Forgotten Composers, Part 3: Hugo Alfven

In my last post, I praised the debut novel of Tone Almhjell, whose magical world conjured up fairy-tale visions of Norwegian mountains and forests.  Needless to say, I listened to a lot of Grieg, Wagner, Sibelius, and someone you might be less familiar with, Alfven, while reading it.  So as part 3 of my Forgotten Composers series, I wanted to highlight this forgotten late-Romantic Swedish master, each of whose works bear his unmistakable musical thumbprint.  Though he wasn’t an extraordinarily prolific composer, there’s still a good deal of music to explore, particularly in his stand-out orchestral works, including symphonies, tone poems, overtures, and an outlandish ballet.  Within a somewhat narrow late 19th century range, Alfven’s works breathe the heady air of Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, and early Sibelius, with a bit of Scriabin thrown in.  His eclectic style forged no new paths, though I find him an essential bridge from the more pastoral Scandinavian composers such as Grieg and Svendsen, to the modernist masters of Sibelius, Nielsen, Atterberg, etc.  Below I will highlight a few great—and cheap!—downloads to start/expand your collection.  

Symphony No.1, Orchestral Works (Naxos):
Alfven considered himself one of the first Swedish symphonists, as demonstrated in his precocious First Symphony (1897) written when he was 18.  Surprisingly, it’s a fascinating work, strong, virile, yet heartwarmingly Romantic in all the right places.  The piece opens with a somber cello solo before exploding into the main theme, a driving motif for the full orchestra.  The piece becomes more lighthearted, however, and a certain Haydenesque humor is never far away (typical of the lighter Alfven).  The slow movement is based on a short, tragic theme, while the scherzo is light and whimsical.  The finale is exciting and full of bustle, much like Haydn with a late Romantic accent.  In short, it’s an enjoyable piece and very much “young man’s” music.  The disc also contains the suite from his magnificent ballet, The Mountain King, which opens thunderously before giving way to a very magical, Lord of the Rings type theme.  It sounds like an invocation, some arcane spell to awaken the sleeping gods of the mountain.  More beautiful, dance-like pieces follow, until the very last piece plays the ‘hit’ of the piece, the Dance of the Shepherdess, a catchy, almost silly, dance.  Also included is the enjoyable, boisterous Festival Overture and the slightly Brahmsian Uppsala Rhapsody, which is based on student songs (as was Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, which is reminds me of).  A fun, well-played Naxos disc that bears many repeated listenings, and an ideal introduction to the lighter side of Alfven. 

Symphony No.2, Swedish Rhapsody No.1 “Midsummer Vigil” (BIS):
To me, this is one of the great ‘nationalist’ symphonies, as it breathes the air of folklore, myth, and landscape.  It’s another youthful work, composed right on the heels of No.1, but light years ahead of that work in melody, structure, and ambition.  Ironically, the work was born of rejection: Alfven submitted the first three movements as his ‘re-application’ for a music scholarship.  The scholarship was rejected, but only because (as he later discovered) he was required to submit a complete work.  Enraged and out for revenge, he wrote the symphony’s finale, a ‘learned’ prelude and fugue to show them he was a composer of skill and imagination.  Upon the symphony’s successful premier in 1900, the Musical Academy reinstated his scholarship without further ado.  And no wonder! 

The symphony itself is a stunning piece of music, similar in some respects to Sibelius’ much more famous Second Symphony in mood and orchestration.  It opens with a pastoral theme in woodwinds, very optimistic and wide-eyed, until a gorgeous melody takes over on flutes, perhaps his greatest lyrical inspiration.  After this rhapsodic first movement (which again reminds me a bit of Sibelius’ Second), the second movement is a somber, brooding piece, like dark waves lapping against a rocky shore (and indeed, the piece was largely composed by the sea, at the Stockholm archipelago).  A jaunty, agitated scherzo follows (no humor here, unless dark humor), which introduces the long finale, a Prelude and Fugue on a chorale with the words (not sung, of course), “All paths lead to death.”  Indeed, the prelude is a solemn affair, yet the fugue is anything but: exciting, dashing, and finally spine-tingling as the fugue winds its way through the orchestra.  I barely hesitate to call this work a masterpiece, though perhaps a masterpiece that occurred at a time crowded with masterpieces; hard to compete with what Sibelius, Mahler, Nielsen, and Schoenberg were writing at the same time. 

Symphony No. 4 “From the Outermost Skerries”, Festival Overture (Naxos)
Symphony No.4 (1918) is perhaps his best—yet most eccentric—symphony, as it features two wordless soloists who sing throughout the piece. The ‘story’ of the symphony is one of tragic young love, perhaps a dash of Romeo and Juliet, as a young man falls in love, the love is reciprocated by the young woman, but tragedy intervenes and dashes all their hopes in one fatal blow.  Much of this symphony is hewn from the same musical edifice as the Second Symphony and his tone poems, “Legend of the Skerries” and the massive “Dalarapsodi.”  The score is the best musical impression I’ve ever heard of a soaking, gray overcast day with ocean waves crashing in the background—it reeks of dampness.  And also of unrequited passion, as the young man (a tenor) intones a melody of longing for an ideal—another gorgeous Alfven inspiration. His love song is gradually answered by the young woman (a soprano) singing the same song, though with her own distinct twist.  The symphony roughly combines elements of introduction, scherzo, slow movement, and finale in the manner of Sibelius’ Seventh, though as the music washes over you it sounds more like an enormous Straussian tone poem.  Either way it’s a gorgeous bon-bon of high Romanticism, sharing the same sound world as Scriabin’s more famous Poem of Ecstasy—and certainly capturing the same mood of sexual longing and frustration.  Humorously, the album couples this with the jolly, even farcical Festival Overture (not the same overture as in set with Symphony No.1), which highlights Alfven’s other side. 

Symphony No.3, Dalarapsodi, Suite from The Prodigal Son (BIS):

For the final suggestion, another Jarvi/Stockholm disc featuring his brightest symphony, No.3, along with his most dramatic tone poem, the Swedish Rhapsody No.3 “Dalarapsodi”, and the suite from his late ballet on Swedish folksongs, The Prodigal Son.  Starting from last to first, the suite is very tuneful, easy-going fare, almost like Grieg with some modern twang.  Not much of the essential Alfven here other than his trademark orchestration.  The ‘big’ work is the Dalarapsodi, a darker-hued piece capturing this region (known for its carved horses) and the dramatic stories that have unfolded here.  The first third of the piece is dark and brooding—a trademark of Alfven—but this falls to a middle section of ferocious drama, concluding in a wicked danse macabre that unleashes Alfven’s full commandof early 20th century orchestration.  The piece then sinks into the dark slumber from which it emerged, like a culture whose stories are fading with each generation.  It’s an enormously impressive piece, though requires a few listens to grasp the overall flow of the piece.

By contrast, the Third Symphony is all light and air—inspired by his sojourn in Italy where he met his second wife.  There’s a little of Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony in the first movement, which is all cheerful bustle, full of optimistic major-key melody and drama.  The slow movement is a gorgeous love song, certainly alluding to his wife, and drifts quietly through the orchestra—again, somewhat like the Nocturne from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The scherzo is a close cousin to that of the First Symphony, cheeky and humorous; the finale is where the symphony truly shines, with an arresting fanfare that signals in a majestic march which gets quite dramatic by the end.  Yet it’s all in fun, and Alfven momentarily dispels all his doom and gloom for the promise—however fleeting—of love and renewal. 

There are other works available on both the BIS and NAXOS labels, including a Fifth Symphony (which he struggled with in old age) and some film and stage music.  But I think the above works represent the best of Alfven, and why he deserves to return to our concert halls alongside the more familiar names of Grieg, Nielsen, and Sibelius.