Between ecstasy and asceticism — a portrait of Claude Loyola Allgén

It’s an autumn day in the mid-1960s. As a student at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm I’m on my way down the curving corridor to one of my lessons when a remarkable person comes into view. Sitting in an easy chair in one of the niches between the practice rooms is a man all in black – wearing some sort of long, loose cassock and holding a broad-brimmed hat – his head shaved, his beard long and grey. There is no communication between us, but I have time to experience a singularly intense and piercing scrutiny not soon forgotten.

As soon as I get into the classroom I find out who this curious person is. “Did you see the madman sitting in the corridor? Must be crazy! His name is Allgén. Calls himself a composer, but only writes whole notes! And he’s seeking Lars-Erik Larsson’s chair! But you can’t be a professor of composition if you only write whole notes, can you?!”

It is significant that this first mental picture of Claude Loyola Allgén contains all the components, which have shaped and still shape the accepted perception of him – ignorance and prejudice coupled with spite and calumny.

How is it possible that a Swedish, 20th century composer with a comprehensive, lifetime production comprising more than 50 years of creative work is still practically unknown? Why is it that the works that have been performed at some time could, till but a few years ago, be counted on the fingers of one hand? Why and on what grounds has a composer either been totally neglected for these fifty years or been the subject of such malignant slander that it borders on persecution? Perhaps my own involvement with Allgén’s music is clouding my judgement. But did he make himself so impossible or was he really the object of a conscious campaign from the so-called ‘music society’? And if so, why?

Indeed, the question marks are many and the number grows once one looks at Allgén’s scores. What meets you is a teeming richness, a heat and an intensity far beyond what the defamation offers of ‘non-stop semiquavers’ or the whole notes mentioned above. What does exist is an eloquent power and an expressive will found in few, yet one that literally struck me when I began to study Allgén’s scores. “Why has this been kept from me?” was the question that popped into my mind and the answer came soon or at least the general, official answer. For once I began the rounds of the various music libraries in Stockholm seeking an overview of the immense, creative body of work, I received the same response everywhere:

“Borrow Allgén scores? But they’re impossible to play!”
“Oh, have you tried?”

“No, but that’s what I’ve heard.”
“Have you seen any of his scores?”

“No, but everyone says his music is unplayable.”

This was the spring of 1988 and I had yet to meet Allgén in person. I prepared myself as an aspirant before oral exams. First I sought biographical facts. For that I checked in the Swedish standard work titled Vår tids musik i Norden (Scandinavian Music of Our Time) and found ... nothing. He wasn’t even mentioned! Further journeys into books and reference works brought rather thin results. It is striking, however, that when he is mentioned at all, he is always described using a rather acid quote from a letter by Karl-Birger Blomdahl sent to Leif Kayser. Here Allgén is described as a hyper-intellectual theoretician who writes fugues with “100% material utilisation at nearly unplayable tempi”. Originally written about a composition titled Example of 9-fold, 100% Thematic Counterpoint, this label was affixed as early as in 1945 and has been the last word since then.

Few music critics or writers since that time have bothered to make up their own minds. This is especially sad since most of Allgén’s production came after 1945 and quite naturally would provide another, much more varied picture of the originator.

After a while I felt ready to take contact with Allgén. I wrote a letter explaining that I was interested in his works for piano, especially the large Fantasia, and I suggested a meeting. Allgén reacted with lightning speed. He called me from the social services office in Täby where he often went to make calls. It had been many years since he’d had his own phone. We agreed on a day and time when he should meet me at the Roslags Näsby commuter station outside Stockholm.

I remember that I worked frantically during the short train trip, going through scores, the history of Catholicism, Neo-scholastic philosophy and especially Thomism one last time. Then the train pulled in.

And there he stood! An outwardly jovial little man with a white Santa Claus beard, a worn overcoat and a funny little beret on his head – a far cry from the shaved, strict ascetic I remembered from the 60s, except for the eyes! The scrutiny was the same. The same fire, the same piercing clarity.

And so we strolled up Stockholmsvägen road north towards Åvavägen in Täby where he lived. We talked politely about music and musicians, and all the while he inquired closely into my musical background. Mainly, I suppose, to discover whether I could be considered capable of handling his Fantasia, apparently one of his favourites. “My only piano piece,” he said, an understatement surely sprung from his surprise at having somebody voluntarily interest himself in this difficult work.

His house lay at the end of a section of row houses. A maternal inheritance, it was by now rather run down. He lived here in what I would call extreme poverty, without water, drainage or heat. The first he’d fetch in drums from his neighbour and the only source of heat was a small, electric heater. It seems the whole pipe system had frozen one cold autumn day a few years earlier, the result of a missed oil delivery that should have been arranged by the Täby social services.

He lived and worked in one room on the ground floor, a room stuffed with furniture, books and scores. Against one wall he’d constructed a house altar with pictures of the Virgin Mary, photos from the Jesuit school at Innsbruck, clippings about the Pope, advertisements showing children playing, tourist brochures from Rome and much, much more. The altar was flanked by two, large glass globes, the one containing a picture of Mary and the other serving as a hanger for his cap. In other words, a glorious mix of high and low, of the sublime and the banal – a juxtaposition one also finds in his music.

In the middle of the floor turned towards the altar stood an old-fashioned writing desk with some sheets of music-paper. When I asked if was working on something right then, he shouted, “Yes! At least they can’t stop me from doing that!” Then he sat down there at his desk, while I found a seat midst piles of scores on the edge of a sofa a little to the side. There, while the hot April sun shone brightly through the dusty, broken windowpanes, he began to tell about his life.

He was born in 1920 in Calcutta where his father represented a Swedish company. His baptismal name was Klas-Thure. Shortly thereafter, the family moved back to Sweden and settled in Djursholm, a Stockholm suburb. “I’m really an immigrant, an in-comer,” he used to say. “Though in truth I was more of an in-crawler, since I was only a few months old when we moved back.”

At twelve or thirteen he began to play the violin, switching rather quickly to the viola. Only sixteen, he entered the Royal College of Music. By that time he had already begun to compose and was a keen Wagnerian. In 1937 he and his sister were allowed to travel to the Bayreuth festival. Hitler was present as well and Allgén couldn’t imagine why everyone fussed so much around “that Hitler. He looked ridiculous with his small moustache.” After Bayreuth, his interest in Wagner began to fade, replaced by other favourites such as Sibelius and Carl Nielsen. His love for the latter’s work seems to have lasted for the rest of his life.

The time at the College of Music was perhaps the happiest in Allgén’s life. As he talked, he often returned to the ensemble playing under Charles Barkel, as well as to the conviviality and chamber playing with friends like Per Rabe, Hans Nordmark, Sven-Eric Johanson and Magnus Enhörning. Allan Pettersson was also at the school at this time and was “the only one in the gang who really could play the viola!”

In addition to his viola studies, Allgén composed feverishly. He began studying counterpoint with Melcher Melchers, who also wanted to take Allgén on as a composition student. Allgén, however, “had no faith in him as a composer. Still, he was an excellent counterpoint teacher. I told him as much.” In other words, as a composer Allgén must be counted in the strong Swedish tradition of self-taught practitioners. Among his schoolmates were those who later would come to form the Monday Group. In addition to Sven-Eric Johanson and others, the group included Claude Genétay, Sven-Erik Bäck, Ingvar Lidholm and Hans Leygraf, the last named highly appreciated as a composer by Allgén.

He ended his formal studies in 1941 and together with the rest of the Monday Group began studying with Hilding Rosenberg. However, he made only a few, sporadic visits. It seems that Rosenberg did not show any great understanding for the uniqueness of Allgén’s work. At one point when Allgén showed Rosenberg a new score, his only comment was: “I believe the muses have abandoned Mr. Allgén now.”

In 1944 he wanted to participate in a summer course led by Rosenberg to be held in a small village in the province of Dalarna. “It happened to fall at the same time as the attempted assassination of Hitler. Everybody was glued to the radio. Even though my father had paid for the trip, the course fee and housing all in one, I wasn’t allowed at any of the actual classes. Just to the joint analyses. When I protested to Rosenberg, his only comment was: ‘We’ll have to go out into the woods and work it out.’ My answer was: ‘But I’m a weakling. I don’t dare go out into the woods with you, sir.’ The real truth was probably that I was a real nuisance, what with my religious fervour. I was a complete fanatic at the time.”

And so religion had come into Allgén’s life in a serious way. He studied theology with a burning fervour. He converted to Catholicism in 1950 and took the names Claude Johannes Maria after several saints. The name Loyola was added later following the practice of choosing a patron saint at confirmation. He picked the founder of the Jesuit Order, Ignatius de Loyola, a saint who meant a great deal to him.

Still the contacts with the friends in the Monday Group endured. Allgén took lessons in melodics with Blomdahl and he was often part of the gatherings at his flat on Drottninggatan. “Though,” said Allgén, “the Monday Group has since been highly overrated. It’s all wrong. We just met and drank coffee and discussed Hindemith. It wasn’t until later that a few music journalists inflated it and made music history of it just to make themselves more important.”

Allgén didn’t much agree with the predilections of the Monday Group for older music and for the practice of performing it on instruments from the time. “How can you play a gamba when there is a cello? Eh?” “But you’ve written for the gamba yourself,” I reminded him. “Never! Certainly not!” At which point I reached into my bag and pulled out the score for Dedicatio ad Mariam showing the original ensemble of soprano, alto, English horn, viola da gamba and typewriter. The text was his own translation to Latin of Lindegren’s Tillägnan (Dedication). He studied the first page a while. Then he exclaimed: “Yes, indeed! It is my hand. Then I must have written it! But you understand, I’ve written so much music that I can’t remember it all!”

Of the persons in the Monday Group, composer Sven-Eric Johanson must have been the person closest to Allgén. Johanson is also one of the few organists who have performed any of his works. Both then and on other occasions Allgén spoke with great warmth about ‘Hemfosa’ and his immense talent. “And he was the only one who visited me later.”

The gap between Allgén and the rest of the Monday Group grew greater. With the exception of Johanson, all of them would soon have positions of influence in Swedish music. Allgén, [on the other hand], travelled abroad to study for the ministry. In 1953 he registered at a school in Holland, moving later to the philosophy and theology department at Innsbruck, the so-called Canisianum. He stayed there until 1961.

These years must have been very hard for him. In addition to his theological studies, he carried through comprehensive language studies, including Latin, the official conversational language. All classes were in Latin. “The other students were young lads. I was the oldest of them all. I had been called to the ministry late, so I had a lot of catching up to do. I could only compose at night and during holidays when I was back in Sweden.”

Allgén must have seemed somewhat of an eccentric, both to his teachers and his classmates. The latter ganged up on him on several occasions and he surely met misunderstanding and questioning attitudes from the former.

Once during the Innsbruck years he composed a homage to the retiring dean. He wrote variations on the theme of Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen for string orchestra or quartet. “A few classmates were going to play with me and I tried to make all parts except my own as simple as possible, since none of them were very good. We performed the piece during the farewell ceremony in the chapel. What a sound! Terrible! It was awful! Full of quarter notes everywhere! After the performance the dean came up to me and deplored the event with the words: ‘Allgén, you must truly be a deeply disharmonious person!’” He literally screamed with laughter while he was telling me the story.

He finished his Innsbruck studies in 1961, but was never ordained. That he was refused this was probably one of the greatest tragedies of his life and rumour provides the most varied reasons. According to Allgén himself the reason was formal in that he didn’t have the backing of a bishop or a congregation during his studies. He had begun his studies mostly on his own initiative and in order to take holy orders, you needed to have a congregation that more or less guaranteed a post. He sought this formal support all over Europe for a long time, but in vain.

Allgén returned to Sweden – a priest without a collar or congregation, a composer without an audience. He had no way to make a living. He sought substitute positions as viola player at several Stockholm orchestras, he applied for teaching jobs and he tried everything to get his music known and performed. Nothing succeeded.

At first, he lived with his mother in the Täby house, staying on alone after she passed away. Her passing was also the beginning of his growing isolation and the long, humiliating battle with social authorities and bureaucracies. According to Allgén himself, this battle took many years from his life and left him deeply bitter. But only in this, for otherwise Allgén never expressed any bitterness against either his more successful colleagues or former compatriots, or towards the music establishment that had rejected him so brutally. Disappointment and fatigue perhaps, but never bitterness. “I can’t help that my music remains unplayed,” he said. “I will never hear it, but I’ve still done my part. I’ve completed my task.”

With no income, Allgén was forced to live on welfare. An attempt was made to force him into an early retirement, a move he obviously couldn’t accept. He was forced to go to the Court of Appeals for redress. Part of the problem was that he had inherited some stocks, enough to disqualify him for social service help. But these he wanted to save to form an endowment for the children’s home he wanted set up in his house after his death. The Täby social services department seem to have looked more closely at the law than at the human being.

As the years passed, his partly chosen isolation and social destitution grew, as did the feeling of being a reject and an outsider. He had almost no contact with his colleagues. It wasn’t until 1973 that he was considered worthy of being elected to the Association of Swedish Composers – an egregious oversight in view of his having 35 years of creative work to his credit. It was Karl-Erik Welin who took the honourable initiative. Later Allgén told of how he had walked from Täby to Tegnérlunden, how Rosenberg had spoken informally to him and how he, Allgén, had answered “yes, sir” like a child. “No,” he said. “I didn’t go to any more of those dinners. To begin with I had no way to get there and back. And then they weren’t so special anyway.”

Suddenly he broke off his long monologue, becoming quiet and introspective. The sun was already on its way down behind the tree tops creating an early twilight that made the room cold and damp. Then he spoke, saying “yes, if I had my life to live again, I’d do everything differently. Man is a social animal and shouldn’t live alone. She doesn’t thrive in isolation.” “But haven’t you in part chosen it yourself?” I asked. “No, I didn’t choose it. It just happened. I returned to Sweden and had nowhere to go. I ended up in my mother’s house. After a while I lost touch with the musical world. And no-one wanted to keep in touch with me. No, if I were to start a career today, I would be an author. I’ve written an amazing number of poems in my life. That’s really my true talent!”

Taken somewhat aback by this total turn-about, I asked him to show me something, but he declined. He pointed out that a few poems had been published in such places as Utsikt (1949). “Once I wanted to write an opera based on The Merchant of Venice. I saw it with my parents at their silver wedding anniversary. I wanted Lindegren to write the libretto. But when he saw my own texts, his only comment was: ‘But you can do that yourself!’”

The visit began to draw to its close. After a few summary statements on theology, he suddenly shouted: “Think! You’re standing here facing the Pope’s helper. They call me ‘Reserve Jesus’ in Täby. But let me tell you. It’s my sense of humour and my positive disposition that’s kept me going all these years!”

And so we said goodbye with promises to meet again soon.

We both kept those promises. In addition, he called now and then to check how my work with the Fantasia was going. But I couldn’t give him much joy on that point. Instead I told him about the work I was doing with other works of his for an all-Allgén concert. In the beginning he seemed somewhat sceptical about it. Not surprising in the light of all the disappointments through the years.

The first Allgén concert ever was performed on September 24, 1989, at the People’s House in Borås. With it the myth of the unplayable Allgén was inexorably destroyed. Björn Nilsson, the dynamic force behind the Ny Musik (Contemporary Music) association, had compiled a varied program including songs and choral works, the latter even arranged for string quartet, several smaller chamber music works with strings and a few quartet movements. Among the piano works, I performed Ave Maris Stella and Nocturne. I was also given the assignment of fetching the composer and travelling with him.

It became an unforgettable train trip. Allgén was in a fabulous mood, entertaining the entire compartment with stories and anecdotes. When the conductor passed by, asking after new passengers, Allgén answered him every time with “No, we’re old. So old, we’re growing beards!” And then he screamed with laughter. The ritual was repeated word for word each time that the conductor came by.

The whole trip to Borås must have been a remarkable experience for him, not to mention the concert itself and all this sudden attention after years of isolation and silence. And to top it off, on the concert day itself he was interviewed three times. Perhaps it wasn’t so surprising that after the concert, consisting of some 17 works including 14 first performances, he seemed a bit confused and wondered if he really had written all that.

My last meeting with Allgén took place on his seventieth birthday. One of the items I brought with me was a cassette recording of Liturgiska melodier (Liturgical melodies) which we had performed earlier that year, though in an arrangement for two pianos. He greeted me with the words: “You! I should really throw you out! But come in, since you’re already here.” I had taken a taxi the last bit, which disturbed him greatly. “What a waste! At least make sure that STIM or FST pay. They can well do something for me as well!” [STIM - Swedish Performing Rights Society; FST - Association of Swedish Composers]

He was in an extremely strained and affected mood. He talked incessantly about the plans for the children’s home and all the judicial and legal wrangling that filled his life at the time. After a while, he wanted to hear some of the tape. A few minutes in he got a humorous twinkle in his eyes and said: “That there sounds typically Allgén, eh? He, he.” When I was about to go, he was suddenly somehow introspective, waving his hand inwards towards the room and saying: “Yes, this isn’t exactly my mother’s style! I wonder what she’d say if she could see me here. Did you know it was her doing that I started working with music? My father was dead set against it. At first I wanted to be a conductor. When I told him that, he immediately looked up what Nils Grevillius earned per year. But my mother supported me.”

When we had said our goodbyes, he remained in the door and called after me: “And don’t forget to send the taxi bill to FST!”

A few months later he was dead, burned to death on the night of September 18, 1990, as a direct result of his battle with the authorities or theirs with him. He had apparently not paid the electric bill for some time and the power company finally cut him off. It is thought he fell asleep with a candle burning.

The tragic fire also destroyed irreplaceable documents such as scores, sketches and copies, including his last composition, a saxophone quartet. Its remarkably symbolic title Horror vacui (Abhorrence of emptiness) could as well be used as a motto for and summary of his entire creative effort.

However, a large cabinet on the second storey had made it through the fire in reasonably good condition. It held a large part of his early works and sketch books, as well as the first 18 movements of 24 planned of an unfinished, gigantic violin concerto, each movement based on a Paganini caprice. It is a paradox that it isn’t until now, after his death, that we can begin to sense the outlines, directions and contexts of his creativity. The sketchbooks also supply an invaluable insight into how he worked.

What first strikes the eye on looking at Allgén’s scores is probably the immense length of the works, as well as their dense, counterpoint structure. The violin concerto, several of the orchestra works and the string quartets all have playing times exceeding one hour, the 1975 string trio certainly approaches two and the eventual length of the unfinished violin concerto is anybody’s guess. A comparison with the recently ‘rediscovered’ Kaikhosru Sorabji isn’t farfetched. Still, there are Allgén works with smaller formats. Indeed, most of the works on his opus list have considerably more workable playing times.

Many of the works also exist in several versions. He reworked and revised continuously and almost without exception, the music grew, expanded, becoming longer, denser and more polyphonic. He added new sections, worked out segues and concentrated the musical weave towards the more complex. He often added passing notes, ornaments and trills. The upper mordent was a special favourite, either as an ornament or as a rhythmically, composed turn. Sections that might have had a clear tonality and perhaps a structural simplicity in their first version were ‘dirtied’ with foreign tones or complicated through the addition of new voices. Again, horror vacui.

It is also remarkable how often Allgén ‘reused’ his music, how older compositions, even works from his youth, appear in new sonoral dress. He often combined parts and layers from several compositions to create wholly new units. It is quite possible to gain the impression that everything is in reality one and the same gigantic work illuminated from different angles.

I want to concentrate on the piano works in this essay. As has been said above, these hold a special place in his œuvre, in part because of their relative scarcity and in part through divergent style and compositional technique.

Allgén must have been struck by music as if hit by a club. Once he had begun to compose, the music literally poured from him. Many of the early works have been lost, but what remains reveals a precocious, amazingly receptive teenager who inhaled, imitated and reworked all music he heard, everything that crossed his path.

His first composition is a piece for piano called Sorgepreludium op. 1 (Funereal Prelude, op. 1; completed 28/2, 1934). The title page is decorated with a lyre, a flower and crossed Swedish banners. Marked by a solemn passion with slow tempi, the music makes an awkward and tentative impression. He clearly had problems getting his ideas on paper.

There is almost nothing preserved from the next three years, but after that the extant manuscripts show that he completed work after work at an astounding speed. What appears is a considerably more accomplished composer. The music is decidedly homophonic and lies stylistically somewhere between Grieg, Peterson-Berger, Sibelius and later even Nielsen. His compositions register with nearly seismographic clarity what he has just heard or played himself.

In spite of the fact that most everything is either borrowed or directly plagiarised, it is just in the way he assimilated what he had heard that he shows his genius even this early. The technique he used here is found again in the later piano works. It is a metamorphic technique whereby he constructs a piece using perhaps only one theme which then recurs again and again, though in a changing form. The difference can lie in varying the accompanying figure, in changing the tempo, the register or the dynamics. But in all, the theme is clearly discernible and more or less unchanged in each repetition. The remarkable sonoral consciousness is striking, as is the feel for the piano. This is a romantic, often highly dramatic and expressive music using a splendid, sensually saturated piano, one that often brings Alexander Skrjabin to mind.

And then something happens. Two pieces for piano dated only a few weeks apart in December 1940 bear witness to a turning point and new phase in Allgén’s development. It is here, in the Scherzo in C Minor and the Fugue in A Minor that the counterpointist in Allgén appears. Both pieces should probably be seen as the first fruits of his counterpoint studies with Melchers.

The Scherzo is a sprawling, wild, polyphonic study in ABA form, where each section consists of a small fugue. There are already suggestions and attempts at a greater use of the material. There are also modulations and a bold chromatics which makes other more or less contemporary, polyphonic pieces appear as tame, schoolbook examples. The mind sometimes drifts towards Ferruccio Busoni. And just as with him, the light from Bach shimmers through the counterpoint weave.

The same can be said for the three-part fugue. There are pastiche-like sections, but even a bold handling of dissonance which in its consistency anticipates the ideas of the mature composer concerning the absolute independence of each voice and the 100% use of the material.

The Fugue was apparently an important pillar in Allgén’s cathedral, one that he returned to a number of times. One such return was a version for string orchestra, another when it served as the basis for the Double Fugue for organ composed in the mid-40s. The latter illustrates something about how Allgén worked.

To the three voices of the fugue, Allgén adds two more. The material is taken from the orchestral work Les Impressions de Poculectelocte. These voices are transposed so as to prevent the recurrence of the same note vertically in line with the theory of voice independence. There is also independence on the rhythmic plane. Against the 4/2 or 8/4 of the basic fugue, one voice sometimes has 9/4 and the other may use 7/4. Allgén himself called this form of metric counterpoint, ‘meter fission’ and used it in other works as well.

His counterpoint thinking at its utmost can be studied in the choral setting of the chorale Skåder, skåder nu här alle (See, see here everyone; December 1945) for 12 part mixed chorus. The piece consists of evenly proceeding half notes in all parts and with all twelve tones present in each chord. In other words, it is a fully composed cluster where the internal relationship of the tones changes every half note.

The undated Nocturne for piano is a later piece dedicated to his mother Hjördis and sister Mary-Anne Allgén. It is a well-sounding piece in an archaic style with clear tonality and a style that shifts between Brahms, Mozart and Nielsen. The piece returns in other contexts, including in the Nocturne for violin and piano. In the latter, the piano part is retained unchanged, while the added violin part builds on material from the piano, but transposed so as to avoid common notes. Bi-tonal at times, this music creates an unusual picture. One gets the feeling that the music is happening in several places or in two, parallel sequences where the strong tonal basis for the piano part is erased and some type of tonal ‘grey zones’ occur.

When I asked him where he had gotten the ideas for these deeply original works whose music undeniably falls outside all frames of reference found in Sweden at the time, Allgén answered: “You know, I just made it up!” He had yet to meet up with Schoenberg or Webern, since the Monday Group was studying Hindemith and during his visits abroad he never had time to make contact with new directions. The spirit of Charles Ives seems to hover nearby.

Allgén never used the twelve-tone technique in its true sense. But by combining several voices and observing the ‘negative consideration’ mentioned above, he created twelve-tone like complexes. Sometimes his way of working is reminiscent of Webern’s early ‘intuitive’ twelve-tone technique. He jots down the note source he has available in his sketch books and then checks each off as it is used.

Remembering that Allgén attached great importance to theory and design in his compositions, it is easy to think that his music would also seem dry and contrived. But what is remarkable is that however ascetic the outside might seem, his music is always saturated by a strong expressivity approaching a nearly ecstatic intensity.

Allgén did not compose for the piano again until the mid-50s. But when he did, it was with bravura! For in the summer of 1955 he assigned himself the job of writing a ‘demanding virtuoso number’ for the piano and the result was the first version of Fantasia, dated August 2, 1955.

The working method here is a developed and refined version of the previously described metamorphic technique, though with several vital differences. The first presentation of his musical base material or core subjects is in the slow introductory section, comprising a series of fifths using all twelve tones, paired combinations of tritones such as C Major/B-flat Minor, a chord-like, chorale-type section and finally a rhythmic, motoric, ostinato theme.

He then pours more or less freely from these four sources when he composes the thematic material, consisting of around ten varied, but stylistically rather heterogeneous themes. There are rhythmic, frenetic, Bartók-like sections, chord sequences that remind of Messiaen, banal melodies that remind of popular music but marked by unmistakable Allgén harmonics, a Habañera, and more ...

The sublime and the banal stand side by side, more or less abruptly. The themes return in a constantly varied order, though always in a new setting. The furious virtuoso passages which surround each theme serve as a uniting element, though constantly varied and renewed. Interspersed between the different thematic blocks are glissandi, rapid passages and cadenzas, some really borrowed from the most exploited store of props in the Romantic piano literature. And in the middle section of the Fantasia there is a grandly designed and relatively free development section.

But the Fantasia grows apace. The second version appears sometime during the next year and is more than double the length of the first, reaching a playing time between 40 and 50 minutes. And the writing in the final score points to even later revisions.

In this version there are new, massive expositions, transitions, added voices and completely new sections played directly on the strings. Everything is marked by a nearly boundless complexity. When the Habañera rhythm enters, he has also written a small footnote in Latin saying: “Hic obiciunt imperiti fabulantes: ‘Hispania’. Respondeat tantum celeberrimo axiomate: Coram stultitia quisquis inermis.” An approximate translation would be: “Here ignorant chatterboxes will say ‘Spain’. The only possible answer is the famous axiom: everyone succumbs when faced with ignorance.” This axiom was also used as the motto for his fifth string quartet. He even printed it on his business card.

The Fantasia was one of his favourites. He composed an orchestral piece from the second version, which in turn was expanded and revised right up to the last – the transcriptions for that immense orchestral work were consumed in the fire.

The next two piano pieces – Have a look at Mary? and Ave Maris Stella – were the only ones published during his lifetime. Though at the moment when he would finally stand in front of the public, he got the bizarre idea of publishing them under the ancient name of Anonymus!

The first piece was probably composed in the early 60s and is a brilliant little study. The title refers either to the Virgin Mary or maybe to his beloved younger sister Mary-Anne. Until she died at the end of the 80s, she was the only person who took care of him and helped him during the long, lonely years.

The manuscript for Ave Maris Stella – nocturne for piano is dated March 22, 1962. Beside the title are several, crossed-out alternative titles like Impromptu, Echalom and Prelude to Act V of The Merchant of Venice. It is a grandiose piece based on two themes, written partly in a late Romantic, archaic style. The themes are repeated as if in a chaconne with virtuoso figurations foreign to the chord in a manner so typical for Allgén. It is a nearly ecstatic music, which alludes to Liszt, Busoni and Messiaen, all at the same time. The piece was given its congenial first performance by Tore Wiberg in a late-60s radio recording.

The last piano work is called Från ciss till cess – studie för piano (From C# to Cb. A study for piano) and was written in 1986. It is an 8-9 minute nightmare for the left hand, presenting an unbroken chain of rapid quintoles against which moves an absurdly uncomfortable and sprawling right hand. It is a mere fantasy which in its original concept clearly approaches the limits of playability.

Björn Nilsson and I both tried many times to persuade Allgén to write for two pianos. He cut every attempt off with the words: “I am a person who thinks in counterpoint. The piano simply doesn’t suit me!” But his whole piano production contradicts him.

 

To state that, unlike our neighbours, Sweden has never had a composer with the equivalent and obvious stature and importance of a Grieg or a Nielsen or a Sibelius is no exaggeration. No-one has appeared who has been capable of shouldering the double role of prominence and national unification. This fact is often presented as something positive for Swedish music life in that we have escaped the dominating influence of one, single individual.

I would like to add that such a person would never have been permitted to gain such a stature. A country which so consistently denies its cultural identity and its cultural heritage, where officialdom and bureaucracy are of tradition strong and where a broad, acculturated middle class does not exist in its true meaning, would never allow anyone to raise him or herself above the average in so challenging a way as a Nielsen or a Sibelius did.

That there is no place at all in such a cultural climate for odd personalities and eccentrics is obvious as well. And that Allgén must be counted among these eccentrics is beyond a doubt. It follows then that he could also be excommunicated as one! But he is in no way alone in this fate. There are many examples of Swedish composers and artists who have tried to butt heads with the establishment by promoting their own individuality, with the result that that the representatives of that establishment have rejected them. But Allgén’s case is probably the most obvious and outrageous.

His Monday Group comrades did make serious attempts at performing his music. Sven-Erik Bäck tried especially hard to help and support him, even on the personal level. But Allgén was surely not an easy person to deal with and all of his music is difficult to play, though not impossible. He himself declared with alacrity: “Sure it’s difficult. But show me something that is unplayable and I’ll rewrite it.” And then the instrumental standard and general preparedness for handling works with that degree of difficulty was certainly nowhere near what it is today.

The Monday Group was seen as standing for ‘innovative’ directions, even if the new – in this case Hindemith – by that time was yesterday’s novelty, both in time and in a European perspective. The aesthetic program of the group was primarily involved in shaping Blomdahl’s, Lidholm’s and Bäck’s own artistic efforts. Modernism in general was not fostered as much as each artist’s own special direction, meaning in this case material studies in the Hindemith-Rosenberg tradition. Thus far Allgén’s blasphemous attitude towards the group is understandable.

On the other hand, he probably did not guess how wrong he was when it came to the group’s contributions to what might be called musical politics. It was just there that the Monday Group and its offshoots had their great importance, casting their weighty shadows over Swedish musical life for many decades to come. It was a musico-bureaucratic regulation which was a ‘Monday group in extenso’ – a hegemony for good and for bad.

The positive result was that after awhile international modernism was given its big opportunity. But the indefensible other side of the coin was that dissidents were pushed aside, composers who were not part of the power brotherhood were ignored and Allgén came to be treated in this unprecedented manner.

We know that he was seen as a disturbing factor and that he challenged the mediocre through his arrogant and omnipotent mannerisms. We have understood that he was an agitator and a provocateur in a musical community where loyalties were created behind closed doors. But even so, it is at the same time scandalous and not surprising that he should be punished in this manner by an establishment which otherwise boasted of its radicalism and broad-mindedness.

But his time is coming – I think there are many today who know that.

At Allgén’s funeral Björn Nilsson was assigned the task of sending flowers from several of us, his new-found musical friends. As a last greeting, Björn wrote the only imaginable: “Claude. You’ll be hearing from us!”

Mats Persson
Translation © Sven H.E. Borei
Allgén Fantasia, Booklet text (Alice Musik Produktion, ALCD 020)
 
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