Wilhelm Stenhammar

1871 1927

Wilhelm Stenhammar

Composer

Biography

Swedish composer, pianist and conductor Wilhelm Stenhammar was one of the most remarkable composers and finest pianists in Sweden around the turn of the 19th century. He is most well-known outside of Sweden for his Second Symphony.

Stenhammar was born in 1871 in Stockholm and grew up in a musically nurturing environment. His father was an architect and a well-respected composer in his own right; having studied with Lindblad he composed sacred choral works and songs highly influenced byMendelssohn. His mother was not a musician, but his aunt and uncle were both singers and his cousin a choral conductor. In addition, his three older siblings sang together with a friend in the Stenhammar Quartet, which was highly regarded among the elite.

Wilhelm, himself, was more interested in piano and composition, which he learned without much formal training. For his family’s vocal quartet, he even composed a number of works. Though he never attended any conservatory, he attended a music school, taking piano lessons with Richard Andersson and theory lessons from Joseph Dente between 1888 and 1889, which he found ‘terribly boring’, according to his diary. In 1890, after just two years of organ lessons with Heintze and Lagergren, he successfully completed an organ examination. He also took theory lessons later with Emil Sjögren and Andreas Hallén.

Due to both his high standards and his lack of education, especially in the fields of composition and conducting, in which he was self-taught, Stenhammar suffered from uncertainty about his works, leading him to pursue a nine-year study in 1909 based on Heinrich Bellermann’sDer Contrapunct, which amounted to 500 pages.

Some of his early works – before this preoccupation with the studies – include hisTre körvisor (c1890) and a number of songs, which still remain important components of his repertoire. Part of his insecurity came from his desire to compose in his own style, which diverged from that of his contemporaries Peterson-Berger and Alfvén.

Stenhammar went to Berlin for a short time to complete his piano studies with Heinrich Barth from 1892-3. Upon his return to Stockholm, he already had a draft of his Piano Concerto No. 1 in B minor (1893), which earned him much praise after its premiere in 1894. Critics were pleased, calling him an artist of promise and genius. Part of the excitement resulted from the fact that, according to Adolf Lindgren in the newspaperAftonbladet, "no newly debuting native composer has, ever since Emil Sjögren [1876] first stepped out as a composer, created such an intense impression of genius as Wilhelm Stenhammar." Further, this was the first large-scale orchestral work premiered by a Swedish composer for at least decade.

Stenhammar’s compositions can be divided into three compositional periods. His early works are dominated by late Romantic influences such asWagner, Liszt <>and Brahms with a hint of Nordic flavour and Swedish folksong, giving him a style very typical of Scandinavia at the time. In his works, he never quoted folksongs to the extent of his fellow Swedish composers, Peterson-Berger and Alfvén. The highlights of this period were two very unsuccessful operas,Gildet på Solhaug (1895-6) and Tirfing (1897-8). After these failed attempts, he never returned to the genre of opera, despite his love for the theatre, though he did compose some impressive incidental music.

The failure of these works sparked his great sense of insecurity and a stylistic crisis. He began to question the Romantic style, especially Wagner’s music, though he never reached the point of rejecting this style altogether.

During his second period, Stenhammar sought to create more concentrated and motivic works, exemplified best in his splendid cantataEtt folk (1904-5). This work also includes the hymn ‘Sverige’ which has become wildly popular and is among one of Sweden’s most appreciated choral works.

Another success followed with his Second Piano Concerto (1904-7), which receives frequent performances. The concerto flaunts the advances of his new style with a manner of dialogue between orchestra and soloist reminiscent of Beethoven. Works from this period are also greatly informed by his interest inHaydn, Mozart and Renaissance Polyphony.

Stenhammar rejected his First Symphony (1902-3), as he found it to be entirely dependent on Beethoven,Bruckner and Wagner.

The first composition after beginning his intensive counterpoint studies is the Fifth String Quartet (1910), which marks the beginning of his third and final period. The work, subtitled ‘Serenade’, is full of life and humour presented throughout variations on the nursery rhymeRiddaren Finn Komfusenfej, about a knight named Finn Komfusenfej.

Other works from this final period include two orchestral compositions, the Serenade (1912-12, rev. 1919) and the Second Symphony (1911-15), which are among the finest works of the Swedish Orchestral repertoire. The Serenade shows his fondness and skill for great orchestration, with a combination of lighthearted Impressionism mixed with traces ofStrauss and Sibelius, the work sounds very Scandinavian.

Several years later, in 1897, Stenhammar made his début as a conductor, conducting his own overtureExcelsior! (1896). He later held positions as artistic director of the Stockholm Philharmonic Society (1897-1900), Royal Opera, New Philharmonic Society (1904-6) and the new Göteborg Orchestral Society (1906-22). In 1924 he also returned to the Royal opera for a season, but he was ill at the time.

While in Gothenburg, he had a considerable amount of influence and made the city a cultural center, rivaling the success of Stockholm, by holding great choral festivals and bringing many notable composers and conductors to the city, most notablyNielsen and his friend Sibelius.

In 1902, Stenhammar’s career took off with a triple début. Not only did he perform Brahms’ First Piano Concerto with thehovkapell, but he also gave a concert with the Aulin Quartet and had hisI rosengård for solo voices, chorus and orchestra (1888–9) performed. From this moment on, he performed regularly as a soloist and with both the Aulin and his own quartets, giving around 1000 concerts throughout Sweden.

The Second Symphony is Stenhammar’s most internationally recognized work and is bursting with folkdance rhythms and allusions to Swedish folk music. This piece is the pinnacle of his career, bringing together all of his finest qualities as a composer.

Another fascinating work is the ‘symphonic cantata’ Sången (1921), which was written for the 150th anniversary of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music. The two main parts of the cantata are separated by an interlude, which is often performed on its own.

Other important vocal works include his brilliantly orchestrated early ballad Florez och Blanzeflor (1891) and many prized art songs, including from the collectionVisor och stämningar (1908-9). In addition, his series of six quartets is notable as this genre was unique in Sweden at the time, and the series clearly shows his transition from a style dependent on Beethoven to a manner in which his own voice is heard.

Stenhammar had very few students, but he greatly influenced Rosenberg, who most likely passed down his style to younger generations. The Stenhammar family music traditions carried on to Wilhelm’s son Claes Göran, born in 1897, who became the cantor at the Storkyrkan in Stockholm and a teacher at the conservatory.

Header image courtesy of public domain Other images courtesy of sok.riksarkivet.se and public domain

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