Lars Johan Werle

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The Independent Online

Lars Johan Werle, composer, teacher, radio producer, singer and jazz musician; born Gävle, Sweden 23 June 1926; married 1956 Ingrid Jeansson (one son; marriage dissolved), 1963 Birgitta Adolfsson (three sons; marriage dissolved), 1985 Vera Runbäck; died Gothenburg, Sweden 3 August 2001.

Lars Johan Werle had a special place in Swedish musical life: one of the country's leading modernist composers, he also enjoyed a wide popular following for his stage and choral music.

Werle, born in Gävle, a coastal industrial city to the north of Stockholm, was self-taught in composition, although he later studied counterpoint with Sven-Erik Bäck and musicology with Carl-Allan Moberg at the University of Uppsala. To begin with, he was active as a choral singer, not least in the chorus Bel Canto, and as a jazz musician before, in 1958, joining Swedish Radio as a producer; he remained there until 1970, when he began a six-year teaching stint at the National School of Music Drama in Stockholm. For three years thereafter he was resident composer at the Opera in Gothenburg.

Werle's music first made an impact when his avant-gardist, post-Webernian Pentagram for string quartet won first prize at the week-long "Gaudeamus" festival in Bilthoven in 1960. But it was for vocal music – more mildly modern in tone – that he established his reputation, beginning with his first, Zola-inspired opera, Drömmen om Thérèse ("The Dream about Thérèse"), produced in 1964. Its success initiated a lengthy and well-received series of stage-works: two ballets (Zodiak in 1966 and Är gryningen redan här? – "Is the dawn already here?" – in 1980) and music theatre in a variety of forms – opera, television opera, musical, cabaret: 14 works in total.

His other major successes were in choral music: his Canzona 126 di Francesco Petrarca for mixed chorus (1967) entered the repertoire of choirs in Sweden and far further afield. With the operas Resan ("The Journey", 1969) and Tintomara (1972) Werle began to use an allusive technique that pulled in references to earlier operas, often with comic or dramatic effect. Nicolas Slonimsky, in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, laconically describes Werle's "amiably modern idiom" as "stimulating to the untutored ear while retaining the specific gravity of triadic tonal constructions".

His music reached a larger audience when he was commissioned to write the scores for two Ingmar Bergman films: Persona (1966) and Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf, 1968).

The titles of several works betray Werle's engagement with his times – for instance, Flower Power for six or more voices and instruments (1974) – and with environmental causes: the musical Animalen ("The Animal", 1979), the cantata Ännu sjunger valarna ("And Still the Whales Sing", 1992), the opera Äppelkriget ("The Apple War", 1995-96) and the orchestral Vaggsång för jorden ("Cradle Song for the Earth", 1977).

A colleague from Sveriges Radio recalls that Werle, who lived at Vaxholm, outside the city in the archipelago, "though he might have travelled by bus, . . . preferred to take the steamer every day, spending the 60 minutes' trip with a glass of wine in the ship restaurant". And another friend reports that Werle's funeral, which was attended by many singers from the Gothenburg Opera, featured much of his own music – "songs, two fine pieces for flute and marimba, the prologue from Lionardo [one of his operas], but no hymns, as Lars-Johan was a very light and open person with not so many crosses to carry".

Martin Anderson

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