‘The Father of Swedish Music’ was an epithet attached to Johan
Helmich Roman rather early on. It may not literally be true but
he is without doubt the first Swedish composer of some importance.
His music can be favourably compared with that of many of his
international contemporaries. Not that there is anything characteristically
Swedish about his music. Hugo Alfvén stated that the soubriquet
should instead be transferred to August Söderman, who in the mid-19th
century was the first to create a musical language based on or
inspired by the national folk music. Even so, with some accuracy
one can say that Roman was the first to put Sweden on the musical
He was born in
Stockholm, son of a member of the Royal Court orchestra, and
showed exceptional musical talent at an early age. He is said
to have appeared before the Court at the age of seven. When
he was seventeen, in 1711, he became a member of the Court
Orchestra, his principal instruments being violin and oboe.
In 1712 he was given permission by King Karl XII to go abroad
and ‘perfectionate in musique’, which he did in England. There
he stayed, presumably between 1715 and 1721. He met Ariosti,
Bononcini, Geminiani, Handel and Pepusch. Whether he studied
with Handel is not confirmed but he seems to have played in
Handel’s opera orchestra at King’s Theatre and was clearly
influenced by him. He has also been called ‘The Swedish Handel’.
On his return
to Sweden he was appointed Deputy Master of the King’s Music
and later Principal Master. Under his aegis the standard of
the orchestra was vastly improved. He broadened the repertoire
through his international contacts and in 1731 started the
first public concert activities in Stockholm.
A second journey
abroad, begun in 1735, took him back to England and then via
Paris to Naples and Rome. On his way back home in 1737 he
travelled via Bologna and Venice, Dresden, Vienna, Munich,
Augsburg and Berlin.
He was held in
great favour by the King, Fredrik I and his Queen Ulrica Eleonora,
composing several cantatas for them. Upon the demise of the
Queen in 1741 his fortunes changed and he felt he was being
opposed, which in turn led to a deterioration in his health.
He composed the
famous Drottningholm Music for the Royal Wedding in
August 1744 but shortly afterwards left Stockholm and settled
in the south of Sweden with his five children; both his wives
had died very young.
He returned a
couple of times to Stockholm, the last time in 1751 to compose
the funeral music for King Fredrik and the coronation music
for his successor Adolf Fredrik. In 1758 he passed away after
a ‘long, serious illness’.
Roman was a prolific
composer. Professor Ingmar Bengtsson’s catalogue of the composer’s
complete oeuvre - the BeRI numbers in the header refer to
this catalogue - has 360 entries. Some of these are admittedly
uncertain - and as far as I have been able find this list
doesn’t encompass his vocal music. Through his journeys Roman
acquired a unique international outlook, which also influenced
his compositional work. Besides Handel there are traces of
Albinoni, Geminiani, Tartini and, in his vocal music, Marcello,
Leo and Lotti. Living in a transitional period he also adopted
stylistic features from the gallant style.
The present disc
is a medley drawing on his diversification of styles. For
listeners with no or little acquaintance with his music it
should be a real eye-opener – ‘ear-opener’ is perhaps a more
apposite term. Far from being a run-of-the-mill baroque composer,
of which there were hundreds and hundreds, he emerges as someone
to mention in the same breath as Handel. He has been held
in high esteem in Sweden for decades, though relatively little
of his oeuvre has been recorded. Maybe it’s time for him to
step out of the shadows onto the international stage. Joseph
Martin Kraus from the next generation – he was an exact contemporary
of Mozart – has lately come to notice as a top-notch Classicist
composer, not least thanks to Petter Sundkvist’s complete
symphony cycle on Naxos. Kraus was German but he also spent
periods in Sweden, so there is a parallel.
Not all the works
here are guaranteed to be genuine Roman. The flute concerto
has been ascribed to Ferdinand Zellbell Junior but is now
believed to be Roman’s work. There is some confusion concerning
the trio sonata in G Minor, which may or may not be by Johann
Joachim Quantz. Neither of these doubts matter, since the
music is so attractive. The undisputed works are all truly
riveting. The Sinfonia in D Minor is lively, entertaining
and dancing; the C Minor partita ends with a presto movement
that is breathtaking. This is music and music-making that
can’t leave anyone unmoved. In the violin concerto Vivaldi
isn’t far away and the central larghetto is a serene, almost
elegiac counterpoint to the vivid outer movements. Maria Lindal
plays with ample tone and technical assurance. This also goes
for the soloist in the flute concerto, Mats Klingfors, whom
I had hitherto only met as a superb bassoon player.
The Sinfonia in
E Minor is one of Roman’s best known works. It has a lovely
larghetto for two flutes and a riveting final allegro. The
‘encore’, the opening allegro from the Drottningholm Music,
is the one piece by Roman that every Swedish music-lover
immediately recognises. It even exists in an arrangement for
mixed choir with a latter-day text about queuing up. It is
played here in a version that differs somewhat from the original
since REBaroque didn’t have the prescribed musicians
available, ‘so we took what we had’, say the liner-notes.
‘This was a very natural approach in Roman’s day’.
was formed in 1998 and though based in Sweden are active internationally,
on their own or with various soloists and conductors. Judging
from this disc with its superlative recording – always a hallmark
for Proprius who have always been at the sonic forefront –
they have little to fear from comparison with other contemporary
baroque ensembles. I was particularly impressed by their tremendous
In every respect
this is a superb disc and it definitely whets the appetite
for more Roman. Please, Proprius, take note!