Dag Wirén’s Piano Music

by Bertil Wikman

Dag Wirén studied to be both a pianist and an organist, and although the piano accompanied him throughout his life, the number of compositions he wrote for the instrument is somewhat limited. If one excludes his juvenilia, which include a Sonata and a Concert Piece, there are only a handful of works for solo piano among his 44 opus-numbered compositions: Theme with Variations, Op 5 (1933), Small Ironic Pieces, Op 19 (1942-45), Sonatina, Op. 25 (1950), Piano Concerto, Op 26 (1947-50), Improvisations, Op 35 (1959) and Little Suite, Op 43 (1971). In addition to these is a short, single-page work, published in Svenska Albumblad 1962 with the title Miniature. As can be seen from the years of creation, Wirén’s piano music is relatively evenly distributed over his productive years. It is also artistically significant, and not only allows us to follow his development as a composer but also gives us deeper insight into his methods.

Theme with Variations, Op. 5 (1933was written by a 28-year-old Wirén during his student years in Paris. His wife, Noel, claimed it was her favourite piece, and it was probably also intimately associated with the couple’s first sojourn together in that city. The variations are personal, albeit expressed in a more romantic idiom than his later compositions. His writing here is more “piano-esque” and takes full advantage of the instrument’s potential. The sound is meaty and at times reminiscent in its energy of Brahms. The work was lauded by his contemporary critics and performed by the composer himself on Swedish Radio and in Berlin.

Even though Wirén designated it a “theme with variations”, the work is perhaps even more solidly grounded in harmony. A more fitting title might be passacaglia, a genre designation that he uses in his piano trio and piano sonata, for it is easier to pick out the chord progressions than it is the theme’s melodic transformations. The “theme” itself consists of five four-bar phrases, each of which begins and ends firmly rooted in the principal key of E Minor.  The simple, phrasal harmony is spiced with some free-tonal chord slurs, dissonances, suspensions and passing tones.  

Regarding Wirén’s opus from a “variations on a theme” perspective, the work indubitably belongs to the character variations of the romantic period. The variations are mutually contrasting – some are chordal in structure, others more linearly fluid – and the metres are adapted to the character. Each variation has a distinct profile, in which we can already identify, for one, Wirén’s interest in the march character (var. III Tempo di marcia). There is also something akin to a Norwegian spring dance (var. IX), a Schumannesquely resolved scherzo (var. VIII) and a Brahmsian octave-voracity (var. VI). The fact that the romantic piano figures still manifest themselves to such a meagre degree is a sign of Wirén’s relative independence from the classical-romantic piano tradition.

The variations are built upon the utmost simplicity and gradually reach their climax in the masterly ninth and last variation before the motif returns in its choral-like version to round off the piece, this time re-harmonised and transposed from E Minor to E Major with an appended closing sixth phrase.

Small Ironic Pieces (1942–45is one of the most widely played of Wirén’s compositions. By virtue of its relatively simple piano structure, the collection has become a popular teaching piece, even if, as is often the case with Wirén, technical hurdles can suddenly appear, such as wide hand spans and leaps or tricky harmonic twists. The piece is often played at student concerts and belongs to a tradition of latter-day teaching music for pianists along with the likes of Nielsen’s Humoresque-Bagatelles, Prokofiev’s 10 Pieces for Piano (Op 12) or Sarcasms and Debussy’s Children’s Corner.

Stylistically, the music reverts to the diversions of the 1930s, but with Wirén’s tongue firmly in his cheek as he attends with charming and affectionate playfulness to archetypical musical conventions distorted as though in a hall of mirrors. The title, Small Ironic Pieces, makes no immediate parodic reference, either – according to the composer, the term “ironic” was to be translated in a French spirit as meaning endearing and wryly comical.

Wirén’s sense of humour is not far from Haydn’s and is often played out in concentrated, hard-hitting motifs that twist and turn and shoot off in unexpected directions before acquiescing once again to convention. Melody and rhythm often take on a semblance of naïve art  that sometimes calls nursery rhymes to mind. Small Ironic Pieces is based on familiar genre types such as the military march, the étude, the promenade, the waltz and the polka. A sixth but subsequently deleted movement, American Style, was also almost a paraphrase of a foxtrot.

Sonatina, Op 25 (1950) is part of a collection of sonatinas by Nordic composers commissioned by Gehrman’s music publishers and released under the title Ny Nordisk Klavermusik (New Nordic Piano Music). While the pedagogical approach and the genre designation (sonatina) lured the composers into a classical mindset, Wirén himself was already working on a similar formal structure in the first and last movements of his piano concerto, which he would go on to complete later that autumn. In its concentrated minimalism (with a small m), the first movement of Wirén’s sonatina can be seen as moulded in the sonata cast, and the last as a Haydnesque sonata rondo, humorous and monothematic in character. The slow movement was designated by Wirén as a passacaglia – with six variations on an eight-bar chord sequence. 

Musically, the sonatina is one of Wirén’s elegant, folk-inspired compositions, evidencing a humour and a sheer joy of playing in the opening and closing movements, and a more archaic introverted mood in the slow movement. The movement structure is generally linear. Notwithstanding the parallel thirds, it is in principal for two voices with a contrapuntal tension between bass and treble. Harmonically, the music is relatively gentle on the ear in its use of dissonance and free-tonal combinations. The first and last movements can be said to be in G Major even if the extending quarter tone in both the treble and bass initially gives the music a Lydian feel. The different chromatically bundled chords of the slow movement are centred on the dominant D. The three movements are in sequence.

Piano concerto, Op 26 (1947–50) was Wirén’s third and last solo concerto after the cello concerto (1936) and the violin concerto (1946). The piano concerto is more light-hearted and brilliant than the other two and the solo part stands more in opposition to the orchestra. The piano plays with bravura and a vivacious humour, and in constant rivalry with the orchestra over which it attempts to take the initiative. While there might seem to be a slightly superficial, showy and hollow vein in the piano part, the orchestral part broods with anxiety and a deeper sense of gravity.  The contrast between the solo voice and the orchestra creates an almost tangible tension that nudges the soul of the music away from the entertaining.

It appears that the principal formal idea of the first movement is to present two contrasting ideas and then, after combining them, to sift out its main theme and continuing thematic material. This Wirén does by juxtaposing the two ideas in the piano and orchestra and by letting them be transformed and integrated into each other.

The line of thought is reused in the slow movement, although here it is pure in form and implemented in the movement in its entirety. Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto spontaneously comes to mind, where a corresponding idea is carried through to its extreme consequence. In Beethoven, the two contrasting ideas are so irreconcilable in nature that they all but cry out for a programmatic explanation. However, they gradually approach each other and are eventually married in a kind of melody-accompaniment union. The concerto has therefore often been popularly known as the “Orpheus Concerto”. Wirén, for his part, was more prosaic about his own second movement: “The second movement is derived from the pitting of two themes against each other, one rather pompous-worthy, the other more playful. The playful one finally gets the upper hand, but in its struggle with the first assumes something of its gravity.”

The gap between a more divertimento-like piano part and a heavier, more morose orchestra is in fact not just a deliberate compositional principle, but also the departure point of the concerto’s overall cyclical form. An unresolved dualism in the first two movements achieves its final release in the last movement’s more homogenous and uniform rondo character. The pianistic voracity in octave parallels recalls Béla Bartók, who used this way of writing more than any other composer for piano. Moreover, the rondo of the final movement has a distinct Hungarian feel, both in the structure of the melody and in the ardent rhythms. Bartók is also a composer who made systematic use of the transformation technique, and is in this respect perhaps one of Wirén’s sources of inspiration. 

Improvisations, Op 35 (1959) has, like Hilding Rosenberg’s composition of the same name from 1939, nothing to do with improvisation in the true sense of the word. The pieces are pure character pieces or genre paintings combined into suites in accordance with the romantic pattern. In a review of Rosenberg’s work, Wirén commented that “the music is, in spite of the name, always strictly logical and its form concentrated”. The same judgment could be passed on Wirén’s own work.

There were originally six movements in the Improvisations, but one with the tempo designation Allegro energico was omitted on printing and rebranded as Impromptu Op 35 a. Even if the movements have distinctly carved profiles, there are elements that bind them together. In the first and last, the whole-tone scale is a shared building block. The second is based on the motif of an oscillating third. With its inversion, the sixth, the interval is also an intrinsic element of the third movement. Movements three and four are both based on the same recurrent thematic head.

As is so often the case with Wirén, there are also connections not only between the movements of a work but between works as well. The second movement is based on a motif taken from the theatrical score to C.J.L. Almqvist’s “Amorina” from 1951. It features in the fourth and fifth symphonies but is so characteristic that it could sooner be called a Wirénian archetype. The distinguishing feature of the motif is the third-based framework and the transition between major and minor – a kind of “blue tone” for Wirén.

Miniature (1962was commissioned by Carl Gehrman’s music publishers and is included in Svenska Albumblad, a collection 12 short piano pieces by as many Swedish composers. The album can be regarded as a companion to the Gehrman’s collection of piano sonatinas Ny Nordisk Klavermusik (New Nordic Piano Music) published a decade earlier. 

In all its simplicity, Miniature is characteristic of Wirén’s sparse style and ability to vary small, recurrent motifs, which lends the piece both variety and unity. Formally, it comprises four-bar phrases interspersed with a two-bar cadence theme. The phrases are varied in different ways: double counterpoint (switching right and left hand), the rhythmic and melodic regrouping of the motif and harmonic reinterpretation.

The Little Suite, Op 43(1971) turned out to be Wirén’s penultimate composition. It was to be followed by the flute concertino a year later before Wirén’s muse fell silent. His choice to stop composing can be seen as an interesting biographical circumstance, which might well be related to the stylistic features of his later piano music. 

The Little Suite is characterised by a pithy, concentrated style based on repetitions of short, gradually changing motifs. The stylistic features are recognisable from Improvisations, but are here taken to their extreme. The technique can be seen as a manifestation of Wirén’s metamorphosis technique although used in a different way from previously. The movements are predominantly built upon two contrasting themes – sometimes with elements of a third – which contrast with each other, recur under constant variation and shift character.

Franz Liszt, another master of transformation, springs to mind. In his mature works, Liszt achieved similar stylistic characteristics, replacing in his last compositions the thematic changes with small variations on a recurrent theme. Its almost minimalistically repetitive character lends the music a feeling of naïve art, which can still provoke reactions to this day. The line between cud-chewing and suggestive monotony can seem to be very fine indeed.

There are also characteristic parallels to an underlying mood of resignation in the music. The style is often barren, archaic, Spartan and the piano part ugly. The music gives the impression of being an abstract game with the musical material – a kind of idea-music, if you will, that turns inwards towards the mind of the composer rather than outwards towards the audience.

Apart from toying with the brief musical motifs, there are other technical similarities: the use of the whole-tone scale and the tritonal interval, an avoidance of definitive cadences, an often weak tonality, and a predilection for third, sixth and octave parallels. Some of these features we already recognise as typical for Wirén, but here they are ratcheted up one notch.

This is not to say that Wirén was influenced by Liszt; it is probably more a matter of parallels in their human and artistic growth. Maybe his developmental path passed through Béla Bartók, who was one of those who not only played Liszt’s late compositions but also drew inspiration from them in his own music.


Aesthetically, Dag Wirén has his roots in a folk-inspired and intuitively inclined generation of composers, which bore a certain animosity towards intellectual composition processes, such as the dodecaphonic technique. Despite the fact that Wirén professed to hate everything that construction entailed, he was very much a craft-orientated composer from the outset. His music rests heavily on a conceptual principle that could be called constructive, even if it did shift focus during the course of his life.

Wirén also began his career firmly anchored in a Viennese classical rhythmic/thematic arrangement technique, which gives his music its drive and the character of an intellectual game that contributes to the humour inherent to his artistry. His focus on the technical arrangement technique would be intensified over the years to concentrate increasingly on transformations of the thematic material.

This theme/motif focus would grow stronger towards the end of Wirén’s life. A small number of technical tricks recur as a kind of compositional “motto” and create associations not only between the movements of a work but also between the works themselves. Gradually, the playful would be transformed into the sober, and ultimately, it would also revert to the archaic. 

Bertil Wikman