About this Recording
8.554343 - PETERSON-BERGER: Flowers from Froso Island

Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (1867-1942)
Frösöblomster (Flowers of Frösö)

Wilhelm Peterson-Berger was born in 1867 in Ullånger on the Ångermanland coast in northern Sweden, and spent his school years north of there on the Västerbotten coast. He inherited his musicality from his mother, his first musical experience coming as a seven-year old, while listening enraptured to his mother playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata one evening. Thus was born his passion for sitting at the piano, improvising and composing.

Later it would be another part of northern Sweden that he was especially drawn to: Jämtland, with its mountains bordering Norway to the west. It was there, from the house in the rustic manner he had built on the island of Frösö, that he claimed to have the world's most beautiful view, looking out over the waters of Lake Storsjön. Completed in 1914, he called his little part of paradise Sommarhagen (‘Summer Refuge’) and in 1930 it became his permanent home. The countryside of northern Sweden remained his most important source of inspiration.

Peterson-Berger made the first, decisive, visit to Jämtland in the late summer of 1889. In the following years he spent several weeks each summer hiking in the mountains with other young outdoor-enthusiast friends, always carrying a notebook and some manuscript paper with him. He rehearsed several of his newly composed songs with these friends, thus giving their first performances in the mountain sunshine under an open sky.

In autumn 1895 Peterson-Berger moved to Stockholm and was employed on the leading Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter. Through his honest but often biting music reviews he became one of the most read journalists on Dagens Nyheter, arousing, however, much hostility and jealousy in the process. This in turn led to difficulties for him as a composer. He wanted to be known as a composer of large-scale works, but of his five symphonies only No 3, Same Ätnam ('Lappland'), and of his six larger music dramas only Arnljot, were accepted by the Swedish music establishment Peterson-Berger had to remain in the shadow of his contemporaries Hugo Alfvén and Vilhelm Stenhammar.

It was above all through a number of smaller piano pieces, romanser (the Nordic equivalent of Lieder) and choral pieces that Peterson-Berger came to be cherished by the Swedish public. Even fifty years after his death he can still be regarded as the most popular of all Swedish classical composers. His breakthrough came in 1896 with the publication of Eight Melodies for Piano, entitled Frösöblomster (‘Flowers of Frösö’). Certainly it was clear that Grieg's Lyrical Pieces had served as a model and one can glimpse other, even older composers in the background, especially Schumann. But already Peterson-Berger's style is clearly defined, his melodies expressive, his harmonies fresh, often idiosyncratic and his rhythms lithe.

The introductory Rentrée (‘Return’) is coloured by the jubilation he always felt when returning to his beloved Frösö. In the following Sommarsång (‘Summer Song’) he can be seen wandering through the beautiful meadows there, whilst in Lawn-Tennis he captures the playful nature of the 'white sport'. Peterson-Berger was one of the pioneers of tennis in Sweden. He had a tennis-court built next to Sommarhagen and he actually played with the equally enthusiastic Mr G., alias the Swedish King Gustavus V.

The melodically sweet, tonally refined piece Till rosorna (‘For the Roses’) is one of the most frequently played of Peterson-Berger's 21 Frösöblomster, together with Gratulation (‘Congratulations’), which is not a marching tune, but rather an elegant Gavotte with a Musette as a middle section. It has been called a "Carl Larsson painting in music". Vid Frösö kyrka (‘At Frösö Church’) is a sublimely simple and solemn little tone-poem. It was on a plot quite near this church with its pretty bell-tower, and within earshot of its bells, that Peterson-Berger, eighteen years after the composition of the piece, was able to build Sommarhagen. He is buried in the churchyard there.

The atmospheric I skymningen (‘At dusk’) is the only piece from the first volume of Frösöblomster that is in a disquietening minor key, but with a contrastingly light trio in the major, and the collection ends with Helsning (‘Greeting’), a pendant to the introductory Rentrée, namely a farewell to Frösö with tinges of sorrow and a desire to return and with a major-key hope that yes, of course I will return next summer, and the next.

With Frösöblomster Peterson-Berger strove to achieve unaffected simplicity and succeeded in creating 'music for the masses'.  Many of these pieces are technically within the grasp of amateurs and sound good when performed by them. Thus Peterson-Berger became the composer par préférence of many Swedish homes.

The success of the first collection encouraged the composer just four years later to publish a new volume, this time with six pieces. They have not become as well-known or as frequently played as the majority of the earlier collection, even though they are at least as original and characterful. The colours in the newer Frösöblomster are, however, darker, the melodies less sweetly 'crowd-pleasing' and the piano-writing somewhat harsher.

The introductory Polonaise Solhälsning (‘Greeting to the Sun’) is in glorious C major, whilst Peterson-Berger's tribute to his beloved adopted home Jämtland bears traces of both tenderness and pride. The following Långt bort i skogarna (‘Far away in the Forest’) is a tone poem in which one thinks one hears in the distance a cowherd playing a tune on her horn in the minor, and a later passage has the air of a folk tune in the major, in the piano's upper register.

Vid Larsmess (‘At the Feast of St Lars’) has the air of late summer. A singable melody has made this the most popular piece from Volume 2 of Frösöblomster. The sky frequently darkens over Storsjön and a storm blows up, causing great Vågor mot stranden (‘Waves against the Shore’). Sorrowful tones characterize the collections final piece Minnen (‘Memories’). Autumn is felt close at hand. The time has come when one once again must leave one's beloved Frösö, duty calling one far south to the capital.

In the years immediately following the turn of the century Peterson-Berger concentrated on large-scale composition. It was then that Arnljot was composed, which after its première in 1910 at the Royal Opera in Stockholm quickly gained status as a Swedish national opera. The same year he completed his Second Symphony "Sunnanfärd" (‘The Journey South’) and began work on his third, the Lappland Symphony. In 1910 Peterson-Berger also wrote his best chamber work, the Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano. Alongside these instrumental works were published one volume after another of his settings of Swedish poetry, most notably the twenty-five songs to texts by Erik Axel Karlfeldt and in 1911 the songs to four poems of August Strindberg.

At this time there were also a number of small pieces for piano, including the Suite I somras (‘Last Summer’) and five songs under the title Färdminnen (‘Memories of Travel’). Also important were Peterson-Berger's settings of Swedish folk-music which he made in 1906 and published in two volumes for piano, one with twenty-five songs and the other with twenty-five dances. With these he followed in the footsteps of August Söderman and Edvard Grieg, letting the melodies come to the fore with expressive harmonisations.

It was not until 1914 that another volume of Frösöblomster appeared. The same year his house on Frösö was completed and he could make his Intåg i Sommarhagen (Entry into Sommarhagen). This is the title of the second of the seven pieces that comprise Volume 3, which also bears the subtitle I Sommarhagen – Humoresker och idyller för piano (At Sommarhagen – Humoresques and Idylls for Piano). But the bold entry march is proceeded by a Förspel (Prelude) which seems to depict the lively activities during the building of Sommarhagen, with happy craftsmen hammering and nailing and banging under the watchful eye of Peterson-Berger himself. The third piece, Landskap i aftonsol (‘Landscape in the Evening Sun’) uses impressionistic techniques to portray the beautiful part of Jämtland he enjoyed from Sommarhagen, with the great deep-blue spines of the Oviksfjäll Mountains bulging far beyond the islets, bays and sounds of the Storsjön, to use Peterson-Berger's own words. This ingeniously atmospheric nocturne is followed by Folk humor (‘Folk Humour’), an animated Jämtland polka in 3/4 time. It is for the most part in the minor key, but it is the case for much Swedish folk-music that "one is happiest in the minor".

Vildmarken lockar (‘The Call of the Wild’), a characteristic Peterson-Berger title, depicts the bare beauty of the wilds, but in a lighter central section sunlight floods into the forest glades. The idyllic Under asparna (‘Beneath the Aspen’) is one of Peterson-Berger's most beautiful and inspired melodies. And so, finally, dreams, sorrow and nostalgia, in Om många år (In many Years' Time), a little reflection on all things transient in life.

There were to be no more Frösöblomster. Peterson-Berger died in Öbstersund Hospital at the beginning of December 1942. From the window next to his sickbed he could look out over the sound to the far shore and see Frösö.

English version: Andrew Smith

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