September’s Swedish Symphony Series 2016

This one has been brewing for some time. So many series… but I feel like it’s a good way to organize works into a little package, a timeline that tells a story, not just of music (“This was written, then that was written; see how they’re different?”) but of the people who wrote the music, how they were interconnected and influenced or assisted (or in some cases hindered) each other.

The first few names any average human would rattle off if shown some Rorschach that said “Classical Music” would almost definitely be German or Austrian composers. There’s Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, of course, but also Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Bruckner, Mahler, and many more, like Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, etc. The others who might get mentioned along with them (Chopin, Liszt) are likely, then, to be continental Europeans (French, Italian, Hungarian), if not from Russia, whence come Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff and many more.

But what about their neighbors to the north? I know this blog has focused to a great extent on those German-speaking composers, but even still we’ve barely begun to discuss them. That being said, there are other musical cultures and societies who’ve made superb contributions to the world of classical music, and are still somehow rather under-appreciated if not just directly ignored or unknown, and I’m not entirely sure why. (Take note, speaking of those German composers, that the surprise inclusion of Mendelssohn at the end of August was not without purpose. You’ll see.)

I’d only had some very limited experience listening to Swedish composers, but there were a few relatively recent developments that made me more interested in hearing works from Swedish composers, and am I ever glad I gave them some time.

For one, I was able to attend the Asian premiere of Gustav Allan Pettersson’s fourth symphony, conducted by Christian Lindberg, who’d worked to prepare the composer’s unfinished first symphony for performance, and has recorded it and many of the composer’s other symphonies. This concert came at a time when I was very interested in other, unknown, “unsung” if you will, neglected composers, in search of who might be the next great symphonist. Lindberg comes along with his pre-concert lecture and pitches Pettersson as “the next Mahler”, even if their music doesn’t have any direct similarity aside from their scope and extremes of expression. Taking a first pass to a symphony like Pettersson’s fourth and getting it in only one listen is a bit difficult, but it was a fascinating piece, and I left determined to learn more about this guy.

Second was a less direct, less recent happening, the listing of composers on Wikipedia’s  Curse of the Ninth article who had completed exactly nine symphonies. Among them was Kurt Atterberg, whose music I began to listen to, having never heard the name. I won’t say much more there, but both of these composers will be making appearances this month.

Lastly, it’s that I noticed somehow that in most of my blog traffic, I have a pretty regular number of visits from Sweden, almost every day, and while it isn’t a ton, it’s very consistent, and it seems I have a handful of readers there who at least click around with some regularity, so… This month’s for you, Swedish readers (except you might know about all these folks already. Why do I say that?)

Interestingly, many of these composers have comments on their Wikipedia pages or biographies or official “Society of so’n’so” websites that “So’n’so is virtually unknown outside of Sweden” or “… outside of Scandinavia” or “rarely played outside of Northern Europe.” And again, I’m not sure why. Maybe you guys are keeping your musical gems to yourselves, but the more I dig for this or that composer who wrote 6 or 8 or 13 symphonies, I find that there is more and more to listen to, usually at least of an interesting nature, if not very quickly compelling.

Instead of touching on both the series and the works of each composer chronologically (which would mean writing about each of the composer’s first symphonies [since I haven’t discussed any of their works yet] in the order in which they were published), I’ve tried to make a really good case for Swedish composers here, so we’ll be jumping around in time and it won’t just be a collection of first symphonies. At the time of this writing, I still have a few composers who’ve made the cut, but whose work I haven’t decided on yet. Which symphony? A quartet too? Or a piano trio, for the weekend?

In preparing this series, then, I’ve more or less had to take at least a lingering glance at most of the symphonic output of the composers on the ballot, which has been exciting, but in some cases very difficult to decide which work I’ll feature. There are some close ones, and I may have an ‘honorable mentions’ in the coming months if it really comes down to it. At the very least, it’s a busy month, with the first few weeks getting three  featured pieces instead of the standard one or two (hasn’t been only one for some time I guess), and I do feel bad to cram so much music into a short time period, but the articles aren’t going anywhere, so you can come back and enjoy them at your leisure. Please do.

All that being said, we can’t discuss everyone. I have sticky notes all over desks and walls and notebooks of composers’ symphonic and chamber outputs, with dates and listening notes, and while I feel confident that I’ll at least be hitting the high points, there are a few composers who will only get represented on weekend posts, either with chamber works or other smaller pieces, either because they didn’t write symphonies or because that work is considered one of their most famous, so stay tuned for some superb Swedish symphonies in September. See you soon.

(cover image: Suorvajaure from Vakkotavare, in Stora Sjöfallet Park, northern Sweden, by Alexandre Buisse)


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