Wilhelm Peterson-Berger

Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (1867-1942) was a prolific Swedish composer at the turn of the 20th century. Although he is mostly unknown outside of Sweden, his musical output is substantial, and full of undiscovered gems. His main sources of notoriety within Sweden are his scathing reviews as a prominent music critic throughout the early twentieth century.

Peterson-Berger fans are celebrating a Jubilee throughout the year of 2017, which marks the 150th anniversary of his birth and the 75th year since his death. As part of the year long celebration, The Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm presented Peterson-Berger’s opera, Adils och Elisiv, in a concert version on January 26th. Led by Swedish conductor and violinist Tobias Ringborg, this was the first performance of Adils och Elisiv since its premiere in 1927.

In preparation before the concert, we were able to meet with Mr. Ringborg to learn more about Peterson-Berger, his opera, and the music of Sweden.

Tobias Ringborg

Would you say that Peterson-Berger is one of Sweden’s most important composers?


Yes, I would. But, generally, in Sweden we have been very bad at taking care of our own composers or cultural personalities.


What do you mean by ‘taking care of’?


Promoting them, pushing them forward. With some exceptions, of course. When we have some big stars, like opera singer Birgit Nilsson, or the clarinet player Martin Fröst, we acknowledge them, and we are proud of them. But, generally, we are not very proud of our own artists. We have this strange Swedish phenomenon that no-one should stick out, that no-one should think that he or she is better than anyone else. So, I think we have been very bad of taking care of our composers. If you compare us with our neighbour countries, in the Nordic region, we have Finland, with Sibelius, who is like the biggest national hero you can imagine. You have Grieg in Norway, Carl Nielsen in Denmark. They are all superstars.


So, one of my passions is Swedish music, and I want to do whatever I can to bring Swedish music out to people. There are these two amazing romances for violin and orchestra by Wilhelm Stenhammar. Listen to them! They are absolutely wonderful; gorgeous music. And when I play them abroad - I played them quite a few times in England and Scotland - people love them. And people say to me, why don’t we know this music? And I have to be so ashamed of my country, that we haven’t promoted this music.


One of the reasons, which is of course fantastic, is that Sweden has not been at war for two hundred years. We have been at peace, but, because of that, we have not built up this pride. I’m not talking about nationalism in a bad way, but I’m talking about being proud of being Swedish and what we have created in this small, tiny country. We’re not particularly proud of ourselves. Whereas our neighbouring countries - Finland, Norway and Denmark - have been at war, or have been occupied. They had this longing for peace, for freedom.


So they needed national heroes.


Yes. Because their fight for freedom was so strong. We haven’t had that. We’ve always had freedom, thank God. So, that’s interesting, but I think it’s one of the reasons why we don’t try to promote our composers, and why people don’t know them. And we have wonderful composers! So, yes, Peterson-Berger is certainly one of the most famous composers in Sweden, absolutely. But there are others, like Stenhammar, and Hugo Alfvén.


How was Peterson-Berger prominent in Swedish musical life?


He was a music critic. That was his main occupation. And he was a nasty critic.


Was he more of a critic than a composer?


No, he wouldn’t have said so. He’d say he was a composer first. He wrote five operas, five symphonies, a big violin concerto. And songs. Lots of them. Beautiful songs.


But in a way, maybe, he was even more famous as a critic during his lifetime. He was so mean. There are some wonderful quotes. He could write about a woman’s voice recital, ‘She was wearing a red dress’. And that would be it. Not a word about how she sang. He also wrote somewhere, ‘Her voice was ugly but small.’ Fantastic.


Wow. Did he like anything?


Wagner. He was crazy about Wagner. He even directed Wagner’s operas here. Did you know he was a stage director here, at this opera house? He loved Wagner. He despised all things Italian, basically. He reviewed Tosca when it came here, in 1904. He thought it was absolutely horrible.


Did Peterson-Berger’s music influence other composers?


I don’t think so. He didn’t teach composition, like some other Swedish composers who were teaching the next generation, and were, therefore, very influential. He was, in turn, influenced very much by Wagner. Not just musically, but ideologically. He read Nietzsche. He even translated it from German.


So then he’s important because of his output and his writings.


Yes. For example, Stenhammar is much more respected than Peterson-Berger, in his lifetime and also today. Much more respected by composers and musicians. Today there is a sort of attitude towards Peterson-Berger. He wrote these very famous piano pieces, the most famous one goes like this…


(plays the opening of Sommarsång)


Beautiful, but so light and simple. So, there is this attitude where people look down on him a bit for being old-fashioned and not so important. Whereas, Stenhammar is considered as incredibly important.


Do you agree with this attitude?


Not really. Well, Stenhammar is a more important composer, yes, but there are beautiful moments in Peterson-Berger’s music. And especially as an opera composer. Stenhammar wrote two operas, they aren’t fantastic. Peterson-Berger was dramatically a better composer, I think. Adils och Elisiv has really good scenes, dramatically. And also his most famous opera, Arnljot, from 1911, is beautiful.


Would you describe his music to be simple but with beautiful moments?


Yes and no. That piano piece that I played was simple, but that’s another style. There are scenes in this opera that are very complicated. At some points, tonally, you don’t know which keys he’s going to. It’s very intricate. Harmonically, very weird, and he goes in between keys, and we’re like: “What’s going on?” So it’s not very simple. But he could write very simple music, like the piano pieces. And his songs. But his songs! You should listen to some of them. Beautiful, gorgeous songs.


Peterson-Berger wrote a lot of music. Why did the Royal Swedish Opera choose to do Adils och Elisiv this time?


Two years ago we did a chamber concert here of Peterson-Berger’s music. I played one of his violin sonatas, and the rest of the programme was excerpts from this opera, with piano. Everyone loved it. People thought it was so beautiful, and Birgitta Svendén, the general director of the opera here, thought, maybe we should do this again, but bigger, with orchestra.


How did they come up with the idea to do selections of it at that time?


There is a repetiteur in this opera house who has had his eyes on this opera for many years, and he loves Peterson-Berger. He dug up the music and made the selections and played the piano beautifully for that concert.


Basically the music has been sitting here since 1927?


Yes. So they did five performances in 1927, and they did some excerpts of it when he died in the 40s, and that’s it.


But there has been quite an interest in his music lately. There is a Peterson-Berger society, and they are, of course, crazy about tomorrow’s performance. They are so excited.


Why do you think it was a failure in 1927?


Peterson-Berger made many, many enemies because of his criticisms, and within the opera house there were many people working against him because they hated him. In spite of this, they took on his opera, but at the same time they worked against him. It’s very weird. It’s almost like they were thinking, yeah, we will do this, but we will make sure it fails!


He got quite a horrible review for Adils och Elisiv by a colleague of his, who he had previously criticised. They were just getting back at each other. Horrible.


I own some letters [written by] Peterson-Berger to the great baritone John Forsell, who later became the general director at the Royal Swedish Opera. (He also taught the great Jussi Björling.) There was a very famous letter, from Peterson-Berger to John Forsell, thirty years before this opera. It was a very nasty letter. Three days later, there was a famous fight. John Forsell hit him in the face. He had to apologize at the opera, in front of all the staff. It was a really big thing, it was in the newspapers.


Thirty years later, they sort of reconciled. Sort of, but never really, after that. They didn’t really have a good relationship. In 1927, John Forsell was the general director at the opera. He decided to do Adils och Elisiv, although he had a very complicated relationship with Peterson-Berger. So, the opening of the opera was in February 1927. I have another letter from Peterson-Berger to Forsell, from June 1927, a few months later. He sums up the whole experience of the opera. He’s so bitter in this letter. He was like: “you ruined this for me... everything went wrong... the tenor didn’t know his part... he was ill... the conductor was terrible... the repetiteur was bad…” He rambled on and on for six pages. I have it at home. He’s so bitter.


I think he loved this opera. He thought it was wonderful. It was like his baby. And he thought he had been so badly treated.


Someone in the orchestra told me that the text is complicated and the conductor was a German man who didn’t know the words?


Yeah, well no. The text is not complicated, no. The Swedish is old-fashioned, yes, but what’s complicated is this. Look at this.


(Shows the autograph score)


Try to read this. And the conductor was Leo Blech, he was German. The music itself is very beautifully written. This is his own handwriting. He was a fantastic craftsman. Beautifully written. But, the text is really difficult to read, even for me, and I know the language. Can you imagine a German conductor doing this? I just don’t know how he did it.


What is this opera about?


Well. This is set in medieval times. Sort of like Lord of the Rings. I think he even calls it a fairy-tale opera. There are these kingdoms, and they all fight. One of the kings, the bad guy, Gorm, has two daughters. One daughter with the queen and another daughter, Elisiv, with another woman. So Elisiv is not a real princess. King Gorm wants to send a daughter to marry King Adils, to make it look like he wants peace with him. But really he wants to send his daughter and then invade Adils’ country. So he tells King Adils he is sending the princess, but actually he tricks him and sends Elisiv instead. She goes there and they fall in love, and during this enormous, 20-minute long love duet, Elisiv confesses that she is not the real princess. Adils is upset and decides to fight Gorm. Later Adils realises he’s fallen in love with Elisiv even though she isn’t the real princess. He decides to marry her and extends his hand of friendship to Gorm.


It’s much more complicated, but basically this is our version. We had to do some cuts, and in the full version there is yet another kingdom actually.


What a nice complicated medieval romance!


Yes indeed!


Thank you very much for your time, and all the best for the performance tomorrow.

You’re very welcome!

Peterson-Berger: Song of Summer - Olof Höjer
00:00 / 00:00
Wilhelm Stenhammar Sentimental Romance for violin Op.28 No.1 - Tobias Ringborg
00:00 / 00:00
Wilhelm Stenhammar Sentimental Romance Op.28 No. 2 - Tobias Ringborg
00:00 / 00:00

by Bernice - Khai Ern Ooi