Moeran and Stenhammer:
Two Symphonies too alike?

An article drawn from the
Moeran mailing list.

It's a question which has dogged Moeran's music for many years - is it too derivative? Is Moeran's own voice sometimes lost beneath his influences? Does he wear his heart too much on his sleeve?

One case in point is the apparent similarities between Moeran's Symphony and Wilhelm Stenhammer's 2nd Symphony. Stenhammer (1871-1936) was a Swedish composer who owed something to Sibelius, as did Moeran. His Second Symphony, written in 1915, was in G minor, as is Moeran's. And even the most untrained ear can hear immediately the four note motif from Moeran's Symphony (Self's Cell A) occur prominently in almost exactly the same rhythm towards the beginning of Stenhammer's 2nd.

Cell A
Moeran's 4 note motif in isolation...

...and in context (from Geoffrey Self's "The Music of E J Moeran")
Cell A in context


Yet looking beyond this particular motif, other striking similarities in the two pieces have been detected, especially in the two respective opening movements. Taking part in a debate on the Moeran mailing list, here is composer and Oxford academic Francis Pott discussing the Symphonies and more:

To name but a few 'coincidences':

(a) Stenhammar fig. 1 (Gehrman score): woodwind figure strongly resembles ostinato patterns in Moeran's development.

(b) repeated quaver G minor triads at fig. 16 (Stenhammar), plus inversion of his initial rising fifth so that the theme now matches the opening of Moeran's...

(c) leading up to fig. 29: reduction to a double bass quaver ostinato: see -very curiously, though this time coincidentally! -figure 29 also of Moeran... This leads back, in both cases, to development of the ostinato figure.

(d) Stenhammar at fig. 36 (recap. of main theme) plonks in a sudden resounding tonic major chord. Moeran does it first time around, at bar 8 of figure 2, to inevitably similar effect.

These are just a few. I make no suggestion of a close stylistic affinity (Stenhammar's overall conception owes plenty to Bruckner's Fifth, especially in the finale, and that's a long way from Moeran). The veneration in which Stenhammar held Sibelius MIGHT be significant: while one has to believe that Moeran's innocent perturbation was genuine when ('pace' Bax's obit.) told that he'd cribbed from Tapiola (which Bax does no less obviously, and consciously as well, in his Sixth Symphony, scherzo reprise), the possibility must remain that if he DID ever hear the Stenhammar it might have been the Sibelian tendencies in it that filtered selectively through to him, without his
necessarily even realizing that's what they were?..

You can't ignore Moeran's own Sibelian tendencies (see also Symphony/slow movt), and they are strikingly at odds with most other composers in Britan at the time in their personal effect (though I've often wondered whether he knew and was symphonically influenced by Hadley's 'The Trees So High' - many similarities, including taste for the minor root chord with added sharpened sixth - see first 'big'
thematic development in Moeran's slow movt).

No, Stenhammar is not lightly dismissed, however hard you try! If coincidence, it's a big one. No true composer models himself entirely - sometimes even consciously - on one thing or person. Who knows how much undiagnosed effect there is in Moeran's Symphony - or other works - of his enthusiasm for Haydn, for example? But I bet it's there. My old composition teacher Robin Holloway used to say that composing was a matter largely of 'digging into what you already have': the fact that it's been sloshing around in your head with everything else, like several lunches in your stomach, will mean that what eventually gets regurgitated (excuse horrible image!) will have your stamp on it, if you're worth your salt (which EJM definitely is -and so for that matter is Stenhammar: still much underrated). People are too black-and-white about influences, and I tend to trust fellow composers on the subject because they usually seem to have learnt by experience not to be!

Finally, just as a real bit of mischief, try comparing the oboe themes
(both in A minor) from the slow movt of Stenhammar's FIRST Symphony and the
Minuet from EJM's Serenade... Coincidence? Probably this time, yes, and the
resemblance is not THAT close: but if an influence IS conscious - as it may
be - then decency requires at least a judicious amount of disguise... People
bang on about EJM's Cello Concerto slow movt being so close to Brahms 2nd
Piano Concerto, Elgar's Cello Concerto, etc (not to mention Dvorak in the
Finale). Not many seem to have commented that the slow movt theme's first
seven principal notes exactly shadow the slow movt of Elgar's VIOLIN
Concerto. How conscious/subconscious/judiciously or injudiciously
'disguised' is that? Influence is a very slippery subject. Dismiss
Stenhammar and others at your academic peril!


Continuing on this theme, Jonathan Cook went on to make the following comments:

After spending 2 years contemplating the subject of Moeran and his influences whilst at Oxford in the early nineties, I can honestly say there are reams to be written on the subject. Francis has mentioned Elgar and Stenhammer, there is also Walton (Portsmouth Point as I recall), of course Sibelius and most importantly for me the whole area of Moeran's relationship with folksong.

I partly subscribe to Self's ideas of there being 'cells' in Moeran's compositional style, but take this proposition further (more when I have had chance to revisit my earlier work) tracing motivic constructs through folksong and into other's compositions.

It is easy to see the folksong link as 'quaint' but not 'real' music. The effort Moeran invested in the Folksong & Dance Society and work he did for their publications, let alone his exposure to the medium in his formative years in Norfolk (and later in Ireland), to me justify this subject for serious discussion alongside proper comparisons with the works of Elgar, Bax, Sibelius etc etc.

So is there a conclusion to be drawn from this? It seems impossible to prove absolutely one way or another that Moeran knew the Stenhammer 2nd Symphony. Francis Pott's arguments do seem pretty convincing and watertight, yet others have rejected the idea outright: in his book "The Music of E J Moeran", Geoffrey Self reduces the whole idea to a footnote where he mentions a letter on the subject from Colin Scott-Sutherland. In conversation with me in 2000 it is still a connection he vehemently rejects, as does Barry Marsh.

So for now I'll take the easy way out and reserve judgement - I really don't know the Stenhammer well enough to comment. You could try getting hold of a copy of the Stenhammer and draw your own conclusions - click here - and then join the debate on the Moeran Mailing List - see the links above left.

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Stenhammar is not lightly dismissed, however hard you try! If coincidence, it's a big one...