Moeran and Stenhammer:
Two Symphonies too alike?
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.
Moeran's 4 note motif in isolation...
...and in context
(from Geoffrey Self's
"The Music of E J Moeran")
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
(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
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
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
seven principal notes exactly shadow the slow movt of Elgar's
Concerto. How conscious/subconscious/judiciously or injudiciously
'disguised' is that? Influence is a very slippery subject.
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
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.