The First Symphony BY LENNART HEDWALL When Alfvén decided to try his hand at using symphonic form, he was probably following the example of a composer who was almost a fellow-countryman. There is namely no doubt that his main model as a symphonist was a Norwegian composer, and during the period of the Swedish-Norwegian Union, Norwegian artists were often regarded as native to Sweden. The composer in question was Johan Svendsen, and Alfvén was evidently highly captivated by his music. When Svendsen’s legend for orchestra “Zorahayda”, Op. 11, written 1872-73, was performed for the first time in Stockholm in 1883 and again in 1893, Alfvén wrote that it was “one of Johan Svendsen’s most beautiful orchestral poems” and added: “I vividly remember how deeply touched I was by the poetic work with its poignant violin solo and imitation of drops of water falling” (Tempo furioso, p. 232). “Zorahayda” can have served as a springboard – both in imagery and in form – for A legend of the Skerries, but even more obvious of course is the significance of Svendsen’s Norwegian Rhapsodies for the structure of Midsummer Vigil, and his two symphonies for Alfvén’s two maiden works in the genre. Svendsen’s symphonies were introduced in Stockholm in 1873 (D major) and 1881 (B flat major), and Alfvén would presumably have heard them at performances in 1888 and 1889 respectively, if not before, besides which he took part in a performance of the D major Symphony in 1891. Moreover, printed scores of both works were also available. Alfvén also took part in a performance of Svendsen’s Octet for Strings in A major, Op. 3, at one of the Aulin Quartet’s chamber music soirées in the spring of 1894, so Alfvén would have come in contact with Svendsen’s music several times, both as a listener and as a performer, and even in later years, when he was working on his arrangements of folk songs, he mentioned Svendsen as one of his role models and sources of inspiration (e.g. in Finale, p. 167 f). But even if it is relatively easy to trace Svendsen’s influence, both on the motivic constructions and the orchestration of Alfvén’s first two symphonies, and also to find traits of the same frank openness and airy vitality, Alfvén was by nature a composer of a completely different character, far more subjectively expressive and with a considerably darker register, and thus he appears just as much as a contrast to, or rather a complement to his Norwegian colleague in 19th century Nordic symphonic writing. However, there was another composer who was more of a counterpart to Alfvén; Christian Sinding’s aggressively forceful first symphony seems almost like a youthfully passionate demonstration against the prevailing musical taste with its often insipid and somewhat trivially idyllic atmosphere and selfsatisfied tone. But already in the first movement of Alfvén’s First Symphony with its decisive minor key character there is a direct reference to the composer’s own life situation and, like the second movement, it is filled with youthful “Weltschmerz”, which, according to the composer himself, “vividly expressed” everything that he thought and felt during this period, in particular the depictions of his many erotic encounters (First Movement, p. 249). Alfvén’s First Symphony, like his later, conventional symphonies (with the exception of the programmatic Fourth Symphony) is in the classical four-movement form. The slow 1
introduction of the first movement could almost serve as a prototype for the expectant opening often used in symphonic form: a muffled drum-roll sets off a three-bar, impassioned arching melody played by a solo cello, which stretches boldly and in big leaps over almost three octaves and is followed by an ascending melodic figure in the strings and woodwind and a fanfare motif in the horns. The solo bars and the slowly ascending scale figure recur, chromatically varied, and the fanfares are also taken up by the brass. Expressive, contrapuntally embellished wind figures soften the tone in a possibly slightly impersonal way, but the kernel of the cello motif restores the intensity. A short episode of somewhat mechanical sequences leads to a new passage for the winds where the strings are also gradually added and the suspense is finally relieved by the rhythmically stable and forceful start of the allegro. The whole of this tension-filled introduction, and even the freshness and boldness of the main theme of the allegro, have few counterparts in earlier Nordic music, although there are elements in both sections that can easily lead to associations in various directions. A certain folk tone is perceptible in the third bar of the allegro theme (the semiquaver figure) but the strikingly “Nordic” character is due more to the atmosphere than to any particular melodic references. The theme itself is perfectly constructed; the dotted rhythms of the first bar are augmented in the second to a “stamping” rhythm, which in the course of the movement turns out to be a useful building-block, and is rounded off by the afore-mentioned semiquaver figures – when it is interrupted later on before the final note a three-bar phrase is formed which breaks with the traditional four-bar pattern and creates a considerably fresher impression. The whole of the exposition section of the Allegro, which is in sonata form, is dominated by the dotted rhythms, apart from the second subject group, which is built up of a simple song-like melody with even note values, presented in A flat major. The second subject introduces a carefree air to the movement but balances on the edge of banality; a dangerous ingredient in this context is the descending thirds motif in the third bar, which oddly enough closely resembles a type of melody that Peterson-Berger often used and which in particular his critics (and Alfvén was definitely one of them) branded as mannered and trivial. However, similar motifs would often crop up in Alfvén’s works, and there are also examples in his symphonies; strictly speaking it is true of the main theme of the first movement of his Second Symphony and even more so of the much decried, so-called “Free Church” melody in the slow movement of the Third Symphony. The coda of the exposition does not really live up to the promise of the two main thematic groups. The jaunty, dance-like theme of the coda, which is directly related to the expansive cantabile repetitions of the second subject, brings Grieg to mind – it is humorously penned but appears without any warning and for no good reason in this context. The end of the coda is ostentatiously and festively operatic but again is hardly what one has a right to expect: in harmonisation and character, for example, it is reminiscent of the horn and tutti fanfares and similar features of Verdi’s “Othello” (first performed in Stockholm in 1890). The development section begins with a variant of the main theme played quietly which spreads a light of unexpectedly dance-like character on what in the exposition was more like solemnly declaimed pathos, and the following bars are dominated by a contrapuntal game – romantically conceived – around this theme. A successively mounting forceful surge ends in semiquaver figures, which are thereafter used as an accompanying pattern to the song theme, now presented in a minor key. A more subdued dramatic passage then leads to a short episode 2
in B major, where the song theme, harmonised with bland parallel thirds, takes on an elegiac tone of expression. Fragments of the song theme dominate the transition to the recapitulation. Two points in this transition are of particular interest: the first is a mild string figure in E flat minor which accentuates the elegiac mood (immediately bringing to mind the famous Elegy from the music to Vi and also to a similar passage from the music to Man’s woman, complex 21), the second is the beginning of the actual build-up to the recapitulation of the main theme, where the “stamping” motif is accompanied by a light-hearted melodic fragment of folk dance character in the first violins. The recapitulation is a well-balanced variant of the exposition. The song theme, which was previously presented by viola and clarinet, is now played – in the minor key – by clarinet, bassoon and horn, followed in brightest F major by the whole orchestra, after which the movement is brought to a powerful end in a minor key. The second movement of the Symphony is melancholy in character from beginning to end; it is dominated by the main theme which begins immediately, presented by the strings and taken over by a solo clarinet. The frequent suspensions with dissonances of a second are a distinctive characteristic of this theme, effectively enhancing the tender character of the melody; as the movement proceeds, however, these chromatic embellishments become less conspicuous. The theme is varied in an abundance of ways and the form of the movement could almost be described as free variation form, derived, for example, from the slow movement of Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony. Certain details point directly to this model, such as the variant of accompanying semiquavers in the più mosso section after Figure 5 in the score. The più mosso sections appear as contrasting episodes between the variations of the main theme and the tone is lighter; surprisingly enough, their somewhat tersely abrupt phrase endings can even bring Berwald to mind, and a certain kinship with the slow movement of his E flat major Symphony is not inconceivable. Apart from this, the variants of the main theme are personally thought out with intense, descending phrases which would later prove to be highly typical of Alfvén’s symphonic style. The Scherzo has an obvious folk dance character but the tone can hardly be described as being particularly “Nordic” – associations are as likely to lead to Dvořák, for example, as Svendsen (Dvořák’s D minor Symphony was introduced in Stockholm in 1886). The simple melodies of the trio are somewhat minuet-like in character and once again Beethoven comes to mind – but now the harmonic progressions in particular have something of folk music atmosphere about them! The musical content of the Scherzo is hardly of any great worth, but the almost explosive opening has such an infectious freshness and such undaunted vitality that the movement nevertheless has its value. Even if the passage of time has tarnished the gravity and youthful profundity of the first two movements, it has not been able to diminish the freshness of the Scherzo! In a gramophone recording from 1972 Stig Westerberg omitted the repeats of the main section and the second part of the trio, but the first part of the scherzo is also repeated the second time (in the da capo), which appears to be a very satisfactory solution with regard to the formal balance of the piece. The finale is also dance-like in character and therefore tends to feel like a continuation and extension of the Scherzo. For the overall form there is no denying that this is a considerable 3
weakness. Apart from the rhythmic uniformity the sharply defined melodic material of the finale also has the disadvantage of not seeming to be particularly suited to a symphony – the motifs are too complete in themselves and do not offer any opportunities for development other than sequences, which Alfvén, here as elsewhere, makes too traditional and mechanical use of. Because of this the Finale does not become the counterpart to the first movement that the symphonic balance demands. However, in the main section of the finale two things are immediately apparent: the thematic material has become considerably more “Nordic” – the main theme is very like a polska – while at the same time the 6/4 time signature brings to mind the scherzo of the Dvořák symphony mentioned previously. There, however, the alternations between 6/4 and 3/2 are used far more deliberately than in Alfvén’s finale, which has hardly any of the tension that this in itself simple shift of emphasis can produce. Only one short section before the coda is expressly written in 3/2. A certain variation in the rather monotonous polska rhythm is provided by a syncopated elaboration of the main theme. The real contrast in the movement is introduced by a longer 4/4 section in the middle, where a humorously shaped fiddler’s tune is presented by the piccolo to a ticking accompaniment of flutes and clarinet. This flute tune is not in the least symphonic in character, nor do the sharply delineated phrases provide any opportunity for genuine thematic development. Despite two revisions Alfvén’s First Symphony has hardly come to be a standard work, and it is not very likely that the newly issued first recording of the work [Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conductor Stig Westerberg (LP), reissued in 2000 by Prophone Records on CD and followed by many other recordings] will result in any change to this circumstance. This is probably not only due to the somewhat indecisive character of this maiden work but also to the incomparably superior qualities of the later symphonies. Furthermore, in the First Symphony one finds very little of the Alfvén who later became so popular, the composer whose Rhapsodies were found so delightful as well as his other popular orchestral works, such as Festival Music or A Legend of the Skerries, And yet there is such a directness and freshness of expression in this symphony that it nevertheless stands out as the finest work in its genre since Berwald, with the exception of the mature gravity and the superior formal design of Norman’s symphonies. As in many maiden works the actual material of the F minor symphony is almost too profuse – it would have sufficed for several symphonies! However, at several points Alfvén’s thematic development is both intriguing and personal. In the second movement, for example, he manages to extract an unusual amount from a fairly uniformly delineated main melodic idea, while the contrasting, slightly faster passages are varied in a more conventional way but with considerable assurance. After the first performance it was said of the symphony that it was the more imaginative and lively of the two new Swedish symphonies, while Ellberg’s D major Symphony was considered to be more assured formally. This view is also in accordance with later opinions. As a whole, Ellberg’s work was more traditional in form but showed no tangible signs of future promise; it was far too much a product of its time for that. On the other hand, Alfvén’s potential for development remained unplumbed, even where the orchestration was concerned – there are not so many factors in this maiden symphony that point forward to the major works which would follow. Strangely enough, Alfvén does not show himself as the master of
orchestration he would later become, and although we know the symphony in its revised version, not even the final revision has been able to completely eliminate the feeling that the work is an orchestration, in other words it was not conceived in orchestral terms from the start. It has little of the awareness of timbres that Alfvén later so often focused on, nor is the instrumentation conceived in terms of colours but more as a construction, which in this case means that while the musical texture is admittedly emphasised and to a certain extent clarified by the instrumentation, the orchestral sound is not freed from conventional models so as to produce an effect of its own. In several places the orchestration– despite revision – is even impractical: important wind parts are covered by the string accompaniment, for example. Even if this is maybe of little import for the symphony as such, it is of interest to note that Alfvén must have speedily learnt a great deal from his experiences with the First Symphony; the D major Symphony exhibits a completely different physiognomy, even though its instrumentation is also heavily dependent on “classical models”. But in the Second Symphony the orchestral sound and the symphonic conception are balanced, and the result is also more harmonious and often even masterly. A certain patchiness in the score of the F minor Symphony can of course be a consequence of all the revisions, where Alfvén left certain sections unaltered but improved others. A few facts about the Symphony would not be out of place, not least to clarify the aforementioned revisions. According to Alfvén himself he worked on the Symphony during 1896 and completed it in January 1897. The first performance took place as already mentioned with Conrad Nordquist as conductor at a symphony concert at the Royal Opera on the 14th February 1897. Sven E. Svensson then mentions a “radical revision” in the winter of 1904; Alfvén himself said that “the two versions differ mainly through alterations to the instrumentation as well as certain melodic details,” and this presumably means that the revision was first and foremost a question of orchestration. Alfvén revised the Symphony again when at long last it was to be published, which was not until 1951. After a performance of the Symphony by the Stockholm Concert Society in November 1946, Kurt Atterberg suggested to the composer that he should write a version of the work for reduced orchestra to make it possible for smaller orchestral societies also to perform it, and Alfvén immediately broached the subject with his publisher Einar Rosenborg (letter dated 9/11 1946). The reorchestration was a more demanding task than Alfvén had anticipated, and when he sent the new version to the publisher he wrote (letter dated 5/12 1948): “Together with this letter I am sending you my First Symphony in its re-orchestrated form. I have omitted the fourth flute, the cor anglais (where it is still used it is played by the second oboe), the third bassoon and the bass clarinet. The scoring is now as follows: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 bass tuba, timpani, gran cassa and strings. In other words, the usual number of orchestral players, except for the third flute, which I can’t do without – but an extra flute-player can easily be found anywhere where there is an orchestra”. [With the help of cues the work (according to an addendum in the printed score) can be played with only two flutes, author’s note]. “But the removal of these four parts was a far bigger nightmare than I could have envisaged, when I started work on it in August. The whole wind orchestra instrumentation had to be redone, lock, stock and barrel, and also parts of the string orchestra. The one led to the other.
The task took me four tough months – in other words as long as it took me to both compose and orchestrate my Fourth Symphony with its huge orchestra”. From this letter we can deduce that the final version was produced from August to December 1948, and that the original score had four more woodwind parts – the cor anglais part (most noticeable at the end of the second movement) was probably added in connection with the revision of 1903-04, since the composer has said that he used the cor anglais for the first time in Midsummer Vigil, which he completed in the autumn of 1903. This second version of the Symphony was first performed at a concert at the Royal Opera on the 10th May 1904, with the composer himself conducting the opera orchestra. The final version, as far as is known, has been used by the larger symphony orchestras at the most recent performances, but not, however, by the orchestras for which it was specially written – a great disappointment to the composer and also to the publisher who encouraged this new version. The composer was very fond of his F minor Symphony, and the lack of interest in the work even after the final revision depressed him deeply. In a letter to the conductor Lennart Nerbe (Leksand, 15/3 1953) he gave his view of the work in a nutshell, and at the same time showed how practically he always viewed his works for orchestra: “It (the First Symphony) is very easy to grasp; it is the first symphony that has been written in a Swedish musical language. My symphonic predecessors in this country were all strongly influenced by German or Danish music (Schumann, Mendelssohn, Gade and so on). My symphony is not difficult for professional musicians and good amateurs to play – with the exception of the first bar on page 34.” At this bar Alfvén goes on to suggest that if the first violins cannot manage to play in such a high register they can put it down an octave, and he gives similar directions for a high passage in the Finale (page 114 in the score). Translation Cynthia Zetterqvist from L Hedwall, Hugo Alfvén, a Swedish composer’s life and works. Stockholm 1973, p. 139-149
Lennart Hedwall, Symphony no 1