Dag Wirén’s list of works includes 44 works with opus numbers, mainly instrumental music of various types: quartets, other chamber music, piano pieces, symphonies, concertos, and also some vocal and scenic works.
Among the works without opus numbers are almost all his theatre and film music, unpublished student works, a couple of operettas written for radio, some choral works, solo songs, and a TV ballet.
Quantitatively, his pieces for stage and film coupled with his orchestral and concertante works tend to dominate, with about 25 examples of each. After this comes his chamber music, with 18 pieces, three of which are unnumbered. His solo pieces for piano consist of six works with opus numbers. To this can be added a great many songs, piano pieces, and youthful works for special occasions (e g “Prelude dedicated to Mother on Mother’s Day), sketches, drafts, and more imprecise documentations.
The only thing that appears to be missing is an opera. Apparently, plans for such a work did exist. His friends Erik Hjalmar Linder and Gustav Gröndahl both bear witness to the fact that Wirén was especially interested in Hjalmar Bergman’s novel “Knutsmässomarknad”, but the lack of a libretto impeded the project.
In general, Wirén’s works are part of a classical Swedish tradition, with Wilhelm Stenhammar as his closest antecedent. Stenhammar left 45 opus numbers after him, Wirén 44. Music for stage and chamber music played somewhat of a primary role for both, even if Stenhammar paid special interest to vocal music with solo voices. Stenhammar also wrote two operas, Wirén none. Even in the case of Stenhammar, his opus-numbered piano works are noticeably few, even though he (like Wirén) was actually a pianist. Both wrote music for Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet”, about 40 years apart, and both had a fruitful, close relationship with an outstanding director. In the case of Stenhammar it was Per Lindberg, with Wirén it was Alf Sjöberg. They also had a similar relationship with the string quartet genre, for which both did their very best! In addition, the two were quite classically oriented. There does not appear to have been any personal contact between them, with the exception of the fact that Wirén on at least one occasion in fact experienced the pianist Stenhammar (with the violinist Marteau) in concert in Örebro.
Dag Wirén’s most frequently performed work by far is the “Serenade for String Orchestra” op 11, commissioned and premiered by Tobias Wilhelmi and the Stockholm Chamber Orchestra at the National Museum in Stockholm in 1937. This is a unique work within the realm of Swedish musical creation and one of our two most frequently performed orchestral works internationally.
The other work is Alfvén’s “Midsommarvaka”.
According to the search engine Google, the Serenade is still played regularly around the globe and, in contrast to Alfvén’s Midsommarvaka, quite often in concert. The number of current recordings of the complete Serenade right now (on 30 June 2005) is 22, 15 of which are on various international labels. Among the ensembles recording the piece, one can find everything from “The Chinese Radio Folk Orchestra” to the British Academy of Saint-Martin-in-the Fields.
Movement 4 (Marcia) appears in 20 separate (often arranged) versions, played by groups ranging from the Spårvägen Music Corps in Gothenburg to the Royal Air Force Band in England. The theme from the same movement has also been used as a signature melody for a series of programmes on the BBC.
After the Serenade, “Titania” for female choir and the “Small Serenade” for guitar are his most frequently recorded works, with five productions each. Then come “Sinfonietta op 7” and his “String Quartet No. 2” op 9, each represented in 4 recordings. “Ironic Small Pieces” for piano exists in three different productions, along with “Improvisations” for piano. So much for his most frequently recorded works.
Wirén’s most well-known composition, both nationally and internationally, is probably “Annorstädes vals,” which won the Swedish nomination to the Eurovision song contest. Alf Henrikson wrote words for the melody, and the song was performed by Ingvar Wixell. The song exists in three recordings (on different labels), one of which is in English: “Absent friends.” It also exists in different arrangements: with piano, accordion, and strings, and with a salon orchestra. The song bears a definite stamp of Wirén, but appears most often today in different anthologies celebrating the Eurovision song contest.
Dag Wirén despised no genre and had a generous attitude towards different forms of new thought, even if he himself remained true to his musical role models, namely, the great classics. He tested and developed his own work methods, and became with time gradually more “modernistic” with regard to form and motivic development. He also became freer from tonality, but avoided the more dogmatic systemic solutions. He was happy to allow his pieces to take their own form; that is, “a special form for each work,” as he said. There is no doubt, however, that throughout his life he felt a special attraction to what he called “absolute music,” that is, purely instrumental expressive forms. The all-out exertions that lie behind the four “approved” symphonies and the four “approved” string quartets (he chose to withdraw his first works) have few counterparts in our national musical treasure, and he can without hesitation be placed on a level beside the corresponding contributions by Berwald and Stenhammar.
Style and character
Dag Wirén’s music is characterised throughout by a unity that is rare among his Swedish colleagues. He found his own voice early on, where rhythm and motivic development are two foundations. His formal restraint is a third, and the plethora of ostinatos a fourth. His special characteristics are apparent as early as in his Cello Sonata op 1. When it comes to form and style, classical models were initially used—often in the form of a theme and variations—which is also confirmed by his famed credo, where Bach and Mozart are the ideals. This is something that once again reminds us of Stenhammar, who, in spite of being one of our great interpreters of Beethoven, was at the forefront of our Bach and Mozart renaissance.
There were no real exceptions to this aesthetic. Even though some of his early stylistic attributes can be traced to Stenhammar (for example his String Quartet No. 2 and his 2nd Symphony), and later to great composers such as Prokofiev and Stravinsky — and to a certain extent Poulenc — he always remained himself. That Wirén called Sibelius the greatest Nordic composer in one of his reviews is not surprising, either. Even here one can see influences, for example in his instrumentation, but the boundaries are always crystal clear, and the differences outnumber the similarities. His treatment of the material is unmistakably Wirén, particularly thanks to the restrained format and the motivic structures.
Without even taking into account the experiments and systemic solutions that marked his own musical century to such a great extent, Wirén is therefore one of our great musical renewers. Thanks to his often-sarcastic musicality and his frequently extreme frugality, his contribution is unique. No one has really ever followed in his footsteps.
Roughly speaking, one can sort Wirén’s musical contribution into two main categories: an earlier, sprightly, musical, and outgoing, sometimes a bit romantic category; and a later, more introverted and searching one, even if there are many examples of these attributes crossing into the other category. To unquestioningly place his early production (such as the Serenade for Strings, Piano Trio No. 1, and Sinfonietta, for example) in the former group and the later works in the latter would be to oversimplify matters.
His attraction towards the classical variation form, manifested as early as 1924 in “Variationer över en vaggvisa” (Variations on a Lullaby), incidentally the same year that Wirén graduated from high school, and even more thoroughly in “Theme with Variations for Piano op 5” (Paris 1933) and the first movement of the 2nd String Quartet (Stockholm 1935), was in effect a starting point towards the more sophisticated variation form that eventually got the name “metamorphosis technique,” that is, the idea of using a single, often concentrated idea to build entire movements, or, as in the case of the 4th Symphony (1951–52), an entire work. This way of reworking and changing motifs or themes was interesting to Father Bach as well. But Wirén undeniably took this to an extreme, and younger colleagues even saw in this a sort of embryonic stage of the imminent birth of minimalism. This way of expressing oneself was also Wirén’s long goodbye to the classical sonata form, even if its secure embrace could occasionally be called into duty in more difficult situations, such as in the “Piano Concerto op 26″ (1950), a work that preceded “Symphony No. 4 ” on his opus list. At the same time, the Sonatina for piano (1950), composed at the same time, is yet another masterwork of motivic concentration.
This undogmatic relationship with the problems of form can be partly explained with Wirén’s search for “… a special form for each work,” as he formulated it. This transformation occurred while he was becoming freer tonally.
Key signatures and tonal centres were abandoned as the motifs demanded, even if Wirén never fell into any sort of dissonance cult. On the contrary, one often has the feeling of a tonal centre, even if that feeling is sometimes deceptive.
Wirén’s unique ability to concentrate material became of course especially useful when he wrote film and theatre music, where the atmospheres were often marked by quick changes. Wirén wrote music for ten films and as many plays. Many commentators have speculated that this work may actually have contributed to the development of his own special frugality. It was namely during the 40s and 50s that this work was most intense, that is, when his so-called metamorphosis technique was at its peak.To sum up: Dag Wirén’s extremely personal expression in combination with his classical ideals gave his contribution a unique profile in a 20th century that was otherwise to a great extent marked by experiments and exploration. And judging by the statistics, a considerable number of his works, both early and late, have nothing to fear in the future.