Music Post: Swedish composers on parade


A view of downtown Stockholm with a transit train in the foreground. Stockholm is a metro area of 2.2 million – all of Sweden, Europe’s third largest country, has a population of 10 million.

The very late 1800s were a golden age for classical music not composed in Vienna or Paris. Russian and Czech music were more widely performed outside of Russia, and even Germanocentric critics welcomed Grieg, Nielsen and Sibelius.

Yet a century later most classical concert programs show little interest in Nordic classical music beyond those three guys. What, you may wonder, are you missing?

By sampling a variety of Swedish composers, you’ll get a chance to form your own opinion, there being a whole lot of recordings of Swedish classical music now.

To get you started here is a chronological list of some composers who figure into the story.

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907): It may seem odd that a Norwegian composer would be the father of Swedish music, but Norway was part of Sweden until three years before Grieg’s death. And anyway Grieg was ethnic Scottish on his paternal grandfather’s side; both his grandfather and his father worked at the English consulate in Bergen. Grieg was Eurocosmopolitan, trained in Germany and well known throughout the continent. Much of the music in “Peer Gynt,” which people associate with Norway, actually depicts scenes in Egypt and South Africa. Nevertheless, Grieg loved his native Bergen, was close to other Norwegian and Swedish musicians, and loved the folk music from his region.

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) and Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Apart from Grieg, the two best-known Scandanavian composers are the Danish Carl Nielsen and the Finnish Jean Sibelius, both born in 1865. Although Sibelius lived 26 years longer, he actually stopped composing before Nielsen. Both were most active in the first quarter of the 20th century, both are remembered mostly for their symphonies, but both also wrote excellent violin concertos. And both were acclaimed in Sweden.

Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927): The first famous Swedish composer, born in Stockholm, studied in Berlin and took both Nielsen and Sibelius as models. Wilhelm Stenhammar composed a Brucknerian First Symphony and a more Nordic Second Symphony. A gifted concert pianist, he wrote two piano concertos, but he also produced six string quartets which seem to evolve from Brahms to Sibelius. Stenhammar was music director of the Gothenburg Symphony for more than 15 years. He died there at 57.

Hugo Alfven (1872-1960): Hugo Alfven was born the year after Wilhelm Stenhammar, also in Stockholm, and worked as an orchestra violinist before learning to conduct. He became better known as a conductor than as a composer, but wrote five symphonies indebted to Nielsen and three Swedish Rhapsodies, the first of which has a melody that was a U.S. instrumental pop hit in the 1960s.

Ture Rangstrom (1884-1947): Another Stockholm native, Ture Rangstrom succeeded Stenhammar as music director of the Gothenburg Symphony. He was a vocal coach and wrote many songs, but also produced four symphonies and several tone poems.

Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974): Kurt Atterberg was trained as an electrical engineer and worked at the Swedish patent office for 56 years, running it for more than 30. Despite this he had a successful parallel career as a composer and conductor in Stockholm, marred only by unproven allegations of having been a Nazi sympathizer. Atterberg composed nine symphonies.

Dag Wiren (1905-1986): The first notable Swedish composer not born in Stockholm, Dag Wiren came from Orebro County, in a rural area in central Sweden. But he went to the Stockholm conservatory, and studied in Paris for three years in the 1930s where he was exposed to the music of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Les Six. He also met his wife, an Irish cellist, in Paris. He wrote five symphonies, five quartets, and concertos for piano, violin, cello and flute.

Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986): Born in far southern Sweden in an area close to Denmark, Lars-Erik Larsson studied with Alban Berg in Vienna, then worked for Swedish radio before becoming a conservatory professor. His symphonies mostly come from the 1930s and 1940s, but in the 1950s he composed a dozen concertinos for various instruments with string orchestra.

Gunnar de Frumerie (1908-1987): Larsson’s contemporary Gunnar de Frumerie was born in the Stockholm area, an architect’s son, and became a concert pianist after studying in Vienna and Paris. From 1945 into the 1970s he taught piano at Stockholm Conservatory. In addition to piano sonatas, trios and quartets, he wrote a concerto for cello that he later adapted for trombone.

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