteenth century, people rather had in mind the central section of Bruch's First Violin Concerto (1868). Its broad singing cantilena and use of the instrument's lower register inspired many. Some of the first ones were by Dvořák and Svendsen from 1873 and 1881 respectively. Less well known but of high quality are two romances by Max Reger (1900). In Scandinavia one by Christian Sinding and one by Wilhelm Peterson-Berger enjoyed a certain popularity, but after the first world war interest in this genre waned.
Stenhammar's contribution to the genre dates from 1910. Although he was only able to devote himself to his own music during the summer, this was a highly creative period. His Quartet No. 4 was completed in 1909, with No. 5 a year later. The following year he began work on his Second Symphony and the Serenade, all of which are regarded as his masterpieces.
The Romances were first performed in 1911 by Tor Aulin and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, with the composer conducting. Marked sentimental, this has nothing to do with the current meaning of the word, being used in those days to mean simply "with feeling".
Tor Aulin was another who played a leading part in Swedish music life at the turn of the century. He led the Royal Opera Orchestra in Stockholm and was also first violinist in the string quartet he founded in 1887 and led for over 25 years. It was the first established ensemble of its kind in Sweden, and it played an important role in exposing many to performances of a very high standard. Through the many long tours, often with Stenhammar at the piano, the ensemble became known throughout the country. When he was younger Aulin appeared from time to time as a soloist, but he later concentrated on conducting. Together with Stenhammar he was a driving force behind the founding of the orchestra which is now known as the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. He was director of Music at the newly opened Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm and from 1909 appeared regularly in Gothenburg alongside Stenhamrnar.
This workload prevented Aulin from concentrating on composing in any more than a sporadic way. His chamber music consists of one violin sonata and several small pieces, mostly of a salon music character. The most frequently played is the Four Aquarelles for violin and piano.
Aulin wrote three violin concertos, of which the last has come to be regarded as one of Sweden's finest. It was first performed in 1896 and dedicated to the aforementioned Henri Marteau. Stylistically it is European in character, rather than specifically Scandinavian. Influences of Schumann, Brahms and even Bruch can be heard, and Brahms's famous Piano Concerto No. 1 seems to have been the model for the introductory dialogue between soloist and orchestra, as well as later passages.
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