Saturday, 21 January 2012

Swedish Rhapsody

The Northernmost nations of Europe all seem to have a clear candidate for their country's greatest classical composer. The Finns have Sibelius, the Norwegians have Grieg, the Danes have Nielsen, even the Icelanders have Leifs. The exception is Sweden. Some would say their greatest classical composer is the glorious early Romantic Franz Berwald, others the late Romantic Wilhelm Stenhammar. (Only adding the word 'classical' puts Benny Andersson out of contention!) More rarely, a claim goes in for another late Romantic, Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960). He's the composer of a piece that seems to have a place in Swedish music that, say, Smetana's Vltava has in Czech music, or Sibelius's Finlandia in Finland, or Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody No.1 in Romania: the Swedish Rhapsody No.1 (Midsummer Vigil)

This is a tuneful symphonic poem depicting the magic of Midsummer night in Sweden, where darkness barely falls and people love to party!

It opens with a tune many of you will recognise - a bright and breezy one on clarinet, played over pizzicato strings and to the accompaniment of a wind drone. It's got a folk-like quality that proves to be characteristic of the themes of the Swedish Rhapsody.  (The American country music guitarist Chet Atkins took in up, and it was also featured in an episode of The Simpsons). Other woodwinds join in, ending with a bassoon, before the orchestra as a whole belts out the tune with enthusiasm. It's then given a bit of symphonic development as the partying begins to get into full swing. Solo woodwinds, with a definite hint of tipsiness, introduce phrases from the next theme, which the brass then take up and begin to run with. This is another very catchy, vigorous tune that once heard isn't easily forgotten. (Does it remind anyone else of that Christmas perennial, Stop the Cavalry by Jona Lewie?). It lends itself to contrapuntal treatment and a rather drunken fugue breaks out as a result, climaxing riotously. It dies away, suggesting the crowd of revellers temporarily dispersing, as fragments of the main theme are heard. 

A slow, quiet passage, presumably painting in sound the brief fall of darkness, adds a touch of Wagnerian harmony to what is a piece whose prime influence is, very obviously, Grieg. A cor anglais, with help from the harp, then adds the flavour of romance with a beautiful new melody, somewhat wistful in character. A solo horn continues the romance before the strings shimmer with the light of the returning day, climaxing in a depiction of sunrise. This is a gorgeous passage. The painting above, by the composer himself, captures some of its mood. 

The people re-begin the merriment with another new tune - a charming, light-as-a-feather one, initially scored as if it had come straight out of a Tchaikovsky ballet but soon bursting out into celebration. A final folkdance-like tune, first sounding very much like one of those hardanger fiddle tunes by Grieg, accompanied by a heavy drone effect, bursts in and carries the partying to a heady conclusion.

The Swedish Rhapsody is so full of good tunes and so well constructed that its popularity is easy to understand. 

Outside Sweden, Alfvén isn't known for much else. The Elegy from his incidental music to Gustav II Adolf is the other piece you are most likely to hear. It's very much in the same vein as Grieg (in elegiac mood) and is, I hope you'll agree (if you click on the link), a lovely piece of music. 

You might also have come across the ballet suite, The Mountain King (Bergakungen). This score occupies much the same territory as Grieg's Peer Gynt, with its trolls and herd-maids - and not just in its story. My favourite here is Summer Rainwhere romantic warmth meets impressionism and delightful scoring. The other movements are winning too, with a lively piece of Tchaikovsky-like Rococo charm in the outer sections of the Herd-Maid's Danceplus a grotesque Trolls' Dance and another lovely evocation of a Swedish Midsummer's night (which follows straight on from the Trolls' Dance link).

This is all cheerful, entertaining music - far from the spirit of Ingmar Bergman. I'm sure there is a more serious side to Alfvén's music (and I hope to explore it) - given that he wrote five symphonies - but what price seriousness when you can get such pleasure from the lighter, brighter side of music?

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