Hugo Alfvén: Symphony no. 3 in E major, op.23

performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Niklas Willén

The symphony has no programme, it depicts neither concrete nor abstract. It is an expression of the joy of living, an expression of the sun-lit happiness that filled my whole being.

Alfven on his third symphony

Moving right along in the chronology of the music of Sweden, we have Hugo Alfvén, one of Sweden’s greatest composers, and today a piece of his that might well be one of the most splendid pieces I’ve ever written about.

Hugo Emil Alfvén was born 1 May, 1872 in Stockholm and studied violin at the Royal College of Music, but also took private composition lessons. He played violin in the Royal Opera in Stockholm as well as the Royal Swedish Orchestra. In his mid-twenties, he found himself studying violin in Brussels and conducting in Dresden, and some time after the turn of the century, was professor of composition at the Royal Conservatory, Stockholm, and then music director of the University of Uppsala.

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Alfvén wrote music for male choir as three ‘Swedish Rhapsodies’ for orchestra, in addition to his five symphonies. For someone who might be so unrecognized outside of Sweden, he composed a decent volume of work, at least 54 works with opus numbers, but apparently a total of 214 works. Of the 54, most listed are for orchestra, some for voice and orchestra, and very few chamber works. (The Swedish Wiki article has a much more complete list.) Alfvén died in 1960, a week after his 88th birthday. He was also apparently a talented painter and writer, and the above image is a painting of his hosted on the Swedish Radio’s website, referenced on Viktoria’s Notebook as being from Anacapri, Italy, leading me to believe it might be from the very trip that inspired this symphony. Let’s just say it is. He apparently went there while he was in mainland Europe and this work is inspired by his trip there.

Think of one of the happiest times of your life, a time when the world seemed bright and full of opportunity and adventure, when every day was exciting, when you weren’t tired or stressed and couldn’t wait to turn the next corner in life, to see what the next day would bring, a youthful (and arguably naïve) carefreeness, and the kind of giddiness that goes with looking forward to a vacation, maybe a first flight abroad and seeing the world and doing exciting things, and living it like it’s a fairy tale and coming home, still digesting it like it all didn’t happen. That’s the kind of exuberance that this work conveys.

Alfvén’s symphony is bold, vibrant, and refreshing, brimming with energy and color, an exciting, unrelenting, gripping forward motion, much akin to Berwald earlier this week. If we’re going to make references to other composers of the time, you might hear tinges or influences from Mahler or Strauss (especially the latter) in bold, captivating orchestration, and some kind of Russian-ness in the finale, but its overall color and personality is distinctly individual and not derivative or directly taken from any of these.

From the first few bars, it’s obviously an unabashedly passionate, joyous piece. How one musical passage can convey such brightness, such optimism and pure joy, is a mystery, but it instantly introduces the overall mood of the work, 40 minutes of absolute sheer bliss. It’s full of contrast and power, sweeping gestures and loads of excitement from strings, from brass, woodwinds, the same kind of propulsive motion that never ceases, even when things cool down, as happens for the second subject of the symphony, with strings and woodwinds, like a cool breeze and the smell of some flower I wouldn’t be able to identify. Strauss certainly comes to mind, but Alfven’s writing has a distinctness that it seems may only be deserving of being called “Swedish.” It’s a bucolic, unbelievably joyous, spirited first movement, just stunning music, fitting for the allegro con brio marking.

The second movement is brilliantly able to maintain the passion and brilliance established in the first movement, even while opening with an almost melancholy English horn solo. Does the second movement of Dvorak’s ninth come to mind? It sounds for just a moment maybe to be that kind of folksy line, but no. Strings enter, and a rich, sweeping, absolutely perfect fabric of andante music is woven, giving us the longest movement of the symphony. Instead of just the obligatory slow movement, or writing a pretty tune, it sounds convincingly as if this movement is just the next part of the same narrative rather than a nice complimentary movement to what came before. Even the low brass gets involved delicately in the tapestry, a warm, richly lyrical movement, with horn solos that would melt Mahler’s heart. I wonder if either he or Strauss knew of Alfven. Thank goodness we do. The climax of the work gives the brass a time to shine, and Alfven’s expertise as an orchestrator shines as brightly as his compositional abilities here.

The scherzo is playful, bright and pastoral. It begins with bouncy strings and clarinet, like birds fluttering through tree branches, but gains momentum until whatever landscape our trees were in comes completely to life. It sounds like nature laughing. There’s an overall symphonic sound that’s full of power and boldness, but at the same time, it’s full of individual texture. This scherzo is true to the Italian meaning, full of laughter and playfulness. The trio gives a quieter passage of contrast before the thunder of the scherzo returns, with its crisp punctuated chords rounding out the movement.

The finale is equally full of Alfven’s bold writing, a vivacious finale with the kind of exhilarating writing you might hear in some kind of operatic overture, even beginning with trumpet calls before the orchestra bursts to life. It’s Russian-sounding at turns, to me, and keeps the energy at an intoxicatingly high level, in the same way you might have so much fun you can’t even be tired. There’s almost a similarity to Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, which obviously didn’t exist at the time. It’s celebratory, festive, but with perhaps even greater contrasts than anything before. There are sudden changes of expression, and some outright comic passages, but it’s never cheap or goofy. It’s serious(ly incredible) music, with some of the most dramatic passages of the entire symphony. Alfven has pulled out all the stops in this movement, and it’s clear evidence the composer can juggle masterful orchestration, musical lines, and tie together such contrasts into a logical narrative and deliver a satisfying, bold close to a stunning symphony.

This might say more about me than I want it to, but I’ve always felt that negative emotions like pain and sorrow are more powerful than positive ones like joy or happiness, which is one of the reasons why works that really move me (and others) include such gripping pieces as Mahler’s second and ninth, Shostakovich’s fifth and seventh, etc. There are moments of glory and beauty in music that easily bring one to tears as well, like (the finale of Mahler’s second or) Beethoven’s ninth, and even Schubert’s Great seems to have a tinge of melancholy in its triumph, but few works in recent memory are so powerfully positive, so inspiringly, movingly optimistic as that from Berwald and Alfven. The piece that comes to mind as being as equally fun as a good ride of a piece is Strauss’s Don Juanjust a wild, exciting gallop through a symphonic poem. Alfven takes this same passion but expands it out to tell not just a story of an individual, but creates an entire landscape, scenery and emotion and color and smells and everything. I really can’t say enough about this piece, and it baffles me that this isn’t one of the most performed symphonies in the concert hall.

Also, I can’t say I’ve heard any other recordings of this work but that referenced above by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Niklas Willén, but after hearing theirs, I don’t think I need to. To say that it’s brilliantly played would be to insinuate that I know something of the piece and can look at their performance critically. I can’t. Instead, I should say it’s a powerful, convincing performance that allows the listener to understand instantly what this music is about.

One of the absolute best things I’ve written about on this blog. But there’s still more Swedish symphony to come, so stay tuned.

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