Rosenberg String Quartet no. 1, op. 9

performed by the Kyndel Quartet

(available here on Spotify)

(cover image by Rodion Kutsaev)

Here we are introducing the next composer in our Editor’s Choice lineup, Hilding Rosenberg. We’ve only seen him once on the blog before, and yet here I am committing to feature about a dozen string quartets and seven more symphonies (we did the third a couple of years ago).

Wikipedia says he’s considered “the first Swedish modernist composer, and one of the most influential figures in Swedish 20th century classical music.” He was also an outstandingly prolific composer, with eight symphonies (and one early withdrawn one), eight concertos and about as many other concertante works, more than a dozen string quartets, four piano sonatas, among much other orchestral and chamber work.

His first string quartet was originally composed in 1920, was terribly received at the premiere, and later revised in 1923 and then again in 1955, along with the second and third quartets. The work is in four movements, with a total running time of about 22 minutes:

  1. Allegro energico
  2. Andante molto
  3. Allegro vivace
  4. Andante espressivo

The third and fourth movements are played without pause.

Regarding the feedback the first string quartet received, I have a quote (in Swedish) from Wilhelm Peterson-Berger regarding the work, from Rosenberg’s Swedish Wiki entry:

Wilhelm Peterson-Berger skrev i en recension av Hilding Rosenbergs första stråkkvartett om fyra förrymda konradsbergare (mentalpatienter) som “med nit och stiltrohet återge en femtes barbariska och nattomtöcknade fantasier”

‘Peterson-Berger wrote in a review of Rosenberg’s first string quartet of four runaway conspirators [???] who reverberate with…’ something about barbarism and night fantasies. I don’t know. This guy in this article refers to what I assume is the above quote, citing:

[the work] sounded like a chaotic and horrifying vision, a vision, indeed, of a mentally deranged person.

In any case, it’s not terribly positive.

The first movement is nervous, but not in an unsettling way like Webern might be. It builds tension and perhaps some anxiety that conceals an undercurrent of really beautiful lyricism, and at times the curtain is pulled back to reveal it in full. While there’s often discussion of Rosenberg’s use of Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique (or as often as discussion of such a rare composer can be said to occur), what we hear here is more like extremely early Berg, or else later Brahms than the world ever saw, I’d say. It’s not a long movement, but there’s a sort of florid, exhilarating level of detail in this short movement.

If the first movement is too modern for you, though, the second may be more to your liking, and we see Rosenberg’s craft at the quartet in a more approachable light. It’s more typically Romantic in nature, bittersweet. It sounds like the kind of quiet room where your own thoughts are deafening, but ultimately, it seems also to be an incomplete thought, as it ends rather abruptly to bring us to the third and fourth movements.

These two seem almost inextricably intertwined, more than just a plain old attacca to the final movement. There appear to be callbacks to previous material that make me question my “Oh, here’s the finale” statement. The third movement scherzo is perhaps the most striking and interesting, textural, layered, impressive movement. It’s just exciting, and forms a wonderful part of this whole, again, like rooms of a house that contrast and complement each other.

The finale, then, begins with an andante (at least that much I can tell from the tempo markings), and you’d think from the presto marking that we’d ramp up in the end to finish this very early work with a bang, but if you haven’t yet gained an appreciation for Rosenberg’s finesse at writing for the string quartet, then the final few brushstrokes that finish the work may convince you to give the whole thing a second pass. It’s quite well done, I think.

I wonder what was revised so heavily. This recording could be (and likely is) the edited version, so we might be hearing a more mature approach than the late-twenties composer in 1920 would suggest.

This piece gives us (or many of us, some of us) what we really want from a good four-movement piece (at least most of the time). It’s in a clearly traditional four-movement form, with slow movement, scherzo, all the rest. It presents a compelling first movement, melancholy second, propulsive third, and a solid peroration to the work as a whole. At the very least, I maintain that the work bespeaks Rosenberg’s talent for composition, even if he would in a short time leave the Romantic palette behind for a more modern one.

We’ll be seeing a bit more of Rosenberg next week, all very early works, but thankfully he has a lot to show us, so we’re in no danger of running out of Rosenberg anytime soon. Stay tuned for more Swedish tunes, and thanks so much for reading.

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