Wilhelm Stenhammar: Serenade in F, op. 31

performed by the Uppsala Chamber Orchestra under Paul Magi, or below by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic under Michael Schonwandt

Carl Wilhelm Eugene Stenhammar was born on 7 February, 1871 in Stockholm, where he began studying music. At some point he moved to Berlin to continue studying and became enamored with people like Bruckner and Wagner, or as Wikipedia puts it, “He became a glowing admirer of German music,” with those composers mentioned as particular examples. He later decided to try to develop a more Nordic style, “looking to Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius for guidance.” He spent some time as Artistic Director of the Gothenburg Symphony, and a more brief time as director of music at Uppsala University.

His compositional output includes two completed symphonies, four piano sonatas, two piano concertos (he was considered an excellent pianist), six string quartets, as well as opera/choral works and many songs. His string quartets are praised as being idiomatic for a pianist writing for quartet, and this is attributed to his close relationship with some of the finest quartets of his day, performing piano quintets and the like with them. He died of a stroke at age 56.

It seems that his most famous composition is his “substantial” serenade for orchestra. Both of his symphonies are rather large works, at 40-50 minutes each, but I trusted someone’s judgment somewhere and scheduled the Serenade. I also promised a very nice lady at the Uppsala Chamber Orchestra that I’d feature their recording of the work since I’d be writing about it this month, so here we are.

The serenade itself is not a short, sweet thing, in five movements pushing 40 minutes, as follows:

  1. Overtura
  2. Canzonetta
  3. Scherzo
  4. Notturno
  5. Finale

To be honest, I find the opening gesture of this piece very annoying, and I don’t really know why. It feels awkward and un-charming to me, but that is quickly resolved. There are chamber textures, a violin solo, brass calls. That opening line returns, but the feeling is that the piece is now officially underway, even if we’re only in the overture. It’s limber, transparent, and light. There’s a sudden clarity and unity of the movement in a central passage, a stunning moment of things coming into focus, and I’d call this a ‘second subject’ if we weren’t already halfway through the movement. Also, it’s an overture, not the first movement of a symphony. The movement bustles back to life, and it has a level of energy and atmosphere far more akin to what you’d expect from a ‘serenade’ than an ‘overture’ that you might hear from an opera (or by itself). It’s light and brisk and the only moment that really grabs me is that more static, unison idea that reappears sort of toward the end of the movement, which seems to be heading toward ending more melancholy than it began, and just as there seems to be a coda, with the quote of that opening figure, there’s a “just kidding,” and it ends.

And ooh, that second movement. Tchaikovsky immediately comes to mind. It’s almost waltzy, with clarinet, cellos, really genuinely serenading, a sweetly lyrical, broader movement, and the shortest of the work, far more charming than the opening. This is memorable, with expressive solos, sweeping passages full of strings and glistening winds. It’s not a terribly eventful movement, but at only five minutes, its successful solely on its small charms.

The scherzo is a vibrant, colorful, and reaches a level of crunch and fullness we haven’t yet had in the work. The movements get progressively longer from here on out, so the music sounds more…. serious. Not serious in tone, but it has a more formal quality to it. The trio of the scherzo sounds almost march-like, as does almost anything with a crisp tempo and snare drum with a dose of brass before cooling way down. The scherzo never develops into that powerful machine-like churning energy, which I kind of like, but it’s colorful and vivid, showing lots of intricate orchestration. It might also be in the quietest moment of this movement, before the scherzo returns, that you realize it’s a recording of a live performance, as someone or two decides to cough in the most delicate passages of the movement, and it finishes softly to lead right into the nocturne.

This movement makes up for the brevity of the canzonetta. It’s broader, spacious, more pensive, and lasts nearly twice as long. The structure and crafting of this movement is wonderful, the kind of nocturne that Chopin would write for orchestra if the magic of his piano nocturnes could be translated to a chamber setting. It’s just the slightest bit melancholy at turns, but then there are sudden pastoral horn calls, answered by chirps from woodwinds, but all very much within the quiet, peaceful atmosphere of the movement. Don’t expect any forward motion or compelling narrative here. It doesn’t pull you along; you float across it. It builds to beautiful climaxes toward the end of the movement, and shows a delicacy, a kind of tact and refinement to Stenhammar’s writing.

And the finale, at about a quarter of the length of the whole work, appears initially rather quietly, but once it has made its appearance, it sounds much more like what’s come before, characterized by colorful orchestration, intricate details throughout the orchestra, an amicable sunniness that manages not to be saccharine. There are figures here that sound familiar, but I don’t believe they’re from earlier in the work. The piece is also much more symphonic-sounding, with a greater scope, a more interesting narrative, and there’s plenty of variance in color and expression, ending the piece quietly and almost uneventfully with a few pizzicato gestures.

I wonder about the exact reasons for this work being one of Stenhammar’s most famous. I feel that using this work to represent him doesn’t do him justice. Granted, I haven’t listened to a ton of his output, but he has quite a reputation. I listened through the symphonies (only one of them, actually, the first I think), and while it wasn’t unmemorable, I couldn’t say much about it from only one listen. It didn’t grab me. For someone of Stenhammar’s reputation, I feel he deserves better representation in a more ‘serious’ (formal?) form, like one of his concertos, or one of the symphonies, even if it wasn’t where he made his name, and why?

Perhaps it’s that a work like this is generally quite approachable. It feels like diet classical music, and that’s not (really) a criticism. I’ll admit I tend to prefer the more heavy-hitting stuff, something with a little severity, but this is admittedly a nice piece of music if you’re looking for something more ‘easy listening’. There are no struggles, no moments of heartrending tension, no cataclysmic tragedy, just a rather episodic collection of little musical bits gathered together for a charming, well-crafted piece of smiling music, admittedly fantastically played by the Uppsala Kammarorkester. It clearly shows a skill of composition and attention to detail, but to be honest, I don’t remember a soul-gripping sense of narrative or compelling forward motion from the symphony either, but that was only listen.

I do feel I haven’t done Stenhammar justice here, but it is one of his more popular pieces, for better or worse. There’s nothing wrong with that, but stay tuned next week as we come to the latter half of our Swedish Series in September, bringing us some much more modern music. Stay tuned. Hej då. 

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One thought on “Wilhelm Stenhammar: Serenade in F, op. 31

  1. His Second Symphony is his (only?) masterpiece IMO. Often he is lost in a central european romantiscism with little originality. Struggled with Wagner- and Schumann-influences in his youth.

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