Stenhammar: Symphony No. 2 in G minor, Opus 34 

Symphony No. 2 in G minor, Opus 34

BORN: February 7, 1871. Stockholm, Sweden
DIED: November 20, 1927. Stockholm
COMPOSED: Begun 1911, completed 1915

WORLD PREMIERE: April 22, 1915. The work was performed at a Swedish music festival in Gothenburg on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Gothenburg Orchestral Society, to which the work is dedicated


INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 43 mins                                  

THE BACKSTORY  Stenhammar was born into a family that fairly buzzed with musical and other artistic talent. He had formal training as an organist and a pianist, but as a composer he was essentially self‑taught. In his late thirties he felt the need to shore up his homemade technique with studies in counterpoint, but he was never a compulsive perpetual student—he was a natural.

He was a busy and ambitious pianist, but after making his debut as conductor in 1897 leading the first performance of his Excelsior! Overture, he spent more and more time on the podium. He was soon appointed to a series of posts in Stockholm—the Philharmonic Society, the Royal Opera, and the New Philharmonic Society—until he went to the Gothenburg Philharmonic (now the Gothenburg Symphony) in 1906. He made that orchestra into a real excitement center in Scandinavian musical life, inviting such colleagues as Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen to conduct, and himself introducing new scores by, among others, Debussy, Mahler, Reger, and R. Strauss. Among Stenhammar’s most important works along with this Second Symphony are his strikingly original Piano Concerto No. 2 (1907), his Serenade, and the eloquent cantata Sången (1921).

Like many musicians of his generation, the young Stenhammar was most taken by the late Romantic style typical of Scandinavia at the time—his early music bears influences from composers such as Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms. Stenhammar also began as an ardent Wagnerian, though that was a faith he later disavowed. His later music instead display a style and classicism all his own, and are imbued with influences ranging from Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, and Renaissance polyphony. Stenhammar’s greatest works, including this evening’s G minor Symphony, showcase this new classicism and are notable for being simultaneously colored by a Nordic style that is rooted in Swedish folk music.

The Second Symphony dates from what is known as Stenhammar’s late, third and final period, which begun around 1910. It aims at objectivity—or even austerity in its most beautiful form—and displays some truly clever and masterful writing (especially in the finale). Full of lush allusions to Swedish folk music and folk-dance rhythms (particularly in the first and third movements), this symphony brings together all the best qualities of this master Swedish composer. It is no wonder that the Second Symphony has become known as one of the most outstanding orchestral works in the Swedish repertory.

Jeanette Yu

Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.

Neeme Järvi conducting the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Paavo Järvi conducting the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (Virgin Classics)  |  Stig Westerberg conducting the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (Caprice)

Reading: Wilhelm Stenhammar, by Bo Wallner (Swedish Music Information Center) 

(February 2018)