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ClassicsOnline Home » ALFVEN: Synnove Solbakken / En Bygdesaga / Elegie
In his native Sweden Hugo Alfvén’s music ranks as the most significant after that of Berwald. The music on this disc consists of two suites drawn from films that Alfvén scored during the 1930s and 1940s. Both Suites draw on folk-tunes to evoke the countryside with a mix of bucolic devices and sombre pastoral melodies. Although the films were not well received, Alfvén’s music was widely commended. In Elégie, Alfvén pays tribute to fellow countryman and composer Emil Sjögren (1853-1918). This work anticipates his own Fourth Symphony (Naxos 8.557284).
By Raymond Tuttle
Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960)
Synnøve Solbakken, Op. 50 • En Bygdesaga, Op. 53 • Elégie, Op. 38
The music of Hugo Alfvén has never been widely heard internationally, but in his native Sweden he ranks with the most significant composers after Berwald. Born in Stockholm on 1 May 1872, he studied at the conservatoire, then after two years as a violinist in the opera orchestra devoted himself to composition. Two symphonies, in F minor and D major [Naxos 8.553962 and 8.555072], appeared in 1897 and 1898, with the latter's Stockholm première amply confirming his national reputation. Over the next quarter century a number of major works appeared, including the Third [Naxos 8.553729] and Fourth [ Naxos 8.557284] Symphonies, the oratorio The Lord's Prayer, the Revelation Cantata, the ballet-pantomime The Mountain King, and three Swedish Rhapsodies - of which the first, Midsummer Vigil [ Naxos 8.553115] remains his most popular piece. After 1923 he focused increasingly on choral music, reflecting commitments as conductor of the Siljan Choir and the Orpheus Singers. His Fifth Symphony [ Naxos 8.557612] occupied him throughout the 1940s and 1950s, while the ballet The Prodigal Son makes inventive use of traditional music. Alfvén died, as the elder statesman of Swedish music, in Falun on 8 May 1960.
Although his period of greatest success pre-dates the first 'golden age' of Swedish cinema, Alfvén contributed to three feature films during the 1930s and 1940s. The first of these was for the film Synnøve Solbakken (Synnøve of Solbakken), based on the novel by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and first screened in Stockholm on 22 October 1934. Originally comprising eighteen 'complexes' of music, Alfvén reduced the score, with the assistance of Eduard Hladisch, to a six-movement suite that fairly represents the character of the film. This concerns the gentle Synnøve and her love for the moody Torbjörn, who is initially paralysed by a stab wound sustained in a fight with his rival Knut, only recovering his mobility when his sees his father's cart caught in an accident. The feuding families are thereby reconciled, and the lovers happily brought together. As in his Fifth Symphony, Alfvén re-uses music from the ballet-pantomime Bergakungen, as well as Norwegian folk-tunes; aptly so given the film's setting and the fact that it had been a joint Norwegian-Swedish production (though the Norwegian-language version was shot employing a rather different cast). Understandable, perhaps, that one writer, while unenthusiastic about the film as a whole, judged its overriding merits to be "the cows, the landscape, (the actor) Victor Sjöström and Hugo Alfvén".
The suite opens with a gentle evocation of the film's rural setting, strings and flutes evoking a Sunday Morning in the Forest. Solo horn contributes cuckoo-calls, while the use of piano in chordal unison with strings adds to the wistful impression. The second number is a stirring depiction of Young Love as it has developed between Synnøve and Torbjörn, with the waltz-like melody at the start informing all aspects of a piece that features atmospheric writing for solo wind. The third number, Poignant Grief, is a sombre pastorale whose use of solo strings to suggest Norwegian fiddle playing, and a lively woodwind idea derived from a traditional melody, recall such instances in Grieg. The fourth number is another depiction of Torbjörn and Synnøve, here a warmly expressive elegy that looks back to the opening section and again exhibits folk inflections. The fifth number adopts a suitably wistful manner to reflect Yearning, and so evokes the expressive essence of the drama. A brief recall of the waltz music from the second section prepares for the sixth number, At Solbakken. This draws on music from the opening of the film in its depiction of the village, and rounds off the whole suite in a lively and robust manner.
Omens were favourable in 1944 for the production of a film based on Vilhelm Moberg's novel Mans Kvinna (the title literally translates as Man's Woman, but is usually given as A Country Tale ) written a decade earlier and already adapted as a stage-drama. Set in Värend during the 1790s, it focuses on Märit, married to the farmer Påvel but attracted to a younger farmer Håkan. Their liaison given away by a maidservant whom Håkan abandoned, Påvel puts his wife under confinement on the grounds she is his property. At the close, the lovers elope across the fields in search of a freedom the community is sure to condemn. Once again Alfvén drew on music from Bergakungen in a score that comprises 23 'complexes' of music (two of which were omitted in the final cut). The première, in Stockholm on 5 February 1945, was not the success many had anticipated, however, with Alfvén's music again judged to be one of the few positive aspects to the whole enterprise.
The Introduction is effectively an overture to the film, and one that first vividly and then movingly anticipates the drama to come. The second number, Dreams, is an extensive piece that juxtaposes ideas associated with the film's main characters, as also with the spinning-wheel and the loom, in a rhapsody denoted by its mood of sombre restraint. Even longer, the third number, Guilty Love, focuses on Märit and Håkan and the attraction they feel toward each other. Notable ideas include a chorale-like motif on brass that provokes the main climax and informs the tense latter stages of this section. Its close leads directly into the fourth number, Jealousy, which forcefully evokes the main conflict, though the music later takes on a whimsical manner that relaxes tension. An ominous Funeral March comprises the fifth number, though with a more flowing and expressive central section to provide the requisite contrast. The Baying of Wolves is the sixth and final number and unfolds impulsively, again drawing on folk-music as the lovers make a defiant bid for freedom, in the knowledge that their future will be that of 'lone wolves' hunted by 'the pack'.
Elégie, the final work on this disc has no connection with film music. Its subtitle, At Emil Sjögren's Funeral, indicates its genesis. Johan Gustav Emil Sjögren (1853-1918) was a Swedish composer who also served as organist at the Sankt Johannes Church in Stockholm from 1890 until just before his death. Best remembered for his songs and piano music, he also left several works for organ, five violin sonatas and numerous pieces for choir. Alfvén's tribute is a tone-poem that often anticipates the Fourth Symphony on which he was soon to embark.
Assuming a deliberate tread, Elégie unfolds with a sombre theme on strings, taken up by woodwind and horns. A warmer theme on upper strings offers contrast, but the wind motif heard at the start returns to provoke an expansive climax where lower brass and percussion add to the grief-stricken mood. The second theme reappears to impart its mood of solace that the wind motif cancels out, but the final minutes move into different emotional territory, transforming the main theme so that the piece can close with at least the promise of benediction.
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ALFVEN: Synnove Solbakken / En Bygdesaga / Elegie