Per August Ölander: String Sextet

performed by the Uppsala Kammarsolister

Per August Ölander was born 8 January, 1824 in Linkoping. His father was an organist. He studied at Uppsala University, and owed something of his career to support from his father-in-law, Johan Erik Nord Blom, Director of Music. Ölander died in 1886 in Stockholm. Both he and Blom were elected to the Royal Academy of Music in their lifetimes.

And that’s about all I know about per August Ölander. Except that he was also a customs official. He did write a symphony, and a few choral works, but it seems that musical endeavors were not the focus of his career, as we shall see from many others who struggled to make a living as composers. He played in a string quartet, did some composing, but there might be a reason he isn’t a household name, even among customs officials.

We’ve talked before about a string sextet, Brahms’ first, written in 1860. In that article, I talked briefly about the relative rarity of the string sextet before it seems Brahms made the form famous. Well, here we have a quartet that dates from some time in the 1850s, potentially as early as 1850, but before Brahms’ effort regardless. It’s beyond unlikely that Brahms would have known of this work because it’s highly unlikely it would have made it to Vienna, and The Bearded Wonder certainly never made it to Stockholm, so we have an earlier but also far more obscure example of a Romantic sextet that dates from before Brahms’ milestone in the form.

Edition Silvertrust has the score for sale and offers this quick summary of the work:

His String Sextet in D Major dates from 1850. It begins with a substantial and very beautiful Andantino introduction which leads to the main section, a lively, Allegro full of fetching melodies. The second movement is an attractive Mendelssohnian Scherzo which is followed by a languid Intermezzo, showcasing the tonal qualities of the various voices, especially those of the cello and viola. The exciting finale, Allegro vivace, bursts out of the starting gate full of energy. Gorgeous cantilena melodies provide excellent contrast.

For what sounds like a pretty beefy chamber work (six instruments!) it’s actually quite a short little piece, coming in at around 21 minutes. It begins with a lovely lullaby-like introduction, with a beautiful lyrical melody that passes through the ensemble, with pizzicato here and there, soft and polite and welcoming, but even with its rather pleasant atmosphere, the feeling I get is that it’s inspired, meaningful music. It’s instantly engaging, not just at the moment, but pulls the listener in to look forward to what’s coming next.

What comes next, around three minutes in, is the Allegro mentioned above, and it sure seems like a long introduction for such a short piece, but it doesn’t disappoint. The allegro seems to have familiar material, with at least as much charm and a good bit more spunk. The writing for the instruments seems to be natural and effortlessly expressive, never too dense or complicated, but at turns rich and light, transparent. It’s a substantial first movement for such a short piece, taking up nearly half of the entire performance time of the work. It has soft, tender moments contrasted with the full-bodied power and crunch that a sextet should have to show it’s not just a quartet.

The second movement scherzo is spirited and full of atmosphere. Silvertrust above describes it as “Mendelssohnian”, and I wonder if there was any intention to call the young master to mind. He had been dead for a few years by this time, and it seems Ölander did not travel to Germany like many of the other composers we’ll discuss, but perhaps he had Mendelssohn in mind here. If not, it truly is even more so a glimmering example of string writing, a wonderful, very brief movement.

The third “languid Intermezzo”, to me, draws from elements of the first two movements. There’s the almost serenade-like expression of the introduction of the first movement: cello plays its melody, with plucked accompaniment, but also a folksy, quaint minor-key atmosphere from the second movement. Viola takes up the cello’s melody to bowed cello, and the piece fills out after this. I wouldn’t describe this movement at all as “languid.” There’s something even sensual, the slightest bit playful about it that draws the ear in, contrasted with slightly lighter passages, but again, really exquisite writing for the ensemble.

The finale is crisp, bright, and full of vitality, the most energetic thing thus far, full of fast lines across the ensemble, a pizzicato here and there for emphasis, but suddenly something lyrical. It’s a movement full of expression and contrasts, music that brings a smile to the face, simple yet stunning, a fantastic way to end this piece, with a show of virtuosity, a bit more spring in the step, and something that sounds like it’d be a ton of fun to play.

For someone who seems to have been just a part-time composer, or perhaps, shall we say, an incredibly musical customs official, it really seems he had a talent for writing. Söderman’s quartet yesterday I found to be nice, pleasant, cordial, whatever, but Ölander’s work here I find to be expressive, inspired, passionate, not just nice music, but really well-crafted. It’s not just a piece I wouldn’t mind listening to, but something I’d remember and turn to specifically. It’s short, to the point, but full of detail to enjoy. I knew from the first listen to this work that there was something to it I really enjoyed, and that it had to make an appearance.

It’s here that I’m a little more perplexed at the work’s lack of success. It’s pleasant and enjoyable sure, but more directly, more memorably so. It has a certain engaging quality to it that stuck with me, and I feel it would for most listeners, but I could be wrong. Have a listen and let me know what you think. Leave a comment.

Stay tuned for our first full week of Swedish music. Like I said in the intro to this series, I’m trying to squeeze perhaps a little too much music into this month because I’ve found so much stuff worth sharing, so we’ll have three articles a week for most of the month. If it’s too much, bookmark it and come back. The articles aren’t going anywhere. See you soon.





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