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Jan Ling HUGO ALFVÉN BETWEEN TWO SYMPHONIES. ABOUT AESTHETIC IDEALS OF MUSIC IN TURN-OF-THE-CENTURY SWEDEN Programm-Musik - eigentliche Musik! Absolute Musik: - ihre Verfestigung mit Hilfe einer gewissen Routine und Handwerkstechnik jedem nur einigermassen musikalischen Menschen möglich. Erstere: - wahre Kunst! Zweite: Kunstfertigkeit! Richard Strauss1 Swedish composers working with or advocating a programme-music approach or adapting their music to a particular social function or musical taste came under suspicion in the 20th century, sometimes as outright traitors to their art. Composers making common cause with folk music came perilously near the same abyss. One composer who, at various points in his lifetime, was heavily criticised for betraying artistic ideals is Hugo Alfvén.2 All his life, however, he had a faithful audience and devoted following among a large community of music lovers. They moved with him from one stylistic ideal to another. But many leading music personalities felt that Alfvén had attained the peak of his achievement as a composer at the age of 27, with his Second Symphony (Op. 11). After that it was downhill all the way! Alfvén’s very next symphony, the Third, in a totally different style from the Second, was given a cooler reception by reviewers, while a number of critics highly esteemed in Swedish music regarded his Fourth as a disaster in terms of musical morality. Julius Rabe had the following to say in the newspaper GHT in 1920: One can disregard the unpleasant surprise of now, after so many years of revolutionary production in all the arts, suddenly encountering a work so intent on detailed portrayal as to smack of the heyday of naturalism twenty or thirty years ago – all the more so as this is a work of music, an art whose grandest privilege is its capacity for being free and unfettered by all extraneous precedent, and whose progenitor is a man whose activity is based on the city of youth [the university town of Uppsala]. The gravest objection to Alfvén’s new symphony concerns, not its old-fashionedness in spirit and deed, but the whole mentality of this “hymn to love in springtime”. There is not an ounce of strong youthfulness or triumphant grace in this musical imitation of the outward aspect of love. Instead it is banal, devoid of intent or ambition and basically, like all imitative art, sentimental and impotent. To Alfvén’s contemporaries, his compositions were so closely bound up with his personal life that keeping the two apart was not easy. This was due, not least, to Alfvén himself already having stressed, concerning the Second Symphony, that his music is always based on a programme in which the tonal language has been governed by nature, humanity or possibly ideas: it is meant to portray the sea, an outstandingly popular motif among Sweden’s musical “marine artists” and also the visual and audible background to the Fourth Symphony.


Richard Strauss, “Poetische Idé”, März 1890 an Johann L. Bella (Richard Strauss-dokumente, 1980, Reclam p. 60). 2 Alfvén’s life and work have been described by Sven E. Svensson (1946) and Lennart Hedwall (1973) in two monographs. In the following pages I will be drawing extensively on these two accounts and on Alfvén’s own memoirs.

The programmatic interpretation which Alfvén later puts on the Second Symphony and several later orchestral compositions undoubtedly furthered their accessibility and popularity, but the question is whether the programmes are post facto constructions or whether Alfvén really made them his compositional starting point. The diary which Alfvén began keeping in 1930 contains excerpts from an earlier diary which he claims to have kept ever since he was a young man but which, for reasons unknown, he burned, with the exception of certain pages. These shards from his earlier musical career include, for example, the following (quarto diary, Uppsala University Library): When I was 25 I wrote down the following thoughts in my diary: “The greatest mission of musical art at present, to my mind, is to create a contrapuntal art which, aside from its true purpose of forming the structure, the composition, of the work, will at the same time give absolutely free play to the innumerable shades of colour which the conquest of the entire harmonic system has unleashed.” How astonished I was the other day on reading the identical train of thought, couched in almost exactly the same words, in David Monrad Johansen’s biography of Grieg. The image of the mission of musical art which Alfvén was later to stand for underscores instead its relation to a programme to be realised in music. This is true, for example, of Rhapsody No. 1, Midsommarvaka Op. 19, 1904, No. 3 Dalarapsodi Op. 48, 1932, the symphonic poem En skärgårdssägen Op. 20, 1905, none of which provoked the same repugnance as the programme for the Fourth Symphony. Here Alfvén had profaned the noblest and grandest of musical forms, the symphony, and breached the code of originality by using an outmoded texture of sound. Alfvén and Anders Zorn Alfvén’s orchestral music came into being at a time when Anders Zorn held a dominant position, both internationally and in Swedish cultural life. Much light can be shed on things by comparing Alfvén and Zorn, not least as regards their relation to folklore and their public. Both are captivated at the turn of the century by folklore, which in Zorn’s case is manifested through an impressive campaign for the preservation of Swedish folk music and by his interest in depicting traditional country scenes, not least in Dalarna. There the two of them meet and Alfvén becomes a judge in Zorn’s fiddler competitions. In addition, Alfvén noted down a good many tunes and ballads and socialised with the Dalarna fiddlers, whom he regarded as the last great exponents of folk music. Folk music proved a watershed in Alfvén’s career. With it he put the classical vocabulary well and truly behind him in favour of a more refined romantic idiom. His Midsommarvaka rhapsody, according to Sven E. Svensson, “was written in anger at being looked on as a dry contrapuntalist with symphonies and sacred music on his programme – [he] wanted to give a display of musikantisch exuberance and humour.”3 In the Third Symphony, the popular touch is more one of festivity than of traditional Swedish music and folksong, counterbalanced by a traditional symphonic structure and presentation. But even here there are fragments of melody harking back, not least, to Alfvén’s free church background.


Svensson 1946, p. 50. Cf. a letter from Alfvén to Oscar Quensel, dated 14th December 1903: “Well, well, so I am accused of being a musical brooder who needs to learn simplification! Well, I’ll be … excuse me, Professor … all I mean to say is that for my part I believe it is just conceivable that this pronouncement draws a mistaken conclusion. “True, I revel in composite forms and rich polyphony, because my brain is irrevocably made that way. This is, quite simply, my natural mode of expression, and it is not lacking in clarity.” Svensson 1946, p. 55 f.


Alfvén’s highly romantic, colourful style is a paint box which he always has with him so as to give the drawn melodic outline a colourful sound. Form defers to the surge of poetic feeling and to brightly coloured constellations of instruments and sound. Svensson argues: In its choice of sounding material and its treatment of dissonances, it is colouristic, at times indeed impressionist. And here the treatment and combination of the instruments of the orchestra has been concentrated more and more on achieving subtle effects of tone colour. 4 In particular, the constant shifts of colouring evoke many associations with Zorn’s paintings. There is another parallel between Alfvén and Zorn which is perhaps a little more farfetched. Zorn paid grandiose tribute to the great and the good of his time by painting their portraits. This more or less “official” portraiture can be seen as a parallel to Alfvén’s increasing delight in composing cantatas for grand occasions. This gave him social standing and averted the destitution threatening a composer with his kind of lifestyle. Alfvén and folk music Unlike Béla Bartók, Alfvén never got beyond the stage of “using” folk music in the form of robust, sentimental or catchy tunes with romantic or burlesque associations. Folk music does not in his case bring about any organic growth from one stylistic ideal to another. Instead the styles coexist side by side, like segmented soil strata, representing a certain period in his output. So what role did folk music play for Alfvén? His interest in it was profound and sincere, as witness, not least, his going to the trouble of noting down tunes and arranging a large number of folksongs. Even if this did not bring about any organic stylistic development in his writing, folk music may have been the very thing that piloted him between his markedly different stylistic periods. Svensson divides Alfvén’s output into the following: - a romantic-classical period up to and including Herrens bön (1902) - a high-romantic period from En skärgårdssägen (1900) to Bergakungen (1923) inclusive, - and a classical, folkoristicperiod characterised by diatonic melody and predominantly homophonic texture, beginning roughly with Universitetsjubileumskantaten (1927). For present purposes we will confine our attention to stylistic periods (1) and (2), in which we find his Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies, Midsommarvakan and En skärgårdssägen. Just as Zorn’s buxom wenches and his depictions of the magical Midsummer dancing in Dalarna won acclaim in the art salon, so Alfvén’s interpretations of fiddler tunes and folksongs in rhapsody form came to be savoured in the “concert salon”.5 Both artists stand forth as communicators of rural culture in its final phase, still segregated from urban culture, to a middle-class urban culture which enjoyed the music in the concert hall and the paintings at gallery openings. But not only this: reproduction of the works of art made them a part of mass culture. This in turn has given Alfvén and Zorn a wide popular following. In Alfvén’s case, his many folksong arrangements made a further contribution to his 4

Svensson 1946, p. 51f, has mapped the known melodies in Midsommarvaka: “In Midsommarvaka Alfvén has used a string of familiar fiddler tunes. The opening theme, Knäpplåten, together with another well-known dance tune, makes up the thematic base of the first part of the rhapsody (Allegro moderato). [….] The intermediate Andante section is based on a tune in Vindarna sucka i skogen by Ivar Hallström.” 5 The third part of the Rhapsody, Allegro 2/4, later Allegro con brio in ¾ time, is based on a well-known fiddler tune plus Jössehäradspolskan and, as a subsidiary theme thereto, Trindskallevisan. Hedwall (1973, p. 196f) gives examples of Alfvén processing tunes noted down after Erhard Lännman for his knäppolska and pekdans, and also recounts the debate occurring in both the USA and Germany about the tunes being of German origin. Alfvén, at all events, found the “universal, traditional” in accordance with the very same ideals pursued by J. A. P. Schulz in his songs 150 years previously!


popularity: Swedish choral singing, rooted in the 19th century, was a dynamic popular movement with nationalistic inflections during the 20th. Alfvén’s world of sound was exactly on target: colourful without being provocative. The texture of his writing, similarly, was ingeniously simple without being banal, and with just the right dab of humour to gladden the heart of every choral singer. Alfvén and musical style When, in 1920, Julius Rabe accuses Alfvén for harking back to an outmoded programme music, he may possibly, in the neo-classical spirit of the age, have completely misjudged his man: Alfvén saw what he was doing as a step forward, a bid for long-overdue emancipation from a musically autonomous stylistic ideal which he had inherited and sweated over under the lash of his teacher Johan Lindegren. He was also discomfited by his Second Symphony always being held forth as such a masterpiece, to the detriment of his later output. Consequently, the praise accorded his Third Symphony came as a deliverance. 6 But there is also another trait, the one which Rabe, for example, found musically unethical, namely that of not fighting one’s way forward to an autonomous idiom of one’s own. There were also patrons (Quensel) who financially assisted Alfvén, hoping that he would deepen his artistic profile in that direction. But Alfvén does not seem to have had the requisite peace of mind for “retreating into himself”: Bacchanalian frenzy in the company of friends and lovely ladies was too much of a temptation. This demanded popularity. Alfvén never riled his audience with a new and, to them, unfamiliar tonal language, but he riled the experts by flouting established aesthetic ideals of his art! This denied him the reputation of a top-flight composer among contemporary musical cognoscenti and still earns him sidelong glances among listeners putting a premium on the shape and structure of composition. Alfvén was a virtuoso composer, but he did not apply his skill to the creation of a new and complicated style of music. The autonomous view of music, rooted in 19th century German idealism, also played a crucial role in 20th century aesthetics of music. Paradoxically enough, there is an affinity here between Adorno’s criticism of Stravinsky7 and attacks on Alfvén by leading Swedish reviewers in the 1920s. But whatever one’s standpoint concerning the aesthetics of art, Alfvén’s contribution to Swedish music and culture is of such dignity, past and present, as to make him an embodiment of Swedish music at the turn of the century and in the early 1900s, both as composer and as choral conductor. Furthermore, there is an interesting, intuitively created alternative to the tenets of the German philosophy of music which makes him all the more interesting as a Nordic cultural phenomenon. Alfvén and the musical scene in turn-of-the-century Sweden In the first part of his memoirs, Alfvén writes that he made a systematic study of scores, e.g. from the repertoire at that time current in Stockholm. 8 In his dissertation on the Stockholm music scene between 1890 and 1910, Martin Tegen has depicted “the broadening of the concert repertoire”:


Letter from Klampenborg, 14th March 1906, concerning the première performance of the Third Symphony: “On 10th and 11th March I conducted in Göteborg [Gothenburg], on the Saturday a full evening concert of my own works and on the Sunday the Rhapsody as encore at the popular concert. The week before, Stenhammar and Aulin had had an orchestral concert (Stenhammar’s piano concerto etc.) and had made a loss, with only half the seats taken. So I was uneasy about my concert, but the outcome was most unexpected, not only did I have a full house but several hundred people had to go home without tickets, and everyone I spoke to after the concerts assured me as of one voice that such ovations had never before been known in Göteborg, whether for foreign or Swedish artists.” 7 In his Philosophie der neuen Musik, Adorno accuses Stravinsky of a kind of artistic betrayal in devoting time to works “pandering to the public”, e.g. Pulcinella. 8 “That winter I learned two new things about the improvement of orchestral instruments. I think it was in Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben that I discovered them. The double bass had gained five notes at the bottom –


The growth and differentiation of the middle class, with the gradual transition in music from Viennese classicism to late-Romantic monumental compositions like those of Berlioz, Bruckner, Brahms and Wagner, with the development of the musician from a salon artist to a tone poet and interpreter, with the whole of this development of the aesthetic ideal from axiomatic intelligibility to, on the one hand, problem-laden expressive art and, on the other, blithe vulgarity, with all this there also appears within the music-making part of society a broadening or a fission of music into two increasingly distinct groups: serious music and light music. (Tegen 1955, p. 29) It is now, during this transitional phase, that Alfvén comes on the scene and looks round for a musical profile of his own. In the work which has now been mentioned, Tegen gives examples of the ideology which permeates the world of music and which Alfvén was to make his own with the passing years:   

music rested on the foundations of sensibility and imagination, the listener did not need to “understand” music, music could reach everyone so long as it became commonly known.

This is quite a far cry from Eduard Hanslick’s listener ideal in Hugo Alfvén’s reply to the question: “But what do you mean, then, by ‘understanding’ a work of music?” If, on hearing certain tonal works, your fantasy is so vigorously moved, your emotions undergo such a powerful upsurge and the tonal pictures rushing forth act so strongly on your imagination that you perceive the instantaneous moods they convey as feelings and fragments of your own life, now flowing towards you in the transfigured light of the music, then you have indeed understood; for then you have made the spirit of the music your own spirit and its blood your own blood. (DM 1908:19/20, cit. Tegen 1955, p. 20) Hedwall discusses the musical situation in the realm of symphonic writing on the eve of Alfvén’s first two symphonies: Insofar as the native symphonic tradition – if such a pretentious designation be permitted – made any difference to Alfvén’s first two symphonies, it was if anything probably of a detrimental kind. Even though he could respect, for example, the works of Norman, these were doubtless too dependent on the Mendelssohn-Gade style to really interest a composer who had a considerably stronger dramatic temperament and whose intentions aspired to the high-Romantic symphony of the kind represented by Beethoven and Berlioz. Among the symphonies performed in Stockholm during Alfvén’s student years and up to his own symphonic début, we find, side by side with the older classics, compositions for example by Berlioz, Brahms, Goldmark, Liszt, Raff, Rubinstein, Saint-Saëns, Schumann and Tchaikovsky (the latter, however, represented only by his first symphony, “Winter Dreams”), and all of these may in fact have played a certain role in Alfvén’s own symphonic plans, not least the classical stance of Schumann and Brahms, which could be experienced as an extrapolation of Beethoven, and the freer treatment of form by Berlioz and Liszt, with its fantasy-tinged elements of a programmatic nature. In terms of orchestration technique as such, composers like Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner probably made a crucial difference to Alfvén, and to them are added the many operatic that is, had a range down to C2 – an octave deeper than the lowest note on the cello – and the timpani could be instantly retuned from one note to another within their tonal range” (Alfvén 1946, p. 89).


composers he got to know from his place among the violins of the Royal Opera orchestra. Romantic French operatic composers not least, such as Meyerbeer, Gounod and Massenet, were exemplary orchestrators, and in the case of George Bizet the young Swede’s interest was doubtless captured, not only by his operas but also, for example, by the Arlésienne music (first performed in Stockholm in 1883) or the Roma suite (premiered in Stockholm in 1886). In a 1952 newspaper interview (GHT 10/4), Alfvén points to the scores of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and Bizet’s Carmen as his supreme music experiences during his years with the Royal Opera […]. (Hedwall 1973, p. 137) Hedwall also makes reference to the Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen. In Alfvén’s Uppsala concerts of the 1910s we find these composers and others belonging to the same stylistic circle. Composers heard by reviewers in Alfvén’s music include Bach, Beethoven, Berlioz, Berwald, Brahms, Lindegren, Mendelssohn, Nielsen, Puccini, Schumann, Strauss, Wagner and Italian opera. Nielsen, Wagner and Strauss belong to a later period. Franz Berwald’s great importance for turn-of-the-century music-making deserves emphasis, but of course, the paramountcy of Beethoven is above dispute. His symphonies and chamber music were presented in series of concerts, not only in Stockholm but, for example, by the Aulin Quartet and Wilhelm Stenhammar on nationwide concert tours.9 A letter from Wilhelm Stenhammar to Alfvén, containing various suggestions as to how Sweden should be represented in Alfvén’s impending appearance as guest conductor, shows Stenhammar’s ideal, an ideal which would eventually diverge from Alfvén’s. 10 Where is Alfvén’s music to be plotted in this musical climate and how come the Second Symphony is now on its way in as a repertoire piece the world over, characterised by conductors like Yevgeny Svetlanov as a symphony on a level with those of Brahms? Let us return to our opening question and consider a number of issues relating to his Second and Fourth Symphonies.


See Wallner 1991, part I, chap. 14, “Tor Aulin och kvartetten”. “Sjögren’s orchestral things are all transcriptions and, in my opinion, none too successful ones, for the obvious reason that the composer never intended them for orchestra. “I do not think they should be taken out of Sweden. At most they are suitable for popular concerts in Göteborg or comparable musical performances elsewhere in the country. Concerning Rangström and N. Berg I entirely agree with you, insofar as I know their things. Bror Beckman’s Om Lyckan, which I personally esteem very highly, needs no bush from me, as you are already familiar with it. “And then we have friend Andreas. ‘Toteninsel was bloody awful.’ Dear Hugo, that piece of Hallén’s one hears is always distressingly bad, and so one cajoles oneself into hoping that the others may be better. But they ain’t! “Then we come to Atterberg and Lindberg. Of these two, Atterberg strikes me as the more original. His symphonies are without question the most cheerful we have experienced lately. But if you get to Finland you must of course perform a symphony of your own, you owe it to yourself, and two symphonies would be too much of a good thing. Lindberg, I think, is also good, or rather, will be one day – what I have so far heard of his is far too green. We should wait a little longer before letting him out to represent us. “Aulin’s Swedish Dances are good enough, but far too modest in this connection […]. And those are all the living ones I can think of. Ah, Peterson-Berger. And then we have Berwald, Norman and Söderman. From Berwald, apart from the symphonies, we have (1) The Overture to Estrella, wonderful, (2) ‘Memories from the Mountains of Norway’, pasty-faced, (3) ‘Ernste und heitere Grillen’, a witty and supremely original piece, perhaps a bit too original for an audience not previously acquainted with its author. Another couple of minor pieces are of no significance. “By Norman, apart from the symphonies, first and last and foremost and alone the Overture to Anthony and Cleopatra. But that is a marvellous piece. I know nothing of Söderman’s except The Maid of Orleans […].” 10


The Second Symphony. A Swedish sound? Alfvén’s Second Symphony was premiered on 21st November 1899 by the Royal Opera Orchestra, conducted by Wilhelm Stenhammar. In his memoirs, Alfvén writes that a phalanx in Stockholm, headed by Albert Rubenson, Director of the Conservatory of the Royal Academy of Music, found this symphony so remarkable that Alfvén could hardly have written it singlehanded, unassisted by his teacher Lindegren.11 Perhaps this was retaliation for Alfvén not having submitted to the Conservatory’s harmony tuition, or perhaps it was a manifestation of the special kind of jantelag (“Don’t go getting ideas about yourself”) which characterised the arts community in Sweden and still does today. There is the third possibility of Alfvén actually having received a helping hand, though he himself goes to great lengths refuting this. How does Alfvén envisage the drafting of his symphony? How does he go about creating this breakthrough composition in contemporary Swedish symphonic writing? Let us turn to the first part of his memoirs. Sun. Blue sky with scattered cirrus clouds. A faint breeze. A sturdy mast with billowing sails. A somnifacient wash of waves breaking against the prow of the Koster boat […]. Idly outstretched on the foredeck and dreaming with eyes half-closed, I relish the gentle swaying of the boat and listen to the wash of the waves. It turns into a melody, assumes increasingly firm shape […]. The wind has not risen, but the sea has grown choppier, the boat begins labouring slightly. Its movements have grown more staccato. My attention is caught by a new tone which has entered the sound of the waves, a new rhythm, more syncopated. This conjures forth a melody strongly contrasting with the previous one. Out comes the sketchbook again, and soon that song too has been noted down, but this time I also hint at the syncopated rhythm of the harmonised underlay. Six years later the first of these sketches was turned into the first theme and the second into the song theme of the first movement of my Second Symphony. On this deck, in the fullness of time, the initial ideas for the second and third movements of the same symphony also came to me – but without my instantly writing down the theme, because it was during voyages at dead of night, becalmed or storm-tossed, and on those occasions one has other things to do than write down music (p. 174).12 In the sketches we can see how Alfvén’s rough version of the first theme – a fairly banal snatch of melody – becomes far more stringent in its ultimate form. Concerning the finale movement, Hedwall has reproduced a latter in which Alfvén writes that as work proceeded he grew increasingly angry, “with the result that, one sleepless night, I suddenly heard the chorale “Where’er I walk, to death I go” thundering in my ear like trumps of doom. This was precisely what I had subconsciously been longing for. I had felt a heightened need to give expression to a more perturbing state of mind than can be achieved with an ordinary double fugue, and here I had it.”13 Alfvén’s anger refers to the Academy’s unwillingness to renew his bursary! 11

Reviewing the performance for Tidning för musik och teater in 1899, Karl Valentin writes: “The symphony reveals both the diligent studies Mr Alfvén has pursued in music theory, especially under church musician Lindegren, and also his study of the works of the great masters.” 12 Cf. Nyblom, op. cit., p. 6: “In his D major Symphony Alfvén has been intent on poetically depicting Swedish nature and formulating his impressions in music. Concurrently with an amazingly confident command of symphonic form – modelled on Beethoven – he infused a new conceptual element into the same, taken directly from sailing in our beautiful Stockholm archipelago. This artistic stratagem proved even more successful than the young composer had ever dreamed of, and had the delight of being something new. The symphony’s first movement depicts an outward trip with the water glittering in the sunlight and fresh, life-giving winds blowing, and ends with a successful landing with the sun declining in the west, etc.” 13 Hedwall, op. cit., p. 151.


Is it true, Alfvén thus translating what he hears and experiences into a tonal language with direct connotations between life and composition, or are we looking at conjectural post facto constructions to make the compositions more attractive? Alfvén was a great one for supplying different explanations of his works on different occasions. Probably he himself was behind Sven E. Svensson’s depiction of the symphony as a species of autobiography. Hedwall stresses that “Alfvén writes his best works when he is at his most self-centred or when he nurses the germ of an idea which he himself, with no holds barred, can transform into a personal affair. In the Second Symphony he stands forth as nothing short of a model Romantic artist, portraying his own situation in life.” At the same time, however, Hedwall takes a sceptical view of Svensson’s programme interpretation: But a conclusive interpretation of Alfvén’s Second symphony must, I think, be as hazardous as, for example, with Beethoven’s “Destiny Symphony”, and, apart from the introduction of the chorale in the final fugue, one cannot get beyond guesswork. There would seem to be no doubt, though, about this symphony containing a passionate settling of accounts by the composer with himself, and equally clearly, the symphony has derived its ultimate form from this personal content – the self-experienced has given not only the fugue but the entire composition its special physiognomy. 14 Did Alfvén fabricate his programme after the event to make it more interesting to a wider audience? The “turmoil fugue” especially seems rather too spectacular. Hermann Kretzschmar praises the symphony in his Führer durch den Konzertsaal (1913, p. 525): Die Sinfonie erweist sich in ihrem Ernst und mit der vollendeten Tüchtigkeit der Arbeit als einen der bedeutendsten Leistungen unserer Zeit und macht trotz allem Verzicht auf nationale Besonderheiten dem musikalischen Genius die grösste Ehre. Where is the symphony to be placed, where is it situated as a part of tradition and how is the presentday rise in its popularity to be accounted for? Its tonal language is amenable to both ideological and artistic meaning. Alfvén opens the first movement with a signal in the cellos and double basses which later became a very familiar cliché in Swedish folk music arrangements: one and the same note is repeated in a quaver followed by two crochets before settling as a bourdon (cf. arrangements, for example, of Gärdebylåten). The core of the first theme, with its rollicking ambience and introductory dotting to a simple triad melody, provides, as Svensson very rightly observes, a “pastoral“ mood. With a sustained D bourdon underneath, the core of the theme is presented in a variety of keys and guises. Thus there is a kind of ethnic, Nordic tone about the introduction. But further on, e.g. in the final phase of the introduction, increasingly classical inflexions are discernible which are reminiscent, for example, of the sound world of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. The main theme from the clarinet, and later the violin, could almost have been taken from Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, but with a more Nordic character which veers through modulations towards freedom from form and structure. Alfvén often surprises us by “mixing“ exciting harmonic and melodic progressions with trivial ones.


Hedwall, op. cit., p. 159.


Alfvén’s “operatic-dramatic” style is inspired by both German and Italian opera in “Swedish bottles”. The possibility cannot be discounted of the musicmaking in his childhood home sometimes asserting itself: certain harmonic progressions are reminiscent of free church songs. His musical style was judged suitable for use in the harmonisation of the new Mission Covenant Church hymnbook in 1912, though Alfvén declined the 15 invitation. Musical impulses – like the introduction to the coda, for example – can shatter the form completely. Form is of minor importance compared to melodies and timbres. In the development section of the first movement, we have the full orchestra. The whole of this movement resounds with reminiscences of Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Verdi, Puccini and Wagner, melted down and recast by Alfvén’s musical temperament. This “post-modern” style, as we have already seen, was to leave Alfvén branded as an epigone and eclectic, and in the reviews we have seen many reviewers rejoice in “prototype-spotting”. The festive mood with its blaring fortissimo heralds festive tutti to follow. The second movement starts off as a figured version of the core subject in Bach’s Musical Offering. Further on, repeating the introduction, Alfvén lays on the grand orchestral sound in his usual way; this is one of his constantly recurring dramatic clichés.


See Hans Bemskiöld, Sjung av hjärtat sjung, Församlingssång och musikliv i Svenska missionsförbundet fram till 1950-talet. Skrifter från musikvetenskapliga institutionen, Göteborg nr II. diss 1986 angående 1920/21 års sångbok. When asked, Alfvén replied that he regarded work on the song book as “a national undertaking” and showed a certain interest in taking part (see Bemskiöld p. 135).


Allusions to Schubert, Berlioz and Chopin mingle with “Swedish, Sjögrenian”, Swedish folksong idiom or free church songs “Con brutalità”, in two-part counterpoint, is an unmistakeable “homage” to Johann Sebastian Bach. Alfvén opens the third movement with dramatic, short figures in dotted semiquavers and in a “tragic” C minor. Berlioz, as has so often been remarked before, is one of the sources of inspiration, but the horror clichés of Italian opera are also present, lurking in the background. The melody of the trio section conveys a typically “Nordic impression”. This has if anything a Mixolydian tinge, and the tonal ambivalence is accentuated by Alfvén’s harmonies and cadenzas. In Preludio & Fuga, Alfvén once more displays the contrapuntal skills he learned from Johan Lindegren, but there are also distinctly “Alfvénian” touches to the formal structure, the interval constellation and, above all, the harmony. True, this is “pastiche”, but Alfvén’s melodic exposition benefits from the austerity of form. Here he has had nothing like the same chance of launching out into banalities! But still there are some effects which seem shockingly out of context. Sometimes one gets the feeling that Alfvén is “sending up” symphonic form, with a totally incongruous “oompa” bass. A harmonic build-up ends with a tutti crescendo, after which the chorale Jag går mot döden vart jag går (“Wher’er I walk, to death I go”) is presented by the brass. This evolves into a fugue subject based on the first notes of the chorale similar to Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Overture to The Huguenots and Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. There is no doubt that Alfvén had “classical ambitions” in his Second Symphony, and, on the whole, he accomplished a symphony which won the approval of experts at home and abroad. But Kretzschmar’s little aside, “trotz allem Verzicht auf nationale Besonderheiten,” shows that people noticed the idiosyncrasies that were eventually to blossom forth in his rhapsodies and furnish inspiration for the depictive music which characterises the Fourth Symphony.


Alfvén’s Fourth In the Fourth Symphony, the introductory, swelling sounds of the harp symbolise “water”, and perhaps too the chromatic semiquaver triplets in the woodwinds and the sound of the horns are meant to trigger the same associations. The theme introduced by cellos and bass clarinets is the more palpable entity in this hovering soundbath. Many “tension motifs” are introduced, one after another, some evanescent, others an ingredient of the interplay between melodies and tone colours. The descending sem-iquaver triplets return and are established as a more or less permanently repeated sounds of nature. Reminiscences and recastings of the theme recur in different voices, with the diminished third becoming an important “signal”. The descending diminished third, B flat – A – G sharp, turns out to be one of the fixed musical symbols. Eventually the sounds of nature return, with the theme in the trombones, and soon after this it is time for the tenor’s “con dolore” vocalise, this time with a halo of tremolo strings. Alfvén makes the piano and horn present the “Nordic” sound in the kind of fifth constellations commonly used by Sjögren, Stenhammar and Sibelius. The “walking” motif, which became a cliché later on, e.g. with Wirén, is one of many instances of Alfvén leaving his mark on the “Swedish tone” of 1930s music. The tenor returns in an andante and joins with the soprano in a duet which becomes more and more chromatically charged until simple triads and a sustained bourdon create a mood of tranquillity. This, however, grows more dramatic, while the orchestra remains relatively quiescent or follows the singers, whose voices now merge in a unison diminuendo. Every now and then the full Wagnerian orchestra crashes into this ongoing palette of sound, which has no division into movements and in which the symphonic structure is concealed among musical metamorphoses.


This symphony has many traits, which put one in mind of Wagner’s autobiographical Tristan: leitmotiv technique, motif transformation, sound formation by doubling the melody, melody and timbre with no clear boundaries between them, interval thinking instead of chords, and transformation of the mass of sound through rapid shifts of colour. Alfvén describes the content in his volume of memoirs entitled I dur och moll (“In major and minor”): As I have already made clear, the events are played out among the cobs and skerries, where the sea roars about the rocks on grim stormy nights, in the moonlight and glittering sunshine – the moods of nature are nothing other than symbols of the human heart. In the long movement, four separate sections are distinguishable. The first depicts, in nocturnal obscurity, a youth’s ardent desire, the second the young woman’s wistful longing – this section is also a nocturnal episode, but softer, interwoven with lunar sounds and the trickling swell. In the third, day dawns and the sun rises to the first and last day of amatory bliss, now that two lovers have found each other and are all a-tremble with the joy of Heaven. The fourth section, rocked by storms and breakers, depicts the tragic dissolution – the annihilation of happiness (Alfvén 1949, p. 142). What makes Alfvén defy his critics with a programme for the Fourth Symphony, and why does he supply such detailed particulars of the genesis of the Second that this too can be said to have been furnished with a programme? We have already hinted that this could be a way of making the music “understood” by its hearers. But a likelier explanation is that Alfvén’s musical fantasy was so inseparably bound up with images that he “saw sounds” which he then put down on paper, so much so on occasion that the actual notation – as at the beginning of the Fourth Symphony – took the form of a landscape drawing complete with wind and waves! Ever since the days of the Abbé Vogler, this programme-music approach has been, respectively, liked and abhorred by Liebhaber and Kenner in the Swedish music community. Let us now return to the introduction and plot Alfvén’s position in the aesthetic perspective suggested. In contrast to Nielsen’s symphonic structure, which is dramatic and conflict-based, Alfvén’s is more narratory. Here too there are dramatic flare-ups, but they are not constructed on the same lines as, for example, Nielsen’s conflict-ridden symphonic structure, based on a logic which permeates entire compositions. In the symphonies of Alfvén we find, not only chorale, march, folksong etc., but the orchestral palette with which he was familiar from playing in the Royal Opera Orchestra. His compositional temperament resembles Mahler’s, 16 but he lacks Mahler’s capacity for creating in large forms and turning the trivial into the sublime, into a holistic organism. Alfvén is not original like Wagner, not “classical” or deeply versed in the works of foregone masters like Brahms. Measured by the yardstick of the 19th century masters, he becomes a second-rate figure. But other aesthetic ideals can be posited which make him a “master”: he can paint like none other, with daring constellations of sound, his melodies are supremely pregnant, he has an imposing command of counterpoint and a knack of dynamic build-ups in short episodes. The rhapsodic can also be regarded as a positive aesthetic category if, unlike so many of Alfvén’s critics, we refrain from calibrating our listening to various classical patterns of form. Alfvén’s symphonic conception is in many ways vocal, an orchestral song with or without the human voice, with “tunes one remembers” and can hum to oneself after the concert, which no doubt contributed to his success with the general public.


Alfvén, unlike Wilhelm Stenhammar, was no admirer of Mahler’s music. (See further Alfvén 1948, p. 91.) Stenhammar introduced Mahler in Sweden at an early stage of things.


After his Fourth Symphony, Alfvén devoted himself to cantatas, rhapsodies and choral compositions, and his fifth, unfinished symphony only comes towards the end of his life. He often lamented the financial situation which fettered him to the production of “potboilers”. But the cessation of his symphonic output probably had a number of other causes too, in both his private and his artistic life. Alfvén saw – as did, probably, Sibelius – a new age dawning, with stylistic ideals quite alien to him. 17 Alfvén’s symphonies, as we have already remarked, are now in the process of being “upgraded”, at the same time as Zorn’s paintings are fetching sky-high prices and reproductions of them are being sold in countless numbers. This is symptomatic of a neo-Romantic era, with a new bourgeois, middleclass generation seeking its identity in art. Translation Roger Tanner (2012). The article was originally published in Swedish in Romantiken över gränser. Lund 1993, pp. 135-154. Reprinted in Alfvéniana 2/99, pp. 3-14, and in Hugo Alfvén – en vägvisare. Gunnar Ternhag & Jan Olof Rudén (eds.). Hedemora, 2003. Gidlunds, pp. 36-49. The datings of the compositions in the article refer to the first performance.


When Lille Bror Söderlundh presented him with a dedicated copy of his violin concerto in 1954, Alfvén opened it and, his attention riveted by the original signal from the double basses at the beginning of it, burst out: “But for d*’s sake, you haven’t started writing modern, have you?” Seth Karlsson, an expert on both Söderlundh and Alfvén, told me this story.


Hugo Alfvén between two symphonies  

Aesthetic ideals of music in turn-of-the-century Sweden

Hugo Alfvén between two symphonies  

Aesthetic ideals of music in turn-of-the-century Sweden