Swedish music in a nutshell - An introduction to Swedish orchestral music

Published: 2001-06-12 by Stellan Sagvik

by Rolf Haglund


Sweden already had music 3,000 years ago, as witness the rock carvings of the Bronze Age and the bronze lurs, bone flutes and other instruments which have been unearthed by archaeologists. In the Viking era, a thousand years ago, there were lyres - bridges of amber have been found - and liturgical music arrived with missionaries in the 11th century.
      Sweden came into contact with great European music as a result of the 16th century Vasa monarchs recruiting musicians from central and southern Europe. King Erik XIV (1533-1577) was something of a composer himself.

      Sweden emerged conclusively from isolation during the 17th century, as one of the great powers of Europe. The German Andreas Düben took service with the Swedish Royal Orchestra in 1620, and for nearly a century, starting in 1640, that orchestra was directed by members of the Düben family: Andreas himself, his son Gustav and two grandsons, in that order. The Düben collection of music (now in Uppsala university library) is a vital source of knowledge concerning the whole period.

      Intercourse with other countries expanded still further under Queen Christina, with her keen interest in the theatre. The Italian Vincenzo Albrici, an operatic maestro di cappella, settled in Sweden in 1652 and wrote the first major composition to Swedish words - Fader vår (a setting of the Lord's Prayer). Then, in 1674, Gustav Düben set a number of poems by Samuel Columbus to music in Odae Sveticae.

      In the 18th century too, Swedish music was dominated by foreign talents, but the country produced a great composer of its own in Johan Helmich Roman (1694-1758), dubbed "the father of Swedish music", mainly by virtue of his Drottningholm Music and Swedish Mass. A gifted contemporary, Johan Agrell (1701-1765), made a career for himself in Germany from the age of 22. Later on came the notable, Haydn-influenced quartet writer Johan Wikmanson (1753-1800).

      Two music-loving rulers - Lovisa Ulrika (sister of Frederick the Great) and, still more so, Gustav III - went on recruiting foreign musicians for Sweden, including for example the Italian Francesco Uttini and the German Hinrich Philip Johnsen, Ferdinand Zellbell the Younger, J.G. Naumann, J.C.F. Haeffner, the Abbé Vogler and J.M. Kraus. The first public concerts were given by the Royal Orchestra in 1731. The activities of the Utile Dulci Order led partly to the creation of the Royal Academy of Music in 1771. Above all it was opera that flourished, and 1773 saw the opening of the Royal Opera in Stockholm. In Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795) Sweden was blessed with a great musician-poet who composed vivid scenes of contemporary Stockholm life.

      The musical achievement of the 18th century was ended by the assassination of Gustav III in 1792, but in the 19th century musical activity began to develop among the middle classes. Amateur instrumental music and singing flourished, frequently deriving inspiration from Sweden's traditional music. The most remarkable composers include the polymath author Carl Jonas Love Almqvist (1793-1866), with the romanticism and nature-mysticism of his Songes for solo voice and his equally idiosyncratic piano pieces, Adolf Fredrik Lindblad (1801-1878), who was familiar with the works of the German Romantics had himself composed two symphonies, four string quartets, an opera (Frondörerna) and any number of songs - "there is a great deal of work, method and thought in this", Schumann wrote, "it possesses all the definite merits which the public will have no dealings with", but above all Franz Berwald (1796-1868) - an outstanding symphonic composer, even by European standards. It was not Schumann but at least a reviewer in his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik who found that Berwald, with his "florid polyphonic style" actually surpassed Mendelssohn: "In all things he is himself; melody, harmony and rhythm appear with the imprint of an entirely independent national character".

      Starting in 1850, Leipzig became a place of pilgrimage for a long succession of Swedish composers wishing to study at the feet of Mendelssohn and Schumann, foremost among them being the symphonic composer Ludvig Norman (1831-1885) and that great emulator of Swedish folk idiom, August Söderman (1832-1876). "Here in Stockholm", the former wrote to the latter, "one lives in a musical desert, not to say fog". Ivar Hallström (1826-1901) created a National Romantic Swedish operatic form, above all with his Den bergtagna, which was an unparalleled success and dethroned Naumann's Gustav Vasa from its position of "national opera". The five violin sonatas by Emil Sjögren (1853-1918), and his 200 or so songs, with their diversity of mood and lyrical intensity, profoundly influenced the next generation of Swedish composers. At about the turn of the century, however, the National Romantic ideal - centring on solo songs and chamber music - branched into more large-scale manifestations, which led to the formation of orchestral societies in Stockholm (1902) and Göteborg (1905).

      Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (1867-1942) inspired by Wagner and Nietzsche, tried to create a music drama on traditional, National Romantic foundations, but his mordant music criticism became more influential than his own music. The sensuous and subjective programme music of Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960), with his superb mastery of instrumentation, owed certain features to Richard Strauss; Alfvén was also an outstanding choral composer. There is profounder originality to be discovered, however, in the delicately lyrical but composite style of Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) - combining spontaneity of communication with classical poise; it is fair to say that this music comes close to the idea of a Nordic light, of clarity and detachment.

      High romanticism and a continental, more artfully balanced tonal language were united in the succeeding generation, among whom a patent engineer by the name of Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974), inspired by impressionism but rational in his own output, deserves mention for his nine symphonies, the sixth of which came to be known as "The Dollar Symphony" after winning the Columbia Record Company's composition prize for the Schubert Centenary in 1928, while Edvin Kallstenius (1881-1967) successfully combined an original, "volcanic" experience of Schubert and Beethoven with a personally evolved 12-tone technique in his last compositions, but in which the most profoundly personal composer was Ture Rangström (1884-1947), with his four original symphonies and his great and variegated output of lieder. This generation also took the initiative in forming a Society of Swedish Composers (FST) and a Swedish copyright organisation (STIM).

      Hilding Rosenberg (1882-1985) and Gösta Nystroem (1890-1966) rank as the the first representatives of a Swedish avant-garde on German and French lines. Rosenberg worked his way through a long succession of styles and ideals until he found classical maturity in a personally modified 12-tone technique, as for example in the last six of his 12 string quartets. Open-mindedness, concentration and musical craftsmanship were the watchwords in his long career a a composer. As a teacher he did much to influence the Swedish post-war generation. Nystroem, who was also a pictorial artist and a personal friend of Braque and Léger, introduced French ideals with Honegger as his main guiding star, but he was emulated by few in Sweden. The sea, with its wide horizon and ceaseless motion was an oft-recurring theme in his music, coupled with such ideals as uniformity and intensification.

      For a long time, however, musical developments in Sweden followed different paths. In about 1930 the intiative was seized by a generation of new objectivity and, to some extent, of Neo-Classicism. Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-86) declared his intention of merely amusing and entertaining, and in doing so sought to create new Mozartian buoyancy until, by way of Neo-Classicist, Neo-Romantic and gradually pared-down ideals, he more or less returned to the starting point. Gunnar de Frumerie (1908-87) attempted to combine something of the pure technique of the Bach partitas with the expressive harmony of the Neo-Russian school, shaping his own Neo-Romantic ideal, for example, in the opera Singoalla, though consistently with a wider palette and more ardent emotions than Larsson. Finally they both came to seem equally alien, though admirable, to a rationalist world. Dag Wirén (1905-86), whose starting point resembled Larsson's pioneered a technique of metamorphosis - the extraction of perpetual variation from a limited
      material - which achieved its most remarkable manifestation in the Fourth Symphony and the Fourth String Quartet (1953), in which the method had a freshness which it tended to lose later on. Erland von Koch (b. 1910) gives the impression of attempting to combine all these tendencies, often with the dash of Swedish folk music added, but for the most part he demurs adventuring into such deep waters as the other members of his generation.

      After the Second World War, a new generation of composers - most of them pupils of Hilding Rosenberg (to whose fame they gave a new lease of life) - gathered round Karl-Birger Blomdahl in the Monday Group, as it was known, to study Hindemith's Unterweisung im Tonsatz. Before long, however, they became propagandists for 12-tone technique, serialism and a general European 1950s modernism.

      Blomdahl himself (1916-68) was probably, in his heart of hearts, a temperamental and dynamic expressionist, whose creativity culminated in the highly charged third symphony, Facetter, which is dominated by serial technique, and of course in the "space opera" Aniara, set against the background of cold war fears of a nuclear holocaust. The music of Sven-Erik Bäck (1919-94) is more rhetorical in character, and its immediacy is often counterbalanced by the composer's mystically tinged Christian belief. Bäck has also played a remarkable part in spearheading a renewal of church music in Sweden, at the same time as his music is often akin to the spontaneous originality of his teacher Petrassi (not forgetting his other teacher, Hilding Rosenberg). Ingvar Lidholm (b. 1921) is, fundamentally, more of an out-and-out romantic - of the same kind as C.J.L. Almqvist or Strindberg - which perhaps explains why he so often employs deftly woven structures of frequently disparate elements of sound, blending them into a highly
      dramatic diversity.

      These three composers left an unusually profound imprint on the hole of Swedish music in the mid-1950s. Their success overshadowed the existence of other, no less profoundly original, members of the Monday Group. Most original of them all was Claude Loyola Allgén (1920-90) who, without any of the compositions ever really being performed, was a full-time composer for more than 50 years. His ruthlessly difficult music, often branded as unplayable, has, however, proved both enjoyable and boldly ahead of its time. Its difficulties can very well be overcome by musicians who are prepared to penetrate Allgén's profoundly original and, for the most part, contrapuntally conceived structures. Allgén lived in more or less self-imposed poverty and was burned to death in his home. Göte Carlid was only 32 years old when he died of a blood desease in 1953, and all he really had time to do was to arouse curiosity regarding a boldly innovative approach to music, to some extent influenced by Varèse and Boulez. A third odd man out in the Monday Group, Sven-Eric Johanson (1919-97), on the other hand, was to produce an unending flow of music of every imaginable kind, though lingering on the foundations of 12-tone technique. But in spite of the mostly high quality of his music and in spite of his musicianly playfuness, he has been unjustly looked down on - perhaps he never gave the public a chance to study him in great depth, because there was always new music waiting to be played.

      For all these 12-tone propagandists, a long time was to pass before a pinoneer of the technique with first-hand knowledge - from the circle of Alban Berg in Vienna - was able to gain a hearing for this music in Sweden. His name was Hans Holewa. He was born in Vienna in 1905 and became a naturalised Swede in 1948. When he arrived here, as a refugee in 1937, he was probably the only person in Sweden who knew what 12-tone composition was. For many years he worked as a copyist at Swedish Radio, until he was nominated Composer of the Year in 1964-65, after which he came into his own. He died in 1991. Recognition in the Swedish music community came, on the whole, just as slowly for other immigrants, such as the great Estonian symphony composer Eduard Tubin (1905-82) and the German Jew Werner Wolf Glaser (b. 1910).

      The generation which came after the Monday Group soon clashed with it, which gave rise to acrid debates. Lars-Erik Larsson had become Professor of Compositon in Stockholm in 1947, and a whole generation of new composers was now reared in his spirit, with Shostakovich and Alban Berg as their guiding stars instead of Schönberg and Webern. This company was hardly less motley than the Monday Group. It included an objective expressionist in the spirit of Shostakovich, namely Jan Carlstedt (b. 1926), who headed the attacks on the "one-sidedness and collectivism" of concert programmes at that time during the Blomdahl era. Hans Eklund (1927-99) was to write numerous excoriating symphonies of protest against uniformitarian tendencies in society, not least after his coeval, the talanted and sensivite sound poet Bo Linde, (1933-70) had been "broken by the compact resistance of the Stockholm coteries"; Linde's music was instantly awarded the rank of genius following his death in 1970 at the age of 37. The group also had a lone wolf and multi-writer of romantic disposition in Maurice Karkoff (b.1927), who despite his wealth of originality, his productivity and his ardent intensity, can only be termed neglected.

      The renewal which opened Sweden to new continental tendencies, albeit quite reluctantly received, came from composers who are partly contemporaries or seniors of those we have just mentioned. The polyhistor Bengt Hambraeus (1928-2000) introduced Sweden to the ideas of world music, not least through his radio broadcasts on Indian raga, Balinese gamelan, Japanese court music, African pygmy music and innumerable other exotic genres, while at the same time breaking a lance for Reger, the late Liszt and Varèse. He became a pioneer - and not only in Sweden - of modern organ technique, of a kind of acoustic frescoes, often with a diversity of quotations from music history - as in Rencontres, a piece for orchestra written to mark the bicentenary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1971. His has been the curious fate of automatically ranking among the pioneers of the international avant-garde but being relatively little played in Sweden, at all events outside Stockholm. For more than 20 years now he has been Professor of Composition at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

      A dense, seething music of blocks of sound in slow surges, indeed presaging Ligeti, was already being composed by Åke Hermanson (1923-96) around 1960, partly under the inspiration of Sibelius. Later on this music developed into intuitive universal visions, as in the pieces Ultima and Utopia. Hermanson too ran into a great deal of resistance and relative indifference.

      The opposite fate was in store for that remarkable, almost ecstatic symphonic writer Allan Pettersson (1911-80), who with raging intensity and tremendous orchestral blocks, defying disease and all manner of injustices, composed 16 symphonies of almost Mahlerian proportions. During the 1970s the Swedish music community virtually killed his music by kindness, whereas today it is neglected in Sweden at the same time as it is undergoing a remarkable rebirth on the continent, especially in Germany.

      Another success which misfired was that of Bo Nilsson (b. 1937). As a self-taught 18-year-old, he caused a sensation in Germany in 1956, was promptly co-opted by the international avant-garde as a kind of talented clan musician, wrote a succession of exquisite-sounding, vibrantly sensitive pieces, but, during the 1970s, was more or less forgotten. Much the same happened to Karl-Erik Welin (1934-92), who after studying with David Tudor, among others, became one of the world's foremost interpreters of radical organ and piano music, whereas his own compositions became more and more explicitly romantic and anti-virtuoso. Two very talented pioneers of instrumental theatre and cross-culture intermedia music like Jan Bark (b. 1934) and Folke Rabe (b. 1935) have also, despite sporadic comebacks, disappeared into the shadows.

      By contrast, Arne Mellnäs (b. 1933), who also helped to introduce Sweden to, above all, cross-culture American avant-gardism, has, with unfailing craftsmanship, mastered ever-larger musical forms and, finally, opera. The same goes for Daniel Börtz (b. 1943) and Hans Gefors (b. 1952).

      One genre in which a number of Swedish artists have attained international prominence is that of text-sound compositions, with profoundly original exponents such as Öyvind Fahlström (1928-76), Åke Hodell (1919-2000), Bengt Emil Johnson (b. 1936), Lars-Gunnar Bodin (b. 1935) and Sten Hanson (b. 1936). Swedish electro-acoustic music has also scored great international successes through musicians like Åke Parmerud (b. 1953), Rolf Enström (b. 1951) and Pär Lindgren (b. 1952). The last mentioned is also a leading exponent of computer music in Sweden.

      Composition professors Sven-David Sandström in Stockholm (b. 1942) and Jan Sandström in Piteå (b. 1954) have in recent years joined the most frequently played Swedish composers. The former provoked an immense debate through his Requiem (1980), with its profound pessimism concerning the human condition, but has since then chosen to meet his audience half way, often with complex pastiches of great classical music. The latter began composing under the influence of American minimalism but has come to be best known for his effective instrumental concertos.

      One of Sweden's most interesting composers at present is Anders Eliasson (b. 1947), with his poetically intense, self-immolating and visionary music concerning the vulnerability of the individual human being and the inexhaustible riches of nature. Mikael Edlund (b. 1950) works mostly with chamber music of immense structural refinement which materialises with infinite attention to every detail but, in return, conveys a feeling of proximity to nature, of liberty and poetic concretion. Lars Sandberg (b. 1955) began, as a pupil of Xenakis, by delivering scores of formidable density from which the musician was asked to shape a version of his own. His music, however, has become more and more specifically intuitive, simple, straightforward and basically humanist. With greater originality he spearheads a music which seeks to communicate actively and on equal terms with each independent listener.

      One can say of all three that in their art they appeal to man's profoundest stratum of fantasy and personal experience, creating their art with the strongest belief in the forces of culture and humanity.

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