Hugo Alfvén and folk music By Gunnar Ternhag The name of Hugo Alfvén is widely associated with folk music, and especially folk music from Dalarna, sometimes to such a degree that he is demoted to the status of a composer wholly dependent on folk music, which of course is untrue and unfair. So when the authors of Sweden’s National Encyclopaedia write that Alfvén’s “interest in Swedish folk music and the Swedish folk idiom permeates most of his output,” they are barking up the wrong tree. The manifestly strong connection between Hugo Alfvén and folk music has twin foundations. The first is obvious: compositions of his which are based on or inspired by folk music. Pride of place here is taken by his much-loved choral settings of folk songs, but we also have frequently performed orchestral works such as Midsommarvaka (Swedish Rhapsody No. 1/Midsummer Vigil) and Dalarapsodin. The second foundation is Alfvén’s homes in Leksand, Dalarna. He lived in Leksand for many years, and consequently has come to be included in the symbiosis between Leksand and folk music. Of course, associating Hugo Alfvén with folk music is not entirely wrong, but it represents a constriction, not to say a distortion, of his musical horizons. Even so, and at the risk of further underscoring the invidious link, this is the subject which will be addressed in the following pages. The music Now to the wellspring. First his music, and then his own words in the matter. Compositions based on folk music are adumbrated early on in Alfvén’s career. The piano piece Minne från Åsen, Dalarne (1893) and the solo song Gammalt kväde från Hälsingland (in the collection entitled Tio sånger, 1899) point the way. Neither of these compositions includes folk music in the sense of folk tunes noted down – not even the latter piece, deceptively entitled “Ancient ditty from Hälsingland,” both the words and music of which were new, though the words are unattributed. Both compositions mirror the regionalism of the 1890s, with its predilection for stationing art in Swedish places and provinces. The first of Alfvén’s compositions to be based on folk music is his rhapsody Midsommarvaka, which appeared in 1903 and is based on melodic material collected by the composer at a wedding feast in Roslagen in 1894. We know, with Hedwall, that this rhapsody was primarily conceived of as a genre painting, not as a composition resting on folk-music foundations. Accordingly, the composer took quite extensive liberties with the original material, as was clearly manifested by the legal ins and outs connected with the American band leader Percy Faith’s Swedish Rhapsody. In a letter to the publishers Wilhelm Hansen Musik-Forlag, Alfvén writes concerning this best-known melody: ”In other words, I have not used the tune in its original form but have shaped it according to my own musical taste, given it my purely personal imprint” (Hugo Alfvén, Brev om musik. Utgivna av Gunnar Ternhag 1998, p. 155). This axiomatic liberty was soon to be replaced by a different approach implying far greater respect for collected folk tunes as works in their own right – a change with no slight bearing on the proper understanding of Hugo Alfvén’s relation to folk music. In the summer of 1904 he wrote two compositions for the Leksand Local Heritage Society Chorus: Och hör du unga Dora and Herr Peders sjöresa, of which Hedwall writes: “These two adaptations of
folk ballads were the first instances of a genre to which Alfvén would later devote much time and energy” (Lennart Hedwall, Hugo Alfvén – En svensk tonsättares liv och verk 1973, p. 43). Both songs are so-called medieval ballads. Alfvén took them from a collection edited by Erik Gustaf Geijer and Arvid August Afzelius, Svenska folk-visor från forntiden, a collection which he would subsequently return to several times with the same end in view. Thus far there is nothing very remarkable about Hugo Alfvén’s perception – and treatment – of folk music. He did the same as several other composers at that time, occasionally using folk-tune material which he could treat as he pleased. Alfvén’s approach to folk music changed a few years after the turn of the century. Ernest Thiel, banker and patron of the arts, introduced him to the artist Anders Zorn, and he received his first invitation to Mora, Dalarna, in 1902. In 1907 Zorn asked him to be one of the judges at a folk music competition there (cf. Alfvén 1948, pp. 380ff; Hugo Alfvén berättar. Radiointervjuer utgivna av Per Lindfors 1966, pp. 87f). This brought him into contact with the “Folk Music Movement”, the foremost of whose representatives, Nils Andersson, lawyer and folk-music collector, was also one of the judges. “Folk Music Movement” (spelmansrörelsen) is the collective term commonly applied to a successful bid to collect and publicise instrumental folk music. The movement, which was not so much a regular organisation as a series of initiatives, organised fiddler competitions (referred to, from 1910 onwards, as “folk-musician gatherings – spelmansstämma) and published collected folk music (the anthology Svenska låtar being the best-known of these publications). The first indication of Alfvén taking real action in the spirit of the Folk Music Movement is already to be seen in a letter he wrote in the spring of 1906: And then I intend travelling up to Dalarna and visiting some remote parts to note down ancient folk music which never gets put down on paper; and I must hurry, before all the old men of Dalarna are dead, for we cannot afford to lose any of the treasures of our folk music. (Hugo Alfvén, Tempo furioso 1948, p. 165.) The oldest surviving folk-music transcriptions in Alfvén’s hand – apart from the Roslagen ones – are three tunes written down as played in 1908 by the fiddler Lekatt Mats, a neighbour of Alfvén’s in the Leksand village of Tibble. In 1910 he did likewise with Gädd Jonas (Jonas Norin) in Tällberg.. Hugo Alfvén never became truly active as a collector of folk music. He never became a big name in the Folk Music Movement either, despite being personally acquainted with several of its leading lights. But he was affected nonetheless by this upsurge of interest in folk music, as witness, above all, his compositions. Aside from the choral adaptations, the compositions which Alfvén based on folk music are not all that numerous. In fact they are soon counted. In 1914 he wrote a small collection of piano pieces, Några låtar från Leksand, based on the tunes, mentioned above, noted down after Lekatt Mats. (In 1934 he arranged this work for small orchestra.) The free-and-easy piano style puts the original tunes across to the listener, but the folk musicians’ melodies are treated just like any other melodic material. Thus there is no hint of fiddle-playing in these pieces. In the autumn of 1931 Alfvén composed the companion piece to Midsommarvaka, namely Dalarapsodin (Op. 47). Here, unlike his first rhapsody, the melodic themes come from a variety of sources – some from Alfvén’s own notebooks, some from other people’s folk-music collections. For all the differing origins of the tunes, he weaves them together into a continuous fabric.
If he took liberties with the tunes in Midsommarvaka, he showed greater respect for the tunes from Dalarna. In his memoirs he addresses the subject in the grand style and with almost exaggerated reverence: I cannot […] mock things that are sacred to me, nor seek to improve that which is perfect. And so in Dalarapsodin I have not altered a single note of the beautiful, sinuous melodies, any more than in the polska dances, with the exception of a brief interjection in Djävulspolskan. (Hugo Alfvén, Final 1952, pp. 51 f.) This change of attitude can doubtless be traced back to his experiences during the heyday of the Folk Music Movement, but also to his growing intimacy with Dalarna and its folk music, an intimacy which led him to view the music of the province with increasing humility. Living as he now did, in the midst of folk music, he could no longer do as he had done formerly, at a distance from the home ground of the Dalarna tunes, either in Uppsala or abroad. On the other hand, as usual, categorical statements by Hugo Alfvén should not be taken entirely at face value. His verbiage is often as dazzlingly colourful as his music, thereby concealing shades of action. The fact is that he did tamper with some of the Rhapsody tunes, and not only with Djävulspolskan (transcribed after Hjort Anders Olsson from Bingsjö), the biggest modification being an introductory syncopation in the third repeat which is not to be found in the original transcription. Another notable change occurs in the bridal march from Orsa, the second theme of the Rhapsody, Alfvén’s glitzy version of which is far removed from the Orsa fiddlers’ more legato bowing. These may seem petty cavils, but they are prompted by the composer’s reference to “things sacred” which may not be modified. Other instrumental works based on folk music include a Potpourri över svenska folkvisor och låtar for instrumental trio, written in 1950. It seems fair to term this suite a speculative venture, for Alfvén knew that his own name coupled with Swedish folk music would attract both performers and listeners. The potpourri contains a good deal of melodic material used previously, complete with earlier settings. So too does the composition which proved to be Alfvén’s last, namely the music for the ballet Den förlorade sonen (The Prodigal Son), which he completed, aged 85, in February 1957. The choral folk-song arrangements, then, greatly outnumber their instrumental counterparts. Alfvén wrote 50 or more choral arrangements altogether, many of which are still being performed regularly. Some are even part of the standard repertoire of Swedish choirs. The summer choral concerts are few and far between which do not include Kristallen den fina, Glädjens blomster, Tjuv och tjuv det skall du heta or Uti vår hage. So too are the choral singers not knowing their parts off by heart. Hugo Alfvén, as we have already seen, began writing in this genre at quite an early stage of his career. All through his active life he returned at regular intervals to choral arrangements of folk songs, but there was one period when these works featured especially frequently on his writing desk. In the late 1930s and the first half of the 1940s he went in for what can really be termed mass production. The long succession of choral arrangements which then materialised includes several of the best-known pieces. These pieces were written to raise cash quickly for a recently purchased and far too expensive motor car! The choral arrangements were usually written for both male-voice and mixed choir – in that order, as a rule. Alfvén conducted both kinds, which gave him a direct reason for nearly always producing two versions of an arrangement. But underlying this duplication there was also the hope of the
arrangement achieving wider circulation if it could be performed by choirs of both kinds. Alfvén needed the money. Hugo Alfvén was by no means the first composer to write choral arrangements of folk songs. The genre had existed for something like a century when he embarked on his own copious output (see Leif Jonsson, Ljusets riddarvakt. 1800-talets studentsång utövad som offentlig samhällskonst. I: Studentsången i Norden 1990, pp. 105ff). Nor can Alfvén be termed a renewer of the genre. Stylistically, his works do not deviate from earlier or contemporary settings. No, Alfvén’s recipe for success did not consist in his being an early starter or pursuing new departures, but in his arrangements being practical and, quite simply, beautiful. The practicality was deliberate and is illustrated by the tremendous circulation achieved by these settings. But without their inherent beauty they would go unsung, no matter how well they came within the vocal range of the individual choir member. Statements about folk music The question is whether Hugo Alfvén did not speak and write more about folk music than he composed under its influence At all events, it is not hard to find statements, lines of correspondence and memoir excerpts addressing folk music. Perhaps, then, the powerful association between Alfvén and folk music can also be put down to his own rhetoric on the subject. Not all shades of meaning in Alfvén’s verbal intercourse with folk music can be accommodated here, but two things will be highlighted, namely his most widely quoted statements and his attitude to folk song. The best-known Alfvénism about folk music has to do with the accordion. These are effervescent words, often quoted on the subject of opposition to the instrument. They come in an article which Alfvén wrote concerning his experience of the folk music competition in Mora in 1907 (an article subsequently incorporated in the second volume of his memoirs), and the words are addressed to one Lång Lars from Älvdalen: “Chop up all the accordions you find along your way, trample them underfoot, cut them in pieces and throw them into the pigsty, for that is where they belong” (Alfvén 1948, p. 387). However, the rest of Alfvén’s pronouncement, explaining the outburst, is less frequently quoted. As he saw it, the limited tonal and harmonic resources of the accordions of the time trivialised many traditional tunes. He exemplifies this with the Oxberg March. Anyone trying to play it on an accordion is constrained to “squeeze the minor melody into his diatonic major scale and harmonise it with his three major chords. That done, the march is disfigured and counterfeited beyond recognition” (ibid.). Alfvén’s fears may seem justified, even though, with the wisdom of hindsight, we know them to have been clearly exaggerated. Either way, this one statement does not make Alfvén an accordion hater aspiring to put the folk-music clock back, as the assiduous quotation of the first sentence often implies. On the other hand, the quotation can be used to illustrate the influence of the Folk Music Movement, for this rejection of the foremost instrumental symbol of industrialism had been in the movement’s rucksack before it entered Alfvén’s pocket. Alfvén’s contact with the Folk Music Movement, however, should not be overstated. His approach to folk music can be schematically divided into three periods. In earlier years he had a quite unreflective attitude which he shared with many other members of musical society at that time. His interest in folk music emanated primarily from musical preferences, i.e. he applied musical criteria in his judgement of the folk music he came across. His contact with the Folk Music Movement in about 1905 generated a distinctly ideological involvement. Folk music now became, to him, a value-laden
symbol of Swedish culture (with the emphasis on Swedish). But after a time this involvement faded and Alfvén’s abiding great interest in folk music could be coupled with a more pragmatic approach. The symbolic side of folk music was toned down in favour of its musical content. From the years soon after 1900 when he discovered Dalarna and encountered the Folk Music Movement, and for the rest of his days, Alfvén retained a veneration for folk song; instrumental tunes do not seem to have acquired the same status in his eyes. In his memoirs he writes of the Siljan Choir: “It is if anything this choir I have to thank for my perception of the spirit of folk song and the depth of its melodic perspective. And from these perceptions, the harmonic colouring which I use in my folk-song arrangements has blossomed forth of its own accord” (Hugo Alfvén, I dur och moll 1949, p. 138). Even though this sentence was written late in life and therefore bears the imprint of retrospect, it still contains something essential. He held folk songs in almost religious respect, but, be it noted, primarily ballads which he found worth arranging. This solemn respect is embedded in the arrangements, which, in consequence, are neither bold nor burlesque (with one or two exceptions). Not even in his veneration of folk song was Alfvén first in the field. That veneration can if anything be traced back to the attitude of the pioneers of folk-song collecting in the early decades of the 19th century. Their respectful stance lived on throughout the century and after it, also becoming a hallmark of Hugo Alfvén’s choral writing. Not even on this point, then, was he a trail-blazer. Instead he was a skilled traditionalist. This is a shortenend translation by Roger Tanner of the article “Hugo Alfvén och folkmusiken” which was first published in Hugo Alfvén – en vägvisare ed. Gunnar Ternhag & Jan Olof Rudén, Gidlunds, 2003, pp. 61-67.
Hugo Alfvén and folk music by Gunnar Ternhag