Ola Nordenfors HUGO ALFVÉN AS COMPOSER OF SOLO SONGS Hugo Alfvén is hardly looked on usually as a significant art song composer. He is the man of the grand gestures, not the master of the slight intimations. Such has been the accepted image, and efforts by Lennart Hedwall and possibly one or two others to revise it have fallen on stony ground. A few songs, it is true, get sung over and over again, but insufficient is known about the remaining output and, more importantly, Alfvén does not come across as a very interested composer of lieder. As regards both type of personality and compositional focus, he is no typical lieder writer. Unquestionably, he stands apart from those we have come to regard as “real” lieder composers – Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Ture Rangström, Sigurd von Koch and Josef Eriksson, for instance. The type of personality Perhaps I should explain a little what I mean by type of personality. The composers I have just mentioned are extremely interested in literature, seeing in the text a necessary incentive for composing, not infrequently they are a trifle unsure of the musical nuts and bolts, and they often show a predilection for smaller forms, the intimate format. Not so Alfvén. Craftsmanship, the art of instrumentation and ability to write contrapuntally are to him the basics of a composer’s equipment. On several occasions he underscores the indispensability of technical skills. His memoirs radiate admiration of his teacher, Johan Lindegren, for this very reason – his composer craftsmanship. Alfvén despised musicians like Wilhelm PetersonBerger (leaving aside their personal antipathies), and in his memoirs he allowed himself to be critical of Edvard Grieg, because in his view they lacked the foundation, the craftsmanship of composing, were incapable of keeping large-scale forms under control and, consequently, were liable to fall to the same dilettante level as many other Nordic composers in the 19th century. Sometimes the intimate format in itself appears alien to Alfvén. He says somewhere that he always writes with the orchestra in mind, even when composing for the piano (See Lennart Hedwall, Hugo Alfvén 1973, p. 345). In the eyes of posterity he is no introvert lyricist but rather a symphonist and the composer of innumerable cantatas, festival overtures, rhapsodies and oratorios. His chamber music is another neglected chapter. But the picture of Alfvén is more complicated. He is a composer who praises the art of fugal writing, but at the same time we know him to have regarded extra-musical associations as a necessary helpmeet. He is a creator of what we usually term programme music. Towards the end of his life he said: “Practically all I have written is [programme music]” (Hugo Alfvén berättar 1966, p. 127). Admittedly, introducing extra-musical ideas and programmes in music is something most of his contemporary fellow-composers also indulged in, but Alfvén’s emphasis on the importance of having experiences to turn into music is stronger than almost anyone else’s. He is not a composer who writes music for music’s own sake, thereby aiming for absolute music; if anything, quite the opposite. And if we endorse his criticism of Peterson-Berger and Grieg for not having mastered more large-scale forms and take it as representing his own view of art, we must on the other hand remember that he paid tribute to August Söderman, whom he repeatedly dubbed the father of Swedish music (instead of J.H.
Roman who in his view was thoroughly German) and Emil Sjögren – in other words, composers writing mainly in small format and with no grand orchestral compositions in their output. Finally, the image of Alfvén is complicated by his lieder – those songs which can be called lieder – being by no means devoid of quality. He is not the sort of composer who can be pigeonholed in terms of either-or. Perhaps he bears a more significant resemblance to a composer like Rangström than one might at first believe. Choice of poets This, however, does not apply to the choice of poets. The first thing to strike a literary historian compiling an inventory of Alfvén’s songs is the startling choice of authors. Alfvén seldom chooses authors who have left profound imprints on the history of Swedish literature, and when he does, only scattered lieder result. He hobnobbed with Verner von Heidenstam and was acquainted with Erik Axel Karlfeldt, but his poems of choice are by completely different authors. (The famous setting of Heidenstam’s poem Gustaf Frödings jordafärd for male voice choir was, it will be recalled, a commissioned work.) So – not Heidenstam, not Karlfeldt, not Gustaf Fröding, not Strindberg, not Bo Bergman (who are among the poets most assiduously drawn on by composers of lieder), not Vilhelm Ekelund (also very much in evidence as a “lied poet”). In his memoirs he mentions E. J. Stagnelius as the favourite poet of his youth, and the oratorio Herrens bön can be seen as the most powerful offspring of that admiration. (Hugo Alfvén, Första satsen 1946, p. 302). But Stagnelius settings are otherwise few and far between (with not one lied among them!). Alfvén’s settings of words by more celebrated poets (e.g. Heidenstam, Gunnar Mascoll Silfverstolpe and Sten Selander) were almost without exception either commissioned or appealed for. The big author names in the collected songs include Johan Ludvig Runeberg (two songs), Anders Österling (three), Oscar Levertin (one), Erik Blomberg (one) and Jarl Hemmer (one). A couple of non-Swedish names like those of Robert Burns and Tove Ditlevsen can also suggest that he did not deliberately avoid prestigious authors, but they occur only once each in a total of about 70 songs. To this it can be objected that these 70 or so songs are often anything but regular lieder: a large number of them are patriotic songs and occasional compositions. But I find it symptomatic in Alfvén’s case, a list of songs looking like this – a point I shall be returning to presently. Going one step further down, perhaps the category of slightly less well-known authors can be taken to include Daniel Fallström, Tor Hedberg, C. D. af Wirsén, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy (more notorious than well known, however, to later generations of booklovers), and also Birger Mörner, Emil Kléen (whose poems were often set to music as lieder, but only one of them by Alfvén) and Kerstin Hed. Finally, we descend to the third and last level, the conspicuously dominant category of lied-text authors, namely those whom history – thank goodness – has consigned to merciful oblivion. It is easy to poke this kind of fun at Alfvén’s choice of texts, which at times, undeniably, seems flimsy. There is no difficulty involved in finding songs which today can be found a trifle pathetic, the most notorious instance without doubt being his setting of Daniel Fallström’s Ställ flaggan, så jag ser den… när jag en gång ska dö! (Place the flag where I can see it when I when I some day come to die.) I have myself commented on this lied in my PhD thesis. Lennart Hedwall addresses it on several occasions, and does not mince words in doing so: “Here both the author’s and the composer’s sense of judgement must have utterly deserted
them, and one looks in vain for patriotism more abjectly versified […]” (Hedwall 1973, p. 40) More recently, Hedwall has devoted an entire essay to this song, and one can of course wonder, as he himself does, whether there is any point in going to such pains for “such a monstrosity” (the words are Hedwall’s own in Ställ flaggan så jag ser den. Svenskhet i musiken 1993, p. 76). But at all events he comes to the conclusion – and here I wholly agree with him – that it is undeniably interesting to ascertain why Alfvén chose such a dubious piece of literature, and he also succeeds in showing that the song says a good deal about Alfvén’s relation to the setting of words to music in general. It is this elevation of the argument to the level of principle that makes Hedwall’s essay so fascinating. “Text replete with atmosphere and emotion” One may ask why Hugo Alfvén apparently went to such lengths in avoiding poems of superior literary calibre. He himself, though, once declared that the quality of the text, strictly speaking, makes little difference to the composer’s receptivity. “The suitability or unsuitability of a poem for musical treatment has absolutely nothing to do with its literary or artistic quality in terms of form and content” (This statement is reproduced in a letter to Johan Bergman in 1912 and is quoted in Lennart Hedwall, Två Alfvénbrev 1982, p. 72). What he looks for in a song text is not “philosophy or cool contemplation” but material “replete with atmosphere and emotion”. This is an interesting statement. Atmosphere and emotion, then, are what matter; the structure is immaterial. Now not many composers would dare to put it so bluntly. Here Alfvén touches on fundamental, controversial issues of lieder writing. One often hears it said that really outstanding poetry neither can nor should be set to music. This is an opinion that, for my own part at least, I do not subscribe to, but on the other hand I am inclined to agree with Alfvén that the quality of the poem does not necessarily decide the excellence of the song. It is customary in this connection to make reference to Schubert, who was not in the least particular about the literary quality of his texts. Space will not permit a discussion of this intrinsically interesting problem here. I will content myself with observing the importance of distinguishing between the terms poem and song text. What really matters, I venture to claim, is what the composer makes of the poem, how the text functions in its musical context. But what material, which subjects, is Alfvén drawn to? Nature the source of inspiration His sources of inspiration are two in number: nature (more specifically, Swedish natural scenery) and love of womankind (not necessarily Swedish!). Here again, he is no different from the more orthodox lieder writers I chose to concentrate on in my thesis (Ola Nordenfors, Känslans kontrapunkt 1992). He himself has testified to his experiences of nature bearing fruit in the form of musical compositions. Already in 1899 he described in the journal Svensk Musiktidning how his best ideas had “come during stormy nocturnal voyages”, and he insists that “while walking in forest and field [I have] received impressions both aesthetic and philosophical as profound and stimulating as those of the great classical and modern masters and philosophers whom I delight in studying”. (“Hugo Alfvén”. Svensk Musiktidning 1899, p. 73) Anders Österling’s poem Pioner is a poem of this kind, one in which nature forms the background to the depiction of an atmosphere. The scene is a park. A gentle early-summer
rain is falling (this is hinted at in the piano accompaniment). “There is a fragrance of tilth and the eyes of the blooms in the park are blissfully closed”, and against the tranquil, faintly melancholy background the peonies become scarlet exclamation marks against the black earth. They stand in the evening mist, refulgent, speaking in shrill solitude of eternal passions. Woman the source of inspiration Attention has frequently been drawn to the importance of love in Alfvén’s music, and one is struck by the frequency with which his compositions are described in sexual terms – terms like potency, stature and “erotic longing for infinity” (!) (Moses Pergament, Svenska tonsättare 1943, p. 78) recur in the commentaries. Rangström’s lightly sarcastic characterisation of his fourth symphony tends to take root in one’s memory, like it or not. Rangström speaks of Alfvén driving “his musical erotes as a four-in-hand to the great marineerotic oil painting […] an archipelagian nude study which caused such a stir in its day. Nowadays we are less prudish about undressed gentlemen or ladies, but we have the impression that these two people, solo voices in the orchestra, who, according to the symphony programme, are spending a cultural evening in the outer Stockholm archipelago, do protest a little too much in relation to the simplicity of the act.” (Ture Rangström, Musiken i vår tids konst och diktning i Skandinavien, Copenhagen 1948, p. 224). Hugo Alfvén’s dealings with women belong, I suppose, to the more written-about parts of his autobiography. His oft-quoted profession of love for Woman (with a capital W) is deserving of repetition even here: I suffered from a defect of character which I struggled in vain to curb and vanquish. True, it became an ever more copious fount of inspiration, but on the other hand it often caused me much trouble and drove me into awkward situations from which I sometimes had huge difficulty extricating myself. This defect of character consisted in my inability to resist feminine beauty and charm, the gold-shimmering poetry of being enamoured. What I loved and kept faith with was not a particular individual woman but WOMAN, womanhood in all its varied, enchanting manifestations – no matter if the figure had yellow, brown, red or black tresses. In all these forms I encountered, deep down, one and the same fascinating being: WOMAN, with her inscrutable heart and the deliciously perplexing play of her thoughts, and to her I remained faithful. (Hugo Alfvén, Första satsen 1946, pp. 248 f) Perhaps, as Sven G. Svenson has remarked, Alfven’s plaidoyer in defence of his volatile heart is somewhat fragile – “unfaithful to the women, but faithful to woman!” is how he summarises the argument – but on the other hand, it is typical that he himself experienced it the way he expressed it (Sven G Svenson, Tre porträtt 1989, p 255). Just as in the song, Pioner, I have already mentioned, there is something relentless about love as Alfvén perceives it. Passions take him by storm – he has no control of his feelings, he is an innocent victim of amorous conflagrations. This is of course a convenient excuse for a Ravaillac, but the quotation also shows – and I think one should take him seriously – that love so easily ignited was also a cause of suffering to Alfvén. At the same time, his experiences of love and his sufferings also yielded new living material to be recast in a musical mould, e.g. as lieder.
Marias sånger, to poems by Emil Aarestrup, materialised in 1903-04, at the height of Alfvén’s first consuming passion for Marie Krøyer, later to become his first wife. It seems fair to suppose that the feelings expressed in this suite of songs are Alfvén’s own. This collection is not only, as one might perhaps imagine, an example of blind, reckless passion. One song tells already of disagreements and jealousy, and the last one, Angst, expresses anxiety at the prospect of love being lost. But the first song, Ved Huset/Aftonstämning, fits in more naturally with the image of the composer as an impatient young suitor. This poem is nothing but a Romeo-and-Juliet scene in which the poet stands beneath the balcony and hears sweet strains of music seeping down through the magnificent flowers. What is perhaps the best-known of Alfvén’s love songs was written far later, in 1946, and dedicated to his second wife, Karin. Oddly enough, this again is a setting of a Danish poem, Saa tag mit Hjerte by Tove Ditlevsen. Alfvén’s setting is one of poignant intensity, perhaps a barer statement of his feelings than before, as he begs his beloved to accept his heart, “his proud, strong heart” which can now “be broken, but by thee alone.” Patriotic songs As I began by mentioning, quite a number of the songs in Alfvén’s listed works are national, edifyingly patriotic ones, or sometimes tributes of a more local nature. I suppose nowadays we tend to think of all these songs to the fatherland and tributes to every conceivable part of the country – a genre much cultivated the years around 1900 and for a few decades afterwards – as merely occasional compositions, and as such, compositions with which the composer took as few pains as possible. In Alfvén’s case at least, and probably also where a number of other composers are concerned, I believe this assumption to be totally misleading. Consider, for example, Sverges flagga. Alfvén describes in his memoirs how he actually modified K.G. Ossiannilsson’s poem to bring it more closely into line with his own view of Sweden. Alfvén’s strong sense of national identity always permeates his settings to music – a mixed blessing, one might add. This is perhaps a suitable point at which to return to Daniel Fallström’s and Alfvén’s Ställ flaggan, så jag ser den… I have no intention here of taking issue with Lennart Hedwall’s very well-written and thought- provoking essay on Ställ flaggan, där jag ser den, but I do have a couple of caveats. Hedwall is extremely surprised at Alfvén having written a lied to words by Fallström, rather than a more patriotically exhortative hymn of the kind he produces in other cases, evidenced by Henrik Karlsson in his thesis on Biskop Tomas frihetssång 1988. Moreover, he claims that the song, with its combination of patriotic text and lied setting, has no counterpart in the Swedish vocal repertoire. Henrik Karlsson, as I see it, has indicated a couple of settings of Biskop Tomas frihetssång which also combine a unifying national poem with a lied-like setting, namely Josef Eriksson’s and Sigurd von Koch’s (Karlsson 1988, pp. 76 ff). More importantly, I maintain that this very poem of Fallström’s is the stuff of which lieder are made. Today, as intimated earlier, the text can easily provoke sniggers, but let us just for once read this poem properly and take it seriously. Place the flag where I can see it
when I one day come to die, the golden cross against the blue sky, the colours I loved so dearly, that I still conveys in the last heavy moment of death, the roar of the waves, the soughing of the glade, an echo of my song. That is the poem’s first verse. The poem is explicitly subjective. Saying that it is dominated by the personal pronoun in the first person singular is an understatement (and a more cumbersome way of saying that the speaker in the poem is the important subject of the song). True, the text has a national message, and this usually entails a collective appeal, a weassertion – but with Fallström it is only the speaker of the poem who has a relationship, let us say quite an overstrung one, with the flag. “Place the flag where I can see it/and the silk of it caress”, “the colours I so loved so much” etc. In the concluding verse the speaker actually steps aside from human companionship – the flag and the fatherland are all that count. Place the flag so it goes with me on my journey out of life, the colours that I loved so much the golden cross in the blue sky and when, one day, with mourners none, I’m lowered to my last abode, my battles done, I’ll rest my head on a pillow blue and yellow. “With mourners none” and “my battles done” – there is a touch here of the truculent bitterness which I think most of us experienced in childhood when we felt unfairly treated. And this is not exactly a manifestation of feeling calculated to raise the poem to greater dignity. Alfvén setting Fallström’s poem to music as a lied – and a notably pathetic, bombastic one at that – demonstrates, to my mind, that for Alfvén too, the lied is an extremely subjective form of expression. Here it is the individual’s relationship to the fatherland which is to be interpreted, hence the composition of a lied. An illuminating comparison can be made with his best-known salutation to the Swedish flag, Sverges flagga. Ossiannilsson’s poem insistently highlights the collective awareness. The flag is “the interpreter of our ancient felicity”, “no thunderbolt of wrath did strike our valiant folk”, “Blaze high, thou token of our love, warm us when the wind blows cold”, “God is with us” and so on. It is the people who are to rally round the flagpoles and jointly preserve Swedish values. And then Alfvén sets the poem to music as a choral song, as a collective statement. Poems by Ernest Thiel It is no big step from the national texts to settings of words by Ernest Thiel, financier and patron of the arts. These poems have puzzled posterity somewhat. They cannot be rescued
from the stigma of bathos (however much one wishes they could), but some of the settings have not only survived, they have come to be almost the only Alfvén lieder still performed. Here again, one may ask what made Alfvén devote such attention to Thiel’s poetry. He set eleven of the poems to music, which is more than for any other poet. Why? It has from time to time been remarked that Ernest Thiel’s conspicuous prosperity was a crucial reason in favour of Alfvén setting his poems to music. (Alfvén, as is well known, was chronically strapped for cash.) Hedwall’s description makes clear that he is convinced on this point. (Hedwall 1993, p. 78) Alfvén himself writes in Tempo furioso 1948 that Thiel “gave me to clearly understand that it would please him a great deal if I took an interest in them”, which sounds like blatant pressurisation. He continues: “And so I did, because most of them were suitable for putting to music.” (p. 392) “Suitable” – here we return to the question of what the poems ought really to be like. Thiel’s poems are suitable for Alfvén because they match his thoughts and feelings, not because they were intrinsically beautiful. He does not say what he himself thought of the poems, unless his avoidance of any value judgement is per se to be taken as a sign that he too found them pretty feeble but still felt constrained to set them to music. Does this mean that he undertook the task out of a sense of duty and without inspiration? Not necessarily. The fact of many of his lieder being commissioned works is, I believe, of minor significance. A song written to order can be just as profoundly felt and inspired as one based on a poem of the composer’s own choosing. Alfvén’s description of the genesis of Gustaf Frödings jordafärd makes this quite clear (Hugo Alfvén, I dur och moll 1949, pp 20 ff). If the poem expresses feelings with which the composer can feel solidarity and which he can relate to experiences of his own – and I believe Alfvén to be a brilliant example of just such a composer – then the lied can be a highly personal testimony. And, let it also be said, this is perhaps not always calculated to improve our opinion of the composer. But how are we to explain the popularity of a song like Jag längtar dig? Once again, I propose brutally quoting the man himself, Ernest Thiel: I long for you. I long for your realm I long [for you] most when you are near. I long always, long for the realm of your beauty, I long to be there, I long to be there. I long to be there when I am there. These are the words as they appear in Alfvén’s setting. The wording of the original is hard to tell, because it was never published. And yet these are the words of the famous singer Jussi Björling’s star turn. Closer analysis of the poem’s literary merits (or lack of them) could well be put down as supererogatory. Hedwall too has criticised Jag längtar dig. For my own part, I find that this setting comes in a category where the song or lied becomes a vocal vehicle. This may seem an odd way of putting it, but what I mean is that the song becomes a pretext for the individual singer to display a mellifluous voice, a song in which his voice finds the right formants. This is a song beloved of all singers, because it comes off so well, they are on their home ground. The voice becomes more important than the song. Confession of the soul
There is another field in which the lied becomes a natural genre for Alfvén. The lied can also be a confession on a more professional plane – it can formulate artistic statements or express the situation in which the composer finds himself. Some of Alfvén’s lieder can be said to come in this category – Trubadurens ande (words by Andrea Butenschön), a couple of the more Nietzschean Thiel songs, and a late song Taltrasten, to words by Kerstin Hed. That song was written in 1941, by which time Alfvén had settled for good in Tibble in the county Dalarna. It is written in folk tone, and Alfvén sides completely with Dalarna and its people. Kerstin Hed belonged to the Hedemora Parnassus, as it was known, and the poem can fairly be seen as a cry for help from a creative artist who, in her geographic isolation, is neither noticed nor understood by others. The poem is about a bird hiding in the spruce forest, where he can dream and sing in his own way. “And many a stranger passes and hears the thrush speaking, but cannot apprehend the sound of the voice from the cool spruce copse.” But Alfvén understands and stations himself shoulder to shoulder with the population of Dalarna (in the tonal language one can even hear echoes of the Old Pastoral Hymn, Gammal fäbodpsalm) – this is his home: “We simple folk ‘mid hilltop and forest,/we children of rugged Dalarna/understand and love the song/of our region’s nightingale.” Let us conclude with what, to me, is one of the very finest songs he ever wrote, namely En båt med blommor, the beauty-laden poem by Oscar Levertin. “Here,” Hedwall writes in his biography, “his infinite desire for beauty attains its very loveliest expression.” (Hedwall 1973, p. 321). This is a grandly conceived song combining Alfvén’s two main thematic spheres – nature and eroticism. The poem is also tinged with the preoccupation with death so often remarked on in Alfvén. Death becomes the “countersubject” of life, as he himself puts it, represented in his Second Symphony by the chorale Jag går mot döden var jag går (I walk with death where’er I go). The first part of his memoirs includes an exhaustive description of the background to the song (Hugo Alfvén, Första satsen 1946, pp 304 ff). One summer holiday in the Stockholm archipelago he had fallen in love with a dark-eyed beauty, an artist referred to in the memoirs as Nanny. At the critical moment of tumultuous experience, on his way home from the woman by boat one evening, he was caught in the fog. “It was like sailing through milk,” he writes, but the blanket of fog was so low down that he was able to glimpse the stars and made it safely back to the harbour. The experience of steering towards the unknown, conscious that he could strike a reef at any moment, at the same time as he felt that his relationship with the woman artist was faltering – that experience surfaced in his memory more than 25 years later, on reading the poem by Levertin. The depiction of his youthful experience and its revival through reading the poem is illuminating. That’s what makes a lieder writer tick! Ture Rangström and Josef Eriksson have time and time again described how the reading of poetry evokes memories of one’s own and engenders beautiful tones. So perhaps Alfvén can be viewed as a genuine lieder writer after all! En båt med blommor (A boat with flowers) is the title of the poem, and Levertin’s text is truly replete with floral splendour. Björn Julén, in his analysis of Levertin’s poetry, has observed how the abundance of flowers in the poem puts one in mind of both a wedding and a funeral hymn Björn Julén, Hjärtats landsflykt 1961, p. 113). What is reproduced is the death of love. Only in death are the loving couple finally united, only then is their love perfected. As the poem concludes: “The moment extinguishing the last stellar flame/garners a greater joy than life was able - /a boat with flowers glides out to sea.” And just as the boat glides out
to sea, out to the indeterminate, the uncertain, to that we can have no knowledge of – so Alfvén’s lied ends with a question mark. Originally a lecture in the Hugo Alfvén Fund first published in Alfvéniana 3/95 and republished in Hugo Alfvén – en vägvisare 2003. Translation Roger Tanner