“A Fifth as the Supreme Bliss”
Beethoven as point of departure: Wilhelm Stenhammar and Nordic Classicism
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, op. 19
We will probably never know for certain whether Ludwig van Beethoven actually encountered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – and even had some lessons with him – on his journey to Vienna in 1787. What has been unequivocally documented, however, is the Salzburg composer’s influence on Beethoven, who carefully studied his works and frequently played them – especially the D minor Concerto K. 466 – in the palaces of the Viennese nobility. Beethoven’s admiration for Mozart is already unmistakable in the compositions from his time in Bonn. His Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major – not to mention the Concerto in C major composed later but given the number 1 – would be unthinkable without Mozart. At the same time, both show clear indications of Beethoven’s individual style. Yet not everything we recognize today as typical was present in the original version. The composer revised the B flat Concerto several times. The first sketches date from 1786, the final version from 1801.
The beginning of the Allegro con brio, despite its symphonic attitude, still recalls the Baroque ritornello form in which there is a strict differentiation between tutti and solo sections. When after 90 bars the piano finally enters, it indulges in freely flowing passages and is chiefly occupied with the lyrical second theme. There were already unusual tonal shifts in the introduction, and this is repeated in the development. Completely outside the time frame of music created around 1790 is the highly dramatic solo cadenza added years later. This is pure Beethoven as the world came to love and fear him. The Adagio strikes a sensitive note: the titan was, after all, the first Romantic. Orchestra and piano intone the earnest melody in alternation, but the soloist not infrequently is allowed to shine in passages of brilliant figuration. The last bars are full of pensive stillness: the orchestra quotes fragments of the main idea while the piano intersperses isolated monologues. The connection to the 18th century is most apparent in the final Rondo, marked by the unusual displaced accents of its main theme. Two further motifs underscore the carefree character of this finale. Perhaps that may explain why the B flat major Concerto has never been performed as often as its sister work in C: it has been considered too light-hearted.
Light-heartedness has never been among the attributes for which Beethoven has been esteemed. From Vienna, Berlin and Leipzig, his compositions circulated astonishingly rapidly throughout all of Germany. Before long they were also being heard in England and France: the Ninth Symphony was commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of London, and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra played the entire cycle of symphonies between 1828 and 1832. The Scandinavians were even quicker. In Copenhagen, whose royal orchestra is the world’s oldest, the First Symphony was already performed in 1803, with the “Pastoral” following in 1816 and the Seventh in 1817. In Stockholm, home to another of the most venerable royal orchestras, the “Eroica” and Seventh could be heard around the same time.
Wilhelm Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2 in G minor, op. 34
An epoch-making figure in Scandinavian Beethoven reception, the Swedish pianist-conductor-composer Wilhelm Stenhammar, born in 1871, played Beethoven’s chamber music on countless occasions, regularly performed his piano sonatas and, as artistic director and chief conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, nurtured a true Beethoven cult in that city. Stenhammar has also gone down in Nordic musical annals as a champion of Franz Berwald, while his advocacy of Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen made him one of the pioneering conductors of the early 20th century. The impact of his public activities overshadowed his achievement as a composer for decades before his phenomenal Second Symphony finally found its due appreciation.
After first conducting a Nielsen symphony in 1910, Stenhammar conveyed the following declaration to his Danish colleague: both of them, he and Nielsen, had, “as Protestants, a duty to fulfil against the incense and sound-gorging of musical Catholicism that has flourished far too long in Germany”. He cited no names, but it would have been clear to the recipient of the letter that his invective was directed against Strauss, Mahler and Reger. Their obligation was to offer an alternative to the monstrous orchestral forces of modern music as well as to the apparent disintegration of classical harmony, to bind progress to a revival of tradition. This approach, of limited appeal in central Europe, corresponded entirely with the conviction that Nielsen was to express in an important essay in 1922: “The glutted must be taught to regard a melodic third as a gift of God, a fourth as an experience, and a fifth as the supreme bliss.”
What means does Stenhammar deploy, then, in his Second Symphony? He avoids chromatic lines and vague, vacillating harmonies, instead forming exclusively diatonic melodies, with a frequent tendency to the Dorian mode. The opening theme of the Allegro energico begins and ends with melodic fifths, not overwhelming as in Beethoven’s Fifth or the Gloria of his Missa solemnis but generating the aura of a bygone era. On the whole, it utilizes only notes of the Dorian G scale. Bassoons and low strings lend the melody a dark colour, while the music’s marchlike stride, peculiarly medieval harmony and orchestration highlighting the instrumental choirs all help establish a folklike inflection. There are even passages where we seem to be listening to country fiddlers. The rhythm, too, contributes to the archaic effect, suggesting spelmän (folk musicians) playing for a dance. The main theme dominates long stretches of the opening movement. A second theme, already introduced by woodwind in the ninth bar – half signal, half sound of nature – only comes into its own at the end of the development section.
The Andante, opening with simple string writing, is again diatonic and dominated by church modes. Formally it is a mixture of sonata and variations. In character, it alternates between marchlike, elegiac and spiritual sections, finally rising to rapturous heights before the nearly neutral-sounding closing bars awaken great expectations of the Scherzo. The latter movement is marked by an earthy dance rhythm, which Stenhammar asks to be played with the incisiveness “of a tarantella or a saltarello”. It may have been sketched during a visit to Italy in 1911. In the Trio section, to be performed with grace and rubato, the woodwind and horns wrest control of the proceedings; then the first section is repeated, slightly varied.
The Finale is the longest and most complex movement Stenhammar ever wrote, almost manic in its fixation on polyphonic interweaving. It is launched with a hymnlike horn theme to which the woodwind immediately add their voices to form a canon. The trill in the fourth bar of the melody is especially striking and later makes a prominent reappearance. The second theme is energetic and buoyant. Both themes are treated fugally, and Stenhammar achieves an overriding unity within diversity by recalling themes from the first and slow movements. The Finale combines incredible technical erudition with elemental popular character: “sober and honest music without frills”, as the composer liked to say.
Translation: Richard Evidon