Rosenberg Symphony no. 1, op. 5

performed by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Stig Westerberg in a performance that is no longer on YouTube, or anywhere else, it seems

(cover image by Caleb Woods)

As I said, we’re back to Rosenberg for the next installment of our Editor’s Choice series. It’s been about 18 months (actually slightly more) since we saw him, and this time around, as you perhaps saw this past weekend, we’re discussing very early works of his.

There is precious little information available regarding this piece. Nowhere have I seen it listed as a defining or standout work in Rosenberg’s output, nor have I seen evidence of any single studio recording, or even a professional one, but there was one uploaded on YouTube for a time, and the broadcaster/presenter did say it was Rosenberg’s first symphony with the Swedish Radio Symphony under Stig Westerberg. I asked Reddit for help with the rest, and someone was wonderful enough to help, as below:

Rosenberg exerted himself and gave it another go after a failed and a rather withdrawn symphony. It was the thought of being himself, to disregard tradition, and to write what he really wanted to write that was so tempting. During a concert in 1974 at the ‘Musical Academy in Stockholm’ Hilding Rosenberg’s first symphony was performed by the ‘Swedish Radio’s Symphony Orchestra, lead by Stig Westerberg.

The ‘rather withdrawn symphony’ must be in reference to the withdrawn symphony from 1916. Another Swedish connection of mine commented that it was ‘a major effort for the composer to compose more freely, and not so traditional… Rosenberg’s music is rather free from folk music.’ And I really think we can hear that here. I’ll refer to it more below.

For some context, Wikipedia’s list of works for the composer shows that he completed the work in 1919, and revised it in 1932 (around the time of, actually just prior to, the second symphony) and again in 1971 (after his seventh). Relative to other composers, it sits on a timeline between Sibelius’ fifth and sixth symphonies, and is a contemporary with Myaskovsky’s fifth.

I mention these two composers because I hear them both in this work. For one, it may be somewhat hard for any Nordic composer in the early 20th century to slough off at least some of the influence of the Father of Finnish music. That aside, Rosenberg is also known as the first Modernist Swedish composer, very different from, say, Alfvén, Stenhammar, Peterson-Berger, Rangström, etc. I hear Myaskovsky in a certain hardness or rawness in his sound, certainly not as tragic or harsh, really, but this is no Tchaikovsky. If you’re looking for big swells and full orchestra waves of sound to carry you through a lush, beautiful soundscape, then look elsewhere.

The first movement especially sounds… organic, like music that comes from Rosenberg’s soil in the way Sibelius seems to draw out in so many of his works an almost stereotypically ‘Finnish’ sound. We hear that influence here, but it’s different. There’s that absence of folksong and the freeness of composition that feels to me like everything we hear is a bit unfamiliar, almost linear, so there’s not a lot to grab onto.

The second movement is more pastoral, with an English horn, more tranquil music. In what appears to be a ternary form, we have music that is probably much closer to the realm of what the average concertgoer could listen for. There’s an English horn solo, for goodness sake. In a ternary (or at least simpler) form like this, I feel it’s easier to appreciate Rosenberg’s development of material and follow his train of thought. The first movement really did sound very free.

The finale is the most exciting movement for sure, and even without the use of typical Swedish folksong or other cultural references (that I could pick up on at least). The first movement strikes me as the farthest afield, the most difficult to warm up to, although once you do, it does have its own arguments to make. The second movement is the easiest to digest, and this finale feels like we’ve worked our way into a pair of new pants (or shoes), pushed in the pockets and bent our knees, gotten a little situated and are feeling more comfortable. An odd analogy, I know, but the movement seems finally to have settled in, to get a clear destination in focus. Indeed, the work closes with a superb passage that sounds positively Mahlerian.

I haven’t really said much very useful about this piece, but each time I listen to it, I appreciate it a bit more. In writing these few articles about Rosenberg’s very early works, I remembered that what compels me about him is his large output and move toward Modernism, so what we’re seeing here is just the earliest of those steps. As a mature, completed symphony, this may not be much to write home about, but as a starting point, it’s really something. If this is where we begin, wherever shall we end? We will slowly but surely find out. Stay tuned for a bit more Rosenberg this week, and another exciting Editor’s Choice composer next week. Thanks so much for reading.

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