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Burning Ambition

Photo of Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen

After the success of his Second Symphony in Germany, Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen received encouragement from a representative of Leipzig publisher C.F. Peters, who thought that a third symphony would be lucrative for both of them. In the fall of 1882, after several years had passed without Svendsen producing the symphony, the representative sent him a reminder, to which Svendsen replied that he would be honored to have his new symphony published by Peters—as soon as he could get around to writing it.

Sometime in the winter of 1883, Svendsen wrote the symphony.

Then he ran into a serious problem.

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According to his friend John Paulsen, the handsome and charming composer was constantly pursued by admiring women who sent him letters and flowers. After one of his concerts, a celebrated Christiania beauty sent Svendsen a big bouquet of roses. Tucked among the pink blossoms was a love letter.

The bouquet and the love letter fell into the hands of Svendsen’s American wife, Sally, who was not amused.

From a desk drawer, she took the manuscript of Svendsen’s freshly finished Third Symphony and threw it into the fire.

When Svendsen told Paulsen the story, his friend asked, “What did you do to her then? She deserved to be killed on the spot.”

The composer stroked his black mustache as he recalled the scene. “Believe me,” he said. “I was firm.”

Knowing how mild-mannered Svendsen was, Paulsen persisted. “So what did you do? Did you divorce her at once?”

“No, not that,” Svendsen said. “But in a commanding voice, I did tell her, ‘On your knees!’”

The story made its way around Christiania to Henrik Ibsen, who used a version of it for a key scene in his play Hedda Gabler.

Svendsen was unable to respond so creatively to the crisis. Although he lived for another twenty-eight years, he was unable to compose more than a few scattered pieces of music.