KARL-BIRGER BLOMDAHL’s Viola Concerto - An introduction

Published: 2001-10-10 by Stellan Sagvik

By Christina Tobeck (Transl. Sven Borei) (Published in Nutida Musik no. 4, 1988/89)


During the last two seasons we have had the opportunity of listening to two concertos for viola here in Stockholm, both broadcast on the Music Radio. One was Alfred Schnittke’s presented at an “Evenemangskonsert” in December 1987 and the other Per Nørgård’s played by Björn Sjögren during the Nordic Music Days last autumn. It’s not by chance that both of these are contemporary works. During the last ten years quite a few of our present-day composers have been moved to write for the alto of the violin family, including Allan Pettersson, Krzysztof Penderecki and Wolfgang Rihm. The list might also include the previous generation’s Paul Hindemith, an active viola player who has composed a number of works for his own instrument.

It is worth noting that a violinist can choose from an almost unlimited number of concertos, ranging from Corelli and Vivaldi to contemporary composers like those named above. However, a viola player has a much more limited repertoire. One reason is that tonally, the viola is a relatively weak instrument which places special demands on the composer. As always, creating a balance between the solo instrument and the orchestra is vital in order to ensure that the soloist doesn’t drown in the large, distinctly more expansive orchestral sound. This is especially true with the viola since it does not have the brilliance and mobility of a violin or the large, expressive sonority of a cello. Still, the viola can boast a somewhat veiled allurement all its own, as shown in such passages as the introduction of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony. Indeed, you might say that the viola is the philosopher of the violin family.

Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s viola concerto was composed in 1941 at a time when he had not yet completed many works. His debut as a composer came in the autumn 1939 when the Göteborg Quartet played the first performance of Blomdahl’s first violin concerto on the radio. Endre Wolf played first violin and the viola player in the ensemble was Tage Broström, an interesting face in light of what follows. Originally Karl-Birger had moved from Växjö in southern Sweden to Stockholm in the mid-30s in order to pursue musical studies under Hilding Rosenberg with a goal of becoming a conductor. It was rather late for him to have decided to be a professional musician, the problem being that at 18 his only real musical experience was with the school orchestra. Still, at an age when most other youths were applying to the universities, Blomdahl began studying music. And as luck would have it, Hilding Rosenberg was both a knowledgeable and sensitive teacher, whose efforts with this highly motivated student soon brought results.

In 1941, Blomdahl was accepted to the conductor classes at the Music Conservatory as the current University College of Music in Stockholm was then called. By that time he had already attracted attention as a composer, in addition to the string quartet named above, his Symphonic Dances had been performed by the Göteborg Orchestra Association. Blomdahl’s conducting teacher was Tor Mann, for many years the primary conductor at the Göteborg Orchestra. They had probably had indirect contact previously through Hilding Rosenberg and now Blomdahl would study three years for him. In the autumn 1944, just a few months after completing his studies, Karl-Birger had his debut as a conductor leading the Chamber Orchestra of Sweden’s Radio Service in a live broadcast concert. At that time it was always a question of live broadcasts, either from public events or as in this case from a studio. In addition to a Sinfonia by Thomas Augustin Arne and Symphony by Luigi Boccherini, the first performance of Blomdahl’s own Viola Concerto was on the programme with Tage Broström as soloist.

By now a prominent violin and viola performer, Tage Broström had been second concert master in the viola section of the Stockholm Concert Association for several years. But two years earlier in December 1941, he had played the first performance of yet another Swedish viola concerto, namely the Gösta Nystroem work composed in the summer 1940. This premiere was also a radio performance conducted by Tor Mann. We know now that Blomdahl was working on his concerto as early as the late winter 1941 with the guidance of his teacher Hilding Rosenberg. The next year Rosenberg himself composed a concerto for viola and orchestra, meaning that over the course of three years, the same number of Swedish viola concertos saw the light of day! There is probable personal cause for this: Rosenberg and Nystroem were of the same generation and close friends, both knew that friend of new music Tor Mann, as well as Tage Broström. Though the latter was active in Göteborg before moving to Stockholm, the soloist at the first performance of Rosenberg’s concerto was viola player Lince Berglund.

In an advance interview on Röster i Radio (Voices on the Radio), Blomdahl explained why his first solo concerto was composed for just the viola by stating that the work was “really written because there isn’t very much to choose from in just that area.” In other words, the motivation was a desire to broaden the repertoire for just this instrument. That Tage Broström created that motivation in all three composers seems a reasonable supposition.

The early 40s was a dark period, dominated by the world war raging outside Sweden’s borders. Like many other younger men, Blomdahl was called up for long periods with one of these many breaks in the composition effort coming in the middle of March 1941. The uncertainty was hard to bear and though feelings of desperation and despair grew, in July 1941 he was able to pick up again where he had left off and eventually complete the concerto.

But that did not end his worries, for now he had to get it performed. He hoped in vain to get the piece accepted for the 1942/43 season of Konsertföreningen (the Concert Association). While he waited for word about his own concerto, Rosenberg’s was given its first performance in a radio concert in February 1943. And about year and a half later on September 7, 1944, it was Blomdahl’s turn on the air: the importance of radio for the new music cannot be overstated.

In a review, composer and viola player Sten Broman opined that “there are both thematic and rhythmic concepts of great value in this new composition and its only weakness is that the solo voice is often driven up to such an unnatural level that the piece most likely will seldom be played.” Indeed, as far as can be determined, Blomdahl’s Viola Concerto had only been played that one time until it was revived this year by Björn Sjögren and the Radio Symphony. To that extent, Broman was right. However, it’s not certain that his reason was equally correct, for under the last 40 years playing techniques have developed significantly, gradually extending the limits of what is possible.

His choice of writing for a chamber orchestra with two flutes and piccolo, two French horns plus strings was very likely dictated by the nature of the solo instrument. The three movement form of the concerto follows a classical structure: an initial, lively movement is followed by a slower one and the concerto is closed out with a rapid Allegro movement. In spite of the darkness of the times, the tonal language is lyrical and sometimes even fiddler-like.

At the start of the first movement a soft and lissom viola sings over the light figures of the accompaniment. With its short breaths and inherent energy, the melody approaches perpetual motion. The movement is rhythmical and vigorously dance-like, with its lively and captivating main theme hinting at a classical simplicity. In certain, more expressive sections the melodics move further and wider.

The second movement begins with an evocative cantilena supported by low string chords tinged by French horn sonorities. The music is in base lyrically eloquent, though already at the start there is a certain restlessness in the tonal language. A tension is created between the melancholy cantabile sections with their occasional arabesques and the more energetic ones. As the movement progresses, so does the drama, a direction created by increasing compactness, powerful accents and energetically repeated notes, all over the tonal firmness and stability of the pedal point in the cellos and basses. The tonal language is mostly tonal. Towards the end, the evocative nature of the beginning returns and the music fades out in peace and harmony.

The start of the finale is in stark contrast to the end of the middle movement: powerful and strong. The music gains motive force from subtle and accentuated intimations. After only a few measures there is a transformation to a playful, airy tonality created by trills and short, light notes. The intensity grows to its first culmination, after which the soloist picks up a lyrical, cantabile melody against a light back-drop. The finale also boasts a solo cadence which mirrors the movement as a whole in its alternation between singability and powerful restlessness, as well as in its choice of musical material. The sometimes garish instrumentation and lack of musical respect is in much reminiscent of Prokofiev.

By the time of the first performance of the Viola Concerto, Karl-Birger Blomdahl had already composed two additional larger works, one a symphony and the other a concerto grosso. The last work has also been performed in recent years, but the 1943 symphony remains a mystery. There would seem to be more music to discover from Blomdahl’s early production!


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