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.

Symphony No. 8, “Sinfonia Boreale”

By Larry Wallach, Simon’s Rock College

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

As a memorial to his brother who died in a concentration camp, Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996) wrote a “Sinfonia Sacra” (Symphony No. 4) in 1944, in which he set his own words, in Latin, to music, including these: “We desire peace. /I see God in all things, / In good and in evil. / Peace in my heart/ Peace on earth.” Two components of this vision remained crucial to Holmboe: an amoral God, responsible for both life and death, who resembles Nature itself; and a micro-/macro-cosmic relationship between the human heart and the natural world. These approach the thinking of Nietzsche, which Holmboe would explore in a major work of the 1960’s, his oratorio “Requiem for Nietzsche.” Holmboe immersed himself in the natural world and studied it with intensity similar to that of Bartók, with whom he also shared an intense interest in folklore. In the early thirties, Holmboe traveled to Rumania to collect folk music and later published a compendious ethnographic study of Danish street-cries. [1]

All this suggests a temperament unblinkingly curious about the world and the human condition, but staunchly opposed to sentimentality and Romantic self-inflation. Born in 1909, he emerged in the 1930’s as a symphonist subsequent to the completion of the symphonic oeuvres of Sibelius and Nielsen. Each of these highly individual composers moved away from Wagnerian subjectivity and developed powerful versions of the symphonic process that helped form the basis for a Scandinavian symphonic school, which remains vital into the twenty-first century. Holmboe was a crucial member of the middle generation, providing the developmental model of thirteen symphonies as well as mentoring important currently active composers.

In the title of his “Sinfonia Boreale” (Symphony No. 8) of 1951, Holmboe offered a clue to his source of inspiration, which can be viewed as both a musical and an extra-musical one. The title seems to have no specific programmatic intent; it indicates a more abstract and internalized (hence a musical) sense of “north” in the way that Varèse intended his title “Déserts.” On the other hand, Holmboe described the work’s genesis in a single moment: while turning over in his mind one thematic cell he unexpectedly experienced a powerful intuition of the shape of the whole work. This suggests his faith in a link between the human creative process and the larger processes of nature of which the composer is a part. [2] We can see the symphony, and the particular mode of symphonic development it employs, as an expression of the human spirit confronting and confronted by that which is “northern.”

Although divided into four familiar-seeming movements of moderate dimensions, Sinfonia Boreale achieves power and monumentality through cumulative development across four movements. These share basic motivic and submotivic materials, a process and result comparable to Beethoven. Holmboe calls his method “metamorphosis,” by which he indicates a process of gradual modification of material with emphasis on continuity, de-emphasis of contrast. To be sure, each movement ramifies the underlying impulse in its own way, with the last section achieving culmination by gathering together all previous threads.

Fundamental motivic particles heard in the first movement include: an emphatic two-note motto of a semi-tone which spins off countless metamorphic descendants, notably the opening and closing theme played by the bass clarinet; and a seven-beat, seven-note ostinato subjected to diverse strict transformations that generate irresistible momentum barely brought to a halt by the end of the first movement. When this ostinato resumes in the last movement, it does so with ease and inevitability. The second movement, with thematic ideas that can be programmatically connected to Northern weather conditions, might serve as the twentieth-century’s answer to Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman,” in which the human presence is subsumed by a Nature, which it can neither evade nor dominate. At the climactic moment of the last movement, this world of natural sound returns in stunning outbursts of percussion: thundering tympani and crackling xylophone.

The third movement opens with a heartbeat-like motive that combines the semi-tone motto with tone-repetitions. These grow to an expression of stubborn persistence, a suggestion of that most fundamental human motivation, the will to survive. True to its nature, this idea serves as a dialectic foil for volatile forces that swirl against it all the way to the final moment of the symphony, where this sense of opposition, far from achieving resolution, finds its clearest moment of definition.


1. Danish Street Cries (Copenhagen, 1988)

2. Experiencing Music: A Composer’s Notes, ed. P. Rapoport (London, 1991). It is worth adding that Holmboe’s rural home was called “Arre Boreale,” which he settled permanently two years after completing this symphony.

Symphony No.7 in C Major, Op. 105

By Timothy Jackson, University of North Texas

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

When, on 24 March 1924, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) mounted the stage in Stockholm to conduct the premiere of his Fantasia sinfonica No. 1, he was – unbeknownst to all present – leading the orchestra through the majestic musical terrain of his Seventh Symphony. It was not until the following year, while the manuscript was being prepared for publication, that Sibelius after much consideration finally settled on the title Symphony No.7 (in einem Satze; “in one movement”). This proved to be the final step in a complicated decade-long process of compositional work. Perhaps we can best understand the struggle to name the work in light of its genesis and unique formal construction. Sibelius began formulating the central thematic ideas for the Seventh as early as 1914 during work on the Fifth Symphony. Though he ultimately rejected them for inclusion in the Fifth, he continued to develop these thematic cells independently and by the early twenties turned to this material in earnest. The sketches for the Symphony – now preserved in the collection of the Helsinki University Library – reveal that the one movement design with which we are familiar began its life as a full-blown four-movement symphony. Only the second and fourth movements, an Adagio in C and a fast movement in G minor respectively, were worked out in any detail before Sibelius decided to fuse the separate movements into a continuous whole. The impetus for this bold compositional strategy must have arisen from Sibelius’s steadfast refusal to thoughtlessly cram his thematic material into the prescribed confines of textbook musical forms. Instead, as a letter from 1918 – written as Sibelius was formulating plans for the work – indicates, “With regard to symphonies VI and VII the plans may possibly be altered according to the development of the musical ideas. As usual I am a slave to my themes and submit to their demands.” In the end, the Seventh Symphony proves to be a fitting conclusion to Sibelius’s career as a symphonist as it carries his lifelong quest for formal and motivic compression to its logical extreme. Though he experimented with the fusion of movements in his Third and Fifth Symphonies where two of the would-be four movements are joined together, the Seventh represents a true synthesis of ideas taken from the two planned movements. Overall, the symphony loosely conforms to the three parts of sonata form with the climactic trombone theme announcing the arrivals of the exposition, development and recapitulation. This theme and the lengthy hymn-like introduction that leads into its first presentation were drawn from the original slow movement while the lively and unstable second theme of the exposition is taken from the discarded fourth movement. The alternation of slow and fast moving material does lend a sense of multiple movements to the work and, to heighten this effect, Sibelius inserted a full scherzo – based on the abandoned fourth movement – into the development section. More than anything, however, the Seventh Symphony should best be understood as a highly unified and continuous process of growth with each larger section participating in a drive towards one of the three central statements of the trombone theme. Ultimately, this process is denied resolution until the climactic final chord. Surely it was the breadth of the composition’s tonal processes and the multi-movement pacing that finally compelled Sibelius to count it among his symphonies. As such it would be his valedictory essay in the genre and one of his greatest achievements. Contrary to certain long-held beliefs about Sibelius’s music – namely, that the symphonies are absolute music, while the tone poems are programmatic – several facts suggest that many of the symphonies unfold extra-musical narratives. The Seventh Symphony is particularly problematic in this regard. On several sketch pages Sibelius labeled motives associated with the trombone theme “Aino” – his wife’s name – while several other themes are labeled “Ruth” after one of his daughters. This source material suggests that the Seventh may be read as Sibelius’s Sinfonia Domestica, where domestic drama is brought to life through the continuously evolving musical structure. Musical references to the prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and to Sibelius’s own popular Valse Triste point to a tragic undercurrent to this narrative. Despite these references, the specific nature of the program remains – like the structure itself – fairly elusive. Indeed, the Seventh Symphony proves to be one of the last century’s most enigmatic musical masterpieces.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 23

By Robert Layton

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

In November 1923, while Sibelius was still working on the Seventh Symphony, Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) paid a visit to Helsinki to play his Second Piano Concerto, so it is fitting that they should both appear in this program. (It was on this occasion, incidentally, that Sibelius gave a lunch for his Swedish friend and champion, and asked if he could dedicate the Sixth Symphony to him. His publisher, Hansen, managed to lose the dedicatory page, which is why the score is not appropriately inscribed.) There is no doubt that Stenhammar was the most important Swedish composer after Franz Berwald. His position was not unlike that of Elgar in England, and they both suffered neglect after the Second World War. His father Per Ulrik Stenhammar (1829-75) had himself been a composer, and after studies at home in his native Stockholm, he went to Berlin in the 1890s where he made quite a name for himself particularly as a pianist. He was a noted interpreter of the Brahms D minor Concerto and was only twenty-one when he composed his own First Piano Concerto in B flat minor. It says much for his renown that its first performance took place in Berlin under the baton of Richard Strauss.

Stenhammar’s early music was torn between the influences of Brahms (in the Op. 11 Fantasies for piano) and Wagner (in such pieces as Florez och Blanzeflor, Op.3, and the opera, Tirfing). But in his mature work there is something of Fauré’s gentle classicism and reticence, and Elgar’s melancholy and nobility. Yet his sensibility is distinctly Northern and his personality, though not immediately assertive, becomes more sympathetic, more strongly defined and compelling as one comes to grips with it.

Stenhammar was a remarkable all-round musician: as a conductor he programmed such composers as Debussy, Reger, Strauss, Mahler (the Fourth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde) and, of course, Sibelius and Nielsen, all “contemporary music.” He must have been a formidable pianist, too, for apart from his chamber music playing with the Aulin Quartet, he gave demanding recital programs. One included Beethoven’s Op. 109 and Op. 110 sonatas before the interval followed afterwards by the Diabelli variations!

Like most Nordic artists, Ibsen and Sibelius among them, Stenhammar had a lifelong love for Italy. It was while staying in Florence in 1907 that he worked on the Second Piano Concerto, his Fourth Quartet, and was sketching the first ideas for his masterpiece, the Serenade for Orchestra. Such had been the success of the First Concerto during the 1890s that Stenhammar grew tired of playing it on his concert tours and became careless as to its fate. (Both the autograph and the orchestral parts were destroyed during the war, though recently a copy, probably made for the American première, came to light in the Library of Congress.) He played the Second in its stead until his work as a conductor at the Royal Opera, Stockholm, and with the Gothenburg Orchestra claimed more of his energies.

The Second Concerto has four movements and its opening pages have something of the neo-classical lightness of touch of Saint-Saens, as indeed has the effervescent Mendelssohnian scherzo. All four movements from the improvisatory opening through to the finale are played without a break, and have an effortless charm and freshness of melodic invention. It goes without saying, too, that the work is beautifully laid out for both piano and orchestra. Even if the Serenade and the last three string quartets may have a greater poetry and depth, this high-spirited piece offers so much to delight and exhilarate.