Scandinavian Romantics

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Scandinavian Romantics, performed on May 10, 2002 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

We have become accustomed to categorizing composers’ musical styles and movements by national groupings. We speak with ease and confidence about French music, Russian music, the twentieth-century English school, and so forth. It is not clear, however, that national labels are always either descriptive or appropriate. Nationalism in music as it was understood during the late nineteenth century was partly the creation of observers mostly from German-speaking Europe. They construed the efforts of non-German composers as products of “peripheral” countries. Such music was often noted for use of materials stemming from local sources (sometimes categorized as “folk”). Viennese Classicism and the early Romanticism of Schumann’s generation were regarded as normative, categorizing the efforts of Tchaikovsky, for example, or Grieg and Dvořák as “exotic,” meaning that local materials were integrated into the symphonic form and the writing of piano and chamber music.

Nationalism also reflected a conscious ambition on the part of composers from countries surrounding German-speaking Europe who wanted to resist the hegemony of classicism and the air of arrogant cultural superiority on the part of the French and Germans. Cultural nationalism after 1848 worked to strengthen the role of local languages. During the second half of the nineteenth century there was a dramatic flowering of Polish, Finnish, Czech and Hungarian literature. These languages sought to compete with the presumed social and diplomatic superiority of French and intellectual dominance of German. Both England and Germany represented rapid industrialization and urbanization. In the regions to the north and east of Germany that had largely rural traditions, cultural nationalism functioned as an implicit critique of the urban, bourgeois, and modern. Concomitant to that was a sentimentalized and somewhat nostalgic embrace of a natural world of beauty seemingly endangered by the trends of modernity.

When one considers Scandinavia, issues of place, region, and nation become even more resonant. Nationalism in Scandinavia does not possess a uniform history. For example, the composer Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) hailed from Sweden, once one of the great powers of Europe. Its moment of greatest glory was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the Swedes were at the forefront of the Protestant cause. Swedish power extended well into Russia and receded through the eighteenth century. Sweden controlled what is today Finland until the early nineteenth century. Stenhammar’s nationalism was comprised of a linguistic, cultural, and religious tradition possessed of a great past and therefore without a deep sense of inferiority. Nevertheless, precisely because Sweden had receded in significance, Stenhammar shared a desire to assert a Swedish character in his music and build a strong musical infrastructure in his home country, while at the same time writing and performing in a manner that would not be marginalized in Berlin, Paris or London. Stenhammar came from a distinguished Swedish family and benefited from highly developed, albeit conservative, cultural traditions. Nevertheless, despite his privileged status Stenhammar sought to integrate his commitment to Classicism with native materials and colors without suggesting any sort of ethnographic authenticity.

The contrast with Stenhammar’s friend Jean Sibelius is instructive. Sibelius was born into a Swedish-speaking Finnish family. The Finland in which he was raised was under Russian jurisdiction. Later in life, Sibelius would be an outspoken critic of Russia’s effort to suppress the Finnish language and culture. In his early years, Sibelius’s primary language was Swedish. He possessed only the most rudimentary knowledge of his Finnish heritage. As he came of age as an individual and artist, he slowly shed his attachment to the Swedish traditions and their links to the European mainstream. He studied and advocated the tonality and rhythms of Finnish language, folk culture and pre-modern Finnish mythology. It took him considerable effort to command Finnish well enough to correspond with his wife, who came from one of the leading pro-Finnish artistic and intellectual families. Sibelius ultimately became a world-famous and internationally celebrated symbol of Finnish nationalism. This was an ironic achievement accomplished in part because of his own lingering ambivalence and because he never lost the outsider’s perspective. That perspective made his self-fashioning into a Finnish patriot, a clearly conscious task. As he acquired this new sensibility, he rebelled against Classicist and Romantic conventions in music, and embraced his own extrapolations of what he regarded to be authentic folk traditions and the musical implications of the ancient Finnish epic (paralleling Leoš Janáček’s derivation of a musical idiom from the Czech language).

Sibelius also found himself critical of modernity and modernism. At one time in his career he had been very close to Ferrucio Busoni, an early advocate of a progressive evolution of a universalist modern musical grammar. But he ended up inaccurately being hailed as a great exemplar of an organic, rooted reactionary musical language, particularly in America and England. He was touted by conservatives as an alternative to the corrupt and ugly modernism of Russian, German, and French innovators such as Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Sibelius found himself uncomfortably transformed into a darling of the Nazis; his music was understood as corresponding conveniently with Nazi aesthetic ideology. It was also unfortunate that Sibelius harbored his own right-wing, anti-Communist political prejudices in his later years. Indeed, until very recently, Sibelius’s music had been dismissed as old-fashioned and reactionary. However, as this his last symphony, reveals, he was anything but a conservative, old-fashioned composer. He was in fact a visionary and an innovator.

The case of Vagn Holmboe is equally fascinating and complex. Unlike Finland, Denmark was not oppressed for a considerable stretch of its history; rather it was a dominant power in Scandinavia for generations, united with Sweden until the sixteenth century and controlling Norway until 1814. However, tension with Prussia in the nineteenth century was palpable, including a war in which Denmark lost Schleswig-Holstein in 1864. But this defeat was followed by a period of widespread social and economic reforms, which transformed the country into one of the most progressive and prosperous in Europe. Ironically like the Swedes, the Danish language has deep parallels to German (as opposed to Finnish, which is a completely distinct language in origin and structure). The tension between the Danes and the Germans, despite such similarities, persisted and reached its apex during World War II, when Germany occupied Denmark. There was a strong and courageous Danish resistance, sparked in part by the house arrest of King Christian X and a historic effort to save the Jewish population.

Vagn Holmboe had been deeply influenced by Bartók, and like Sibelius and Stenhammar sought rural folk sources that could function either as an alternative to or within German Classicism and late Romanticism. Owing in part to the influence of his wife, a Romanian pianist, Holmboe was deeply interested in the folk materials of the Balkans. But he also studied Danish street-cries, using the local urban culture as a potential source of inspiration.

Holmboe, the youngest composer on tonight’s program, reminds us, however, how seriously we need to consider Scandinavia not as an amalgam of separate nations of but as a coherent region. Both Holmboe and Sibelius retreated early in their careers from the city and lived in near isolation in the Scandinavian landscape, close to nature. It is precisely the natural environment and the light of Scandinavia that help create the cultural coherence of the region. Both composers developed elaborate theories about the mystical relationship between light and the natural world and the experience of nature and the expressiveness of music. Both took a position against what they believed to be an artificial construct of music-making that they believe was, characteristic of much of twentieth-century modernism. However, it would be incorrect to consider their approach to musical form as conservative or reactionary. They both shared a more organic approach, resisting both formalism and the post-Wagnerian narrative program. Holmboe and Sibelius represent an especially evocative Scandinavian spirituality within music-making that flowered in the twentieth century. This was only suggested by Stenhammar. Although Sibelius studied in Berlin and Vienna, he (like Holmboe and Stenhammar) owed the refinement and quality of his musical training to the institutions and traditions of music education, composition and performance which flowered in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Göteborg during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Stenhammar died young, cutting a promising career as pianist and composer short. Sibelius, one of the most psychologically impenetrable figures in the history of music, was overwhelmed by self-criticism and alcoholism. He fell silent as a composer for nearly three decades at the end of his life, at the moment of his greatest fame and reputation. Holmboe is the composer least known outside of his homeland. But of the three he enjoyed the longest life and most consistent productivity. He was a force to be reckoned with, not only as a composer but as a teacher and a writer.

Listeners tonight have a chance to encounter an alternative to French, Russian, and German modernism represented by two generations of Scandinavian composers. We encounter first Vagn Holmboe’s most famous symphony, one linked intimately to the Danish landscape. We then turn back to Stenhammar’s unique synthesis of mainstream European tradition with his own particular sensibility. We close with the greatest of all Scandinavian symphonists, one of the towering figures of twentieth-century music. His final tortured and profoundly innovative reflection on the expressive capacities of symphonic form and sonority has been often considered his greatest single work of music. Taken together, these composers tell a story of resistance to trends and fashions within composition and criticism. They reveal the search for a distinctly northern voice.