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Classical 101

Happy Scandinavian Music? ABBA and Alfven

VIDEO LINKS ARE GONE. NOT SURE WHERE TO FIND THEM.     Grieg, Sibelius, and ABBA? When we think of Scandinavian music, we probably think of melancholy and introverted emotion expressed in music more than exuberant pop melodies. We're more likely to imagine the world-weary restless seeker Peer Gynt, or the Swan of Tuonela gliding silently across the black lake of the underworld in Finnish mythology, than "Dancing Queen" or "Take a Chance on Me." I recently saw part of the induction ceremony for the Swedish pop group ABBA into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on TV featuring two of its founding members, and I was intrigued by some of the remarks about their influences made by Benny Andersson in the acceptance speech. In the first half of the 10-minute segment, a very classy Anni-Frid Reuss gave her thanks to the fans who supported the group, which made its last recording in 1982. In the second part, Andersson speaks about growing up in Sweden in the 1950s and the diverse musical influences that made their way into this hit-making supergroup of the 70s. Before mentioning any American influences, such as Elvis or Chuck Berry, he spoke about hearing Swedish folk music and classical music of Edvard Grieg and Jean Sibelius and the pervasive effect of living above the 59th parallel, referring to the short summers and long winters and the melancholy that is considered part of the national character. He says you can see it in the eyes of Greta Garbo and hear it in the voice of Jussi Bjoerling. The only radio station that played music presented Italian arias, French chanson, German schmaltz, and John Philip Sousa, and if they were lucky, one current pop song. Andersson says that all of this made its way into the music of ABBA. Here's the whole acceptance speech, but Andersson's part begins 5 minutes into the video:

When I think back to my impressions of their music in the late 70s, they did have an international sound that definitely distinguished them from American or English pop groups. They certainly had the catchy tunes with the musical hooks that stayed in your memory, and looking back on their songs now, great craftsmanship and performing skills. But I thought, happy Swedish music? What an anomaly. My first exposure to Swedish culture were the films of Ingmar Bergman, a brilliant artist, but not a happy guy, I would think. So, watching this acceptance speech made me wonder if there is any Scandinavian classical orchestral music that is unabashedly happy-sounding, as much of ABBA's music is. There surely are some other pieces, but the one that came to mind happened to be by a Swedish composer: Hugo Alfven, The Swedish Rhapsody No. 1, also titled: A Midsummer Vigil. He wrote it in 1903, and it's his most popular work, and it's based on a Swedish folk tune that's very catchy and can stick in you mind like a tune by ABBA! Here's the most simple version on harmonica: Now lets hear some saxophones in a more pop-sounding arrangement: And finally, a short orchestral arrangement:

If you listened to all of these, you will probably never get that tune completely out of your mind. My favorite Scandinavian composer is still Jean Sibelius, with nordic gloom and that great sense of the mystery of the natural world, but occasional sunlight, too. But it is also good to find undeniably happy-sounding music from Scandinavia: Hugo Alfven's Swedish Rhapsody No. 1, as well as the perennially popular ABBA.