Svendsen, Johan (Severin)

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Svendsen, Johan (Severin)

Svendsen, Johan (Severin), eminent Norwegian composer and conductor; b. Christiania, Sept. 30, 1840; d. Copenhagen, June 14, 1911. His father, a military musician, taught him to play various instruments, and by his early teens he was performing in local dance orchs. and composing dances and marches. After joining the army at age 15, he became solo clarinetist in the regimental band. He then received violin lessons from F. Ursin and played in the Norwegian Theater orch. in Christiania; subsequently studied with Carl Arnold. Receiving a stipend from the King, he pursued his musical training at the Leipzig Cons. (1863-67) with Ferdinand David, Moritz Hauptmann, E.F. Richter, and Carl Reinecke, graduating with a first prize in composition. In 1867 he conducted a concert of his works in Christiania; although an anonymous review written by Grieg was full of praise, the public showed little interest and Svendsen returned to Leipzig. In 1868 he went to Paris, where he became acquainted with young progressive French composers. In 1871 he married the American Sarah Levett in N.Y., and then returned to Leipzig to become concertmaster and second conductor of the Euterpe concerts. He went to Bayreuth in 1872 to play in the special concert of Beethoven’s 9th Sym. under Wagner’s direction for the laying of the cornerstone of the Festspielhaus. Svendsen subsequently became a close friend to Wagner. In 1872 he returned to Christiania to become co-conductor with Grieg of the Music Soc. concerts; in 1874 he became sole conductor and was granted an annual government composer’s salary. After sojourns in Rome (1877-78) and London (1878), he again went to Paris. In 1880 he returned to Christiania and resumed his position as conductor of the Music Soc. concerts. In 1882 he conducted 2 concerts of his own music in Copenhagen, the success of which led to his appointment as principal conductor of the Royal Opera there in 1883, but the loss of his composer’s salary from his native country. All the same, he retained his Norwegian citizenship while transforming the musical life of Copenhagen, conducting both operatic and orch. performances of great distinction. He also appeared as a guest conductor in Vienna, St. Petersburg, Moscow, London, Paris, Brussels, and other cities with brilliant success. In 1901 he divorced his first wife and married Juliette (Vilhelmine) Haase, a ballerina. In 1908 he retired from the Royal Opera and was granted an honorary pension by the Danish government; not to be outdone, the Norwegian government restored his annual composer’s salary. With Grieg, Svendsen represents the full flowering of the national Romantic movement in Norwegian music. Unlike his famous compatriot, he proved a master of large orch. forms; he was unquestionably the foremost Nordic symphonist of his time, and during the last quarter of the 19th century enjoyed an international reputation equal to that of Grieg.


orch: Caprice for Violin and Orch. (1863; Leipzig, Dec. 1864); 2 syms.: No. 1, op.4 (1865-67; Christiania, Oct. 12, 1867) and No. 2, op.15 (Christiania, Oct. 14, 1876); Violin Concerto, op.6 (1868-70; Leipzig, Feb. 6, 1872); Cello Concerto, op.7 (1870; Leipzig, March 16, 1871); Symphonic Introduction to Bjornson’s Sigurd Slembe, op.8 (Leipzig, Dec. 12, 1871); Karneval i Paris, op.9 (Christiania, Oct. 26, 1872); Funeral March for King Carl XV, op.10 (1872); Zorahayda, op.ll (Christiania, Oct. 3, 1874; rev. 1879; Christiania, May 11, 1880); FestivalPolonaise, op.12 (Christiania, Aug. 6, 1873); Coronation March for Oscar II, op.13 (1873); Norsk kunstnerkarneval, op.14 (Christiania, March 17, 1874); 4 Norwegian Rhapsodies: No. 1, op. 17 (1876; Christiania, Sept. 25, 1877), No. 2, op.19 (1876; Munich, 1880), No. 3, op.21 (1876; Paris, Jan. 1879), and No. 4, op.22 (1877; Paris, Feb. 1, 1879); Romeo og Julie, fantasy, op.18 (Christiania, Oct. 14, 1876); Romance for Violin and Orch., op.26 (Christiania, Oct. 30, 1881); Polonaise, op.28 (1882); Foraaret kommer (Coming of Spring), ballet, op.33 (Copenhagen, May 26, 1892); Andante funèbre (Copenhagen, June 30, 1894); Prelude (Copenhagen, Dec. 18, 1898); also several arrangements for String Orch. CHAMBER: String Quartet, op.l (1864; Leipzig, May 21, 1865); String Octet, op.3 (Leipzig, Feb. 24?, 1866); String Quintet, op.5 (Leipzig, May 17, 1867). Piano: Anna, polka (1854); Til saeters (At the Mountain Pasture), waltz (1856). VOCAL: 2 partsongs for Men’s Voices, op.2 (1865); 5 songs for Voice and Piano, op.23 (1879); 4 songs for Voice and Piano, op.24 (1879); 2 songs, op.25 (1878, 1880); 4 cantatas, op.29 (1881, 1881, 1884, 1892).


B. Kortsen, J. S.’s Cellokonsert, op. 7. En analyse (Bergen, 1970); F. Benestad and D. Schjeldrup-Ebbe, /. S.: Mennesket og kunstneren (Oslo, 1990; Eng. tr., 1995, as J. S.: The Man, the Maestro, the Music).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire