Feb 10, 2022
The year is 1910. Imagine that you are a young composer, and the music world is in flux all around you. Mahler is dying, and with his death many agreed that the great Austro-German symphonic tradition that stretched from the late 18th century with Haydn all the way through Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schubert and more, was over and done with. Wagner’s music dramas had inspired an entirely new style of music, and composers like Strauss, Liszt, and Berlioz had blown open the possibilities of what music could portray. But even their experiments had seemed to have reached a breaking point. For many composers, there seemed to be nowhere to go. As the great Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt said: “There was nothing to be done all the great melodies had all been written - what could one do. There was so much wonderful music but composers had to regroup and develop their own language and that wasn’t easy in 1910. Stravinsky found his own method inspired by Russian culture, Bartok was similar, Hindemith went to Baroque and the Renaissance. Schoenberg’s idea was: it’s all nonsense, we need to start from the beginning. Every composer has to make a new start.” Over the next few weeks, I’m going to talk about composers who struggled with these questions, and the first one on the list is the most important Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar, who started out his life as a disciple of Wagner, but in the end rejected that influence and created a style all his own, which is perhaps best exemplified in his second symphony, which features the sounds of Swedish folk music, harmonies that stretch back not into the classical era but into the Medieval period, and a powerful resolve to not be like Wagner, but also to not even approach the idea of sounding like Schoenberg either. Stenhammar wrote to a friend as he began writing his G Minor symphony: “In these times of Arnold Schoenberg, I dream of an art far removed from him, clear, joyful and naïve.” We’re going to discuss all of these roiling tensions this week, so please join us for a look at this underrated symphony!