Something cool you might have missed: Swedish Rhapsody no. 3 by Hugo Alfven

Hugo Alfven

...will be played by Anthony Quinn...

In the last couple months, I’ve made references to the music of Hugo Alfven.  He cracked the top 10 of the Symphonies no. 3 countdown, which I’m sure thrilled the folks at the Alfven Society.  And I compared him to a non-BCS football team in a rhapsody showdown, implying he was the dark horse that could probably take the whole cake if given the opportunity.  And the piece with which he could achieve that victory is the Swedish Rhapsody no. 3, also known as the Dalecarlian Rhapsody.



Dalecarlia is a region in central Sweden famous for its fishing, deep forests, and being overrun by the God damn city folk of Gothenburg during the summer because of its fishing and deep forests (it also brought us two of the all-time legends in their respective fields, superhuman tenor Jussi Bjorling and arguably the greatest defenseman in the history of hockey, Niklas Lidstrom).  According to this highlighted map, if you view Sweden as the penis of a man in his 40’s, Dalecarlia is the part telling that man that he needs medical attention immediately as he has a massive dark spot on his genitals.  I apologize for that reference, but I’ve never written about Sweden before.  What Dalecarlia really has in spades is the tranquility that I associate with Scandinavia (if I can ever get sedatives powerful enough to vanquish a rhinoceros in twenty seconds or less, I just may take a trans-Atlantic flight to see it for myself).  Perhaps the most famous spot in the region is Lake Siljan, seen here absorbing the power of God and being quite possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen on Flickr.  It’s not remotely difficult to see how this landscape could provide the inspiration for a work of such staggering beauty as Alfven’s Dalarapsodi.

A word about Alfven, by way of review…he was a true Renaissance Man.  He was perhaps as fine a water-colorist as he was a composer, and he wrote a four-volume autobiography (I really can’t repeat that one enough…FOUR VOLUMES!).  His nephew, Hannes, won the 1970 Nobel Prize for Physics and has a magnetohydrodynamic wave named after him.  Uncle Hugo’s music is firmly in the late-Romantic vein, and his style calls to mind a few composers at a given time (Shostakovich, Debussy, Respighi to name three), but the name you’ll come back to again and again is Richard Strauss.  Alfven shares Strauss’ ability to make something sound effortlessly bad ass, and employs the same extreme range of orchestral colors to achieve intimate and/or shattering force.  I’ll be completely honest: I can’t figure out why Alfven isn’t more popular.

The Dalecarlian Rhapsody backs that up.  1931 was a crowded year for music, with the premieres of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, Varese’s Ionisation, Belshazzar’s Feast by Walton, and the left-hand concerti for Paul Wittgenstein by Prokofiev and Ravel (to say nothing of Mood Indigo and the famous Cab Calloway recording of Minnie the Moocher).  With respect to all, I’ll take the Alfven over the whole bunch.  What.

The Swedish Rhapsody no. 3 is a work of profound loneliness and melancholy.  It is worth quoting Alfven’s own thoughts on the work (I’m sure he thought the piece was great, because, as I said, he wrote a four volume autobiography):

I imagine a shepherd girl sitting on the grass at her mountain farm in the quiet and deserted woodlands, blowing her horn.  I want to depict her dreams, her longing.  In the distance she hears a bridal procession pass by and in her dreams she is once more among her friends down in the village.  She remembers merry dances in the evenings and church on Sundays and the exalted solemn hymns.  She shivers as she remembers the night when a strange man appeared among them, seized a fiddle and played wild and strange tunes that made the people go mad.  It was the Devil himself.  The shepherd girl starts up with a cry of fear, then she wakes from her horrible dream and looks around in confusion.  Quietly she takes up her horn again.  I hear the same melody as in the beginning.  And the woods answer, sighing deeply.

Alfven’s gift for orchestration is on display from the get go, with his choice of the soprano saxophone to serve as the shepherd girl’s horn.  It is an incredibly long and drawn out solo, calling out over hushed accompaniment, but it is so beautifully written that it ought to go on until the end of time.  Seriously, it makes me want to learn soprano saxophone, and this is the same instrument that Kenny G and Dave Koz play for fuck’s sake.  The entire section built on the shepherd girl’s solo is achingly beautiful, with delicate woodwind writing balanced by lush strings.  The dance-like episodes show Alfven’s skill at crafting catchy tunes (I had one of the melodies from The Mountain King stuck in my head for like three months once), and the wedding music is a martial romp of the highest order.  But the feelings of longing and isolation are never far away, as an extended solo for muted horn reminds us.

The emotional climax of the work, to me is the music that I suppose fits the “exalted solemn hymns” description.  The transitional music from the wedding scene to this section is remarkably suspenseful for as lovely as it is, but it eventually gives way to a tender theme in the cellos.  This is music of reverence and power, but it is immensely passionate, and when it builds to a climax in the full orchestra, the intensity is palpable, including one of the great “tension and release” chord resolutions I’ve ever encountered.  The Devil music interrupts the proceedings and is off in a mad dash of energy, culminating in some pretty spectacular shrieks from the band.  The music unwinds itself and settles back into the shepherd girl’s plaintive song, ending in the placid state in which we began.

I have no qualms whatsoever about declaring this a work of staggering genius.  It’s a clinic put on by a composer with every tool in his kit sharpened to a fine point and ready to stab you in every emotional barrier you have.  It’s no coincidence that I’m writing about this piece on a night when Sandy is out of town and I have little else to think about but my place in the world.  Consider this post my own shepherd song calling out into the yawning chasm of the universe.



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