Johan Svendsen was the first great Norwegian symphonic composer, as well as one of the leading conductors of his day. Next to Edvard Grieg, he was the most prominent figure in Norwegian music life at the end of the 1800s. Although he came from humble beginnings in Christiania (now Oslo), he was to become a cosmopolitan who felt at home al over Europe. Svendsen spent most of his adult life abroad, living in Copenhagen for almost 30 years. Nonetheless he retained contact with Norway throughout these years and was a frequent and popular guest in his native country.
Svendsen’s music is characterized by vitality and a mood of festivity. This was also true of him as an individual. A man of sunny disposition and ready wit, he felt equally at home at a festive social gathering as in front of a symphony orchestra.
Both as a composer and a conductor, Svendsen contributed to setting a new standard as regards the potential of the orchestra. He lay the groundwork for a Norwegian symphonic tradition, and a number of his works will go down as classics in Norwegian music history.
CHILDHOOD IN VIKA
Johan Severin Svendsen was born on 30 September 1840 in Vika, a working class district in old Chriatiania. His father played in a regimental band, and gave Johan his first music lessons. Svendsen’s main instrument was originally the violin, but he also played the flute and the clarinet. He was only 11 years old when he wrote his first violin compositions.
At the age of fifteen, he was drafted into the army, where he started as a soldier, but soon transferred to the military band. During that period he was very active in music life in the city. He played in dance bands, and was with the Christiania Theatre orchestra for a time. From 1857 to 1859 he was violinist with ”Abonnementskoncertene”, a series of subscription concerts arranged by Halfdan Kjerulf and J.G. Conradi, where Beethoven’s symphonies were performed for the first time in Christiania.
In many ways, this first encounter with symphonic music was to have a decisive influence on Svendsen’s music career. He felt a need to learn more, and decided to go abroad. In December 1863 he began to study at the music conservatory in Leipzig. He made rapid progress, and by the time he left the conservatory in 1867, he had already written some of his best compositions. He had found a musical idiom which was to characterise all of his subsequent works.
Music circles in Leipzig were not very receptive to new musical ideas. Svendsen’s composition teacher, kapellmeister Reinecke, was also conservative, and Svendsen stopped consulting him after a time. Therefore Octet for Strings was composed without his knowledge. It was a great success and Reinecke responded by commenting wryly, ”you’ll probably turn up with a symphony next time, Mr. Svendsen”. Little did he know that the symphony was already completed. When Svendsen knocked on Reinecke’s door a few days later with the manuscript under his arm, it was clear that he had nothing more to learn at the conservatory. He left Leipzig in 1867 after having graduated from the conservatory with honours.
BACK TO CHRISTIANIA
Back in Christiania Svendsen quickly gained a prominent position in the cultural life. Together with Grieg, he threw himself heart and soul into revitalising Norwegian music life. Grieg had been one of the founders of the Christiania Music Society’s orchestra in 1871, which Svendsen conducted a number of years. Despite the lack of funds and artistic resources, this was an expansive period for music life in the city, and for Svendsen himself. A number of his most well-known compositions were composed during this period, such as Norwegian Artists’ Carnival and Symphony No 2, Norwegian Rhapsodies and Romance for violin and orchestra.
"EMIGRATED" TO COPENHAGEN
Although Svendsen was one of the greatest composers of his day, he was never given working conditions in Christiania the corresponded to his international reputation. In 1883 he was offered the position of kapellmeister at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. It was a tempting offer, both financially and artistically, and after a great deal of thought, he decided to accept it. When Johan Svendsen ”emigrated” to Denmark, it was a severe blow to Norwegian music life, and there was a great deal of bitter talk about how poorly Norway treated her artists. Everyone – and most of all Svendsen – deplored the fact that Christiania was unable to provide him with proper working conditions.
Svendsen embarked on a brilliant career as a conductor on 3 September 1883, when he conducted Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Royal Teatre. As kapellmeister of the Royal Danish Orchestra and the Danish Opera, he was also to have an important influence in music life in Copenhagen. One of the conditions Svendsen made before accepting the position of kapellmeister was that he be given the opportunity to arrange concerts outside the theatre. Although it was unusual to perform symphonic music at that time, Svendsen’s concerts were very well received by the general public and were soon regarded as important events.
Svendsen was one of the most colourful artists in the Danish capital for 25 years. He lived in Copenhagen until he died on 14 June 1911, at the age of 70.
Johan Svendsen fluorished as a conductor in Copenhagen, whereas he did little composing during that period. His position as kapellmeister was very time-consuming, and the orchestra needed a firm hand. Some of the musicians were incapable of carrying out their duties; one of them was almost blind and some of the violinists had had supports built so that they could prop themselves up while they played. Svendsen set about replacing some and hiring others, which was not always a painless process. Although he was much criticised for being too severe. He did a great deal to improve working conditions for his musicians in other respects. The end result was that the orchestra attained a very high standard and developed an extensive repertoire under the direction of Svendsen.
The rapport between the conductor and his musicians was excellent. At Svendsen’s 25th anniversary concert their relationship was compared to one of his famous crescendos: It had started pianissimo, but had gradually swelled to an incredible fortissimo. Svendsen could hardly have been paid a higher tribute.
Svendsen was an exceptionally gifted orchestra conductor. He appeared as guest conductor in most of the capitals of Europe, and won great acclaim in Vienna, Moscow, London and Paris. One of his most ardent admirers was the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, who himself played under Sevndsen’s baton for a time. On the occasion of Svendsen’s sixtieth birthday, Nielsen wrote the following tribute to the great composer in the Danish daily Polotiken: “…Anyone who has played under Svendsen’s baton will never forget the experience, partly because he has been so inspired and partly because he has seen what tremendous vitality can be conveyed from one individual to many others. He is an outstanding conductor, unquestionably the most brilliant in Europe since Bülow. It’s no wonder that the Norwegians take personal offence at the fact that he is living in Denmark, and that other countries are constantly inviting him to appear as guest conductor.”
Svendsens passed on the heritage from the Leipzig conservatory in his music. Although he was firmly rooted in Romanticism, he was not a radical composer. His use of classical forms and mastery of counterpoint revealed his affinity with the classical tradition, but his use of harmony showed his close ties to Romanticism and the influence of Liszt and Wagner. Svendsen’s instrument was the entire orchestra, which he cultivated both as a composer and as a conductor. This is demonstrated by his brilliant instrumentation technique and imaginative and colourful treatment of orchestral sound. The Romantic Era’s fascination with drama and mysticism held little appeal for Svendsen; it did not suit his temperament. He was an outgoing, high-spirited man, as reflected in most of his music.