Edvin Kallstenius — A composer worth exploring

When I first read about Swedish composer Edvin Kallstenius and his claim that “musical religion is called harmonics – everything else is secondary,” I thought he might be another Charles Ives. When I heard his music, though, I revised that opinion. If I had to characterise Kallstenius’ music in terms of another composer, I’d choose Paul Hindemith.

Like Ives and Hindemith, Kallstenius worked out his own musical theory. While some of his music has a somewhat tonal framework, Kallstenius’ harmonies often resolve in unexpected fashion. And though his melodies may seem atonal on first hearing, they’re not based on a 12-tone system. Those tones are moving to the internal logic of Kallstenius’ harmonic structures.

Does Kallstenius’ music work? Indeed it does. Take his first symphony from 1926. There is straight-forward motivic development that keeps the music moving forward. Kallstenius always knows where he’s going and how he’s going to get there.

Kallstenius was also deeply interested in folk song. His 1946 Sinfoinetta No. 2 is a light work, with some folk-like melodic elements. While the harmonies are sometimes quite thick, this is still a more accessible work than the symphony.

The Musica Sinfonica, Op. 42 of 1953 represents a distillation of Kallstenius’ musical theory. If it were written a half-century later, I might label it “post-tonal.” Kallstenius isn’t concerned with tonality, but he’s not concerned with avoiding it, either. For me, this work is the most interesting of the three on this album. Even though Kallstenius reminded me of Hindemith, he doesn’t sound like Hindemith. Kallstenius’ voice is original, and not just for the sake of originality. Kallstenius is simply expressing ideas that could not be written any other way.

Edvin Kallstenius: Symphony No. 1, Op. 16 in E-flat major; Sinfonietta No. 2, op. 34 in G major; Musica Sinfonica, op. 42
Helisngborg Symphony Orchestra; Frank Beermann, conductor
CPO 777 361-2

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