Einar Englund: Symphony no. 1, ‘The War Symphony’

performed by the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra under Pertti Pekkanen

(cover image by Vincent Guth)

This is a remarkable symphony, on par with, say, Shostakovich.

Sven Einar Englund was born on June 17, 1916 in Ljugarn, Gotland (an island), Sweden, and was a native Swedish speaker. He studied at the Sibelius Academy at the age of 17, and showed himself to be a very talented pianist. In 1941, after his graduation, he served for a time in the military, and wounded his hand, “which almost brought to an end his hopes of pursuing a career as a concert pianist,” says Wiki.

In 1949, he went to the U.S. to study with Aaron Copland, but they apparently just chatted regularly since Copland claimed he had nothing to teach the Finn. The first symphony dates from just before this time, between the Second World War and his time in America, being completed in 1946.

In total, Englund wrote seven symphonies, two ballets, six concertos (two for piano, as well as for cello, violin, flute and clarinet), some solo and chamber works, and a large volume of film music.

His first symphony, completed in 1946, shortly after the Second World War, when the composer was only 30 years old, is a remarkably mature, powerful work, showing an enormous amount of promise for the remaining six he would write.

In fact, in having a look at his output, it seems there are actually very few pieces he composed before this work, among them a piano quintet in 1941, and a piano piece. He doesn’t have opus numbers, but I don’t see anything else dated before 1946 besides those two pieces, even on the Finnish Wiki. That’s impressive, but also probably not a comprehensive list.

As I said even before the standard short bio for new composers, I find this to be an exceptional symphony, truly first rate. For much of the stuff I write about, I understand that much of the concertgoing or record-buying crowd might not like this or that because it’s slightly too fringe, a little bit unfamiliar or challenging. In those cases, my expressing that “I can’t believe how it’s not part of the regular concert repertoire” is more a wish that people would give it a chance than any actual surprise that it’s not a concert hall regular.

This, however, is different. It’s an astonishingly powerful symphony, the kind that sticks with you in a way that means you can’t listen to it very often. I’ll mention Shostakovich a few times throughout this article, notably because Englund quotes the Russian, but this work has that same kind of intensity, something raw and memorable in the same way as Shostakovich’s fifth or seventh, say. You don’t listen to it for pleasure. You listen to it for the experience. And I’m not saying Englund’s first symphony is on par with either of those, but it is in much the same vein.

From the get go, this work sounds nothing like a first symphony. It’s marked by confidence and power, a refined, colorful militarism, with defined string lines, and the near-constant presence of snare drum. This opening gesture lingers, echoing throughout this aggressive first movement. It makes for a kind of noncommittal ostinato, not repeated dozens of times like in Shostakovich’s 7th, but almost always there. The first movement, then, feels more about the fate of this theme and how it’s developed rather than any broader sonata-form structure, at least to my ear. It carries a compelling sense of jaded, ironic triumph, a dark climax, but ends quietly.

The second movement scherzo feels like a continuation of the action from the first movement, different, but closely related, something like the first two movements (first movement and scherzo!) of Mahler 6. The movement divides its time between menace and circus-like comedy. There’s not much chance for respite, not even in any real trio, unless it’s in the quieter, more latent tension of a softer middle section. The movement falls into confusion toward the end, like people speaking over each other, the brass against most of the rest of the orchestra, and the finality and strength of this climax feels like the proper end of a symphony, but there are still two more movements.

I mentioned Shostakovich above, and while the first two movements may have only suggested the same kind of musical intensity as the Russian’s works, in the third movement, what would otherwise be some little corner of much-needed rest from the previous two movements (and what is to follow), Englund directly quotes Shostakovich. Interestingly, he waits until the third movement to play this card, and when he does, it’s from the very beginning of the opening of Shostakovich’s fifth.

Listen to this phrase from Shostakovich, about a decade before Englund’s work:

And now listen to this motif in the third movement of Englund’s first:

That’s interesting, isn’t it? It has to be intentional. There’s no way it isn’t. Aside from the direct reference to one of Shostakovich’s most memorable, powerful masterpieces, I’d say Englund does a fantastic job of creating, of inhabiting, the same kind of space that Shostakovich created in his famous symphonies, but without being derivative. It’s not quite as dismal and unrelenting as Shostakovich is, perhaps softened a little bit by a spirit of Sibelius that rounds off some of the sharper edges, but it’s certainly a work with a sense of immediacy and vividness.

And what do we get in the finale? The maestoso marking at times seems like it should read maniacal instead, at least at points. It’s not as bitingly sarcastic and acrid as some of Shostakovich’s greater successes. At least with this finale, especially in some of the brassier moments, there’s a more genuine feeling of triumph without the uncomfortably raw desolateness of Shostakovich.

Where his triumphant symphonic moments are often full of tragedy, or irony, like the lone survivor of an awful battle raising his sword in a gesture of triumph amid a landscape of carnage, only to collapse himself moments later, Englund’s finale, while clearly still in keeping with the ‘War’ title, gives us only the minor-key rawness of say Tchaikovsky, and not even of the Pathetique. Give the whole work a listen and let me know what you think.

Some people comment that the work is overall too bleak to hold a listener’s interest for a whole half hour. In comparison withShostakovich, or Myaskovsky, or Pettersson, Englund’s 30-minute War symphony is dainty and brief, and really nowhere near as soul-crushing, powerful as it is.

People also make the comment that it’s an inferior effort when compared with the rest of his works, and I’m far more willing to entertain that idea. It is, after all, his very first symphony, and a darn good one. One would only hope he’d continue to improve, and by golly, if this is his weakest effort, I can’t wait to get to know his other six symphonies.

I hope you enjoy this work as much as I do. It certainly packs a punch, one I find very satisfying. It might be one of the gems of this series. But it’s only December 6, and remember, the Finnish series is going to take us through to the very end of the year, so do stay tuned for some more excellent music from the far north. Thanks so much for reading.


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