Dag Wirén: Serenade for Strings, op. 11

performed by the English Chamber Orchestra under Johannes Somary

I wanted to share a quote here of the composer expressing his desire to write music “to entertain and please, and compose listener-friendly ‘modern’ music,” as paraphrased in his Wikipedia article, but I could have sworn I read it in his own (Swedish) words somewhere else.

Dag Ivar Wirén was born on 15 October, 1905 in Striberg. His family apparently wasn’t actually musical, but there were “musical activities” in the household (which could be anything, really). His father owned a factory, and he took piano lessons and played percussion in the town orchestra. Wirén attended the Stockholm Conservatory, and later won some kind of state stipend and continued his studies in Paris, first under Leonid Sabaneyev, and also met Stravinsky and fellow Swede Gösta Nystroem (who won’t be making any more appearances than that this month).

He served in different musical capacities, playing the piano on Swedish Radio, acting as music critic, and even served on the board of directors at the Royal Swedish Opera. He wrote a “TV ballet” that won a prize in 1960, and also wrote popular music, including an entry for the Eurovision song contest in 1965.

While we’re here only touching on one of his (far) more famous light compositions, he did write five symphonies, a few concert overtures and sinfoniettas or suites, one concerto each for cello, violin and piano, a concertino for flute and small orchestra, five string quartets, and a large number of stage and film works. While today’s work is another ‘diet classical’ ‘easy listening’ piece that reflects the composer’s aforementioned desire to write approachable, enjoyable music, his Wiki article does mention that his music took a more serious turn in the ’40s. I do regret to admit that I haven’t listened to a single other work of his save this one, and the purpose is mostly to give him a mention as a successful Swedish music person who maybe should be mentioned as part of the 2oth century Swedish music scene. At the very least, there are five symphonies of his worth exploring.

Today’s piece is the largest installment so far (that I can remember) of an SQS post, for full string orchestra. The work clocks in at less than a quarter of an hour, and is in four movements:

  1. Preludium
  2. Andante espressivo
  3. Scherzo
  4. Marcia

It opens brightly, a cheerful, expressive and not quite crunchy beginning, but with really satisfying writing for strings. It’s engaging, buoyant, and crisp. There are some heavier passages, but almost instantly contrasted with overall cheer. Despite the absolute instant  charm and approachability of this music from the get-go, it isn’t wholly void of substance, as one might be quick to assume. It shows a talent for string writing, and it could be easy to forget that this isn’t a full orchestra, only strings. The colors and detail and depth fabricated from the string orchestra are vivid and clean.

The preludium is over and after that quick little sketch, we’re presented with something more stately, simple pizzicato and a rich melodic line. There’s an unabashed simplicity about this movement (and the whole work, but exemplified here). There’s such a disappointment when a big formal work like a symphony or concerto over-promises (in form alone) and under-delivers by being less than memorable, not living up to its form, but we have the opposite here. A string serenade isn’t one of those timeless forms to which people attribute enormous expectations of life-changing music, and here we have pizzicato that runs through the entire movement, with a bowed melody that comes and goes. It’s simple, straightforward, and perhaps in contrast under-promises and over-delivers. It’s not going change your life, but its simple beauty is irrefutable.

The scherzo also plays to the compactness of this work. It’s not the sound of a full-blown orchestra with percussion and all the rest, just strings, and the scherzo works on the agility and charm of a smaller ensemble for a lively, quick, even cute scherzo. Again, there’s no place in this work for a challenging, edge-of-your seat gut-wrenching minor key grind, and the scherzo is true to its original ‘playful’ or ‘joking’ meaning. The trio is a bit lighter, but still with a gallopy spring in its step as a slight change of pace before the scherzo proper returns. There’s a coda of sorts that quotes the trio before the movement ends politely.

The march is the crunchiest passage we have yet, and it begins with a single, slightly digging note pounded out from the basses, and if what came in over it were in a minor key, we’d be hearing a teeny tiny version of the opening of Mahler six, but of course… after listening to what came before, do you really think we’ll get a Trauermarsch to wrap things up? Of course not. It’s a friendly, cheerful, even slightly triumphant march, and it’s nice to hear what Wirén can do in a march without percussion or brass and still sound triumphant and crunchy. It is itself full of smiles, bordering just a bit on something that might be suitable for a pops concert. But wait! There’s more!

The second subject of the march is slightly softer, a trio of its own, like if a Swedish Sousa scribbled a sweet strain for strings, but just momentarily. A piccolo wouldn’t be out of place, but again, it’s music of smiles, like some kind of “now you’re done for” gateway drug to the most approachable of classical music.

As light and approachable as the work is, it’s not dry or stodgy. It might not stand up to repeated listenings or make you gasp at its beauty, or bring you to tears, but it shows Wirén has a keen talent for sustainable melody, development with direction, an ability to keep everything neat and clean and compact, to strike a balance with contrasts, to write extremely effectively for strings, and give a satisfying simple serenade that is unmistakable in its intentions. He’s used the charms of the smaller ensemble to his advantage, and I wonder if this is characteristic of his writing, and how he manages the forces of a larger ensemble and structure, but that is something we will have to find out another time.

I’ll advise you to get as much as you can out of this musical equivalent to crisp, refreshing lemonade, because tomorrow we take a hard left turn to something entirely different and pretty much stay there for the rest of the series, but it’s stunning music, so stay tuned. Adjö så länge.

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