Alfvén was an unashamed child of nature and of his time. Born in Stockholm on 1 May 1872, he would admit that nearly all his works were a form of programme music, inspired above all by the Swedish archipelago. ‘My best ideas,’ he wrote, in his four volumes of autobiography,‘come during my sea-voyages at night and, in particular, the wild autumns have been my most wonderful times for composition.’
After studying at the Stockholm Conservatory from 1887 to 1891, Alfvén went on to take private lessons in composition, violin playing and painting.Turn-of-the-century Sweden saw an efflorescence of painting, literature and music, each one inspiring and cross-fertilising the other. In 1900 Alfvén crossed the Sound to visit Copenhagen. His discovery there of the paintings of the Norwegian-born Danish artist Peder Severin Krøyer proved to be a turning-point in his life. He was particularly captivated by the famous, now almost iconic, Summer Evening on the South Beach at Skagen, showing the distant figures of two women, walking in intimate conversation along the shoreline of Jutland, the late sun touching the dunes, and the curve of the sea saturated in the luminous blue of the Nordic summer night. One of the women was the artist Anna Ancher; the other Krøyer’s wife Marie. Three years later, Alfvén stayed with the Krøyers at Skagen, the artists’ colony on the northern tip of Denmark, completed his famous Midsummer Vigil (Swedish Rhapsody No. 1) and began writing his four Marias sa°nger (‘Marie’s Songs’). Not long after this, Marie Krøyer became Alfvén’s first wife.
Although Alfvén considered his five symphonies to be his most significant works, it is his choral and vocal music that shows him at his most inspired and prolific. Composed during the entire span of his life, from the earliest ditty of 1884 to the last festival commission in 1954, his music for the voice ranged from the simplest folk-song setting to the pomp and circumstance of occasional pieces. Sveriges flagga (‘The Swedish Flag’, 1916) is considered Sweden’s second national anthem.Alfvén’s understanding of the human voice was thorough and profound: from 1904 to 1957 he conducted the Siljan Choir, from Dalarna, the Swedish province with the richest living traditional culture. And with the still highly esteemed and peripatetic Orphei Drängar,Alfvén made 22 tours of Europe.
Alfvén’s symphonies reveal the light-soaked palette of harmony and timbres that characterise this most painterly of Swedish composers.The Third Symphony (1905) was inspired by one of several visits to Italy; the Fourth (1918–19), for large orchestra and two wordless voices, is subtitled ‘From the outskirts of the archipelago’ and tells an impassioned love-story against a symbolic and rocky seascape.
In the years since his death on 8 May 1960 at Falun, just south of Lake Siljan, Alfvén’s symphonies have been championed by Neeme Järvi, and the Orphei Drängar choir’s loyal performances and recordings have begun to open new ears to the riches of his writing for voice.
Profile © Hilary Finch, 2004