Ask anyone about Nordic classical music and a few names spring to mind: Edvard Grieg and Jean Sibelius. Their fame is undeniably deserved: both in their own way carved out their own distinct compositional style and helped put their respective homelands on the map, musically speaking. Other, slightly less well-known names may also enter the conversation: most likely the Dane Carl Nielsen or the Swede Wilhelm Stenhammar. Yet all these composers are united in how parts of their bodies of work have been somewhat neglected due to the popularity of a couple of their more famous pieces. In this instalment of the At Home Guide, we go off piste into some of those murkier areas of the major Nodic composers’ output, making the case that there really is a need to explore the Nordic canon beyond the hits.

Richard Berg's <i>Nordic Summer Evening</i> © Wikimedia Commons
Richard Berg's Nordic Summer Evening
© Wikimedia Commons

Edvard Grieg and the symphony that wouldn’t stay dead

Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt has sent schoolchildren hiding beneath the bed since its premiere in 1876, and it’s true that his incidental music for the play, with its folksy evocations of trolls, gnomes and witches, arguably remains the composer’s most famous work (in fact, we have many performances of the work or selections from it on Bachtrack At Home, with concerts by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Het Gelders Orkest and the Gothenburg Symphony). He did, moreover, actively engage with his national identity, having helped to form Euterpe – a society which aimed promote the work of Nordic composers – in 1864. Yet for all the contributions he made toward forming Norway’s musical identity in the Romantic period, he was at heart as much a cosmopolitan as a nationalist.

A somewhat neglected composition from Grieg’s oeuvre is his C minor symphony – his first and only complete attempt at the form. But an aggressive commentariat or an uncaring public isn’t to blame in this work’s underappreciated status: in this case, the composer’s own machinations are to blame. Written at the tender age of just 20, the First Symphony isn’t vintage Grieg. Wearing the composer’s early influences of Mendelssohn and Schumann heavily, it is a somewhat standard Romantic fare that earned the ire of critics: one simply complaining that the symphony was not “Norwegian enough”. In a ruthless act of self-censorship, the work was ensconced in a Bergen library, marked with Grieg’s handwritten legend: “Must never be performed”. There the piece languished for 112 years, studied by musicologists but never copied or performed. Finally, after much wrangling, the symphony was performed in full for the first time in Russia in 1980, and in Bergen the following year. Finally, audiences could experience Grieg’s early attempt at the symphonic form, and one could argue that they’d been missing out. Though orthodox in its four-movement structure and wearing its influences brazenly on its sleeve, it nevertheless boasts a selection of strong melodies – particularly the flowing romantic theme in the first movement. Watch the Bergen Philharmonic and conductor Neeme Järvi perform this early work here.

Sibelius’ earlier works

Jean Sibelius is arguably the only major Nordic composer to receive international recognition in his own lifetime, and his Fifth Symphony is one of his best-known and best-loved works. The exhilarating main theme in the finale, with its evocations of a majestic flight of swans, has captured imaginations since the work received its premiere in 1915. By then, Sibelius was firmly embedded within the cultural fabric of Finland, and indeed he had been asked by the government to compose the work in honour of his own 50th birthday. Yet the pre-eminence of works such as this has slightly overshadowed the considerable achievements of some of his earlier efforts. One such piece is his Second Symphony of 1902. He began work on the symphony in 1901 while staying in Rapallo, Italy, and a lighter, Mediterranean classical touch can certainly be heard. Moreover, some critics have posited that the second movement was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy – another Italian inflection. A short upward motif is laced throughout the work, and the first and second movements are dominated by positive, optimistic-sounding themes. The sense of triumph present in those movements and in the stirring finale chimed in keenly with Finland’s national mood. Russia – which at that time controlled the country – was actively suppressing Finnish language and culture, and Sibelius’ powerful work was seen as something as a riposte to foreign intervention. So much so, in fact, that the Second Symphony was affectionately named the “Independence Symphony” by contemporary audiences. You can watch an excerpt of the work, performed by the Gothenburg Symphony and conductor Gustavo Dudamel, here.

Sibelius in 1913 © Daniel Nyblin | Public domain
Sibelius in 1913
© Daniel Nyblin | Public domain

Another of Sibelius’ notable early works would be his Violin Concerto in D Minor, which was completed in 1904. The process was likely a bittersweet one for the composer: he had originally trained as a violinist, but his compositional prowess quickly overtook his instrumental skills. This may be the reason why, in its first iteration, the work was fiendishly difficult, resulting in a disastrous premiere. After significant revisions to the work, it was performed again by the Berlin Philharmonic (conducted by Richard Strauss), who played the version that we mainly hear today. There is certainly more breathing room between the soloist and orchestra in this version, though the instrumental writing is still undeniably tricky. The virtuosity of the lead violin part increases throughout the opening movement, requiring the soloist to move quickly between the instrument’s highest and lowest registers. The third movement, with its lively dance rhythms and folky tonalities, is another particularly challenging section. This was Sibelius’ only concerto, and consequently retains a special place in his body of work. Watch violinist Ray Chen’s masterful interpretation of the piece with the Gothenburg Symphony here.

Nielsen gets humorous

Carl Nielsen is undoubtedly the most famous of all Danish composers, with a background as Nordic as you can imagine: he beat out melodies using logs from his family woodpile as a toddler, and would later herd sheep in conjunction with his violin studies. His Fifth Symphony, first performed in 1922, is arguably his most performed work. With its strident modernist touches and competing themes, it is thought by some to have been influenced by the international conflicts of World War I. You can see the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic perform the work, along with Sibelius’ violin concerto, here. Another notable piece from this period is Nielsen’s Wind Quintet, written not long after the completion of his Fifth Symphony and inspired by a performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante by the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. Watch the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Wind Quintet perform the work here.  

In 1902, a decade before the completion of his Fifth Symphony, Nielsen completed a similarly powerful but somewhat underappreciated work. It started, like many grand ideas, with a visit to the pub. While drinking with friends in a country tavern in Zealand, the composer was struck by a comedic painting of The Four Temperaments – the main personality types according to classical antiquity, corresponding with the early medical concept of humours –hanging on the wall. He resolved to write a musical representation of these archetypes, and set to work on a symphony in four movements standing for each of them. Indeed, the contrast between each of these representations is what makes the piece work so well. The opening movement, The Choleric, illustrates irascible movement between different moods, veering sharply between dynamic extremes and bringing to life the sword-waving horseman of the painting. The Phlegmatic, meanwhile, is a luxuriant waltz, with little tension to darken the mood. As one imagines, The Melancholic is suitably depressive, with a dark theme at the movement’s opening with the composer described as a “strong outcry of pain”. Finally, the easygoing Sanguine character is a fitting end to the symphony, the movement ending on a reassuringly joyful march. This interesting foray into character writing, which expands the scope of the symphonic form into something approaching programme music, can be seen performed by the Gothenburg Symphony here.  

Wilhelm Stenhammar: an understated nationalist

Wilhelm Stenhammar © Vecko-Journalen | Public domain
Wilhelm Stenhammar
© Vecko-Journalen | Public domain
Fin de siècle Nordic composers all sought to give a voice to their respective national cultures, and Wilhelm Stenhammar was no different. Like his friends and contemporaries Nielsen and Sibelius, he incorporated influences from his native folk tradition to give his music a distinctly Swedish flavour. Yet perhaps more so than any of the other Nordic composers, Stenhammar’s nationalism was tempered with a deep reverence for the classical conventions of composers such as Brahms. As such, the Swedish inflexions in his music are understated, allowing Stenhammar’s classicist inclinations to shine through.

Brought up in a religious, artistic household – his father was a church architect and amateur composer of sacred music – Stenhammar was nevertheless forbidden from taking formal music lessons. These sanctions lasting until his father’s death when the future composer was just 16. He went on to become an accomplished pianist (watch Mari Kodama’s impressive rendition of Stenhammar’s Second Piano Concerto here), and moved over into conducting in 1897 with a performance of his own composition, the overture Excelsior! (seen here performed by the Gothenburg Symphony). Like Grieg, he suffered a crisis of confidence on the completion of his First Symphony in 1903 and withdrew it – a decision likely influenced by the premiere of Sibelius’ aforementioned Second Symphony just a month before.

It wasn’t until 1911 that Stenhammar felt able to give the form another go, after having embarked on a rigorous training course in counterpoint in 1909. His Second Symphony, completed in 1915, is thought of as the composer’s crowning work in the form. By then, Stenhammar wielded considerable influence as artistic director of the Gothenburg Symphony and had raised the cultural profile of the city significantly, organising a number of festivals and inviting the likes of Nielsen and Sibelius to perform there. The Second Symphony, then, saw Stenhammar reflect his national consciousness like ever before. The work makes extensive use of folk-influenced motifs and dance rhythms, ending in a G Dorian mode that feels unmistakably Swedish. While more conservative in his employment of folk influences than some of the other Nordic composers, Stenhammar nevertheless made a strong contribution to the Swedish canon with his Second Symphony. See the whole work performed in full by the Gothenburg Symphony here.

In more recent times, Nordic composers have been strongly represented by artists such as the Norwegian Marcus Paus (watch his Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra here) and the Swede Anders Hilborg, a selection of whom’s work can be seen performed here by Martin Fröst and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. If the pieces discussed above show anything about Nordic composers show anything, it’s that there’s a lot more to explore beyond the confines of a handful of orchestral hits.