JOHAN HELMICH ROMAN (1694 - 1758)
In Swedish music history, the importance of Johan Helmich Roman cannot be overestimated. Being the first native Swedish composer of international importance, conductor of the royal orchestra, violinist and oboist, concert organiser, music teacher, theorist and linguist, he was the man who, through thirty years of hard work (1721–1751), laid the foundation of modern musical life in Sweden.
The son of a royal violinist, he was trained from an early age in music. When only seven years old, he performed at court, playing the violin, and was probably an unpaid member of the royal orchestra before his official employment in 1711. In 1712 King Charles XII decided that ‘the musician Rohman Jr. for some years may go abroad to perfect himself in music’. Roman stayed in England for almost five years, from November 1715 to summer 1721, played second violin in Handel’s orchestra, The Academy of Music, and made himself known as ‘the Swedish Virtuoso’. The composers he encountered, including Bononcini, Geminiani and Veracini, were of decisive importance for his artistic development.
Shortly after his return to Sweden, Roman was appointed vice-conductor of the royal orchestra. In the 1720s the quality of the orchestra was raised by his work, or in his own words: ‘the orchestra here was received in the condition that war, starvation and plague had left it but is now (1734) trained from a state of decay to become useful’. His appointment to ordinary conductor (1727) made possible a change of system from the French taste that had dominated the court since the late seventeenth century to the Italian. The period from 1727 to 1735 saw, through Roman, the beginning of public concerts in Sweden (1731), whose purpose was ‘always to keep the orchestra trained’. Many of his compositions were written for them and many arrangements of choral music, primarily by Handel, equally devised for them.
In the years 1735–1737 Roman made a ‘grand tour’ through Europe, officially for his health and to try to regain his failing hearing. He went to London to meet Handel again, continued through France (Paris) to Italy (Naples) and back (Padua, Florence, Bologna, Venice, Dresden). His Assaggi for unaccompanied violin, written during these years abroad, are of international importance. The experience of new music styles, especially the Neapolitan school, again changed the musical taste at court, as presented at the funeral of Queen Ulrica Eleonora (1742). With her death Roman lost the strong support she had given since the 1710s. His health broken, Roman passed over the direction of the royal orchestra to his concert-master Per Brant, who succeeded him as conductor (1745), although he still composed sinfonias for it. After being responsible for the music at the royal wedding in Drottningholm (1744) Roman was permitted to settle at the manor of Lilla Haraldsmåla. He returned to the capital to resume his court duties only twice.
As a fellow of the Royal Academy of Science (1739) Roman acted to preserve the purity of the Swedish language. From the 1720s he used his mother tongue in his own choral works, songs and arrangements of music by others, which earned him the epithet ‘the father of the Swedish music’. In 1747, after the birth of the future Gustavus III, Roman conducted Leo’s Dixit as a proof of ‘the flexibility of the Swedish language to church music’. The last occasions in Stockholm in which he was involved were the funeral of King Fredrik I and the musically splendid coronation of King Adolf Fredrik and Queen Louise Ulrike of Prussia (1751).
In his last years in Haraldsmåla Roman composed mostly religious songs and translated theoretical works which were intended to be printed as part of his program of creating a collection of music literature in Swedish for the education of young people. Nine years after his death a memorial concert of his music was given. Four years later the Royal Academy of Music was founded, another result of pedagogical ambition that he had had since the 1730s of creating a music school for professional musicians in the spirit of the enlightenment.