Hilding Rosenberg

Hilding Rosenberg


• 1892 1985


A few decades ago, celebrating someone as the most significant composer in Sweden would be akin to calling someone the greatest lyric poet of Liechtenstein: How much competition for greatness could there be in those areas? Yet today, Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia abound with composers of high quality and that has much to do with the work of Hilding Rosenberg, the most prominent Swedish composer of the mid-twentieth century and the teacher who did much to groom succeeding generations.

In his childhood, Rosenberg studied piano and organ; he moved to Stockholm in 1914 to pursue his piano studies privately and then in 1915 enrolled in the Stockholm Conservatory for courses in composition and conducting. Aside from his Symphony No. 1, which he drafted in 1917 and revised heavily through most of his life, Rosenberg did not begin writing substantial pieces until he was nearly 30; his String Quartet No. 1 dates from 1920, a time when there was little else on his drafting table. But in the 1920s began a flood of new works, mostly chamber music, then primarily orchestral and stage works in the '30s and '40s, with a tip of the balance again toward chamber music in the 1950s, with comparatively little composing activity thereafter. The bulk of these works, including operas, were commissioned by Swedish Radio.

This burst of activity was initially triggered by travels around Europe, where Rosenberg discovered the music of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Les Six. The other major impetus was composition studies in the mid-'20s with Wilhelm Stenhammar. Rosenberg also studied conducting with Hermann Scherchen in the early '30s. Later, as assistant conductor at the Royal Opera in Stockholm and as a guest conductor primarily in Scandinavia, he was able both to study the orchestra from the inside and lead performances of his own works (including eight symphonies and concertos for violin, cello, piano, viola, and trumpet). Although he was not tremendously interested in writing art songs, Rosenberg did create an extensive catalog of works for voice and orchestra, among them several choral symphonies (including the fourth, The Revelation of St. John), a number of dramatic works (the most important is the opera-oratorio Joseph and His Brothers, based on the novel by Thomas Mann), substantial oratorios on religious subjects (notably Huvudskalleplats, for Good Friday), and minor made-to-order cantatas.

Rosenberg's style is difficult to categorize, aside from remarking on its refinement and craftsmanship. Throughout his career, he was progressive and experimental, but in a manner grounded in pre-World War II aesthetics, not the postwar avant-garde movements. He began as a Sibelius clone, then picked up on Schoenberg's chromatic lyricism, and went through periods of Bach and Hindemith-style counterpoint (Piano Sonata No. 4 and Symphony No. 2), a Bartókian interest in folk music, and, from the 1950s, a very loose and personal application of twelve-tone technique (particularly in his second half-dozen quartets). Rosenberg was also a significant teacher, numbering among his most successful students Karl-Birger Blomdahl and Ingvar Lidholm.