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A national composer with a complex. By Carl-Gunnar Åhlén Before the age of radio and gramophone, the composer’s soirée was as essential to the budding composer as the opening exhibition was to the unknown artist. It was the moment of truth, when the result of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lonely hours of work was presented to the public ear, to be scrutinised, criticised and, at best, to be praised. At the same time it was an invitation to a form of public debate. The programme of the Swedish Royal Opera Orchestra’s Sunday matinée on the 25th January, 1903, has certain similarities with a typical composer presentation. But Hugo Alfvén was not making his début; he was already a chosen favourite with the public and one of the young symphonists on which Sweden put great hopes, since the national need for self-assertion at that time was associated with the symphonic medium. All three works on the concert programme had been performed previously and been favourably received, in particular the Second Symphony with which Alfvén had made his breakthrough as a symphonist in the spring of 1899. Before the turn of the century the score had been published by Schott in Mainz. Nevertheless this concert was a début for Hugo Alfvén, namely in the role of orchestral conductor. That a composer should take up the baton was not in itself unusual; it was common practice in those times. However, for Alfvén thiswas an important step in his career, and he had prepared himself with utmost care. The urge to master the art of conducting probably stemmed from his own social handicap. Hugo Alfvén lost his father at an early age and grew up under straitened circumstances in a poor home. His mother meant so much to him that he never, not even in his old age, reconciled himself to the thought that she was dead, even though she lived long enough to follow his progress and stand by him until he had attained the position where in the eyes of the people he was undoubtedly Sweden’s national composer. Every year on the anniversary of his mother’s death he used to honour her memory in an all-night vigil. He was therefore forced to search outside the home for male figures that he could look up to. Some became father figures to him, such as his violin-teacher Johan Lindberg, the composition teacher Johan Lindegren to whom he went for private lessons and Otto Hesselbom who gave him lessons in landscape painting. Another father figure was


the theology professor Oscar Quensel, who would later successfully lobby him into Uppsala’s academic world and smooth his path to the coveted post of Director Musices at Uppsala University. In the diaries he kept sporadically, Alfvén reveals his huge inferiority complex in the presence of those artists he admired and tried to imitate, and how strongly they influenced him. One of these was Wilhelm Stenhammar, his senior by only one year, whom Alfvén regarded as a genius. While he himself was playing in the Royal Opera Orchestra, first as second violinist during the 1890/91 season and then as first violinist and deputy for the leader Lars Zetterquist in 1891/92, Stenhammar had made a brilliant career: a young god at the piano and the first Swedish composer whose works had attracted the attention of Europe’s finest orchestras. With no formal training, only his own studies, Stenhammar had made a highly successful début as an orchestral conductor on the 16th October, 1897, and had thereby made himself a champion of less fortunate composers, including Alfvén. It was Stenhammar who was responsible for the huge success of Alfvén’s Second Symphony; similarly it was Stenhammar who had given the first performances of Alfvén’s orchestral ballad Klockorna (The Bells) and the socalledSekelskifteskantat (Cantata for the Turn of the Century) during his one-year appointment as conductor at the Opera for the 1900/01 season. These three works now made up the programme when Alfvén made his own début as a conductor. Before the First World War there was no qualified training for conductors in Sweden; such training had to be sought in Germany. Alfvén chose Dresden, where for six months, from October, 1901, to March, 1902, he trained baton technique and studied orchestral scores under the very demanding surveillance of the conductor Hermann Ludwig Kutzschbach (1875-1938). Alfvén’s ideal was already clear in his mind after having observed Arthur Nikisch’s way of conducting the Philharmonic Concerts in Berlin five years earlier: To me he stands out as the most brilliant conductor I have ever seen, Alfvén wrote in 1946 in Första satsen (The First Movement), the first part of his memoirs. His flexible arm and wrist movements were a delight to the eye, never violent or bombastic but moderate or even small, yet charged with an incredible electricity. He never made a superfluous movement but only those that were necessary to achieve the effect he was after at that moment. His technique was fantastic in its strict economy, but his greatest strength lay in his eyes, with which he magnetised the


orchestra. And there was always the freshness of improvisation about his penetrating interpretations, which meant that one and the same work appeared in a new light at a repeat performance. Alfvén’s début as a conductor was no less successful than Stenhammar’s. Suddenly he was over-whelmed with offers – to lead the Philharmonic Society in Stockholm, for example, and to take over the teaching of counterpoint and composition at the Conservatory and also to begin reviewing concerts for Svenska Dagbladet, the national newspaper. But he didn’t want to be a teacher or a music critic or a full-time conductor; he was anxious not to lose his freedom as a composer, even if it didn’t produce any income. The First Symphony, written and performed when he was twenty-five, had to be revised and he started on that now. And in Skagen, during the late summer of l903, a work was composed of which he would not reap the full economic rewards until he had passed his eighty-third birthday (thanks finally to the Swedish Performing Rights Society’s successfull lawsuit against an American plagiarist), namely his first Swedish Rhapsody for large orchestra, Midsummer Vigil, op.19. For Alfvén Midsommarvaka came to have the same symbolic value as the first Rumanian Rhapsodyhad for George Enescu, or the Dances of Galánta had for Zoltán Kodály. In each case it is a question of a brilliant orchestral number which, thanks to its masterly orchestration, has legitimised the professional status of its composer throughout the world. At the same time, due to the ethnic character of the music, every foreign listener feels that they are experiencing a sort of idealised visualisation in music of the people the composer represents. On the 10th May, 1904, just over a year after his début as a conductor, Hugo Alfvén once again stood in front of the orchestra which he for sentimental reasons looked upon as his ‘own’. The programme was entirely new: besides a collection of songs accompanied at the piano by Märtha Ohlson, the newly revised version of the First Symphony was presented and the Midsommarvaka was given its première performance. On this occasion the programme was more reminiscent of the usual composer’s soirée. However, this was in fact the start of something completely new in Swedish musical life, and a phenomenon that placed Hugo Alfvén in the same category as Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Max Reger and, here in the North, Edvard


Grieg and Jean Sibelius. Krzystof Penderecki and Mikis Theodorakis are present-day successors. What all these composers have in common is that to a great extent (sometimes even exclusively), they have given concerts consisting entirely of their own works. It is a privilege which has been granted to very few composers in the history of music. How did Alfvén accomplish the feat of conducting concerts devoted entirely to his works on more than fifty occasions in a country like Sweden, where there was such a shortage of symphony orchestras? A fifth of all the orchestral concerts which Alfvén conducted during his lifetime consisted of ‘Alfvén concerts)! The answer is that he ritualised them; he made them into a recurring event, thereby creating a ‘tradition’. The in itself unique achievement of creating such a demand, that during the 30s and 40s the Stockholm Concert Hall recorded that concerts were sold out (1785 people came to the 60th anniversary concert, 2021 to the 75th anniversary concert and no less than 2035 to the 80th birthday concert) is in no way diminished by the fact that Hugo Alfvén only had a handful of works to offer: in practice no more than four symphonies, three rhapsodies, a couple of orchestral suites, some songs with orchestra, two symphonic poems, a festival overture and – on certain occasions – one of his far too numerous cantatas. This was certainly skilful economising with a creative vein, a vein which by no means flowed freely, however, but which required increasingly large doses of folkloristic melodic material to be kept open at all, and which finally transformed the strikingly original symphonist into a no less skilful arranger of other people’s musical ideas (or even older ones of his own). He managed to make what he wrote between his thirtythird and thirty-seventh year suffice for a conducting career that was unique, not only from a Swedish perspective. But it was a sluggish start. He only succeeded in getting his third ‘annual’ Alfvén concert (on the 3rd March, 1905) off the ground by first cooling his heels in the Crown Prince’s antechambers, an underhand dealing which was frowned upon by the Royal Opera Orchestra, and Alfvén was not offered the post of principal conductor as Stenhammar had been earlier. The Royal Opera Orchestra was the only professional orchestra in existence in Stockholm, and Alfvén was therefore forced to make a fresh start with the newly founded symphony orchestra in Gothenburg. Here he was more successful.


Thus the Alfvén concert on the 10th April, 1905, was followed by no less than three Alfvén concerts during 1906, of which two were extra concerts inserted to give the general public the chance to hear the Third Symphony, which had been premiered in Gothenburg. Another extra concert was organised in December, 1907. By 1914 the capital city could at long last also boast a professional symphony orchestra of its own, with which Alfvén did not neglect the opportunity to create new rituals. Only four months after its formation he conducted his first concert, and annual Alfvén concerts followed in 1915 and 1916, in addition to all his other appearances, either as conductor of a completely classical programme or as conducting composer, responsible only for his own contribution in a mixed programme. Throughout his long life Alfvén gave concerts in fifteen countries, usually together with his beloved student choir from Uppsala, But his first guest appearance in neighbouring countries took place in the double role of composer and conductor at the first Swedish concerts in Copenhagen in 1906, in Dortmund in 1912 and in Stuttgart in 1913. He also travelled to Helsinki on his own behalf as guest conductor in 1906 and 1913. The second guest appearance caused such a demand that the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra was forced to arrange an extra concert. For many years past Alfvén’s name had figured in the headlines – he was of course an official figure whose words and deeds were reported in all kinds of newspapers. Over the course of time this excessive publicity evidently contributed to Hugo Alfvén’s unproductiveness and sense of isolation, while at the same time making him dependant on the prevailing goodwill of an unhealthy dilettantism. But behind the facade of sycophancy a great artistry was hidden, and also – as can be observed on his own recordings – a rare ability to lead and inspire a symphony orchestra. No-one has provided a better description of the conductor Alfvén than the Finnish publicist Gustaf Mattson, who was chief editor of the daily newspaper Dagens Tidning and who died shortly after Alfvén’s guest appearance in Helsinki had come to en end. Mattson’s analysis is worth quoting in full: ”Alfvén belongs to the calm, though not in the least phlegmatic, type of conductor. In contrast to (Robert) Kajanus’s large, albeit controlled, right arm movements and rather vague left hand technique, and also in contrast to (Georg) Schneevoigt’s wellknown, and in my opinion strongly attitudinising, often almost bombastic ‘dramatising’, Alfvén achieves just that style of conducting which at least a part of our


music-loving audience yearns for, if I may make so bold as to express my own and others’ opinions. In Alfvén’s hand the baton does not say much to the audience. But to a welldisciplined, intelligent orchestra it says quite enough. However Alfvén puts his true vitality as a conductor into the refined activity of the left hand. It is exquisitely expressive, for example, this way of coaxing the first violins to a stringendo by means of a rapid succession of mustering finger movements, with the upturned hand held close to him. One can positively see how through him the semiquavers come whirling faster and faster from the united violin section. From time to time he throws out a marcato, a sforzando, with seldom more than a finger, never with a stabbing fist or gnashing teeth. When the arm is used in its full length, it always seems to be completely justified. There was a section in the symphony (No. 3 in E major), for instance, which he took brilliantly. Here the violins had a rapid ascending figure – then a caesura, and after that a marked climax. How he brought it alive! Without storming forwards in the least or underlining the point with the baton. Furthermore, Alfvén has a special way of ‘conducting before it starts’, which is interesting to watch, as, for example, when the scherzo movement of the symphony was about to start and he needed to get the orchestra’s complete attention for the extremely precise and rapid entry. While the auditorium thought that the conductor was standing still and pausing, he was already well into the attacca, and the orchestra with him. Alfvén also has a habit of giving small, almost unnoticeable nods to individual sections or soloists of the moment to calm, support and inspire them. In short, one has the impression of a calm, commanding general, one who does not want to build up a visual ego on the rostrum, not to ‘create so that it shows’, but who nonetheless provides a living spirit and a rousing centre. It also seemed as though the orchestra under Alfvén’s leadership played particularly con amore.” (Reproduced in the evening newspaper Aftonbladet, 28.12.1913) Where could Alfvén have learned this art? Hardly in the opera pit, even though the Royal Opera Orchestra’s conductor Conrad Nordquist was capable of directing with a firm hand and discreet gestures. The answer is: during his studies in Dresden. With Kutzschbach at the piano the pupils were requested to conduct an imaginary orchestra. In Tempo furioso, the second part of his memoirs, Alfvén recounts: I had to learn to beat anatomically correctly, so to speak. Every superfluous gesture was forbidden, everything had to be determined by necessity, by an urgent need – if it


was a question of keeping the orchestra together, for instance, or because of an increase or decrease in emotion ( . .) Countless times he impressed upon me that the secret of a conductors technique was not in the elbow or the shoulder but in the wrist. To show a musician who was counting bars when to come in, he usually confined himself to a quick glance, accompanied by a nod of the head which passed unnoticed by the audience. But if a larger group had an entry – in particular if the dynamic level was forte or fortissimo – then the size and strength of the beat that brought them in had to be in proportion to the effect one wanted to achieve. My teacher was relentlessly pedantic until every type of beat had been carefully learnt and repeated ad infinitum, but he relaxed the pressure when he began to teach us how to study a score. The first scores to be studied were Alfvén’s own which he had brought with him (probably the first two symphonies and the first two cantatas) which ”for me (was) a lesson of utmost importance for the future. Then he went on to other composers, to their symphonies and lesser orchestral works, which he knew by heart ( … ) Month after month he led me deeper and deeper into the orchestral repertoire, and by way of a change I was sometimes allowed to beat through an opera or two.” The very word opera touches on a trauma in Alfvén’s life. Alfvén – the inspired writer of melodies and painter of sounds, who had learnt the fundamentals of the art of orchestration in the opera pit and who had such profound knowledge of the properties of the human voice, he must surely be predestined to compose the national Swedish opera? The trouble was that everyone was of the same opinion. Great authors such as Verner von Heidenstam, Selma Lagerlöf and Frans G Bengtsson picked out suitable subjects for him. But the only effect the mass media’s steadily increasing expectations had was to deepen the black pit of his creative crisis, with the result that he grabbed every possible opportunity that came his way to shelve the project in question. Another factor should also be mentioned here: Alfvén’s own shortcomings as an opera conductor. Fiasco is perhaps a more adequate description. The situation at the Stockholm Opera certainly appeared to be ideal at the time of Alfvén’s début. There was an acute lack of conductors, and the management was searching high and low for young conductors. Alfvén needed only mention one word


about the crisis in connection with a newspaper interview to immediately be sent two opera scores, together with a request for him to conduct some trial performances. He was well familiar with Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Verdi’s Otello from the time when he himself played in the opera pit, and now he began to study Mozart’s dramma giocoso. On the 19th December, 1906, he conducted the first of two trial performances. Music critics from eight newspapers were sitting in the auditorium, none of whom was directly hostile but all of whom had sharp pens at the ready. Alfvén was a person who expected a great deal from others, and now a great deal was expected from him. Their unanimous verdict was crushing: He had not added any noticeable personal touch to it all (Svenska Dagbladet) It was not possible to perceive any personal intention, nor did it seem as though the spirit of the opera was in the baton. (Aftonbladet) For the most part Herr Alfvén kept to well-established practice with only two conspicuous changes. Moreover these did not seem well justified (Vårt land) His uncertainty yesterday evening was surprising. (Social-Demokraten) The overall impression of the evening’s conducting was also that we were not witnessing any new interpretation. (Stockholms-Tidningen) For the most part Herr Alfvén’s conducting kept to the old well-tried routine regarding tempi and dynamics, which were generally too loud and heavy, in addition to which there were several differences of opinion, and on one occasion – in the first duet between Don Giovanni and Leporello – the whole thing was threatened by total collapse. (Stockholms Dagblad) What was the explanation for this? Had Alfvén’s earlier mission to the palace antechambers damaged his previously excellent relations with the musicians? Was the working climate at the Opera too tough after all for the basically sensitive and insecure Alfvén? Or had he simply taken Kutzschbach’s and Nikisch’s lessons too literally, and conducted in a manner too subtle for an operahouse? Such a hypothesis is in fact corroborated by the critic of the Nya Dagligt Allehanda: With this trial performance his unsuitability as an opera conductor must have been amply proved even to the most undecided ( . .) Herr Alfvén’s conducting was limited entirely to beating time. He hardly dared take his eyes off the score, and he made no attempt to show the soloists or the orchestral instruments their entries, or at least


only very sparingly. Even less was it possible to see that his leadership had any influence on the performance or the dynamics. For once Wilhelm Peterson-Berger was quite moderate, though no less devastating, in his judgement in Dagens Nyheter: His attitude throughout was (. . .) that of a beginner’s; that as a composer he is as far removed as possible from the Mozartean musical ideal means less in this case than the fact that as a musician he has not so far needed to take any greater interest – nor has he shown any interest – in any music other than his own. For Alfvén’s part there were no further opera performances apart from these two, and Otello, the score of which can still be seen on Alfvén’s bookshelf, was never staged that season. That the failure really affected him deeply is shown by the fact that none of the reviews mentioned were stuck in the scrapbook, and the event has been repressed in his otherwise open-hearted memoirs. The trial performance is only mentioned as a merit in his application to the post of Director Musices. The first person to bring the embarrassing event into the limelight is Lennart Hedwall in his fact-filled Alfvén biography from 1973. However Alfvén bore a life-long grudge against the more honest than tactfull PetersonBerger, which was reciprocated when Peterson-Berger was the only Swedish composer of merit to be explicitly excluded from the grand Swedish Music Festival which the newly appointed Director Musices Hugo Alfvén organised in Uppsala (May, 1911). He was appointed to the post on the 7th June, 1910, and remained for twenty-seven years. In the light of later years’ diminishing ambitions, this gigantic two-day manifestation, during which he himself conducted four concerts with different programmes, involving a hundred musicians and 350 singers, in other words everything that could be scraped together in Uppsala and the surrounding region in the way of amateurs and professionals,restaurant musicians and musicians from the opera orchestra, can be seen as a qualified example of cultural and political obsequiousness. But statistics are one thing, crass reality another. On the 25th January, 1934, when he literally only had a few pence in his pocket and debts which exceeded the Swedish government’s entire yearly grant to all the professional Swedish composers, he poured out his rancour in the pages of his diary: If you hold the position of Director Musices and train a handful of more or less unskilled amateurs, then you receive a yearly salary of 5.400 from the State, plus free lodgings. But then your life is wasted, because you also have to look for other


occupations in order to survive. And anything more suicidal for a musician than to have to rehearse with swotting young students, who leave after playing in the orchestra for a couple of years and are replaced by amateurs of steadily decreasing standard – there is nothing more soul-destroying. When you die, what are the fruits of your life work? What value did the State get for the money it gave you for this work? None at all! The position of Director Musices was demanding and the only assignment that he was exempt from was being responsible for the music in the cathedral. Apart from this, the description of his duties differed little from those which had been drawn up by Olaus Rudbeck the Elder in the 17th century. Alfvén was obliged to give a lecture once a week, he had to rehearse with aspiring students twice a week and teach them how to play their instruments (which he is reported to have done gladly; he retained his excellent Belgian violin technique and full-bodied tone till late in life), and he was also responsible for the ceremonial music in connection with the Faculty of Philosophy’s conferment of doctors’ degrees in the university assembly hall at the end of each spring term. That the Music Festival of 1911 was never repeated was not only due to personal factors but also to lack of resources and for reasons of cultural policy. In 1909 the Royal Swedish Academy of Music had appointed a committee, which made inquiries to the municipal authorities in larger towns in the form of a questionnaire concerning the activities of orchestras in the respective towns. Unfortunately Uppsala was not among the towns that answered the questionnaire – this was the year before Alfvén’s appointment as Director Musices – but already in the autumn following the big Music Festival he began to take action. After meetings in November, 1911, a society was formed to work towards the founding of a professional orchestra in Uppsala consisting of 35 musicians. Meanwhile the Academy’s inquiry had been presented to the Swedish Government, and the result was a proposition to the 1911 Parliament. In 1912 grants were given to orchestras in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö, Helsingborg and Gävle. In 1913 Norrköping also received a government grant. But Uppsala’s application was shelved, together with a dozen similar applications from other interested parties, and was forgotten when the First World War broke out.


Thus Uppsala’s hopes of playing a leading role in Swedish musical life came to nothing, and from then on Alfvén had to make do with the Akademiska Kapellet’s meagre resources. When Alfvén took over, the orchestra consisted of only 24 players: a fluteplayer, an oboist, a clarinettist, thirteen violinists, three viola-players, four cellists and the bassplayer Carl Ruff who owned a music shop and was the only professional musician. The rest were amateurs, that is to say, they did not get paid. Restaurant and cinema musicians were hired for the three or four annual concerts, as well as some skilled military musicians from the infantry and artillery regiments in Uppsala who could also play stringed instruments. On occasion the players numbered 40-50 musicians, and Alfvén quite often called in members of the Royal Opera Orchestra, as for example on the 1st March, 1914, when he presented the challenging Brahms symphony which he loved above all, namely the Second Symphony, to the residents of Uppsala. It was not until 1933 that he dared confront his own musicians with the same challenge. In the anniversary publication The Akademiska Kapellet during 350 years, one of the orchestra’s permanent members and soloist on repeated occasions, the flute-player and future professor of philosophy Ingemar Hedenius, later recalled how strongly Alfvén was affected by the music he performed: When we rehearsed Brahms’s symphony, and got to that place, he broke off, and was so moved that he had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘it is so fan t a s tic ally beautiful: Just that passage, which he had imitated in his own second symphony. I liked him for that. This was the sentimental inside aspect of the concerts, so to speak, but there was also a more cynical exterior. In a copy of a programme which has been preserved in the university library’s fragmentary collection, an irritated concertgoer has noted the following: Skandalously badly rehearsed and badly performed beyond all measure; several times the whole thing was on the verge of collapsing completely. In all probability the person who wrote these words was the music historian Carl-Allan Moberg, who openly attacked Alfvén’s reactionary programme policy, but who on the other hand had reduced Alfvén’s workload by taking over the compulsory weekly lectures. Hedenius offers the following explanation:


I find it quite natural that Alfvén did not suffer from a mediocre performance of Brahms, to the same extent that he would have done from hearing his own music performed badly. That Alfvén only cared about his own music, as Peterson-Berger claimed, is certainly true of the period before he became Director Musices. A letter from Kutzschbach among Alfvén’s surviving papers in the Carolina Rediviva Library seems to indicate that Alfvén probably asked his former teacher in Dresden to give him some advice on current works that he could present in Uppsala. He received a list with a dozen names, most of whom have since been forgotten, such as Richard Wetz, Edgar Istel and Felix Draeseke. But even Debussy’s three Nocturnes and Mahler’s Second Symphony were not only beyond the resources of Uppsala but also beyond Alfvén’s own horizons. What the university town expected of him was that he should take over the male voice student choir Orphei Drangar and the town’s half comatose, half over-aged oratorio choir, the Philharmonic Society. Later on the Allmänna Sången and Uppsala’s mixed student choir also fell to his lot. With these choirs he was confronted with a repertoire with which he was not previously familiar, such as Bach’s St. John Passion, The Creation by Haydn, Handel’s Messiahand Max Bruch’s Gustavus Adolfus oratorio, whose patriotic subject must have been near to his heart. Hugo Alfvén’s interest in Edward Elgar is particularly noteworthy. Even allowing for the difference between a march and a polonaise, there are many similarities between Alfvén’sFestspel and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. I, and Alfvén was in fact responsible for introducing The Dream of Gerontius to Stockholm in 1912. But there were also social similarities: both came from simple circumstances, both strove for recognition from society. If Elgar was the facade-painter of the British empire, Alfvén to a similar degree cherished the superficial aspect of Swedish musical life, as the supplier of national festival music. The magnificent choral festivals and international choir tours were a part of the realisation of this ambition, even though they sapped his energy for composing. By way of compensation his important birthdays were raised to the status of national festivals, with his own compositions obviously forming the central attraction. He did not show any interest in any other Swedish music either; the Music Festival in Uppsala in 1911 should be viewed as a kind of party political truce with such colleagues as Stenhammar and Rangstrorn. The only other Swedish works in his repertoire were diverse festival pieces by Josephson, Lindberg, Liljefors, Norman and Söderman.


Edvard Grieg was the Nordic composer he valued most highly. For the yearly conferment ceremonies he put together a small selection consisting of the march from Sigurd Jorsalafarand three songs arranged for string orchestra, which like meditative music played during Holy Communion could be repeated a suitable number of times. Another favourite was Beethoven. Four Beethoven overtures were performed, four piano concertos (always with Ejnar Haglund as soloist), six symphonies, the Triple Concerto, the Violin Concerto and also the Choral Fantasy. He performed surprisingly little by Mozart: mostly overtures, a couple of symphonies, two or three piano concertos – and everything that Ingemar Hedenius could play on his flute. Nine late Hadyn symphonies were also performed and Mendelssohn was represented by a couple of excerpts from the music to A Midsummer Nights Dream and the Italian Symphony, with its perhaps not coincidental likeness to his own Third Symphony. A drop of Schubert was added during the anniversary year of l928, while Wagner prevailed in 1914 and during the 30s. Handel and Bach appeared so sporadically that Hedenius’s claim that Alfvén was not interested in baroque music was basically correct. Nevertheless Alfvén was both ambitious and quick to take offence, which can be deduced from a caustic battle of words in the Sydsvenska Dagblader in March, 1925, following the Lund critic Alf Nyman’s insinuating comments on Alfvén’s choice of tempi in the Handel Concerto Grosso in G minor, op. 6:6: .. the second movement of the concerto is marked Allegro non troppo but that he for his part played it faster, which was also the case with the Musette which is marked Larghetto. This never realised interpretation I duly supplement by pointing out that to me personally a Handel style implies something weightier and more majestic, with more of both robustness and restraint than Herr Guest Conductor now had time to incorporate in his interpretation. . (SSD 3.3. 1925) Alfvén then won points with a wealth of facts regarding the tempo markings of various Handel conductors and various Handel editions. His fast tempi would assuredly have met with a more favourable response today than in Lund’s academic world, which was a priori negatively disposed towards anything that came from Uppsala. Thus no pioneering spirit could be perceived in Uppsala in Alfvén’s time. It was to be found in another part of the country, with the conductors Wilhelm Stenhammar, Ture Rangström and Tor Mann in Gothenburg. And also in the choral music – that should not be overlooked.


Alfvén’s work with the choirs took their tribute of his total commitment and filled his time schedule to the brim. At the same rime his achievement became a landmark in music history. Just as the history of Swedish choral singing takes into account a ‘before Eric Ericson’ and an ‘after Eric Ericson’, so Hugo Alfvén’s achievement became a dividing line which separated his brilliant epoch from the previous one. This was due to his abiliry to listen and to direct: When conducting an orchestra I have nearly always used a baton in order to achieve the highest possible beating precision with its point, but to me choral conducting is quite a different matter, Alfvén explained in Dur och moll (Major and Minor), the third part of his memoirs from 1949. He continued: What the singer needs is a psychological sign which affects his feeling, which stimulates him. The choral conductor must not only be able to show the beat, he must simultaneously mould a sculpture of the musical phrase with his two hands in accordance with his interpretation, bring it alive and infuse the soul of the singer with his own musical being. To reach this goal one hand is not enough – I need both hands, anyway. This explains why when I conduct a choir I never use a baton, which kills the hands’ means of expression. In other words Alfvén makes a sharp tactile distinction berween choral conducting and orchestral conducting, which possibly explains his dualistic attitude to the profession. During his travels in America in 1938 he in fact received the most flattering offer of his life. At the railway station in Chicago a delegation stood waiting from the city’s famous symphony orchestra, who wanted him immediately as conductor at the orchestra’s summer residence in Ravinia. I considered the professional conductors laborious path, with year after year spent incessantly drilling all the music of the world into ones head. That path has never appealed to me, because it would have brought about my death as a composer. In the capacity of orchestral conductor I had mostly only performed my own works, and left it to professional conductors to perform the works of others. And now, at the age of sixty-six and in a strange country, to start on a new enterprise as director of a musical treadmill which would constantly be turning at fatal pace – the mere thought filled me with distaste. (Dur och moll, 1949) As early as 1902, while studying with Kutzschbach, he had made up his mind on this point, namely the great danger for a composer to ‘be so filled daily with all the music


of the world, that in the end he cannot distinguish between mine and thine.’ (Tempo furioso, 1948) The problem cannot be formulated more clearly. There is probably an objective reason why Alfvén devoted his exceptional talent as a conductor almost entirely to performing his own works rather than the works of others. But in Hugo Alfvén’s case it was a question of keeping two equally strong forces in check: the need to assert his integrity and the need to shield his integrity. While fighting this battle on two fronts the creative artist in him suffered, and this painful process was registered in the Fifth Symphony. It should originally have been premiered in the spring of 1938. After considerable effort he managed to have the first movement ready for the 70th anniversary concert at the Opera, and the premiere performance of the symphony at this concert was preserved in a radio recording. Alfvén, filled with happy experiences from a whole festival week,wrote about the concert in the following words: When I turned to the orchestra I couldn’t keep back a slight smile, because every musician’s eyes shone with the desire to do musical battle. It was like blue flames blazing in the magnetic field between the orchestra and me, and with that feeling I raised my hand for the Festspel (. . .) The trumpets, horns and trombones blared forth with unparalleled splendour in the opening fanfare, and in the trio’s sensual cantilena the strings sang out with Italian passion and intensity. That was exactly how the Festival sounded in my head when I composed the piece. I cannot give the orchestra higher praise than that. And the Royal Opera Orchestra performed the entire instrumental part of the programme in the same exceptional manner (1942) The symphony is not mentioned again until the 1st November, 1951: Today I shall begin work on the second movement of my Fifth Symphony. The well of inspiration has dried up. During the last seven years I have composed nothing, with the exception of a small improvised song. I shall try, however, even though I have nothing but misery, despair and premonitions of death to write about. No, the score will end up in the fireplace. But that was not to be; the symphony was premiered and became a sad memento of the tragic fate of a composer and – as his recordings show – a brilliant, often inspired, conductor.


Carl-Gunnar Åhlén. English translation: Cynthia Zetterqvist. CD booklet Phono Suecia, PSCD 109, 1997

A national composer with a complex  

By Carl-Gunnar Åhlén

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