There was a definite hiatus in the production of symphonies in the classical mould following the deaths of Mendelssohn and Schumann in 1847 and 1856. Not that even these two masters had ever quite been universally accepted as symphonists to be spoken of in the same breath as Beethoven. And in the meantime "dangerous" works were proliferating like Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" (1830) and Liszt's "Faust" Symphony (1857). Wagner was proclaiming the confluence of the traditional symphonic current into that of opera, and with "Tristan und Isolde" (1865) might have been felt to have proved his point. In the face of all this the "pure" symphony could only count upon such well-schooled practitioners Neils Gade and from the early 1860s onwards, when Brahms's reputation began to spread, it was widely held that the survival of the classical symphony depended on whether or not that master would finally take the plunge. For once such a prophecy proved right and the symphonic hiatus ended when Brahms produced his First Symphony in 1876.
This is the context in which Svendsen's works appeared and it must be said that the 1860s produced a number of works which might have pointed the way ahead, had their contemporaries been able to perceive this fact. The first two symphonies of Dvorak appeared in 1865, the first of Bruckner in 1866 (preceded by Symphony no. "0" in 1864) and the first of Tchaikovsky in 1866 also. These composers were later to make very distinctive contributions to the symphony, but their early works achieved no resonance, and even if they had it would have taken an extraordinarily perceptive critic to find pointers to the future in any but perhaps the Tchaikovsky. Considerable hopes were raised by the symphony of Arthur Sullivan (1864) but it was to prove a one-off by a composer who took another direction, while the beginning, in 1863, of Raff's once-popular series of eleven symphonies might have been taken as the definitive consecration of the symphony at the altar of "programme music".
So what of the symphonies produced by two Norwegian composers just two years apart, Grieg (1864) and Svendsen (1866)? Grieg had produced his only symphony at Gade's urging and was none too happy with it. He greeted the first performance of Svendsen's work with wild enthusiasm - "Norwegian art has celebrated one of its greatest triumphs" - and forbade further performances of his own symphony (it was not played again until 1981). He clearly dreamed of a future for Norwegian music in which Svendsen would look after the symphonic side, building on the work of Gade but with a more modern cut to his harmonies and themes, while he would explore the more folkloristic angle. This was not to be, and in fact very little of Svendsen's life was spent in Norway. After ten years away, first to study in Leipzig with Reinecke and then travelling widely on both sides of the Atlantic, he returned home in 1872 and wrote his second symphony in 1876. But he was soon on the move again and accepted the post as conductor of the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen in 1883, where he remained till his death. At about the time of his move a third symphony had been written but his wife threw it on the fire during one of their not infrequent marital tiffs. Partly as a result of the depression this provoked, partly as a result of the pressure of work from his new conducting post and partly because of his increasing drinking, his composing career practically finished at there and then. However, he was widely esteemed as a fine conductor and in this role continued to present his earlier compositions (he conducted the first symphony in London in 1888, for example).
This first symphony was written while Svendsen was still studying in Leipzig. According to an anecdote in Grove I, Svendsen's Octet for strings, op. 3, had been performed with such success that Reinecke asked to see the score. Unable to find fault with it (in a letter to Grieg, Svendsen said of Reinecke, "not only is he envious and bloodless, as you say, but he is also in the highest degree villainous"), Reinecke remarked sarcastically, "The next thing will be a symphony, I suppose". A week later Svendsen plonked the D major symphony on his astonished teacher's desk. This attractive story does not quite tally, however, with the assertion in Jens Cornelius's notes that the symphony was written in 1865-6 and therefore took more like a year than a week to reach completion. Be that as it may, Svendsen shows complete confidence in organising his symphonic material, and can be intuitively unconventional at times as well. The development of the first movement seems to be striding purposefully towards the recapitulation of its energetic first subject when Svendsen makes a sharp diminuendo and treats us to several entrancing moments before he finally reaches his recapitulation. What does diminish the effect a little is that pithily motivic first subject material tends to give way to more lyrical but equally pithy second subject material, where more lyrical expansion seems called for. In building crescendos, too, there is sometimes a suggestion that well-tried symphonic formulae, albeit attractively presented, are being pressed into service. Svendsen is a master of symphonic movement, but does not quite achieve symphonic breadth. In the finale, too, he does not entirely avoid Gade's tendency to spoil an otherwise good symphony by falling back upon the garrulously energetic, but his slow movement sustains its eleven minutes effortlessly thanks to its long paragraphs, always underpinned by a sure sense of harmonic movement and much attractive orchestral tone-painting, while the third movement is charming.
I shall be shortly writing about the Grieg in the context of a 6-CD set of his complete orchestral works. His first movement does contain hints that he was to become a composer with a greater capacity than Svendsen to lodge himself in our memories and to move us, but thereafter he seems to run out of steam. His wishy-washy slow movement lacks Svendsen's sense of direction, his scherzo is surprisingly conventional and, while his finale manages to organise its range of material fairly effectively, his suppression of the work is understandable.
Svendsen's second symphony has more breadth than its predecessor, and builds on its strengths without entirely eliminating its weaknesses. In this first movement, too, the development contains many ear-catching moments and an entrancing return to the recapitulation, and the second and third movements are by turns long-breathed and delightful (and in each case, a little bit more so than in the earlier work). The main theme of the finale has definitely feel-good qualities and the movement incorporates a wider range of material than that of the first symphony, without ever quite aspiring to be a major statement.
The jolly Polonaise no. 2 receives its first recording here. Throughout the programme conductor and orchestra are energetic, delicate and romantic as required and the recording is full-blooded without being oppressive. These symphonies are not quite masterpieces but they are far more than just easy-listening and could be widely enjoyed.