Hugo Alfvén

Composer full Name: Hugo Emil Alfvén
Date of Birth: 01 May 1872
Date of Death: 08 May 1960
Nationality: Swedish
Period/Era/Style: Romantic / 20th century
Contribution(s): Alfvén was a Swedish composer, conductor, violinist, and painter.

Biography: Alfvén was born in Stockholm, Sweden, and studied at the Royal College of Music (Kungliga Musikhögskolan) from 1887 to 1891 with the violin as his main instrument while receiving lessons from Lars Zetterquist. He also took private composition lessons from Johan Lindegren, a leading counterpoint expert. He earned a living by playing the violin at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. He also played the violin in the Royal Swedish Orchestra.

Starting in 1897, Alfvén travelled much of the next ten years in Europe. He studied violin technique in Brussels with César Thomson and learned conducting in Dresden as sub-conductor under Hermann Ludwig Kutzschbach. In 1903-4 he was professor of composition at the Royal Conservatory, Stockholm. From 1910 Alfvén was Director musices (music director) at the University of Uppsala (a post he held until 1939). There he also directed the male voice choir Orphei Drängar (or ‘O.D.’) (until 1947). He conducted in festivals at Dortmund (1912), Stuttgart (1913), Gothenburg (1915), and Copenhagen (1918–1919). He toured Europe as a conductor throughout his life. He received a Ph.D. honoris causa from Uppsala in 1917 and became a member of the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm in 1908. Alfvén recorded some of his orchestral music in stereo late in 1954 (the first classical stereo recordings made in Sweden); the recordings were issued on LP in the U.S. by Westminster Records. A three-CD collection of Alfvén’s recordings as a conductor has been issued.

Hugo Alfvén, plaque at the Stockholm City Hall

Music: Alfvén became known as one of Sweden’s principal composers of his time, together with his contemporary Wilhelm Stenhammar. Alfvén’s music is in a late-Romantic idiom. His orchestration is skillful and colorful, reminiscent of that of Richard Strauss. Like Strauss, Alfvén wrote a considerable amount of program music. Some of Alfvén’s music evokes the landscape of Sweden.

Among his works are a large number of pieces for male voice choir, five symphonies and three orchestral “Swedish Rhapsodies.” The first of these rhapsodies, Midsommarvaka is his best known piece.

Alfvén’s five symphonies, the first four of them now several-times recorded (with another cycle in progress), give a picture of the composer’s musical progress. The first, in F minor, his Op. 7 from 1897, is an early work, tuneful in a standard four movements. The second, in D major (1898–99), his Op. 11 (and in a way his graduation piece, as interestingly recounted) concludes with a substantial, even powerful chorale-prelude and fugue in D minor. The third symphony in E major, Op. 23 (1905), also in four movements, more mature in technique though light in manner was inspired by a trip to Italy. The fourth symphony in C minor, Op. 39, of 1918–9 “From the Outermost Skerries” (there is also a tone-poem, A Legend of the Skerries) is a symphony in one forty-five-minute movement using wordless voices, inspired by Carl Nielsen’s Sinfonia Espansiva. The 5th in A minor, begun 1942, is one of the composer’s last works, and has only been recorded twice in full (recordings and performances of the 5th, while rare enough, are usually of its quarter-hour first movement).

 Naxos Records and BIS Records among others have either collections or groups of individual recordings covering all of his symphonies and a range of his works. Brilliant Classics has licensed and re-issued the 5-CD set from BIS devoted to Alfvén that includes the symphonies and other orchestral works.

Swedish Rhapsody No. 1: The first rhapsody – Swedish Rhapsody No. 1, also known as Midsommarvaka (Midsummer Vigil) – was written in 1903 and is often simply called the “Swedish Rhapsody.” It is the best-known piece composed by Alfvén, and also one of the best-known pieces of music in Sweden.


Playlists: 

Symphonies
Swedish Rhapsodies
Orchestral Suites
Individual Orchestral Works
Cantatas

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