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Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) was a noted Swedish pianist and conductor whose compositions run the late-Romantic gamut of styles. His two songs of Op. 4, dating from 1893, are settings of poems by Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-1877) who, though he wrote in Swedish, achieved national poet status in Finland. (Finland was a province of Sweden for more than 500 years, and educated Finns spoke Swedish. Even Sibelius did not become fluent in Finnish until he was an adult.) Runeberg’s “Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte,” a professional poet’s imitation of a folk ballad, was well-known (Sibelius also set it). Stenhammar supplies a refrain for the oboe that conveys the passage of time between verses and foreshadows the unhappy ending. Stenhammar gives the more reflective “Flickan knyter i Johannenatten” a pastoral setting to reflect the simple summer ritual it describes. Nonetheless, he allows each line of the poem its own mood.
In “Demanten på marssnön” (“The Diamond on the March Snow”) Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) takes a different approach, writing one sweeping melody that he uses for both verses. The song, composed in 1900, belongs to the sound world of his first two symphonies and violin concerto. Indeed, the melody seems to be a rough draft of a major theme in the violin concerto’s first movement.
Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) was a prominent Swedish choral director who composed a great deal of choral music, but is best known for a few of his orchestral works, particularly the tuneful, colorful Midsummer Vigil (Swedish Rhapsody No. 1). “Skogen sover,” from 1908, demonstrates his flair for conjuring a mood, using soft, undulating, harmonies to evoke the image of a sleeping lover in a quiet forest.
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) claimed to have no particular affinity for songs, but composed nearly 150 of them, mostly because his wife, a soprano, was by all accounts a superb interpreter of song. Bjørnsterne Bjørnson’s poem “Fra Monte Pincio” is a reflection of the 19th-century Italian unification movement, which drew much of its inspiration, or at least its symbolism, from ancient Rome. Grieg composed the song in 1870, the year Italy finally became one kingdom, and orchestrated it 24 years later. Grieg the composer is quick to illustrate the three contrasting elements of the poem – the quiet of the evening descending on the little Italian town, the frivolous gaiety of the people, and the glory and power of the Roman Empire – but Grieg the orchestrator avoids the more obvious cues: he does not, for example, make the “horn music” in the poem into overt horn calls.
Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated programs for the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra and the Coleman Chamber Concerts.