“... I allow myself to write music ...” Thoughts on LARS JOHAN WERLE’s later production

Published: 2001-09-14 by Stellan Sagvik

By Per-Anders Hellqvist (transl. Sven Borei) (Published in Nutida Musik no. 3 1985/86)


Seemingly weightless bits, scudding by like birds in a storm, can in remembrance and on reflection gain an unanticipated weight. I myself remember with a clarity I cannot explain, how a big man in Sweden’s music life once said in passing that Lars Johan Werle was the perfect radio producer. It’s possible I reacted with ill concealed irritation. Werle had just made his debut as composer, an embarrassingly late debut and every suggestion of his indispensability in other areas of operation could be seen as a threat to his future as a composer. For we don’t have that many of them, these natural creators of music, these talents who have no need to explain their writing as some sort of side-line to more socially acceptable activities such as administrators, producers, teachers or star interpreters.

Werle would seem to the task born, making it so much more irritating that we hadn’t really heard a note from him before he turned 34. This at that age when we well remembered that a long list of great composer geniuses already stood at the brink of the grave. As luck would have it, Werle wasn’t anywhere near the grave. He rescued himself from the bureaucracy, changed desk and began to compose work after work with a secure self-awareness. The results are all among the least controversial in contemporary Swedish composition.

Lars Johan Werle will never be a pioneer. If he’s ever been a revolutionary or iconoclast, it’s well hidden in the white fields before 1960. Nor has ever been eclectic. The first instrumental works from the early 60s, specifically the Pentagram string quartet (1960), Sinfonia da camera (1961) and Summer music (1965), might at first sight give the impression of coming from the pen of a 40s composer, late out and running at top speed to catch up to the others in the same generation: Blomdahl, Bäck, Lidholm and Johanson were all slightly older. But after that time, he switched tracks entirely.

The 60s were still a time when the path to the future seemed to go via a gradual radicalisation of expressive means. Indeed, Werle had come abreast of his personal style and after a bit could even allow himself to discard some of his already moderate radicalism. One result was that the songs and couplets in Tintomara and Animalen ring out as if Bartók, Webern and Lidholm had never existed. On the other side he held the practical side of musical life in a steady grip. Perhaps it was that ideal producer in him that once again demonstrated his supreme sense of reality. Yesterday, a December evening in 1985, he spoke about his wish to direct. He isn’t satisfied by just writing the musical drama in a score – he has a need to follow it in on the scene. Undoubtedly there is a connection there.

The first time we received tangible proof of the existence of the theatre person Lars Johan Werle was in the chamber opera Drömmen om Thérèse (The Dream of Thérèse; 1964). The Stockholm theatre world had been buzzing about the possibilities of theatre in the round, of the physical proximity of having the audience in a ring around the scene as a remove from the peep-show theatre and an opportunity to shatter the scene and transport the action into the public spaces beyond the proscenium. To that extent, Thérèse was a work in the mainstream, simply transferring a theatrical innovation to the opera scene, something which in itself was a tangible vitalisation of Swedish opera composing. However, in Thérèse, Werle merged the nearly architectural vision inherent in the theatre in the round with the already 50 years old dream of shaping an ‘inner monologue’. Proust, Joyce and Eyvind Johnson have all managed to provide it with a literary face and the spoken theatre has approached it with debatable success, perhaps because it lacks a dimension capable of making an inner monologue believable. However, musical theatre owns it, namely just music.

It is probably important that Werle at one time worked closely with an experienced opera director in Lars Runsten. Together they divided the theatre’s space into a system of concentric circles. Spatially the public surrounded the stage and the orchestra the public, enabling the sound to rotate in a hall where multi-channel electronic music was presented. Dramaturgically the libretto was divided into columns reflecting several spatial and time plans. Acoustically, Julien’s voice comes to us not only directly from the singer, but also indirectly via pre-recorded tapes played through loudspeakers and associatively via so-called ‘rim’ effects in the orchestra. As a real person, Julien lives on several different psychological levels. This is a type of super-realism on the opera scene, but one sooner in the spirit of the musical dramatist Mozart than in that of romantic naturalism.

It is worth repeating that Lars Johan Werle did not initiate his work as an experimental, avant-garde composer, but as a practician. That in this case he was seen as stylistically advanced was less important. What mattered was that his genuine sense of musical drama did not fade in the works that followed, even as the tonal language bit by bit was deradicalized, finally approaching the level of popular song in Animalen.

In Resan (The Journey; 1969) though a theatre in the round was not available, the scene was still parcelled in part by interspersing pop music and in part by using Laterna Magica techniques: elegant, pictorially integrated projections which the Czechs led the world at just then. Part of the reason is that author P.C. Jersild, whose novel Till varmare länder (Towards warmer climes) was the source of Resan, worked with some sort of dramatic trompe l ‘œil or perceptual deception in that there are two possible explanations for the action. Both are equally true or untrue and it may be that it may be a matter of two actions that occur simultaneously. (There is an equivalent construction in the unusual revolutionary novel El acoso (The Witchhunt; 1964) written by the Cuban author Alejo Carpentier. It too has a clear musical dimension. And there is no doubt that music is an effective means for deepening a psychological story, a fact which was Mozart’s great discovery and talent.)

In Tintomara (1973) he returns to a tableau-like scenic sequence, in spite of the fact that Werle once more chooses dramatic material that uses ambiguity as the basic dramatic conception. Here the compelling dramatic tension is created by contrasting period styles: Werle is still clearly a contemporary composer, but he places his own, established style in counterpoint relationship to a melodic material which while not taken from C.J.L. Almqvist [1793-1866], sounds as if it were. The effect is at times perplexing, with the song of the androgynous Tintomara ringing as if it were one of Almqvist’s Songes hit by a light rain shower on the manuscript paper.

In Animalen (The Animal), Werle takes the last step in the deradicalization process, but without for that reason moving towards some sort of trivialization. This piece juggles trivial rhetoric in a manner as challenging and virtuosic as did Tage Danielsson (author of Animalen) or as Sandro Key-Åberg makes use of the extremely ordinary to formulate the unspeakable. And the ambiguity remains, fully consummated. For isn’t it true that we sit there crying with the ape over his love problems. Humans have been given hackneyed phrases to speak, while the animals express the deepest humanism, both verbally and musically.


A lot of ink has flowed from Lars Johan Werle’s pen since Animalen. The list includes Midsommarnattsdröm (Midsummer Night’s Dream, trees to a Cummings’ poem, Gudars Skymning (literally The Twilight of the Gods, but in truth an expletive from Sweden’s 40s) based on a text by Tage Danielsson and a Fröding inspired piece for singer Håkan Hagegård. And right now he’s working on Leonardo for the Folk Opera Society.

“What an unusual man, this Leonardo da Vinci, and so contemporary. He despised violence and yet was his time’s foremost designer of war machines. This must be an opera with a peace message, just like Animalen.”

“Plus some question of conscience, like in Mathis?”

“That’s always present in my operas. Something has to happen inside the people to keep the music from turning into incidental music. Music owns the capacity to describe characters and feelings.”

“What is incidental music?”

“It’s what makes the theatre generally nice, without being dramatically vital. You can’t just remove the music from a good opera without the drama collapsing.”

“What is the most difficult part of Leonardo?”

“Leonardo is so very Italian. The declamation must be ‘Italian’, even though it is sung in Swedish. Not German, as it often is in Swedish operas.”

“It’s been awhile since you wrote instrumental music.”

“It is more difficult to write pure instrumental music now. It’s like skiing downhill when you’re used to slalom. But I get support from writing music with a non-musical program. There is nothing inherently ugly about writing program music. But the audience doesn’t have to have the program.”

“Is it possible to use a matter of conscience as an ideal program behind a musical piece, such as writing symphonies when children are starving?”

“I’d be poor at saving starving children. I prefer to make my contribution elsewhere. But there is no need to have a conscience question. I think it’s fun to write music and I allow myself to write music. Ask me what job I dream about and my answer is the one I’m working with right now!”


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