Form and extra-musical content in Hugo Alfvn’s symphonic poem En skrgrdssgen

Joakim Tillman

Hugo Alfvén’s (1872–1960) only symphonic poem, En skärgårdssägen (in English both known as A Legend of the Skerries and A Tale from the Archipelago, 1904), represents along with Midsommarvaka (Midsummer Vigil, 1903) a turn toward a more progressive, New German, orientation in Alfvén’s music following his study tour in Europe during the early years of the twentieth century. The first part of this article analyses the form of En skärgårdssägen: Despite the influence of Richard Strauss, En skärgårdssägen is a rather normative sonata-form movement with a slow introduction and an extensive coda. The only deformations are the deceptive cadence ending the second theme group and the tonally unstable closing zone of the exposition. However, throughout the work Alfvén chooses a few less common, though still standard, options: a lyrical, tonally overdetermined first theme group; beginning the transition with a false closing section to the main theme; the minor dominant as the key of the second theme group; an extremely short, half-rotational development; no retransition between development and recapitulation. Most of Alfvén’s uncommon options are examples of situations that according to James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy’s Sonata Theory invite a hermeneutical interpretation, suggesting that extra-musical considerations have to be taken into account.

The point of departure in the second part of the article is Walter Werbeck’s categories subject (Stoff/Sujet) and program. The aim is to interpret the extra-musical meaning of En skärgårdssägen, with a view to clarifying the thorny relationships between subject, program, and the form of the piece. Alfvén devised the subject of En skärgårdssägen himself, and it is based on an episode from his own life. However, it bears obvious similarities to the Greek myth of Hero and Leander. The published program is very short and, in contrast to the subject, it does not tell a story with beginning, middle, and end. Instead it presents a succession of different archipelago images, which offer a parallel to the dark joy of human passion. Thus, the program is not entirely compatible with the subject, and both the subject and the program are diffult to relate to the form. An analysis of conventions and intertextual references in the piece makes it possible to interpret the extra-musical content and to construct from it a plausible, continuous narrative. Yet, this narrative and the form of En skärgårdssägen are still not completely compatible with the subject. The form contains parts (above all the recapitulation) that have no analogue in the subject. And the subject contains episodes that have been removed or reduced in the musical form. Thus, the relationships between, subject, program, extra-musical meaning and form remain problematic.

©Joakim Tillman, 2010

STM-Online vol. 13 (2010)


ISSN: 1403-5715