Asger Hamerik: Symphony no. 5 in Gm, op. 36

‘Symphonie sérieuse’

performed by the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard

Asger Hamerik (sometimes spelled more German-ish as Hammerich, I am also guessing ‘Asger’ is the Danish equivalent of ‘Oscar’) was born on 8 April, 1843 in Frederiksburg, near Copenhagen. He studied with both J.P.E. Hartmann and Niels Gade (there’ll be a lot of that). His family counted another famous Dane, Hans Christian Andersen, among their associates. Hamerik began composing from an early age, with a symphony in his teens. He, along with many Danes, left the homeland to move elsewhere to study. He spent some time in Berlin with Hans von Bülow, and in Paris under Hector Berlioz.

Hamerik certainly got around, though. He spent some time in, or at least traveled to Italy and Vienna, which aren’t as surprising as his eventual move to America, being offered the post of director of Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory in 1871. Wikipedia says “his influence won praise from influential visitors including Tchaikovsky and Arthur Sullivan.” He spent almost thirty years in America, before he moved back to Denmark, with his American pianist wife. They had two children, a son who was a conductor and composer, and a daughter, an opera singer.

Among Hamerik’s only 41 opus numbers are seven symphonies, four operas, and five orchestral suites. Interestingly, that same article above says:

The most obvious influence in his music is Berlioz, particularly given Hamerik’s conscious choice of rooting his music in French influences, the French subtitles to his symphonies, and the use of an idée fixe. His music is often described as having a “Nordic” cast, and in letters he told friends that even though he was going to America he would always remain a Dane.

That sounds quite intriguing, huh?

Well, today, we’ll be taking a look at his fifth symphony, completed in 1891. It’s one of those that came out of nowhere for me. In my digging through the dusty bins of underperformed, unknown-outside-their-home-country composers and symphonies, there are obviously works that do not impress, either at first or fifteenth listen, but this made a quick impression. It’s cast in four movements at around 36 minutes of performance time.

The opening might remind a listener of Tchaikovsky’s fourth, with its ominous, punctuated brass statements, followed by a quiet orchestral answer, a dramatic, even tragic opening to this fifth symphony. But wait for flutes to enter, and a tender, placid passage begins, widening the emotional scope of this work. We shall see where it leads.

The long-short-short rhythm that opened the piece seems to reappear here and there, like some kind of fate motif that reappears throughout the first movement, and you might get flashes of Tchaikovsky or Berlioz here and there in the vividness that is painted in the first movement, with its contrasts between the commanding and tender, the sweet and the militaristic. That being said, I feel like there is at least some weakness in the narrative. It’s exciting, engaging music, and it could just be my inability to identify it, but I feel like it wanders ever so slightly in some of the softer passages in the development. Things seem to reunite in the recapitulation, but even it goes on for a bit longer than I expect each time.

The second movement begins with a beautiful brass chorale, something Wagnerian, solemn, but uplifting, and the positive nature of the movement is emphasized when the rest of the ensemble enters. It doesn’t take long, though, before a similar struggle develops in this movement, as it is at turns almost funereal in tone, with some passages reminding me very much of Beethoven’s marche funebre. There’s certainly no lack of vividness and musical intensity. Do you hear that motif from the first movement though? It’s so straightforward, so simple, that I’m not sure it can even be considered such, but it seems to lend a certain subtle unity to the work.

The scherzo screams Beethoven to me, and that’s not a criticism. I find this work to be a bit… conservative for a piece published in 1891, but it’s certainly crunchy and has its immediate charms. The scherzo is far and away the most musical, charming, memorably wonderful thing we’ve heard so far in the work. It’s glorious. I don’t mean to be critical of the rest of the symphony, because I like its vocabulary, but the scherzo has a wonderful immediacy to it, and even the trio maintains the urgency and momentum of this delightful third movement. Did you hear Hammerich’s little fate motif?

If you didn’t, it also appears in the quiet opening of the finale. It’s not as spellbinding as something from Wagner or Berlioz, maybe, but still effective; it brings a unity to this work that almost wants to lose its way at a few turns, I feel.

But here we are in the finale, with a movement that wants to give us its all. There are passages and flashes of what sounds almost Copland-like American to me, but rooted in a European crunch. Do you hear the ‘fate’ motif weave through woodwinds and brass?

There are explosions of brass that recall the beginning of this symphony, but the content of the finale is satisfying, presenting (to me) a contrast not just for contrast’s sake, but conflict that propels forward the latter half of this symphony. At least for me, the effect of such a propulsive third and fourth movements, and calling back the opening content tightens up what I perceived to be some slack in certain places, but then again… it might just be that the mention of Berlioz had me wishing for a late Romantic Symphonie Fantastique.

I can’t comment on Hamerik’s work overall because, to be honest, I haven’t heard it. However, despite my few small criticisms for this work, it’s an enjoyable listen, with plenty of fireworks and exciting blasts along the way. I’m curious now to hear the later two symphonies, both of which originally date from 1897, with the seventh in three movements, edited a decade later, and containing a part for soprano.

Don’t get me wrong. I was pretty impressed with this work. It’s pretty easily enjoyable, and with maybe some more time, I’d come to appreciate a depth to it that I haven’t yet discovered. That being said, I’m a sucker for a cyclical structure and/or an idée fixe. It’s also maybe the slightest bit perplexing that with his travels and experience and studies, the Hamerik (or Hammerich, if you must) name isn’t more well known. I don’t mean to call “unfair” at every composer who isn’t played as often as Beethoven; I get it. There’s preference and favoritism and connections and that’s the way the cookie crumbles, but at the very least, Hamerik is one of those little discoveries I’ll be eager to get back around to eventually. Stay tuned for another symphony this week. Vi ses snart. 





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