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ClassicsOnline Home » PETERSON-BERGER: Flowers from Froso Island
Wilhelm Peterson-Berger was born in 1867 in Ullånger on the Ångermanland
coast in northern Sweden, and spent his school years north of there on the
Västerbotten coast. He inherited his musicality from his mother, his first
musical experience coming as a seven-year old, while listening enraptured to
his mother playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata one evening. Thus was
born his passion for sitting at the piano, improvising and composing.
Later it would be another part of northern Sweden that he was especially
drawn to: Jämtland, with its mountains bordering Norway to the west. It was
there, from the house in the rustic manner he had built on the island of Frösö,
that he claimed to have the world's most beautiful view, looking out over the
waters of Lake Storsjön. Completed in 1914, he called his little part of
paradise Sommarhagen (‘Summer Refuge’) and in 1930 it became his
permanent home. The countryside of northern Sweden remained his most important
source of inspiration.
Peterson-Berger made the first, decisive, visit to Jämtland in the late
summer of 1889. In the following years he spent several weeks each summer
hiking in the mountains with other young outdoor-enthusiast friends, always
carrying a notebook and some manuscript paper with him. He rehearsed several of
his newly composed songs with these friends, thus giving their first
performances in the mountain sunshine under an open sky.
In autumn 1895 Peterson-Berger moved to Stockholm and was employed on
the leading Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter. Through his honest but often
biting music reviews he became one of the most read journalists on Dagens
Nyheter, arousing, however, much hostility and jealousy in the process.
This in turn led to difficulties for him as a composer. He wanted to be known
as a composer of large-scale works, but of his five symphonies only No 3, Same
Ätnam ('Lappland'), and of his six larger music dramas only Arnljot, were
accepted by the Swedish music establishment Peterson-Berger had to remain in
the shadow of his contemporaries Hugo Alfvén and Vilhelm Stenhammar.
It was above all through a number of smaller piano pieces, romanser (the
Nordic equivalent of Lieder) and choral pieces that Peterson-Berger came
to be cherished by the Swedish public. Even fifty years after his death he can
still be regarded as the most popular of all Swedish classical composers. His
breakthrough came in 1896 with the publication of Eight Melodies for Piano, entitled
Frösöblomster (‘Flowers of Frösö’). Certainly it was clear that Grieg's Lyrical
Pieces had served as a model and one can glimpse other, even older
composers in the background, especially Schumann. But already Peterson-Berger's
style is clearly defined, his melodies expressive, his harmonies fresh, often
idiosyncratic and his rhythms lithe.
The introductory Rentrée (‘Return’) is coloured by the jubilation
he always felt when returning to his beloved Frösö. In the following Sommarsång
(‘Summer Song’) he can be seen wandering through the beautiful meadows
there, whilst in Lawn-Tennis he captures the playful nature of the
'white sport'. Peterson-Berger was one of the pioneers of tennis in Sweden. He
had a tennis-court built next to Sommarhagen and he actually played with the
equally enthusiastic Mr G., alias the Swedish King Gustavus V.
The melodically sweet, tonally refined piece Till rosorna (‘For
the Roses’) is one of the most frequently played of Peterson-Berger's 21 Frösöblomster,
together with Gratulation (‘Congratulations’), which is not a
marching tune, but rather an elegant Gavotte with a Musette as a
middle section. It has been called a "Carl Larsson painting in
music". Vid Frösö kyrka (‘At Frösö Church’) is a sublimely simple
and solemn little tone-poem. It was on a plot quite near this church with its
pretty bell-tower, and within earshot of its bells, that Peterson-Berger,
eighteen years after the composition of the piece, was able to build
Sommarhagen. He is buried in the churchyard there.
The atmospheric I skymningen (‘At dusk’) is the only piece from
the first volume of Frösöblomster that is in a disquietening minor key,
but with a contrastingly light trio in the major, and the collection ends with Helsning
(‘Greeting’), a pendant to the introductory Rentrée, namely a
farewell to Frösö with tinges of sorrow and a desire to return and with a
major-key hope that yes, of course I will return next summer, and the next.
With Frösöblomster Peterson-Berger strove to achieve unaffected
simplicity and succeeded in creating 'music for the masses'. Many of these pieces are technically within
the grasp of amateurs and sound good when performed by them. Thus
Peterson-Berger became the composer par préférence of many Swedish
The success of the first collection encouraged the composer just four
years later to publish a new volume, this time with six pieces. They have not
become as well-known or as frequently played as the majority of the earlier
collection, even though they are at least as original and characterful. The colours
in the newer Frösöblomster are, however, darker, the melodies less
sweetly 'crowd-pleasing' and the piano-writing somewhat harsher.
The introductory Polonaise Solhälsning (‘Greeting to the Sun’) is
in glorious C major, whilst Peterson-Berger's tribute to his beloved adopted
home Jämtland bears traces of both tenderness and pride. The following Långt
bort i skogarna (‘Far away in the Forest’) is a tone poem in which one
thinks one hears in the distance a cowherd playing a tune on her horn in the
minor, and a later passage has the air of a folk tune in the major, in the
piano's upper register.
In the years immediately following the turn of the century
Peterson-Berger concentrated on large-scale composition. It was then that Arnljot
was composed, which after its première in 1910 at the Royal Opera in
Stockholm quickly gained status as a Swedish national opera. The same year he
completed his Second Symphony "Sunnanfärd" (‘The Journey South’)
and began work on his third, the Lappland Symphony. In 1910
Peterson-Berger also wrote his best chamber work, the Sonata No. 2 for
Violin and Piano. Alongside these instrumental works were published one
volume after another of his settings of Swedish poetry, most notably the
twenty-five songs to texts by Erik Axel Karlfeldt and in 1911 the songs to four
poems of August Strindberg.
At this time there were also a number of small pieces for piano,
including the Suite I somras (‘Last Summer’) and five songs under the
title Färdminnen (‘Memories of Travel’). Also important were Peterson-Berger's
settings of Swedish folk-music which he made in 1906 and published in two
volumes for piano, one with twenty-five songs and the other with twenty-five
dances. With these he followed in the footsteps of August Söderman and Edvard
Grieg, letting the melodies come to the fore with expressive harmonisations.
It was not until 1914 that another volume of Frösöblomster appeared.
The same year his house on Frösö was completed and he could make his Intåg i
Sommarhagen (Entry into Sommarhagen). This is the title of the second of
the seven pieces that comprise Volume 3, which also bears the subtitle I
Sommarhagen – Humoresker och idyller för piano (At Sommarhagen –
Humoresques and Idylls for Piano). But the bold entry march is proceeded by a Förspel
(Prelude) which seems to depict the lively activities during the building
of Sommarhagen, with happy craftsmen hammering and nailing and banging under
the watchful eye of Peterson-Berger himself. The third piece, Landskap i
aftonsol (‘Landscape in the Evening Sun’) uses impressionistic techniques
to portray the beautiful part of Jämtland he enjoyed from Sommarhagen, with the
great deep-blue spines of the Oviksfjäll Mountains bulging far beyond the
islets, bays and sounds of the Storsjön, to use Peterson-Berger's own
words. This ingeniously atmospheric nocturne is followed by Folk humor (‘Folk
Humour’), an animated Jämtland polka in 3/4 time. It is for the most part in
the minor key, but it is the case for much Swedish folk-music that "one is
happiest in the minor".
Vildmarken lockar (‘The Call of the Wild’), a characteristic
Peterson-Berger title, depicts the bare beauty of the wilds, but in a lighter
central section sunlight floods into the forest glades. The idyllic Under
asparna (‘Beneath the Aspen’) is one of Peterson-Berger's most beautiful
and inspired melodies. And so, finally, dreams, sorrow and nostalgia, in Om
många år (In many Years' Time), a little reflection on all things transient
There were to be no more Frösöblomster. Peterson-Berger died in
Öbstersund Hospital at the beginning of December 1942. From the window next to
his sickbed he could look out over the sound to the far shore and see Frösö.
English version: Andrew Smith
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PETERSON-BERGER: Flowers from Froso Island