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Alfvén was born in Stockholm and studied at the Music Conservatory there from 1887 to 1891 with the violin as his main instrument, receiving lessons from Lars Zetterquist. He also took private composition lessons from Johan Lindegren, a leading counterpoint expert. He earned a living by playing the violin at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. He also played the violin in Kungliga Hovkapellet (the Swedish court orchestra).
Starting in 1897, Alfvén travelled much of the next ten years in Europe. He studied violin technique in Brussels with César Thomson and learned conducting in Dresden as sub-conductor under Hermann Ludwig Kutzschbach. In 1903-4 he was professor of composition at the Royal Conservatory, Stockholm. From 1910 Alfvén was Director musices (music director) at the University of Uppsala (a post he held until 1939). There he also directed the male voice choir Orphei Drängar (or 'O.D.') (until 1947). He conducted in festivals at Dortmund (1912), Stuttgart (1913), Gothenburg (1915), and Copenhagen (1918–1919). He toured Europe as a conductor throughout his life. He received a Ph.D. honoris causa from Uppsala in 1917 and became a member of the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm in 1908. Alfvén recorded some of his orchestral music in stereo late in 1954 (the first classical stereo recordings made in Sweden); the recordings were issued on LP in the U.S. by Westminster Records. A three-CD collection of Alfvén's recordings as a conductor has been issued.
Alfvén became known as one of Sweden's principal composers of his time, together with his contemporary Wilhelm Stenhammar. Alfvén's music is in a late-Romantic idiom. His orchestration is skillful and colorful, reminiscent of that of Richard Strauss. Like Strauss, Alfvén wrote a considerable amount of program music. Some of Alfvén's music evokes the landscape of Sweden.
Among his works are a large number of pieces for male voice choir, five symphonies and three orchestral "Swedish Rhapsodies." The first of these rhapsodies, Midsommarvaka is his best known piece.
Alfvén's five symphonies, the first four of them now several-times recorded (with another cycle in progress), give a picture of the composer's musical progress. The first, in F minor, his Op. 7 from 1897, is an early work, tuneful in a standard four movements. The second, in D major (1898-9), his Op. 11 (and in a way his graduation piece, as interestingly recounted ) concludes with a substantial, even powerful chorale-prelude and fugue in D minor. The third symphony in E major, Op. 23 (1905), also in four movements, more mature in technique though light in manner was inspired by a trip to Italy. The fourth symphony in C minor, Op. 39, of 1918-9 "From the Outermost Skerries" (there is also a tone-poem, A Legend of the Skerries) is a symphony in one forty-five minute movement using wordless voices, inspired by Carl Nielsen's Sinfonia Espansiva. The 5th in A minor, begun 1942, is one of the composer's last works, and has only been recorded twice in full (recordings and performances of the 5th, while rare enough, are usually of its quarter-hour first movement).
Naxos Records and BIS Records among others have either collections or groups of individual recordings covering all of his symphonies and a range of his works. Brilliant Classics has licensed and re-issued the 5-CD set from BIS devoted to Alfvén that includes the symphonies and other orchestral works.
Swedish Rhapsody No. 1
The first rhapsody - Swedish Rhapsody No. 1, also known as Midsommarvaka (Midsummer Vigil) - was written in 1903 and is often simply called the "Swedish Rhapsody." It is the best-known piece composed by Alfvén, and also one of the best-known pieces of music in Sweden.
Painter and writer
Alfvén's contributions were multi-dimensional and also included painting and writing. He was a talented watercolorist and once thought to devote himself entirely to painting. He also was a gifted writer. His four-volume autobiography has been called "captivating" and provides significant insight into the musical life of Sweden in which Alfvén was a central figure for well over half a century.
Alfvén was married three times. His first marriage (1912–36) was to the Danish painter Marie Triepcke (1867–1940), who had previously been married to the painter Peder Severin Krøyer (1851–1909). After his divorce from Marie in 1936, he married Carin Wessberg. They were together for two decades (1936–56) before she died. He married Anna Lund in 1959.
- Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 7
- 1st movement (Grave - Allegro con brio)
- 2nd movement (Andante)
- 3rd movement (Allegro, molto scherzando)
- 4th movement (Allegro, ma non troppo)
- Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 11 (Mainz 1901)
- Swedish Rhapsody No. 1 (Midsommarvaka), Op. 19 (Copenhagen 1908)
- Symphonic poem, En skärgardssägen, Op. 20 (Stockholm 1921)
- Symphony No. 3 in E major, Op. 23 (1905)
- 1st Movement (Allegro con brio)
- 2nd Movement (Andante)
- 3rd Movement (Presto)
- 4th Movement (Allegro con brio)
- Swedish Rhapsody No. 2 (Uppsala Rhapsody), Op. 24 (Stockholm 1907)
- Festspel for theatre, Op. 25 (Stockholm 1908)
- Fest-Ouverture, Op. 26
- Drapa, Op. 27
- Bergakungen (The Mountain King), ballet-pantomime, Op. 37
- Elégie (At Emil Sjögren's Funeral), Op. 38
- Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 39 (Vienna 1922)
- Hjalmar Brantings Sorgmarsch, Op. 42
- Elegy, Op. 49 (from Gustav II Adolf)
- Festival Overture, Op. 52
- Symphony No. 5 in A minor, Op. 54
- 1st Movement (Lento - Allegro non troppo)
- 2nd Movement (Andante)
- 3rd Movement (Lento - Allegro - Presto molto agitato)
- 4th Movement (Finale: Allegro con brio)
- Swedish Rhapsody No. 3
- The Prodigal Son, ballet suite
Voice and orchestra
- The Bells, baritone and orchestra, Op. 13
- The Lord's Prayer, chorus, soloists, orchestra, Op. 15
- Ballade, baritone, male chorus and orchestra, Op. 30
- Baltic Exhibition Cantata, Op. 33 (1914)
- Ode on Gustavus Vasa, soli, mixed voices, orchestra, Op. 40
- Sonata for violin and piano, Op. 1
- Romance, violin and piano, Op. 3
- Notturno Elegiaco, horn and organ, Op. 5
- Liten svit för soloflöjt ur Mostellaria (Little Suite for Solo Flute)
- piano pieces
In popular culture
Hugo Alfvén is the most probable source of inspiration for the character "Karsten From" found in the novel De Dødes Rige (The Kingdom of the Dead) by Danish author Henrik Pontoppidan.
- The Hugo Alfvén Society
- MusicWeb article on the Alfvén symphonies (review of the BIS CD set)
- Free scores by Hugo Alfvén at the International Music Score Library Project