Josef Jonsson was born in Enköping but moved to Norrköping at
the age of three. As a consequence of polio he was confined
to a wheelchair all his life. He was given piano lessons at
the age of ten but was mainly self-taught as a composer. He
had some correspondence with Wilhelm Stenhammar, mostly concerning
formal matters and he also took tuition with the principal conductor
of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Ivar Hellman, who was
also a composer.
To general music
listeners in Sweden he is mainly – if at all – known as a composer
of vocal music. He set poems by a number of the foremost Swedish
poets, Pär Lagerkvist, Dan Andersson, Erik Axel Karlfeldt and
Erik Gustaf Geijer among them and he wrote a lot of church music;
his Missa Solemnis (1936) was regarded as “a Swedish masterpiece”
by Kurt Atterberg. But he also composed orchestral music, including
three symphonies, and his main influence was Max Reger, which
shows not least in his frequent use of chromaticisms.
His first symphony
– Herbert Connor in “Svensk musik Vol. 2” actually calls it
a symphonic poem – is a monumental, solemn work. Its title “Nordland”
refers to the poems – or rather excerpts from poems – that head
each movement and that “reflect different aspects of typically
Nordic nature and temperament” as Stig Jacobsson writes in his
commentaries. But that doesn’t mean that this is programme music
cast in a national romantic mould, picturesque tone painting
à la Hugo Alfvén. Jonsson uses the poems as mood setters and
formally the outer movements are set in strict sonata form.
There is a tendency, though, for him to overload the music;
there are so many ideas, so many motifs that are never fully
Who is the warrior
that commands the ships,
and lets his golden banner
wave o’er his prow?
No peace seems to me
in that ship’s front;
it casts a warlike glow
around the Vikings.
This quotation from
the Icelandic Edda, in William Reaves’ translation, heads
the first movement, and there is indeed a warlike atmosphere
in the opening motif, rhythmic and aggressive, fanfare-like,
which recurs in various guises throughout the movement. More
lyrical episodes create suitable contrasts but the lasting impression
is one of forward movement and energy.
The second movement
is inspired by a poem by Jacob Tegengren that starts:
The forests taught me to sing,
the wind whispering in the reeds.
The pine trees’ soughing harps
have but few strings
and their songs are mostly sombre. –
But now and then from summer meadows
sunshine and bright colours
stole into the poem’s dark weave.
and that’s exactly
what the music says. It is quiet, murmuring, dark coloured but
from ca 5:00 it gradually builds up to a climax at 5:47, whereupon
it sinks back to almost a stand-still. At ca 7:00 there is a
livelier, more chamber music-like episode, but the sombre atmosphere
soon takes over again.
The short Allegretto
pastorale, is in sharp contrast to the previous movement,
dancing, boisterous, full of joy. It starts with A horn signal
from a sunny mountain pasture, as Karl Erik Forsslund’s
poem says, and this signal appears again and again throughout
the movement. But in the finale we are at once back in the darkest
darkness, which persists through the Molto Adagio part,
even though there are rays of light shining through the gloomy
atmosphere. At about 4:30, after a couple of harp arpeggios,
the music changes character: now it is lively, airy – but that
doesn’t last for long. The rest of the long, maybe overlong,
movement is built on the contrast between light and darkness.
Near the end a solemn chorale appears, grows to a climax and
then dies away in a gossamer Nordic twilight.
There is such freshness
about this symphony and Jonsson’s orchestration fits like a
glove. Although the basic character is solemn it is so full
of rhythmic vitality and power that it should appeal to anyone
with a taste for late-romantic orchestral music.
The Second Symphony,
written about ten years after the first, is much shorter and
the thematic material is much more concentrated. The first movement
literally sparkles with energy and immediately catches the listener’s
attention. In the second movement, Scherzo, vivid and
lighthearted, Jonsson has inserted an Adagio, in the
manner of Berwald, which makes it a three-part movement. The
finale is full of contrasts and has a grandiose ending. The
two works are very different, but each in its own way is outstanding
and it is a pity that this music isn’t played more often. We
have to be grateful, though, that it is available on records
at long last. It is only to be hoped that his third symphony,
which Jonsson regarded as his masterpiece, will also appear
The Norrköping Symphony
Orchestra under their Chinese principal conductor Lü Jia play
the music with obvious affection. The sound is everything one
could wish. The booklet has a good essay in two languages by
the indefatigable annotator of Swedish music, Stig Jacobsson.