The next few editions of the Naxos blog will offer a smörgåsbord of music from the Nordic countries, presenting examples from Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden (FINDS, my acronym) that may be unfamiliar yet richly rewarding. This edition showcases composers from Iceland and Sweden.
The music of Iceland’s first composer, Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (1847–1927), rather reflects his personality, described by his contemporaries as vivacious and affectionate but at times temperamental. Sveinbjörnsson was born in the year of Mendelssohn’s death and became a piano student of the latter’s friend Reinecke in Leipzig between 1872 and 1873, so it’s perhaps no coincidence that he was influenced by the music of the great German composer.
Sveinbjörnsson’s career as a musician wasn’t a given; he initially embarked on studies for the priesthood. But when he was encouraged by the visiting Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen to study music abroad in 1867, he decided to add a year of private study in piano and harmony with Vilhelm Carl Ravn in Copenhagen following his graduation as a priest in 1868. This decision ultimately directed him towards his true calling as a musician.
Sveinbjörnsson composed Iceland’s national anthem, so let’s hear it. Maybe you can detect an air of religiosity reflective of his priestly training?
Lofsongur (O God of our land)
Sveinbjörnsson’s Icelandic roots didn’t prove a shackle. His career was based outside Iceland for most of his life: he composed, performed and taught piano in Edinburgh between 1873 and 1919; in 1890 he married a Scottish woman, Eleanor, with whom he had two children, Þórður and Helen, before moving to Canada in 1919; they then lived in Iceland between 1922 and 1924 and subsequently made their final home in Copenhagen. To represent Sveinbjörnsson’s output, I’ve chosen the third movement of his (undated) Piano Trio in A minor.
Piano Trio in A minor (8.570460)
Onward a generation now and to music by Jón Leifs (1899–1968) that occupies a radically different sound world. Leifs is one of Iceland’s best known classical composers who wrote a number of works about Icelandic nature. These included titles such as Hekla, Dettifoss and Geysir. I’ve chosen the final section of Hekla, named after an active stratovolcano in the south of Iceland, so you may want to have the volume control to hand.
Coming right up to date, I’m ending our trip to Iceland with two short movements (there are seven altogether) from Finnur Karlsson’s Accordion Concerto. Karlsson was born in 1988; the concerto premiered in 2020. The first movement (A Dream about Flying) ingeniously quotes two melodies that are well known in Iceland, although they’ve been slowed down and distorted to the point of being virtually unrecognisable. The fifth movement (Bontempi’s Ghost) was inspired by Karlsson’s experiments with the record function of his young daughter’s Bontempi toy keyboard. He recorded a cluster, pressing as many keys as possible, then pressed ‘Play’, at which point the instrument rendered it as a sequence of pitches.
A Dream about Flying (8.226720)
Bontempi’s Ghost (8.226720)
And so to Sweden, where it was thanks to composer Hugo Alfvén (1872–1960) that the country got its very first recording label devoted purely to classical music. The bond of friendship that existed between him and the recording enthusiast Hans Peter Kempe proved one of the most important in the history of Sweden’s recording industry. The Midsummer Vigil LP, which was the label’s very first release, raised Alfvén’s profile to an international level. From that programme, I’ve selected his Festspel, commissioned for the opening of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm in 1908. Inspiration for the piece deserted Alfvén until a chance conversation about the times of Charles XII brought blaring fanfares and a polonaise to his mind. A day later the piece was finished, since when it’s often been used for official occasions in Sweden.
In 1958, record producer Kempe, mentioned above, was contacted by Claude Génetay, a member of the Stockholm Radio Orchestra. He had researched and written out the parts to a long dormant work by ‘the father of Swedish Music’, aka ‘the Swedish Handel’, aka Johan Helmich Roman (1694–1758), namely The Drottningholm Music (Music for a Royal Wedding). Génetay suggested that Kempe record the work. Even in the 1950s Roman’s music was almost unknown, but this new recording, made appropriately in the Drottningholm Court Theatre, found immediate popularity among a large audience. I’ve selected the suite’s final Allegro movement.
The Drottningholm Music (8.553733)
Bridging the gap between Roman and Alfvén, and bringing this blog to a close, is music by Franz Berwald (1796–1868). A violinist by training, he became the most important figure in Swedish music of the 19th century. During his career he enjoyed varying degrees of success in his own country, eventually turning to business, managing a glass works and opening a saw-mill. He was appointed professor of composition of the Swedish academy only in 1867, shortly before his death. Largely unappreciated during his lifetime, Berwald is today recognised as the outstanding Swedish composer of the 19th century, whose greatest and most original contribution was to orchestral repertoire, above all the four symphonies, the last of which we join at the start of the scherzo movement.
Symphony No. 4 (8.553052)