Between 1988 and 1993 BIS Records undertook a project to record the major orchestral works of Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén. Over that period five CDs were released featuring his five symphonies (one presented on each of the discs), his three Swedish rhapsodies (on the first three discs), and an assortment of shorter pieces to fill out the recording space. All performances were by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi.
Just about everyone of my generation knew Alfvén by only one of his compositions, his first rhapsody. This was a favorite choice of theme music for both classical radio broadcasts and television programs whose producers worried that viewers had become too saturated with Leroy Anderson. Following the model of the Hungarian rhapsodies of Franz Liszt, each of Alfvén’s rhapsodies was organized as a medley of traditional Swedish tunes, each associated with a particular aspect of Swedish life. The first rhapsody is entitled “Midsommarvaka;” and it refers to the all-night vigil that takes place on the longest day of the year. Those living north of the Arctic Circle stay up all night to watch the sun fail to set in a celebratory setting of enthusiastic dancing and free-flowing alcohol.
Alfvén’s rhapsody tracks the progress of the ceremony, beginning with an innocuously bouncy little theme (usually the only part of the music used by those television producers). As the rhapsody progresses, the music becomes first energetic, then wilder, and finally borders on the orgiastic. Sadly, most who knew the piece only as theme music were unaware that it would have been more appropriate as an anthem for Hugh Heffner!
Regardless of the appeal (or provocation) of this piece, it is hardly representative of Alfvén’s work as a composer. It was composed in 1903, and the span of time covered by the BIS recording project runs from 1897, the year of his first symphony, to 1953, the year in which he completed his fifth symphony (which he began in 1942). BIS has now released all five of its discs as a box set; and, because the orchestral works constitute the largest segment of the Alfvén catalog, that collection provides far more suitable material for any listener who wishes to know more about his work as a composer.
Background material about Alfvén is rather sparse, particularly for English-speaking readers. His Wikipedia page is relatively sparse and marked as needing further work, and Rolf Haglund’s entry for Grove Music Online is not much better. It is thus important to note that the booklet material provided by Stig Jacobsson for the BIS recordings is as important as the ability to listen to the five and a half hours of music on the discs themselves. Jacobsson provides a thoroughly entertaining account of that midsummer vigil and explains that the second (“Uppsala”) rhapsody is based on university student songs in the same manner as Johannes Brahms’ “Academic Festival” overture.
What is missing, however, is any account of sources of influence beyond those associated with Swedish life. Alfvén was both a violinist and a conductor, so we may assume that he was exposed to a fair amount of repertoire. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be the sort of account of his work as a performer that would allow one to hypothesize possible influences as we can try to do based on the conducting career of, for example, Gustav Mahler. I cite Mahler specifically because there are a few Mahlerian tropes lurking in that fifth symphony that may be more than coincidence. Similarly familiar tropes arise throughout the collection; and, while some of them may be associated with Edvard Grieg or with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (with a bit of a Swedish accent), others may just be recognized as part of the Weltanschauung of the late nineteenth century.
It is also important to recognize that Alfvén’s personal tastes were highly conservative. For all the revolutions that were taking place in music during the first half of the twentieth century, Alfvén’s preferences never seem to have left the nineteenth. As a result one does not encounter the sorts of brushes with harmonic ambiguity that one can find in Jean Sibelius or even any of the less orthodox dramatic effects that surface in Carl Nielsen. The Wikipedia page describes Alfvén’s approach to orchestration as “reminiscent of that of Richard Strauss;” but the two composers also seem to share that reluctance to move on from late-nineteen-century rhetorical practices.
Nevertheless, those television producers who saw Alfvén as an alternative for Leroy Anderson were definitely misrepresenting him. His craft may have been heavy with nostalgia; but it still emerged as well-managed and well-crafted. One would probably not want to devote an entire day to the recordings in this collection, but there is still much satisfaction to be gained from listening to any of the individual works included.