Karl-Birger Blomdahl: Symphony no. 3, Facetter

performed by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Leif Segerstam

Karl-Birger Blomdahl was born on 19 October, 1916 in Växjö. He was educated as a biochemist (why are all these people such overachievers?), but Wikipedia (English or Swedish) says very little about that part of his education or career. He studied composition under Hilding Rosenberg and became “the informal leader of the Monday Group“, an influential group of composers that began meeting in Blomdahl’s home in 1944.  The Swedish article says (I’m trying to paraphrase) that World War II hindered international communication, and it seems they met to discuss trends in music, such as Hindemith, Stravinsky, Bartok, and perhaps most significantly, Schoenberg.

As a result, then, it seems Blomdahl must be one of the first Swedish composers, if not the very first, to adopt twelve-tone technique, as we will see in this work. Aside from this, his most famous symphony, he also composed some notable operas and ballets, as well as some electronic music on magnetic tape. He served at various times as professor of composition at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, as well as director of the Swedish Radio’s music department, in which role, in 1967, he invited Terry Riley to Stockholm as artist in residence there.

The work at hand is (another) one that doesn’t have a huge online presence. It won the Christ Johnson Prize in 1964, after Rosenberg and Wirén in previous years. Stephen Eddins at AllMusic, in a review of a different recording of the work, says it “shows both the early influence of Hindemith and a growing interest in the Second Viennese School and effectively synthesizes the traditions.” That’s an intriguing enough depiction, isn’t it?

The work clocks in at around 23 minutes, and is in one movement with sections listed as: Largamente-Tranquillo, Ma Fluente-Prestissimo-Allegro-Largamente. If you followed our Early Darmstadt series back in July, you will be aware of the fact that a composer showing interest in Schoenberg’s serialist methods doesn’t necessarily use them the exact same way that the Second Viennese School did. Of the 12-tone techniques in this work, Paul Cook says:

His Symphony 3, written in 1950, leaps all the way into 12-tone techniques with his own dodecaphonic stylings, a reaction to the strict conservatism of Schoenberg’s approach. Conductor Leif Segerstam does wonders with this music, especially the hypnotic Third. This is a must for lovers of the symphony form.

And indeed the music sounds distinctly different from something Schoenberg would write, much more along the lines of Rautavaara, if you may be familiar with that. From the opening of the work, there’s an atmospheric, ethereal air of mystery to the music. I mean atmospheric not in the sense of being background music or sound effects, but of creating a palpable sound world. There is foreground detail and large scale detail, things like solos from flute, viola or cello, but also a full orchestra sound, a large fiery ball of composite sound, always with focus. The music swells and recedes, boils to life and cools off.

As you might expect from a 12-tone work of 1950, there isn’t a ‘melody’ in the way many people think of it. There are lines of music being played, either by a solo instrument or at times by whole sections of the orchestra, but it’s not focused on in that way. A melody would be like following a butterfly through the forest, but here, we are getting the entire landscape.

What we again have here is a work that lives and breathes, changes at turns, presents an entire palate of colors and expressions in one sound world. There are passages where the work sounds far more traditional, where things come into clear focus of a few bright, clean colors, but also passages of a much darker intensity,

I must say that this is a work I don’t feel I ‘understand’, whatever that means. I don’t have a feel for the way it’s laid out, for the rise and fall of the contours of the piece and what it expresses, but it’s handsomely symphonic in nature, full of vivid color, symphonic textures and contrasts of chamber and full-orchestra sounds. Large-scale 12-tone orchestral works aren’t terribly common, and again, it’s clear here that Blomdahl is using the language in his own way, or rather using his own language with similar principles, and the work never for an instant sounds pedantic or academic. The sections are easily heard, and there are clear distinctions between their natures, some more lyrical, others crunchy and almost militaristic, with triumphant brass and thundering percussion.

It might not be to your taste, but there’s something magical here about this symphony, a work that begins with flute and unfolds bit by bit to give us an incredibly full 23 minutes of very well-crafted music. Despite the 12-tone nature of the work, there is still a certain romanticism about it in the sense that it feels solidly based in Classical Music Tradition, with some forms and a style that might be familiar, but with challenges and innovations of its own. I also find it interesting that, at least to me, even with the use of such a modern idiom, there’s something natural, something in-touch with the earth about this music that still sounds Swedish.

Further listens will elucidate the work’s underlying structure, as it’s clear there is one. Our opening flute returns to the end, marking the beginning of some kind of recapitulation or coda, and the trumpet makes an appearance as well, and these are the easiest markers to take note of for a cyclical or logical structure to the content that’s been presented. The work ends in much the way it began, cooling off to silence.

I wish I had more informed things to say about this work, but a few of the recent installments (this one, Kallstenius, Sunday’s Pettersson) have been works that simply interest me, and also pieces I came across by accident. Blomdahl was on the agenda from the early days of planning this series, but it wasn’t until later that I gave his third the spot, but as for Kallstenius and the Pettersson concerto, they were lucky finds, and hopefully other people will feel about them the way I did. Enjoy.

There’s only one more installment of our Swedish Symphony Series left for September, and it’s the other composer, the third one who I said would be getting double-ups on posts. The first composer featured in the series was Adolf Fredrik Lindblad, who got two works featured, and the second was Kurt Atterberg. I said the third double would mark the end of the series, so stay tuned for who that last composer is, because he was a big reason this symphony series happened.


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