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Inspired by a trip to Italy, Swedish composer Stenhammar hoped to create “the kind of beautiful poetry about the South of which only a northerner is capable.”

Karl Wilhelm Eugen Stenhammar was born February 7, 1871, in Stockholm, and died there on November 20, 1927. He conceived the work that was to become the Serenade in about 1907 while traveling in Italy, began writing in earnest in about 1909, and completed the first version by 1913. The composer conducted the premiere of that version in Stockholm in 1914. He withdrew the score and made revisions in 1919; the new, definitive version was first performed by the Gothenburg Symphony on March 3, 1920.

The score of the Serenade calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, triangle, cymbals, side drum, bass drum), and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Duration is about 34 minutes.

Norway has its Grieg, Finland its Sibelius, and Denmark its Nielsen—late Romantics all, venerated as national heroes in their home countries, their musical significance also long acknowledged abroad. Sweden, on the other hand, lacks a figure of comparable stature—a single composer who indisputably towers above the rest, dominating the national musical conversation even today. This may seem baffling, given that Sweden was historically the dominant political power among the Nordic countries. Yet precisely because it never had to struggle for its independence or cultural autonomy, the imperative of filling the mantle of “national composer” was felt rather less acutely in Sweden than in its neighbors.

The observation is a helpful starting point for an appreciation of Wilhelm Stenhammar, a man sometimes cast as Sweden’s answer to Sibelius, but for whom that “national composer” label is, in the end, an awkward fit. To be sure, Stenhammar was an imposing presence in Swedish musical life from the 1890s onwards, active not only as a composer but as a pianist (he was a grand-pupil of Clara Schumann) and, in later years, a conductor. His achievements in the last of these capacities were of particular significance, and during his 1907-22 tenure as music director of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra he established one of the most prominent platforms anywhere for the music of his friends Sibelius and Nielsen.

Stenhammar’s advocacy for his Scandinavian peers was only partially reflected in his compositions, whose cool restraint commentators have been hard-pressed to pin down. Like so many of his era, Stenhammar found himself under Wagner’s spell early on—his Norse mythological opera, Tirfing, was not a success—but he was fast to shed the influence, eventually preferring to emulate the aristocratic poise of the Viennese classics. This was why Stenhammar’s rival, the composer-critic Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, once dubbed him “the Swedish Brahms,” though the epithet is probably as much a help as a hindrance. After all, Stenhammar was also responsible for the choral song “Sverige” (“Sweden”), which became a kind of de facto national anthem, and while he was no folklorist, a handful of his works, like his “Swedish rhapsody,” Midvinter, are still unabashedly nationalist in style and content. Add Stenhammar’s enthusiasm for Renaissance polyphony to the mix, and it becomes clear that here was a multifaceted figure for whom the expectations we have of a Grieg or a Sibelius do not quite apply.

Instead, Stenhammar’s outlook is more readily comprehensible in relation to period debates about the Swedish “national character.” The author of the “Sverige” libretto, the poet Verner von Heidenstam, once likened Sweden to a “widely traveled old man of the world, who has seen and tried everything,” also lamenting that “Swedes fear nothing so much as being chastised for thinking too highly of themselves.” If, for Heidenstam, this cosmopolitan reserve had impeded the development of distinctively national forms of expression, Stenhammar instead put it to good account, his music never claiming to speak on behalf of the Swedish people, but its knowing, occasionally world-weary decorum no less a characteristic reflection of turn-of-the-century national sensibilities, for all that.

In 1906 and 1907, Stenhammar traveled to Italy, perhaps in unconscious emulation of Sibelius, who composed much of his Second Symphony there a few years earlier. As with the Finn, the southern scenery left an indelible impression, and nowhere in Stenhammar’s oeuvre can its impact be felt more strongly than in his Serenade, the plan for which was hatched while still on the Italian peninsula. Writing to a correspondent in 1907, Stenhammar volunteered an idea for “a kind of Florentine dithyramb to spring […] something at once sensual and spiritual, with a kind of strong floral scent in the pure sunny air.” Because Italy contrasted so starkly with the austere Scandinavian landscape, he suggested he might even have a leg up: his aspiration was that the score would embody “the kind of beautiful poetry about the South of which only a Northerner is capable.” But there was another reason someone of Stenhammar’s generation would be so enthusiastic about Italy, and would reference the ancient Greek dithyramb—originally, a hymn to the god Dionysius. Both were hallmarks of the aesthetic thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose philosophy was hotly debated in Swedish literary circles starting in the 1890s. For Nietzsche, the revival of dithyrambic form, and what he called the “mediterraneanization” of music—his label for the rejection of Wagnerism—were the royal road to the “aristocratic,” life-affirming art that he believed would counter the ennui and nihilism of modern life.

Although Stenhammar stuck closely to his original concept, with what he later confessed was the score’s “veiled hint of a programme,” the Serenade had a protracted genesis. The bulk of composition occurred between 1909 and 1913, but Stenhammar withdrew the work after its first performance, revising it to his satisfaction in 1919 (among other things, he deleted a sixth movement titled Reverenza). The timeline is significant: in 1909, Stenhammar began a long-term regimen of counterpoint exercises, which he hoped would enable him to distill his musical idiom down to “clear, happy, naïve” basics (with “naïve” denoting an absence of undue self-reflection). Something of this attitude can be discerned in the Serenade, which embraces the serenade genre’s historical associations, as an evening entertainment for outdoor consumption, and which in the hands of a Mozart was “light” but never “lightweight.”

The Overtura’s unusual tempo designation, Allegrissimo, captures the intent, referring to the music’s emotional temper—“with the utmost cheer.” The opening pages quickly array the materials from which the movement is fashioned, each linked to tropes from the serenade tradition: the initial “cork-pop” gesture of bubbly, scampering violins, followed by rowdy horns, summoning listeners over the distance; after that, a slower passage with Sibelius-style woodwind chirps, and then the ornamental “serenading” of a solo fiddler. The subsidiary theme is a hushed, “archaic” hymn for divided strings, from which a plangent melody only gradually materializes.

Wistful and yearning, the Canzonetta has been compared to Sibelius’s gnomic Valse Triste for good reason, since Stenhammar programmed it early in his Gothenburg tenure. Yet there is also a cool passion all Stenhammar’s own, and the way the solo clarinet cantilena slowly emerges from the background again invokes the play of distant sound on a warm spring evening. The central section’s sustained horns and glockenspiel seem to recollect cooler climes.

Writing about the Scherzo, which follows without pause, Stenhammar conceded that “Intermezzo fantastico” or “selvaggio” (literally, “savage”) would have been just as appropriate titles, and it is here that the Serenade’s Dionysian impulse is given freest rein in music of considerable rhythmic abandon. A brief oasis of molto sostenuto strings offers respite from the breathless atmosphere, exemplifying what Robert Quist describes as the Serenade’s tendency to interleave moments of “Nordic, contemplative stillness in the context of southern expressions of joy.” Upon its reappearance, the scherzo’s bacchic frenzy is redoubled, though the movement eventually dissolves into nothingness, sustained strings again leading directly into the Notturno.

Commentators have tended to characterize the slow Notturno as the most “Northerly”-sounding, while its occasional recollections of earlier movements have led others to suggest that it represents the traveler now back home, musing nostalgically about the south. Its doleful longing may also have something to do with Stenhammar’s views about Scandinavia’s polar nights: “I love the dark night; the dark day is dreadful.” The impression is seemingly confirmed with the rising song of the solo horn that heralds the Finale. Suggesting the dawning of day—or maybe, the coming of spring—the Finale is a paean to the Nordic sun to place beside Grieg’s “Morning Mood,” Nielsen’s Helios Overture, and Sibelius’s Nightride and Sunrise. Alternating passages of exultation and reflection, it culminates in a hymn of thanksgiving, only to conclude with an elfin shrug, as if to suggest that the passions of the night had been but a dream.

Matthew Mendez

Matthew Mendez is a New Haven-based musicologist and critic who specializes in 20th- and 21st-century repertoire. He is a graduate of Harvard University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Yale. Mr. Mendez was the recipient of a 2016 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award for outstanding music journalism.