About this Recording
8.555852 - ALFVEN: Midsummer Vigil (Sweden Only)

Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960)
Swedish Rhapsodies 1-3 - Festspel - The Mountain King - Polkafrom Roslagen

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. Alfvén came in fact from Stockholm, and from the age of fifteen studied the violin at the Conservatory there. It was thus on the violin that he supported himself during the 1890s whilst taking private lessons in composition with Johan Lindegren, the leading contrapuntalist of the day, he earned his daily bread as a violinist at the Opera, and his time in the orchestra there gave him comprehensive insights into the nature and possibilities of different instruments. The colourful and virtuoso orchestration skills he developed have been compared with those 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 teacher of composition in Stockholm, settling instead in Uppsala where he was appointed Director Musices at 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 (The Servants of Orpheus), known as OD, remaining its conductor until 1947, and bringing the choir to international renown through tours in Europe and the United States. He also conducted other well-known choirs, such as Allmänna Sangen and Siljanskören. Thus for over half a century Alfvén played a dominant role in Swedish choral tradition, not only as a conductor, but also as a composer and arranger. Alfvén's talents were not confined to music alone. He was an accomplished painter of water colours and had in his youth contemplated a career as a painter. Furthermore he proved to be an engaging writer with an autobiography in four volumes which describes Swedish music life at the time, as well as his own life.

Most artists know how difficult it can be to find the right ideas if the subject does not appeal. A lack of ideas is far more trying than the labour of composition itself. It was failing inspiration that threatened the genesis of Alfvén's Festspel, commissioned for the opening of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm in 1908. The project obsessed him for a long while without any creative impulses coming to him, and he began to fear that the music would not be written in time. It was a visit from the poet Verner von Heidenstam finally inspired him. They were talking about the time of Charles XII, and immediately blaring fanfares and a lively polonaise rhythm sprang to mind. A day later the piece was finished, in plenty of time for the opening. The Festspel has now long been used as official music at a multitude of solemn occasions in Sweden.

At various stages of his career Hugo Alfvén composed three Swedish Rhapsodies, of which the first one, Midsommarvaka (Midsummer Vigil) has become his most well-known work internationally and inspired a number of arrangements, including one by Percy Faith called Swedish Rhapsody which was a world-wide success. Alfvén himself has told us that the idea for the work first occurred to him in the years of 1892 to 1895 when he spent the summers in the archipelago of Stockholm in the company of the people there. There is always something special about the festivities surrounding Midsummer Eve, and Alfvén often took part in them, usually as a spectator, but on some occasions as a violinist. Midsommarvaka is a potent brew full of burlesque humour, barn dancing, fist fights and loving couples, with festivities going on well into the small hours. By name it is a rhapsody but, as the composer has pointed out, it is a tightly knit symphonic poem, the basis of which is a very detailed visual programme. It might be worth noticing that this "paean to the Swedish character and the Swedish nature at Midsummer", as Alfvén himself called it, was in fact composed in Denmark, at Skagen to be exact, where in the summer of 1903 he had fallen in love with Maria Krøyer, the wife of the painter Peder Severin Krøyer, who was to become his wife.

Of the three Swedish Rhapsodies it is the middle one that has remained the least known, the Uppsala Rhapsody. It was composed in 1907 for the celebrations at Uppsala University of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Linneus. The original commission was for a vocal work, for which the poet Karlfeldt was invited to write the text. This time it was the poet who was uninspired and was eventually obliged to decline the invitation. The University instead proposed that Alfvén write an Academic Overture of the type that Brahms had written. Like his predecessor Alfvén began with a handful of student songs and other popular melodies by the likes of Bellman, Lindblad, Wennerberg and Prince Gustavus (Oscar I's musical son). In contrast to the rigid and artfully constructed Midsommarvaka, the Uppsala Rhapsody is a loosely constructed cavalcade. The overture, however, did not receive the reception Alfvén had expected. The Dean of the University, literary historian Henrik Schück, took exception to certain themes that were known as drinking-songs. The composer was poking fun at academic dignity, he maintained. Perplexed, Alfvén assured Schück that he had not thought about the texts at all, focussing rather on the melodies' suitability as rhapsodic themes. That this was not an entirely truthful answer is betrayed by the work's bachanalian exuberance. Towards the end of the piece the horns paraphrase the drinking song Helan går (Down in one), and, with the help of the clarinets, they describe the passage of the schnapps down the throat. This he later admitted to, with thinly disguised delight.

Dalarapsodi (A 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 mood in this painting of "our dark nature and the mournful Swedish temperament". As always 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 picture to myself a shepherd-girl sitting in the grass at her mountain farm in the quiet and deserted woodlands, blowing her horn. I want to paint her dreams, her longings. From afar she hears a bridal procession passing by, in her dreams she is back among her friends down in the village. She remembers the merry dancing in the evenings, but also the Sunday church-going and the solemn hymns. She shivers as she remembers the night when a strange man appeared among them, grasped a fiddle and played wild and weird tunes that made people go mad. It was the Devil himself. The shepherd-girl starts up with a cry of fear, when she wakes from her horrible dream and looks around in confusion. Quietly she takes up her horn again; I hear the same melody as at 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.

The idea for the ballet Den förlorade sonen (The Prodigal Son) came from the choreographer Ivo Cramér in 1956. He wanted to put together something for Alfvén's 85th birthday the following spring. The basis was to be the biblical parable of the young boy who deserts his home to find happiness elsewhere but who after several adventures returns home to be greeted with forgiveness and love. Alfvén liked the idea but made it clear that no great amount of new music could be expected. It was therefore decided to choose a number of folk tunes to be combined with music from earlier works, among them Bergakungen (The Mountain King) and Dalarapsodi (A Dalecarlian Rhapsody). Especially well loved was the Polka från Roslagen, which was a great hit under the title Roslagsvår, also internationally.

Alfvén used the sound resources of the later romantic orchestra in the most virtuosic ways in his Fourth Symphony and the ballet-pantomime Bergakungen (The Mountain King) which he worked on between 1918-19 and 1917-1922 respectively. The ballet is based on the legend of Den Bergtagna, the shepherdess who is abducted by the mountain king and rescued by her beloved. They are aided by a troll, who, however, indignant at not getting the girl himself, lets them die in a snow-storm. The subject was popular in the romantic era, and had been used fifty years earlier in an opera by Ivar Hallström, which was also the first Swedish opera to use folk music as its base. Alfvén used as inspiration the work of John Bauer, the illustrator whose work in the children's story-book Bland tomtar och troll (Among goblins and trolls) shaped a whole generation's images of the mystical creatures of the forest. The premiere at the Stockholm Opera in 1923 was choreographed by Jean Börlin, the internationally renowned modemiser of ballet and a major force behind Les ballets suédois in Paris. When the work later fell from the repertory Alfvén constructed the concert suite recorded here. The central movements belong to some of the most magical moments in Alfvén's output, while the final Vallflickans dans (Dance of the Shepherd Girl) has become one of the most treasured lollipops in Swedish music. Not least as an indispensable encore for Swedish orchestras on concert tours abroad. Bergakungen was Alfvén's last major work. Although he lived for another forty years, almost nothing from the later years can compare with the great works from the previous decades. The only exception is the Dalarapsodi (A Dalecarlian Rhapsody) from 1931. He did return to Bergakungen on a number of occasions but seldom added anything new, although the Fifth Symphony clearly bears a number of similarities.

Sven Kruckenberg / Lars Johansson

English Version: Andrew Smith / Kerstin Swartling / Lars Johansson

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