Dag Wirén: Traditionalist, innovator – or innovator of tradition?

av Lars Berglund

In the rather crudely written history of Swedish contemporary classical music that was established after the Second World War, composers were sorted according to the decade in which they made their debut. A decade beginning with an even number meant that the composer was a radical one, an odd number more traditionalist. In this way, Dag Wirén fell into the category of the more traditionally minded pre-war composers, such as Lars-Erik Larsson, Erland von Koch and Gunnar de Frumerie.

As Per Olov Broman has shown in his excellent article “History-making, modernism and Dag Wirén” in the book Dag Wirén – a guide, such a categorisation is not without its problems. And Dag Wirén is one of those who least deserve to be labelled in such a crude way.

What, after all, is a traditional composer? Two of the greatest revolutionaries in the music world of the early 20th century, Arnold Schönberg and his pupil Anton Webern, were, at the same time, two of the most explicitly tradition-conscious musicians of their age. And yet, we can see how a devoted spokesman for the traditional side of Swedish art music, Jan Carlstedt never missed an opportunity to point out that traditionalist music could and should also be experimental and seek its own constant renewal. Perhaps all that we can say for certain is that only rarely are the composers themselves happy about having such labels stuck to them. Some even see them as a fatuous insult or at least a gross simplification of the seriously purposed and complex work to which they devote themselves.

It is probably time for us to consign this traditionalist/radical distinction to history, when, that is, it is used at all. In Sweden in the 1950s, when many of the ideas behind the latter stages of history-making were established, they were, however, very much common currency. Radical music was defined by certain specific, apparently rather conventional stylistic criteria: atonality and triad proscription, dodecaphonics and serialism, pointillism, the use of recording tape or electronically produced sound – and the avoidance of conventional work designations and genres:   “Complex IV” was a radical title, “Violin Concerto no. 1” was not. It was in such a conceptual environment that Dag Wirén was labelled a traditionalist. 

At the same time, we must remember that when Wirén returned to Sweden from his studies in Paris in 1933, and made his debut in Fylkingen with his Piano Trio, he was given reviews that were not so very far from P-B’s famous slating of Rosenberg’s first quartet ten years previously. The trio was described by Herman Glimstedt as an “opus cacophonus…in whose fermenting tonal brew those movements, amongst the many, upon which had been bestowed, with formal pretentions, the titles Fugetta and Alla passacaglia could hardly be identified”. To conservative eyes, then, Wirén was a sinister modernist who came from the continent with foreign ideas in tow, ready to subvert all good musical customs.

In the great debate on music and music criticism that ensued in 1957 in connection with the premiere of Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s Anabase, Wirén sided with the modernists: “Audiences must be trained,” he declared in the survey published by Dagens Nyheter, and continued: “In my opinion, Swedish radio should never baulk at a good work simply because it’s exclusive. Radical and relatively inaccessible music should be supported precisely out of respect for audiences.”

Disregarding more superficial criteria of style and genre, Wirén was himself in many respects a typical modernist. Wirén’s “concerted efforts to systematically and economically develop a thematic material to exploit it to the full must be seen as a consequence of a pronounced modernistic philosophy,” writes Sten Dahlstedt in Dag Wirén – a guide (p. 63). It was precisely Wirén’s predilection for strict economy, reduction, sparsity and clarity, as well as his express aversion to repetition in music, that led him to develop the “metamorphosis technique” that he had first started to cultivate in his third symphony (1944) and that he would later consider a vital ingredient of his compositional technique. 

However, Wirén was also a modernist and an innovator for the very reason that he was always on the move. His pieces from the 1930s, like the Piano Trio (op 6), the Sinfonietta (op 7) or the Serenade (op 11) are considered today accessible and divertante works. To Herman Glimstedt’s ears, the piano trio was a cacophony. And once the music critics and the broader concert-going public had caught up with these pieces and taken them to their hearts, Wirén was already off somewhere else on the more austere and narrow line that he followed above all with his fourth symphony (1952) and which he would go on to perfect right up to his final works in the early 1970s, such as the incredibly compact string quartet no. 5.

In this way, in both his career and his music, Wirén challenged all simplified attempts to write history. He is so much more than a pre-war composer because his career spanned many more decades than that, from his student years in the 1920s to his final compositions of the 1970s, and because many of his most interesting works were written in his later years. And he is so much more than simply “traditionalist” or “modernist” because there is a complexity, a density and a sense of innovation in his output that makes such labels seem banal. And as modern listeners, I think we can actually hear this: it is possible to listen to pieces from the 1930s, such as the piano trio or the serenade, as divertante and “easy listening” music; but it is still also possible to hear the modernistic provocation that actually already existed back then in Wirén’s approach to harmony and melody. Similarly, we can listen to his fifth string quartet as the strict and sparse tonal structure that it comes across as in the score – but it is also music with an unusually fresh immediacy that can be enjoyed without any need for preliminary intellectual exercises. 

Lars Berglund