August Söderman: Piano Quartet in E minor

Per Sandklef, violin,
Gideon Roehr , viola
Åke Olofsson, cello
Carin Gille-Rybrant, piano


Johan August Söderman was born on 17 July, 1832 in Stockholm. Wikipedia says he “has traditionally been seen as the pre-eminent Swedish composer of the Romantic generation, known especially for his lieder and choral works, based on folk material,” and for his incidental music for something like 80 plays, as well as a few operettas.

His father was a musician and he studied at the Royal Swedish Academy, focusing on piano, but apparently having “mastered the oboe and violin as well.” He, too, found himself in Germany, studying counterpoint in Leipzig with Hans Richter, a famous conductor, in 1856-7, around the time this piece was written, or at least completed. His time in Germany apparently brought the works of Schumann and Wagner to his attention but upon returning to Sweden, he focused mainly on theater and opera, dying at the age of only 44. The last sentence in his brief Wiki article states that “His music is virtually unknown outside Sweden.”

It’s a question that I think we might find ourselves asking rather often throughout this series, prompted by a similar statement (of being unknown outside Sweden), and it is this: is the composer’s lack of international recognition due to his own shortcomings or a preoccupation with other composers? What I mean to say is, is Söderman’s lack of fame due to some perceived inadequacy in his own music (or a lack of connections, good luck, etc.) or just that people like Mendelssohn and Brahms and whoever else stole all the international limelight? In essence, those are the same problem, I guess, but one is more that one composer is inadequate, while the other is more that others were more wealthy, fortunate, or whatever else. You decide.

The other significant question is in regards to any particular Swedish ‘school’ or ‘style’ of music. Is there an inherent quality to music from this culture? We shall see, I guess.

The quartet is in four movements, with the times referencing their starting points in the above video listed below:

I. Allegro moderato 00:00
II. Scherzo vivo 07:55
III. Andante, quasi allegretto 11:21
IV. Finale, allegro 19:04

The quartet opens with solo piano, strings entering as an answer to this first phrase. The first movement quickly moves to the relative major and brightens up give us exactly the kind of Romantic-era expression, supple piano, rich strings, that you’d expect from Brahms or Schumann or anyone else in 1856. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but this sounds much more German than some of the other chamber music I’ve listened to for this series.

That opening figure from piano reappears in the amicable major key, a tender, straightforward movement, giving cello, then piano, and the instruments time to speak. Despite beginning in E minor, there isn’t really a lot of minor music in the first movement. There’s no repeat of the exposition, and the repetition of the minor key content comes back very obviously in the major key. The first movement ends quietly, and while it’s pleasant and sweet, there’s nothing terribly… earth-shattering about it, and the movement ends quietly.

The scherzo also begins with the piano, joined later by crisp pizzicato from the strings, making for a light, serenade-like texture, and this opening passage is repeated. It’s quite mild and almost lullaby-like for a scherzo. It gets crunchy and darker when the viola plays a solo line that brings cello and piano to play some more shadowy passages, and this begins a fugue-like passage that gets more lively, and the contrasts between the soft opening and the livelier, darker passages makes for an engaging scherzo that reaches its climax and ends rather suddenly.

Things quiet down in the third movement, beginning now with strings, piano offering some trickly figures here and there. It feels like maybe the second part of the scherzo, only because that movement ended rather abruptly, it seems. The slow movement is the longest of the quartet, broader and not only slower in tempo, but also slower to move forward, but that’s not to say it’s ‘deliberate’ or anything negative. It’s here that the piano takes a background role to give our string trio some room to shine, and while it might not be a pinnacle of innovation, but Söderman’s string writing feels idiomatic and comfortable and natural. We’re also in a triple-meter here, but it’s less bouncy than flowy. Some of the harmonies in this third movement seem interesting, but only in passing here and there. It’s a movement that succeeds on its charms, its caresses, sticking pretty closely to the same small area of expression.

The finale brings us back to excitement and energy and the minor key of the work, but again, it isn’t long before we reach the major key again. This movement is by far the most eventful, intricate, and engaging of the four, as if he’d gained some confidence or wanted to kick up the excitement a bit. It has a narrative that’s straightforward and followable but captivating.

Overall, it’s a pleasant piece, but ‘pleasant’ isn’t always very memorable. It’s a very enjoyable piece to listen to, but there isn’t really a journey in the sense that it grabs you by the arm and tells you a story, a sense of discovery or tension and release that shocks or moves or surprises or leaves you listening on the edge of your seat. A piece doesn’t have to survive on shocks and thrills, but the best I could say about this piece is that it’s pleasant, enjoyable, well-written, idiomatic writing that oozes ‘Romantic era’, but I guess I can see why this isn’t a staple of chamber groups everywhere.

I guess it’s worth mentioning, though, that Söderman was only 24 when this piece was written, studying in Germany, and while chamber music isn’t listed among the things he’s most known for, I’d like to hear a more mature chamber work from him, a string quartet or cello sonata or something that may show a more developed, refined sense of writing. I don’t think it’s fair to base a judgment of the composer solely on one work he wrote in his relative youth, but it is all I have to go on. Wikipedia did state that he was the “pre-eminent” Swedish Romantic composer, and it sure does sound Romantic. I’d be interested to her other stuff of his, but again, so much of the real Swedish idiom seems to be in songs for voice and piano, which are not part of this series, unfortunately.

In any case, we’re moving on tomorrow to an even lesser known (part-time) composer who gave us a string sextet from the same decade as today’s work, but without any actual composition/completion date. IMSLP puts a question mark next to the year 1850 in the listing of the (hand-written) score of tomorrow’s piece, so stay tuned for that.

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2 thoughts on “August Söderman: Piano Quartet in E minor

  1. It’s a good work, but probably written to please his teacher(s). He wrote in a more Scandinavian style already in the mid-1850s. Check out his incidental music (ouvertures).

    1. I can see that being the case. I am eager to check out more music from most of these composers. Shame I could only pick one work from most of these folks, but it’s such a rich musical culture!

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