Radical Rosenberg’s breathless ride on the piano

Today. Tomorrow. © Charles Thibo

I am returning to a favourite subject of mine: the evolution of taste and aesthetics over time. A new city quarter is rising in the south of Luxembourg city: office buildings, high-end condos, a shopping mall, the new French lycée. I drive by twice everyday and I see how it grows, takes its definite shape. It’s fascinating. Modern architecture: My pictures illustrating contemporary music often are inspired by this huge construction site. I am curious. I may not like the architecture, but I am curious nevertheless. I came to think of this as I listened for the first time to Hilding Rosenberg’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

The building in the picture above has a square hole in its middle. A terrace? The view must be spectacular. What is our view today on Rosenberg’s concerto, written in 1930? What did his contemporaries think? How will the audience rate it in 50 or 100 years? Peter H. Lyne and Hans Astrand write in a piece for Oxford Music Online that Rosenberg “is held by many to be the leading figure in 20th-century Swedish music. During the 1920s he was a pioneer […] in the effort to free Swedish composition from the national Romantic tradition. His very first works reveal the influence of Sibelius, but he was soon experimenting with various styles displaying diverse models; in Sweden he was regarded as an extreme radical.”

An extreme radical? Rosenberg was born in 1892 and studied piano and organ in his boyhood. He worked for some time as an organist before he entered the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm in 1915 to study composition and conducting. After World War I, he toured Europe and became a prominent conductor. With a composer’s stipend he went to Berlin, Vienna and Paris, his education included classes with Arnold Schönberg and Paul Hindemith. In 1932 Rosenberg was appointed coach and assistant conductor of the Swedish Royal Opera, becoming its chief conductor two years later, although from this point composing becsme a prominent part in his life than conducting.

Rosenberg never finished the piano concerto, it has only two, albeit rather long movements. It starts with a massive, very short theme for the piano, echoed by the orchestra, and while the orchestral part evolves into a more balanced rhythm, it keeps the dramatic tension upright. The piano meanwhile embarks on a breathless ride through complex, rapid cadenzas. This structure is repeated later in the movement, and it now becomes apparent what may have sounded radical to the audience of the 1930s. However if you are acquainted with the piano concertos that Sergey Rachmaninov wrote after his emigration from Russia, they do not seem radical at all.

The second movement opens with a slow brass theme, the piano falls in, while the orchestra remains almost silent – the attention is focused on the solitary piano voice, a melancholic theme. Gone is that radicalism, the language of Johannes Brahms and other representatives of the late German Romanticism comes to my mind. Beautiful! Lyne and Astrand write that “during the 1930s Rosenberg made a rapprochement with the public, simplifying his style and using clearer, essentially diatonic harmonies, chromaticism becoming more a melodic embellishment.” And thus all well that ends well, even without a finale.

Rosenberg’s first piano concerto has been recorded by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Mats Widlund.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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