How Sweden lost a great composer

How Sweden lost a great composer

Album Of The Week

norman lebrecht

May 07, 2022

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:
Sweden, unlike its neighbours, has no great composer. Norway has Grieg, Finland Sibelius, Denmark Nielsen and Sweden — blank. The one composer who might have filled the role was treated with such disdain by polite society that he lived all his life in grim poverty, never able to afford a piano. …

Read on here.

And here.

En francais ici,


  • Heril Steemøen says:

    Perhaps not, but they do have Karl-Birger Blomdahl, Sven-Erik Bäck and Wilhelm Stenhammar.

    • msc says:

      Alfven, Peterson-Berger, Atterberg, Wiren, Larsson, and Andersson. I think I would put Stenhammar at the top. But NL’s broad point seems correct — there is no clear leader for Swedish national composer.

  • John Borstlap says:

    But it is entirely understandable that Pettersson was not generally accepted as Sweden’s National Great Composer. Grieg, Nielssen and Sibelius were ‘pre-modern’ composers, Sibelius already being considered a ‘case of doubts’ as a late-romantic composer who had the temerity to live untill deep into the 20th century (and he got silent, after all).

    Pettersson was a late-romantic composer in the Mahlerian mould:

    … and a great one, as can be heard clearly in this symphony written in the sixties (!), during the heyday of Klangkunst and the like. But much of it is as unpleasant as atonal modernism especially because it is traditional: dissonances still do their painful work.

    So, if Sweden had labelled Pettersson its contemporary typically Swedish ‘Great Composer’ it would have seemed backward, outdated, oldfashioned, provincial. All very stupid and a fruit of WW II and modernist ideologies.

    Meanwhile his music seems to have become acknowledged widely, in spite of its expressive cruelties:

    Dark music from a dark age. But great music nonetheless.

  • Stenhammar says:

    This is just ignorant on many levels.

  • Dima says:

    He had a miserable life but all this, somehow, inspired him to write great pieces of music. If he had a happy life he would have never created these pieces ?

    • John Borstlap says:

      We know that happy composers don’t write music at all, because we don’t know them. Meanwhile, society makes sure that composers are miserable, so the source remains open. Even frustrated taxi drivers write music nowadays, and look what happens.

      • Paul Rapoport says:

        That you have to be an unhappy person to create great art is a 19th-century romanticization that was not (universally) true either then or now.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Of course…

          Probably they were never statistically more unhappy than anyone else. But they could give form to their emotional life, which then could resonate with others’ unhappiness.

      • Sean KALISKI says:

        Mendelsohn was happy. And rich. And he wrote great music

  • Mark Lowther says:

    Sweden’s most important composer from the era of Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius is Wilhelm Stenhammar, six years their junior. Anyone familiar with his Serenade, 2nd Symphony, songs or String Quartets will know of his special voice. The Serenade especially is a true masterpiece, memorably recorded recently by Herbert Blomstedt and in the past by, among others, Rafael Kubelik. Once heard, never forgotten.

    • Stuard Young says:

      I agree that Stenhammar deserves a place at the top of Swedish composers. I am particularly struck by his First Piano Concerto, a big muscular work, using the great Brahms B Flat Concerto as a model, though it heralds an emerging voice of originality. Your laudatory view of the “Serenade” is interesting. I own the recording by Naame Jarvi, which I heard a couple of times, before hearing it in concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra, guest conducted by Alan Gilbert when he was MD of the NY Phil. The piece seemed totally forgettable, and the orchestra, whose body language I know very well, performed with scant enthusiasm. I have not listened since. With your recommendations of Kubelik and Blomstedt, I will give the piece another chance. Thank you.

  • sabrinensis says:

    A composer perhaps not as great as Grieg but yes, they have them. However, it is certainly not Petterssen. Stenhammer or Alfvén, a little further behind may be Atterberg. You must be dead not to respond to Alfvén’s Symphony No.4 “From the Outer Skerries”.

  • Lars says:

    I quite like the music of Hilding Rosenberg. He deserves more international recognition.

  • Russell Platt says:

    Franz Berwald’s “Sinfonie Singulière” (No. 3) is one of the finest symphonies of the 19th century, period.

  • Musicman says:

    Sweden also has Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986). He studied with Berg in Germany, but lived most of his life in Sweden. His works are still performed Internationally.

  • Nosema says:


    Pettersson has indeed some fine qualities , but this article is just trashy music journalism ideally suited to the venue of the internet.
    Well, we all have to make a living…..

  • Rob Keeley says:

    I’d rather listen to Franz Berwald and Stenhammar any day of the week.

  • The Pink Tulip says:

    Sweden has that wonderful composer blessed with the gift of melody – none other than Benny Andersson.

  • Ricardo says:

    Pettersson has been a hero since I discovered him in 1986. Tha Barfotasonger are among my dearest pieces of music. Check out the performance on YouTube (unpolished but authentic) by Bernt Kasberg Evensen (70 at the time)

  • Ross Amico says:

    Many wonderful composers from Sweden. No love for Lars-Erik Larsson?

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I am always happy to see attention paid to Allan Pettersson and his music, music which I (and I suspect many others) first got to know via Dorati’s recording of the Symphony No. 7. I’d be prepared to second his nomination as Sweden’s best, although I do like what I have heard of Stenhammar. As for the Barefoot Songs it is important to realize that the pastoral and pleasant impression that the title imparts has nothing to do with the texts. (God is walking barefoot on thorns and thistles. And you get rather deeply into the song “You Are Lying” before it becomes evident that the “you” who does so much lying is God, who tramples flowers and kills them.)

    But while Pettersson’s early upbringing was difficult in the extreme, I do think N.L. reaches too far in trying to construct a class-based rejection by Sweden of Pettersson and his place in Swedish music. And I take issues with some statements of fact in the review as well.

    He took up violin at 12 and then was a student at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stockholm. He won a Jenny Lind Stipend to further his viola studies in Paris, and then joined the Stockholm Concert Society Orchestra (we now know it as the Stockholm Philharmonic) in its viola section while intensifying his studies of composition. He later studied composition in Paris (Liebowitz and Honegger). He left the orchestra over issues of health, and his health was to get much worse, crippling. He won the Swedish Radio Symphony prize in 1960: a commission for a new work, a performance, publication of the work (“Mesto” for strings), and a recording. A decade after leaving the orchestra he was given a state prize with a guaranteed income, and then the Prize of the City of Stockholm. In the mid 1970s these honors were elevated to living quarters provided by the government. Then came an honorary professorship (his health would have made actual university teaching impossible).

    There was indeed about a period of neglect once his performing career was over, but this is not the biography of shunned individual. And even that era of neglect was not total. A CD from Swedish Society Discofil has two pieces taken from older LPs. The Symphony No 2 was recorded in 1966; the prize-winning commission “Mesto” for string orchestra was recorded in 1961. That is just an example of attention (and respect) paid to the composer well before the Dorati recording.

    Moreover, the Stockholm Philharmonic did not ban his music “for all time” after the dispute over the program for their US tour, but just the reverse. It is Pettersson who banned them from performing his music “for all time” – a ban he later lifted.

    If Pettersson could not afford a piano that is unfortunate and no credit to Sweden, but the fact is that after his Symphony No. 5 he could barely manage to write notes on paper. much less compose at an instrument which was never primary to him. The premiere of his Symphony No 7 was the last time his illness permitted him to even attend a premiere.

    By no means am I suggesting Allan Petersson was pampered — that would be absurd once you know his biography — but the big issue was not class-based neglect and shunning, but rather a horrible illness that in turn made Petersson a VERY challenging person to deal with, as the Stockholm Philharmonic learned, or even to describe, as many would-be commentators learned when he would lash out at their words of praise or analysis. He was a sick person surrounded by healthy people and he regarded healthy people as unimaginative. As he himself wrote “I feel I have more in common with criminals — so-called criminals — than with other people. Not because of their criminality but because of their desire for freedom and their agony, suffering, sense of exclusion ….”

    • Paul Rapoport says:

      Clearly written by someone who has known his music and about his life for a long time. Thank you. (Of course there’s much more to be said.)

    • Martín Rincón Botero says:

      Thank you for this comment. The original article depicts such a weird image of Petersson that it was just shocking to read (even if it was well-intended?). Sometimes I learn more from the comments than from the authors!

  • Novagerio says:

    They have Franz Berwald, a very important symphonist, part time contemporary of Beethoven and Brahms. They have Wilhelm Stenhammar, a close personal friend of both Sibelius and Nielsen. They have Hugo Alfvén, also a great symphonist of certain consideration.
    And Karl Birger Blomdahl, Lars-Erik Larsson and Ingvar Lidholm, a vocal music composer of consideration as well as Svend-David Sandström, a genius in writing choral music.
    Allan Pettersson is a depressingly boring version of Shostakovich in Swedish.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      Obviously, I cannot agree with your evaluation of Pettersson (other than to observe that you are not alone in these views) but since you mention choral music, I urge you to seek out the recording of a selection of the Barefoot Songs in a choral version that the composer had to entrust to another, Eskil Hemberg. I think you would like them in that format.

  • Ates Orga says:

    “Sweden, unlike its neighbours, has no great composer”? Are we really to exclude Berwald and Stenhammar? Surely not.

  • Tim says:

    Who needs a great composer when you’ve got ABBA?

  • Peter X says:

    Hilding Rosenberg definitely deserves a (second) mention and so does Erland von Koch …and many others. Blomdahl, Bäck, Sandstrom, de Frumerie, Linde and a host of even lesser known older and younger artists.
    I wish all young composers good luck in this cruel and often stupid world…

  • Peter X says:

    Since when is Grieg a great composer?

    • fflambeau says:

      Peter X, Grieg was a great composer of many moving pieces; not only Peer Gynt which alone would make him great; but a terrific and beloved piano concerto; his Two Elegiac Melodies; and many fine works for piano.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Grieg deserves to be respected and performed, especially after Debussy’s unkind remark in one of his reviews that the composer from the north, who wrote ‘bonbons filled with snow’, looked like a sunflower on those provincial railway stations in France when seen on the podium conducting his own music. Grieg was quite hurt by this description of his hairdo and never conducted in France again.

  • fflambeau says:

    I like Wilhelm Stenhammar. Especially his 2nd symphony and his numerous chamber music pieces. I have no idea if he is Sweden’s best but he was terrific.

  • Andrew Baker says:

    Franz Berwald!

    Perhaps not as globally important as Sibelius but very original and absolutely delightful – and earlier than the other big Scandinavian names. I particularly love the piano trios which are quirky and charming but the Symphonie Singuliere is the prototype s Scandysym.

  • Peter Seivewright says:

    Hilding Rosenberg (1892-1985) is a Swedish giant, in my view. VERY approximately, a sort of Swedish Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998). Rosenberg’s two Piano Concertos really are absolutely stupendous works, as of course is Tippett’s sole Piano Concerto.