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August SÖDERMAN (1832-1876)
Orchestral Music - Volume 2
Concert Overture in F major [8:32]*
Zohrab [10:42]*
Wedding March from “The Wedding at Ulfåsa” [3:29]
King Karl XV’s Funeral March [7:51]*
Intermezzo (A Sailor’s Life) [6:51]*
Burlesque [4:15]*
Swedish Folk-songs and Folk-dances [10:32]
Ceremonial Polonaise [5:00]*
Bellman Melodies for orchestra [7:34]
Swedish Festival (Overture to ”Die Jungfrau von Orleans”) [7:13]
Symphony Orchestra of Norrlands Opera/Roy Goodman
Rec. 19-21 June 2000, Idun Theatre, Umeå, Sweden
* First recordings
STERLING CDS-1040-2 [73:39]

“The father of Swedish music” was Hugo Alfvén’s sobriquet for August Söderman, referring to the fact that he was the first composer to employ Swedish folk music as an important ingredient in his works. As a boy he showed little interest in music but his father, who was a conductor, sent him to a well-known piano school and he also learnt to play the oboe and a little violin. He started to play in orchestras and when he was 18 it was discovered that he was a talented conductor and in that position he worked for ten years in an orchestra that eventually became permanent at Mindre Teatern in Stockholm. In 1860 he became chorus master at the Royal Opera and somewhat later he was offered the position as Chief Conductor of the Royal Opera Orchestra. He declined in favour of his colleague Ludvig Norman, but he accepted to be assistant conductor. After some time he resumed his chorus master position. Besides this he was the leader of a couple of male choirs and he also started to compose, an activity that increased and he became a workaholic. Since he also developed alcoholism, which led to cirrhosis of the liver, he died at the tender age of 44, which thwarted the expectations that he would create important large scale works. He left behind large amounts of incidental music, some operettas, lots of choral music – including the ever popular male choir suite Ett bondbröllop (A Peasant Wedding) – and a lot of solo songs and ballads, quite well-known are Trollsjön and Kung Heimer och Aslög, both made famous through Jussi Björling’s recordings.

The present disc contains a selection of his orchestral music, and here we find two pieces that must count among his best-known music, together with Bondbröllop mentioned above. One is the Wedding March from The Wedding at Ulfåsa (tr. 3). This is incidental music from a four act play by Frans Hedberg from 1865, based on an historic event in the Middle Ages, and it was enormously popular for many years. The Wedding March is still often played at weddings and is a homespun equivalent to the Mendelssohn. The other piece is the concluding number on the disc, Swedish Festival Overture (tr. 22). It is also originally incidental music, the overture to a play by Oskar Fredrik, later to become King Oskar II, Några timmar på Kronoborgs slott den 29 oktober 1658 (A few hours at the Castle of Kronoborg on 29 October 1658). It was premiered at Mindre Teatern on 27 September 1858 and later reused, with somewhat revised instrumentation for Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans at the Royal Theatre in October 1867. Today it is almost obligatory at official festivities in Sweden. Of the remaining music on the disc only Swedish Folk-songs and Folk-dances (tr. 7-14) have been previously recorded. Here Söderman’s interest in the genuine folk-music is in the fore and the music comes from various parts of the country. Most of the melodies are still sung and played in Sweden. They were written – or rather arranged – during a period of a decade.

Bellman Melodies for Orchestra (tr. 16-21) was published in 1870. Carl Michael Bellman was the greatest troubadour in Scandinavia during the second half of the 18th century and his songs have retained their popularity to this very day. The melodies were rarely by his hand, but mostly culled from popular light operas, mostly of French origin, since French culture was revered at the Court of King Gustav III, who was a patron of Bellman. In Söderman’s time Bellman’s songs were primarily performed by male quartets and when I started singing in a male choir in the late 1960s Bellman songs were still a central part of the repertoire. Today things have changed radically and the songs have also been congenially translated into English by Paul Britten Austin (1922 – 2005) and sung by Martin Best and others. But hearing the melodies in Söderman’s fresh arrangements is also a treat.

Of the remaining works the opening Concert Overture in F major is a fairly early work, supposedly sketched in 1856 but not finalised until 1868. Echoes of Mendelssohn are possible to hear and there is a lively secondary theme that enlivens the work but, in spite of Lennart Hedwall’s enthusiastic liner notes, it seems to me that it is Mendelssohn diluted with a ladle of water, and the end is an anti-climax. There is more substance in the overture to Zohrab, which is even earlier, but it also feels over-long, even though there is a lot of rhythmic energy and the finale is powerful. The operetta about a gypsy chief was premiered in Gothenburg on 19 April 1854 and the score of the overture is dated the same day! The plot is complicated but everything is sorted out and there is a happy end. This was an era when exotism was in favour – and gypsies were exotic.

Karl XV’s Funeral March was composed for a ceremony at Uppsala University in 1872. It is solemn and Söderman has incorporated phrases from a popular students’ song about Karl XII but changed the melody to minor. The Intermezzo and the waltz-like Burlesque, both from the 1850s, are attractive and entertaining. The former is light and airy and full of joy and it has been said that sailors lead a happy life, but halfway through there seems to come a dark cloud that dims the sun. After a while it sails away and the carefree life in the sun returns. The latter is dancing joyful and folksy – a true injection of vitamins! Finally the Ceremonial Polonaise which immediately reminds me of Tchaikovsky’s famous polonaise from Eugene Onegin. Söderman’s is less pompous, a little brittle, but festivity there is – yet another vitamin injection. This mix of independent orchestral pieces gives a good overview of August Söderman’s versatility. It has to be regretted that he never got the opportunity to compose something more substantial. But we have to be satisfied with what little there is, and the Symphony Orchestra of Norrlands Opera play all this with commitment under their then chief conductor Roy Goodman. August Söderman may be little known outside Sweden – and I’m not sure he is a household name to most Swedes either – but he is worth making the acquaintance for his pioneering achievement: to make the folk-music of his native country become an integral part of the rhythmic and melodic material in his “classical” music.

Göran Forsling

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