Johan Severin Svendsen
(b. Christiania [Oslo], 30 September 1840; d. Copenhagen, 14 June 1911)

Norwegian Artists' Carnival for orchestra, op. 14 (1881)
Funeral March for Thorvaldsen's Burial, by Johann Peter Emil Hartmann, arranged for string orchestra by J. S. Svendsen (1896)
Two Swedish Folk Melodies, op. 27 (1878)


Johan Severin Svendsen and Edvard Grieg were the towering figures in Scandinavian music during the high romantic era. But while Grieg led a retired life in his native Norway and cultivated smaller forms and highly poeticized salon music (what Debussy referred to as "pink bon-bons stuffed with snow"), Svendsen flourished in the international limelight and became the leading Scandinavian conductor of his age. A friend of Wagner, who personally invited him to play in the orchestra for the laying of the cornerstone of Bayreuth Theater (1872), Svendsen eventually settled in Copenhagen, where he headed the Royal Opera from 1883 until his retirement in 1908. During this time his orchestral performances, in the opinion of Hans von Bülow, were among the finest in Europe.
As a composer Svendsen was a brilliant phenomenon who burst upon the international scene while still a student at Leipzig Conservatory with his First Symphony (1866-7), a work that made him instantaneously the leading Nordic symphonist of his generation. There followed a profitable period spent in Paris during which he acquired a superb command of orchestration with a Berliozian flair. The Second Symphony, generally regarded as his masterpiece (although not as popular as his immortal Violin Romance, op. 26), was premièred in Oslo in 1876. A Third Symphony, thought to have been completed in 1882-3, perished during a domestic squabble in which his distraught wife threw the manuscript into the fire in a jealous rage (an incident that eventually formed the basis of the climactic scene of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler). Thereafter, whether because of this contretemps or his burgeoning career as a conductor, his interest in composition waned, and he never again wrote anything of significance.
The principal work in our volume, the Norwegian Artists' Carnival, op. 14, was composed in 1874 after Svendsen's return from Paris. The word "artists" in the title reflects the fact that the work depicts the carnival festivities of the Norwegian artists' colony in Rome, where the great Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844) maintained a sculpture workshop of international importance earlier in the century. The Italian and Norwegian elements are represented by respective folk songs, which are then worked into a rich orchestral tapestry of Berliozian virtuosity. It was the first instance of folk material in Svendsen's music and set the tone for some of his most successful compositions, especially the four Norwegian Rhapsodies for violin and orchestra (1876-7). The Norwegian Carnival was soon published by Peters in Leipzig in score and parts (1881) and an arrangement for piano four-hands (also issued by Peters) and has remained a fixture in concerts of "light classics" ever since.
The figure of Thorvaldsen also stands behind the second work in our volume, Svendsen's string arrangement of the Funeral March for Thorvaldsen's Burial by Johann Peter Emil Hartmann (1805-1900). In a career spanning some eighty years, Hartmann was a leading figure in Danish music and a direct forerunner of Carl Nielsen. Svendsen's expert arrangement was published in full score by Hansen of Copenhagen in 1896.
The Two Swedish Folk Melodies, op. 27, composed in 1876, reflect the interest in folk material that bore such rich fruit in Svendsen's Norwegian Carnival. The first, Allt under himelens fäste, is a plaintive song of abandonment whose text translates as follows:

The stars they shine so brightly,
All in the sky above.
Oh, I shall never marry
The lad I dearly love.

'Twas him my heart had chosen;
I could not say him nay.
He promised to be faithful
Until my dying day.

But then from me he parted,
And then another came.
Unwillingly I wed him,
And Sorrow is his name.

The second folk song is nothing less than the future Swedish national anthem, Du gamla, Du fria, Du fjällhöga nord ("Thou ancient, unconquered, rock-towered North"), with its standard blend of nostalgia for past greatness, praise of the local landscape, and outpourings of patriotic fustian. The melody itself is traditional. Svendsen's arrangement, again for string orchestra, was published by Warmuth of Oslo as his op. 27 (1878). The first folk song also exists in an arrangement for piano trio (Copenhagen, 1908).

Bradford Robinson, 2005

Performance material: “Carnival” by Peters, Frankfurt, “Funeral March” and “Folk Melodies” by Hansen, Copenhagen.