Lidholm: Poesis

Ingvar Lidholm was born on February 24, 1921, in Jönköping, in southern Sweden, and currently resides in Rönninge, outside Stockholm. He composed Poesis in the fall of 1963 on a commission from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary the following year. Herbert Blomstedt led that ensemble, with Karl Erik Welin as pianist, in the world premiere on January 14, 1964. Lidholm revised the score in 2011, adding an alternative piano cadenza. In this new edition, the composer dedicates Poesis to Herbert Blomstedt—“a great conductor and a wonderful friend.” With these performances the San Francisco Symphony gives the work its US premiere. Poesis is scored for four flutes (all four doubling piccolo), four oboes, four clarinets (one of them a piccolo clarinet), four horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba, four percussion players (player 1: bongos, reco-reco, claves, tambour de basque, marimba; player 2: snare drum, small cymbal and gong, cowbells; player 3: tenor drum, medium cymbal and gong, sand block, whip; player 4: timbales, large cymbal and gong, temple blocks), piano, and strings. Performance time: about twenty minutes.

Herbert Blomstedt has long championed Ingvar Lidholm’s music. By chance, he recently encountered Poesis again after many years when he happened to see an award-winning film, made for Swedish TV, which showed him conducting it. He had led the world premiere of Poesis in 1964, and his interest in the work was rekindled. “I was fascinated by how startlingly fresh the piece was—as alarmingly new as on the first day, and I decided to play it again.” That was in 2011.

That it shares a program this week with Beethoven suggests an entry point into Lidholm’s music. We often consider Beethoven’s career the model of how a composer evolves. According to this widely held view, his works trace a more-or-less gradual path that can be divided into three parts: the early reassessments of traditional models, the heroic style heralded by the Eroica and its revolutionary breakthrough, and the final years, when the music reaches its visionary and experimental zenith. But another pattern can be found with several composers who emerged in the second half of the last century, including Lidholm. Early in their careers they became affiliated with the avant-garde scene and reached an extreme point of novelty before discovering newfound inspiration in elements of the musical past.

For Lidholm, attraction to the avant-garde was a natural consequence not just of the era in which he came of age but of the open-mindedness evident throughout his long career. Poesis, a product of this Swedish composer’s early forties, represents the most experimental and challenging orchestral work of his prime. Not that his subsequent development implies a “retreat” back toward a more conservative attitude. Bo Wallner, an authority on Lidholm, observes that he “seeks the unique in each work he composes” and has always retained his identity as “a renewer” while appreciating the importance of tradition. Blomstedt points out that, in his formative years, Lidholm was inspired by Hindemith and Bartók “and then more by Stravinsky but also by Swedish choral tradition”—all the while crafting compositions that responded to new challenges or issues: “No work was like the previous one. Lidholm never repeats himself.”

In the early 1940s Lidholm studied composition with Hilding Rosenberg (1892-1985), a pioneer of Swedish modernism, and also joined forces with his peer Karl-Birger Blomdahl (1916-1968), who spearheaded the avant-garde “Monday Group.” (Blomdahl earned an international name in the wake of Sputnik with Aniara in 1959, his “space-age” opera about the journey of humanity’s last survivors to Mars.) Studies abroad brought the young Lidholm into direct contact with the leading postwar serialists in the early years when they convened for summer courses in Darmstadt, Germany. This period, notes Wallner, saw “the successive radicalization of his expression” as Lidholm freely incorporated twelve-tone and serial techniques and also made forays into electronic music. Lidholm himself went on to become an important teacher at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm and was long active in Swedish radio as well.

A blend of romantically tinged Nordic folk influences, Baroque polyphony, and Hindemith’s neoclassicism can be found in Lidholm’s early works. His first breakthrough came in 1944 with the orchestral piece Toccata e canto. Now in his early nineties and—like the similarly long-lived French composer Henri Dutilleux—a painstaking craftsman, Lidholm has also earned renown for his vocal writing, especially his choral music. Other important items in Lidholm’s catalogue are two operas based on the plays of his compatriot August Strindberg: The Dutchman (written in 1967 as a TV opera) and A Dream Play (1992). Poesis also marked the end of a phase of orchestral work in Lidholm’s career. After a long hiatus, he returned to writing for the orchestra with Greetings from an Old World, an American commission for the US bicentennial in 1976 and a companion work, Kontakion (1979), written for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic’s tour of the Soviet Union.

It was Lidholm’s relationship with the latter orchestra that occasioned Poesis in the early 1960s. Herbert Blomstedt points out that the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic had already played several of Lidholm’s works, “and they were always daring.” And when the ensemble commissioned a new piece celebrating their fiftieth jubilee, Lidholm’s response took them by surprise. Rather than supply a predictably festive, “feel-good” showcase for the orchestra, he opted for something more boldly challenging. Poesis takes its name from the ancient Greek word for “making,” “production,” “composition”—a poem is, quite literally, a “made thing.” And this work is about the art of making, of tangibly shaping the sound material the way a poet shapes words.

So Lidholm’s title choice reveals an aspect of his compositional philosophy in the work. Writing Poesis at a time when many of his colleagues based their music on abstract theory, he insisted on a return to basics. “I have become more and more interested in the actual material [of a composition],” he wrote. He believed a composer had to know his material before he could proceed, and that such knowledge comprised, as he said, “a knowledge of the sources of sonority, which not only embraces how each instrument functions, is handled, and how it should be written for, but is also a question of how to experience sonority—both physically and psychically.” In other words, we can’t move on unless we get back to fundamentals and to dealing with the concrete realities of sound.

Poesis employs an extreme range of sonorities, from unison chords and “chords built up on simple intervals” to “large clusters of sound where all feeling for intervals is abolished.” Lidholm’s score blends traditional and “optical” notation, the indicating patterns (directionality, clusters of sound, etc.) that cannot be written down precisely. Improvisation is also called for, above all in the solo piano cadenza. Poesis calls for a symmetrical arrangement of winds and brass (four each) that highlights the upper ranges of the winds (hence no bassoons), a large string section, and a separate group comprising solo piano and solo double bass (Lidholm refers to both as “carefree individualists”) and, in certain passages, the extensive percussion section—though the division between full ensemble and soloistic tasks is by no means always clear-cut, as the percussion players and soloists also take part in the ensemble.

The writing for solo piano and solo bass tends to shift attention to the individual voice and its expression in virtuosity, while the full orchestral textures foreground what Lidholm terms “block elements of sound” inside which appear “ever new timbral and tonal aspects” whose relations are “carefully calculated.” Rhythmic ideas also define the musical thought, ranging from the crisply staccato telegraphic beats of the sandblock we hear at the outset to complex “white noise” (Lidholm’s analogy from electronic music) that resembles a vast beating of wings. At the end, Poesis converges on a B-flat whose colors change as trumpets add their voices to the solo double bass and the entire ensemble then becomes part of the surge until, as Blomstedt describes it, “the whole thing breaks asunder and ends like a crashing meteor.” It’s interesting to note that Lidholm chose this same note (high up for the sopranos) in his Dante-inspired a cappella choral work ...a riveder le stelle (1973) to signal the moment the poet sees the stars again after his return from hell.

Herbert Blomstedt describes the irregular rhythm that emerges so mysteriously at the beginning of Poesis as “haunting—and it sounds completely natural. It is like the mushrooms in the forest: They do not grow in straight lines with geometrical shapes, but shoot up from the ground, one here one there, according to nature’s own conditions.” Cast in a single span, Poesis uses long-range crescendos, shifts in timbral groupings, and great rising and falling motions to propel the sense of drama. A startling new tack occurs about midway through, in the form of an extended cadenza for the solo pianist, who is positioned, concerto-style, in the front of the stage and surrounded by the similarly virtuosic percussionists. In fact Lidholm prepared an alternative version in his 2011 edition of the score: The choice of version is left to the soloist. The original cadenza from 1963 involves a panoply of theatrical gestures, including playing inside the instrument and signalling with a shrill whistle. Almost a half-century later, Lidholm drolly noted that this example of avant-garde “music theater” might have become too dated and thus prepared a more lyrical cadenza quoting from one of his other works; this, too, calls for considerable improvisation from the pianist.

The music of Poesis does not adhere to the familiar Western model of a “journey” of discernible themes developed over the course of the work. Nor is Poesis a merely random collage of “texture music.” Lidholm’s concern with orchestral sonority, with the interplay between the corporate production of sound and individual voices—certainly one well-suited to the celebration of an orchestra’s identity—is at the service of something larger: a formal conception that, the composer writes, is based “on dramatic, lyrical, and psychological factors.”

The balance of suspense, frenzied activity, and lyrical repose shows a vivid theatricality, embracing even moments of absurdist humor. While the theater of Samuel Beckett inspired Lidholm—for the composer it represents a kind of parallel exploration—Poesis was in no way intended as program music. The overall drama as such—with a climax positioned around two-thirds of the way through—contrasts the “large and richly equipped orchestra, which is like a chameleon and thus can play many parts and appear in a number of guises,” says Lidholm, with the individual instruments. But the composer’s dramatis personae “can express themselves only in music—and therefore Poesis is only music, absolute music.”

Thomas May

Thomas May is a contributing writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

More About the Music
Recordings: Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (Swedish Society Discofil)  |  Lü Jia conducting the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra (BIS)  |  …a riveder le stelle, included in the album Masters of 20th Century A Cappella, with Stefan Parkman conducting the Danish National Radio Chamber Choir (Chandos)

Reading: Three Aspects of New Music: From the Composition Seminar in Stockholm, by György Ligeti, Witold Lutosławski, and Ingvar Lidholm (Nordiska Musikförlaget)  | Sound Structure in Music, by Robert Erickson (University of California Press)

On DVD: Herbert Blomstedt and the Stockholm Philharmonic, an archival film of a performance of Poesis, produced by Lars Egler for Swedish Television in November 1968.