Hilding Rosenberg: Symphony no. 3 ‘The Four Ages of Man’

performed by the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Herbert Blomstedt

One creates out of what has been before, out of the experiences of others, as well as those of oneself, out of everything one knows, has read, or been acquainted with

Hilding Rosenberg
as quoted here

Hilding Constantin Rosenberg was born on June 21, 1892 in Bosjökloster, and was known as an organist, concert pianist and music teacher. Among Rosenberg’s teachers were Wilhelm Stenhammar (composing) and Herman Scherchen (conducting), and Stenhemmar even included some of Rosenberg’s early works among concerts he arranged. After World War I, he traveled throughout Europe conducting a bit, and “became a prominent conductor” says Wikipedia. As with many Swedish composers, he did take the opportunity to study (or work) in mainland Europe, spending time in Berlin, Vienna and Paris, where he became acquainted with Schoenberg and Hindemith, likely among others.

I wonder if there’s a point where Swedish composers began to lose their vibrant, inherent Swedish-ness to a more general, adventurous, modern sound. Wiki states that Rosenberg “was the first Swedish modernist composer,” and I’m not sure how a statement like that can be stated so factually, but it continues to describe him as “one of the most influential figures in Swedish 20th century classical music,” which is a far more neutral or objective statement.

I won’t quote Wiki any more than here, but one last statement does make some justification for the “first” designation above. It states:

While his earlier works display the influence of Sibelius he soon led the way for Swedish composers to move away from the late Romantic style and became considered as somewhat radical.

That’s convincing enough. Good point.

His output spanned all of the major genres, with 14 string quartets, eight symphonies, apparently at least a couple of piano concertos, a violin concerto, as well as songs and a large body of stage works, among which are nine operas.

Maybe it’s just me, but to see an oeuvre like that, of quite a contribution to the symphony and chamber and theatre genres, is compelling. It perhaps isn’t quite accurate, but there’s a line of reasoning that if someone wrote boring, awful music, they wouldn’t persist for very long, but I suppose that isn’t necessarily true. In any case, to see that a composer has written eight symphonies and 14 string quartets does pique my interest. So on to today’s work.

It was a challenge to decide on which work of Rosenberg’s I’d feature. I’d listened to the second (skipped the very long fourth), fifth, sixth (apparently quite famous), but this one eventually won out. It’s in four movements, only about a half hour, and despite the subtitle that suggests a programmatic nature, I don’t really attribute to it any ‘story’. It’s quite serious music.

The first movement starts quietly, with a notable, exposed clarinet solo, but is subsequently angular, blockish, and hard. It’s crunchy, almost militaristic at times, but then there’s a flute or an oboe solo to provide a delicate, sudden contrast. This might seem almost confusing, but if you think about it as a change of scene, a cut to a different part of the story (or a different story altogether), and returning to the other action later, I feel like it makes sense.

Rosenberg’s handling of the orchestra as a composite instrument I feel is pretty superb. While there aren’t any Sibelius- or Tchaikovsky-esque melodies or gushing memorable tunes to pluck out as highlights, the work thus far has a narrative and momentum that will serve it well. Something as simple as that opening clarinet line returning in flute at the end of the first movement brings unity to the work. The line in cello at the beginning apparently uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale but this is presented in a tonal context.

Apparently the work had some kind of spoken narration to accompany its performance, which was thankfully done away with, but if you were pressed to think of what it might be, one assumes the first movement to sound like ancient civilizations, leading up to the modern era. However, I find some sources that associate the work’s original subtitle to Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe

The second movement, a nocturne, feels instantly more comforting, but still dark, in a sense, using the softer pastoral woodwind elements of the first movement, as well as distant-sounding horns. This movement calls Stenhammar or Rangström to mind. It’s spacious and transparent and subtly expressive. The clarinet gets more solos, and it starts to seem like a central figure. It builds to its own powerful climaxes and growls at a few points. This is more outright pretty writing, while the scherzo is much heavier.

It’s militaristic, angry, and digs its claws in to give us passages that excite. It’s almost harrowing at times, a bit wild and unbridled, but always with direction, and the force and excitement of this movement makes one think we have perhaps reached the climax and finale of the entire work, but there’s more after that commanding finish.

That 12-tone theme reappears here, and the movement opens with a truly beautiful, almost choral opening from the woodwinds, perhaps in canon? This brings a familiarity and unity to the piece overall, and after the frenetic energy of the scherzo, this sounds almost melancholy. It’s again colorful, effective, use of the orchestra, and it feels that much more powerful here, after having gotten familiar with the content. There are some swells and moments of more memorable outright lyricism.

No matter what you haven’t heard in this work, you wanted a bassoon solo, or a trio of piccolos or E-flat clarinets or marimba passages or whatever, set your grievances aside, because after the truly well-crafted presentation of the first three movements, and the beginning of the fourth, we end this heroic, commanding narrative work with a searing triumphant finish that is nothing short of breathtaking. White-hot trumpets and horns, side drum, and soaring strings give us a glimpse of heaven opening at the end of this work. If you’d been scratching your head before this, it might make you say “wait a minute… did I miss something?” Go back and listen again for everything that leads up to that moment of glory, no matter how brief.

I feel I should say here… that this is a work I think I probably haven’t really let sink in the way I should have. I was talking to a coworker just this week about how some movies at first (or even second viewing) seem strange or even bad, but that once they sit and sink in, you find there’s something about it that pulls you back in. It’s not so much getting your head as maybe your heart around it, and once you get over that hurdle, you start unlocking the beauties of the work. I feel they’re here, but that I might not appreciate them yet like I should.

However, there are conflicting views of this symphony. It appears to be one of Rosenberg’s most famous, along with the sixth, but while AllMusic gives it a glowing review here, a reviewer at Classics Today tells anyone who isn’t a current die-hard Rosenberg fan not to bother. So what we do as critics and audiences and people who talk about music is obviously subjective. To be honest, I’m somewhere in the middle of those two reviews. Maybe I am just giving Rosenberg the benefit of the doubt, that someone who wrote that volume of music must have some gems, but this also isn’t a work I’ve come back to time and again to listen to (and to be honest, I’m late getting this article posted).

I am comforted in the fact that Hilding Rosenberg wrote eight symphonies and more than a dozen string quartets, as it is solid evidence that no matter how dedicated one listens, we will veritably never run out of new music to experience. Rosenberg will be back, either with another symphony, or one of his quartets, but not this weekend. We’ll be taking a little detour to a much lighter musical place before wrapping up this Swedish Symphony Series. Stay tuned.



2 thoughts on “Hilding Rosenberg: Symphony no. 3 ‘The Four Ages of Man’

  1. The Overture Four Ages of Man is one of the Best, if not the Best I’ve ever listened to or played as a young Tuba player in the 1960’s. For almost forty years I’ve been attempting to source a copy of this gorgeous Overture. I’ve tried HMV, Virgin, Decca and most of the smaller outlets all to no avail. I’m now in the Departure Lounge and should be most happy to source a copy or listen to it being played again before l exit.

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