performed by the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra under Janos Fürst, or below by the Nörrkoping Symphony Orchestra under Michail Jurowski
Anders Johan Ture Rangström was born 30 November, 1884, to a leather merchant in Stockholm, and began writing songs in his teens. (He was also the eventual grandson of the perhaps confusingly-identically-named playwright Ture Rangström, born 1944). The advice of his music teacher at the time was to be more adventurous harmonically, and he followed the advice, earning him the name ‘Sturm-und-Drangström. The composer had taken an interest in the work of playwright August Strindberg, to whom Rangström’s first symphony is dedicated, and based an opera on one of Strindberg’s plays.
The Swedish Wikipedia article says that the composer didn’t focus as much on counterpoint, and that his music ‘builds on major contrasts’ between powerful and more serene sections. While Rangström wrote five symphonies (the first apparently the most famous?), he is perhaps most well known for his songs, totaling apparently over 300, the vast majority of which for piano and voice, but with some for orchestra.
He conducted the premiere of his first symphony in 1915, his own premiere as conductor as well, which seems ballsy. In 1922 he was appointed chief conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony, taking over from his friend Wilhelm Stenhammar, but that apparently didn’t last, as he seems not to have been a very talented conductor. Aside from his orchestral music and that for voice, he wrote some small amount of music for solo piano or chamber orchestra.
I chose Rangström’s ‘Song under the Stars’ because it is a more mature piece, one that shows the more individual qualities of his more advanced musical language, but his earlier symphonies are very worthy of attention. It ultimately came down to 2 or 3, and while I personally might favor no. 2 more (and it is a much more traditional four-movement work), the third might be more interesting and, as I said, more indicative of his later work. Let’s listen.
Listen to the opening. Wagner much? Searing horns to open the piece, who again call out under strings. The music is immediately full of emotion, swells of beauty, stunning color, but most importantly a sense of forward motion that doesn’t quit for the full 22 minutes. The trills and twirls of strings and woodwinds couldn’t possibly sound any more like twinkling stars against a massive Northern Sky.
The work has an instant sense of triumph and power, and since we haven’t gone through any hell or traversed long lengths to get to this triumph, it has a power that can only sound confidently nationalistic… or something. You’ll hear words like “hyper-romantic” and “strongly nationalistic” or “proudly Swedish” or whatever to describe Rangström’s music, and especially this symphony. It’s perplexing in that the work is at once big and small. At 22 minutes, it’s about the length of (or shorter than!) individual movements of symphonies by Bruckner or Mahler, and yet somehow manages to express a broad, massive scope of emotion and color.
If you’re especially attached to the idea of a symphony as a four-movement work with its inherent structure, it might behoove you to consider this work as a symphonic poem. It’s about the length of many famous symphonic poems in the repertoire and its narrative, at least to my ear, is much more linear than governed by the strict delineations of a symphony. If you’re looking for that, his second is a wonderful work, the one that almost got featured here instead.
The celebratory, invigorating nature of the opening not so much as decays but evolves into a slightly more frightening, breathtaking driving tone, and the change is like that of the weather. There is no single moment when the weather changes. No matter how fast it goes from sunshine to rain, even if you’re paying attention, you’ll still notice the clouds rolling in, the breeze cooling, the first drops of rain, and it’s that kind of change that takes place rather than a clean break and a new movement.
It’s this overall feeling that gives the work such a sense of narrative. Even with solos and contrasting elements that seem more than disparate at times, it all fits together, and while the weather changes, we’re still on the same planet, in the same environment, and that journey feels much like some maritime voyage, with highs and lows, lights and darks, storm and sunshine, but overall a magical, invigorating experience.
Rangström’s use of color and his fantastic orchestration give this work an almost cinematic aspect. I cannot help but see scenes and colors, and feel somehow close to the expressions, like the violin solo that comes and goes a few times. It’s nostalgic, tender, like a sailor far from home looking at a picture of his wife.
But somehow, with the different realms and expressions being presented here, there’s a sense of familiarity, continuity. I don’t have access to the score, but I’d feel confident that some of the brass themes are a recurring element in the work, and some of these motifs give unity to the piece despite what might change around it.
The most compelling content of the piece is about the latter third, after an ethereal slow passage, and it feels the most ‘together’ as a scherzo-like theme is built that drives the piece forward, not quite toward the end, but it’s a persistent theme that seems to be the beginning of everything that comes after it.
Again, if you’re looking for your sonata form and your slow movement/scherzo, then finale, you might find this work a bit disappointing. Yes, one reviewer even calls it “the most bombastic and least convincing of [Rangström’s] four [symphonies]” while another claims that “It is the only of Rangström’s symphonies in one movement, and this seems to free his imagination to heights only hinted at in the other pieces in [his symphony cycle].”
I’m inclined to agree with the latter. I do prefer a story in a symphony to be told in a typical symphony structure, but that’s my problem, and as we shall see later on in the series, there’s much say in other forms. The work at hand is an exceptionally-written, vivid piece, a ‘song under the stars’ as a journey, a narrative with such contrasts of color, emotional depth and power. The composer does, indeed, seem to be liberated by the form, and by the end of the piece, with a final goodbye from solo violin, we feel like we’ve been on a journey and wonder how such a vast landscape was packed into only twenty-two minutes.
Rangström is obviously a composer whose music should be heard more, but I hesitate to say “deserves more attention” because to me those aren’t the same thing. People should know that his work exists and has been recorded (multiple times), but to me, “deserves more attention” means “it should be played in a concert hall”, and to be honest, there are dozens of other works I’d rather hear in a concert hall, not so much for me even as much as for the average music-loving audience who should hear works desperate to be enjoyed. It’s a nice piece and I would certainly not miss it in concert, but there’s a lot more far higher up on my list.
One of those pieces is coming up next week, and actually marks the end of this series, but we’re not quite there yet. Next up, we have two more symphonies this week (!) and a busy weekend of very interesting works, so do stay tuned for that. Tack så mycket, och vi ses snart.