Adolf Fredrik Lindblad: Symphony No. 1 in C

performed by the Uppsala Kammarorkester under Gérard Korsten or here by the Stockholm Philharmonic under Okko Kamu

An exciting symphony to begin an exciting series. Here we are with our first Swedish Symphony in September. This is, obviously, the earliest work to come in the series, and we’re starting by discussing a thrillingly wonderful symphony.

Adolf Fredrik Lindblad was born of “an unknown father” on February 1, 1801. He started studying piano and flute from a young age, and at the age of fifteen wrote a flute concerto that earned him some recognition. His foster-father sent him off to Hamburg to learn a trade, but he returned a year later. He enrolled at the music school at Uppsala University  after returning to Sweden, but was suggested by “by Malla Silfverstolpe, a Swedish writer and salon hostess” (of all people) to go study music under one Carl Friedrich Zelter in Berlin, so he went back to Germany, where he made the acquaintance of one Felix Mendelssohn. By this time, Lindblad was in his early twenties, and Mendelssohn was seventeen. Wikipedia says that “The two became friends and would frequently write to each other after Lindblad returned to Sweden in 1827.”

His time in Germany apparently strengthened his desire to focus on music. He opened a piano school that he ran for a few decades, and eventually became the Swedish Royal family’s music instructor, giving him the financial freedom to focus on composition. His main focus, and the music for which he is best known, was on Swedish lieder. Are they still lieder if they’re not in German? Swedish songs. He actually earned the nickname ‘the Swedish Schubert’, and Wiki says “His songs are described as genuinely Swedish without resorting to folk tunes already in existence. A star student of his, one “Jenny Lind, also known as “the Swedish Nightingale” played a part in the success of his songs.

But we begin with his first symphony, completed in 1832. The first movement was performed alone in 1831, but the premiere of the full piece wasn’t until March 25, 1832, and it was not a huge success. I don’t see how this is possible, but it wasn’t until Lindblad’s good friend Mendelssohn conducted a performance of the work with his Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1839 that earned the piece some praise, notably from Robert Schumann, earning it eventual publication by Breitkopf & Härtel.

Perhaps in an attempt to associate the Swede with the Great Masters of the time, many people mention his time in Berlin and the likely influence of people like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Granted, this influence would have been hard to avoid in the music scene in the early 19th century, especially having spent time in Germany, but I don’t want to refer to him in context of other composers, because he is rightly composing in his own manner.

The most obvious thing about the music, from the very first few bars, is a crisp, bright, invigorating energy that is unmistakably Classical sounding. By the time this symphony had come around, all of Beethoven’s symphonies had graced the world with their presence, and Mendelssohn was at least in the process of writing the symphonies after his first, so it’s a time many people would suggest as the beginning of the Romantic era. Numerous symphonies of either Beethoven (3 [my personal choice] or 5 or 9?) or Schubert (9) are considered to have heralded the beginning of the Romantic era, but I want to draw your attention to something aside from labels.

If you know me personally, we may have had this discussion in the past about how Beethoven’s ninth (choral) symphony was initially bad for the music scene. It was such a game changer that for decades afterward, very few people wrote symphonies. Franz Liszt started doing his symphonic poem thing, and there weren’t many people (at least who gain much recognition) who were writing symphonies. Lindblad was one of them, less than a decade after Beethoven dropped the mic on the symphony by making it a huge choral affair. And maybe that’s one of the reasons you haven’t heard this incredible work.

The first moments of the work is a burst of sound and a call from a solo horn that’s echoed from others before the music jumps headlong into a bright, cheerful and refreshing, energetic theme full of confidence and good nature. It’s buoyant and buzzing with vitality. There’s an incredible amount of contrast and clarity in the writing, in either the two themes of the first movement, or how it bounces between delicate passages and bursts of vibrant sound. There ‘s a bucolic nature to the work, but not the kind that makes you want to lay back and fall asleep under the shade of a tree. It’s more like running full speed down a hill, playing a frantic game of hide and seek, taking a cool sip from a stream somewhere and continuing to explore. Strings are crisp and clear, but never get in the way of the textures created by a flute or a clarinet here and there. There’s clear, effective use of small cells of music, like that brief horn call that reappears later, and the music seems just to develop naturally from that one bud. There’s an economy of content, but all used in a refreshing, exciting way to make for a wonderful first movement. It’s hard to believe that this didn’t excite or even engage audiences at the time. I know I wouldn’t make unfair parallels, but it does remind me a bit of the positivity and confidence of something like the finale of Beethoven’s fifth.

Anyway, after a first movement of loud and softs and bursts of sound, horn calls, and a lively coda, we arrive at the second movement, marked presto. It’s the scherzo, and the horn and flute and elements that gave the first movement its bucolic feel are still here, but with a more galloping element. There are more horn calls over strings that do the galloping and swelling. It’s relatively light and polite for a scherzo, but has the sforzando  spurts here and there. I wonder from this recording what this movement would sound like if it were just a bit more presto. In my mind, I imagine the scherzo being more directly, in-your-face energetic, a fast-paced hold-onto-your-hats movement, but it’s a bit more stately, at least in this reading. The trio is broader and gives some room for cellos to deliver a motivic line here and there. The return of the main subject makes it seem a bit louder and more exciting, but it’s overall a teeny bit subdued. The most memorable figure of this movement is the tutti horn call backed by clarinets. It’s a nice movement, but has lost a touch of the sunny energy of the first movement. It’s plenty pleasant enough, ending with a commanding bolt.

The third movement is more pensive, spacious, and quiet, but it does meander through darker landscapes and passages briefly, a generally peaceful but at times more intense movement, the cloudiest (i.e. opposite of sunniest?) portion of the symphony. It ends quietly, Brahmsian.

The finale begins with a gallop of its own, a new spring in its step after the repose of the slow movement. We find ourselves back in the vibrant, crisp, youthful vigor that opened the symphony, but immediately contrasted with a quiet pause, what sounds like a quote of the opening of Beethoven’s first symphony. Lindblad unfurls an exciting fugue that leads to some heavier crunchy passages, repeated notes buttressed by a triumphant trumpet. But wait. Do I hear quotes from Schubert’s Grand C major symphony? They’re in the same key… and I feel like I do.

Don’t be silly. Even though Schubert’s C major symphony was likely written a few years before this work, it wouldn’t actually be performed for more than a decade, in Leipzig in 1839. Be that as it may, there’s a similar balanced drive, a focus and power to the work, but still with a delicacy and roundness that doesn’t overwhelm. The fugue proves to be a backbone for much of this final movement. There’s a contained celebratory nature to the music, as if it’s just dying to surprise us with something, a polished enthusiasm that’s invigorating. The satisfying final movement ends with a powerful close, the most full-blown, outwardly Romantic expression of the entire work.

While this symphony might not be one that grabs you by the brain and the heart and haunts you for days after you listen (or maybe it does), I personally find it to be very engaging musically, fresh, inspired, animated. It’s no dramatic, life-changing epic of a work, at only a little over a half hour (which was rather average, I guess, things like Beethoven’s ninth and later Romantic works aside), but there’s a strong sense of satisfaction in the simplicity of the music, the way energy and tension are built and resolved, how small musical ideas are presented and return, how it feels familiar but new. It might not be one of the greatest symphonies ever written, and I have seen statements to the effect that Lindblad’s second is the better of the bunch, but here we are with a wonderful first symphony, written in a time when symphonies were understandably hard to find. As we shall see, this continued in Sweden, and Lindblad and others found a more welcoming audience in Germany, as did this symphony under Mendelssohn’s baton. He was kind of the jumping off point, and a way to begin this series.

As you may discover, there is a jaw-dropping amount of good music out of Sweden, and in preparation for this series, if I wasn’t struggling to try to find recordings of some of these works, I was having trouble deciding which composers (or their works) should gain entry into our month of Swedish works. Stay tuned for a sumptuous Swedish September.

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