Politics can invade art in the grandest manner - and the effects, whatever one may feel about politicians themselves, are not always damaging. Look at the status of Edvard Grieg in Norway and Jean Sibelius in Finland - both composers are national icons, and their music is familiar to ordinary folk who never go near a concert hall.
In Denmark, by contrast, Carl Nielsen, a far stronger composer than Grieg, doesn't enjoy anything like his popular status. Why not? Politics, I think. Sibelius and Grieg had the good fortune to come along when their countries - Finland, under the Russian yoke; Norway, subservient to Sweden - needed cultural figureheads. Denmark, playing above its weight for centuries, didn't need any symbols, so Nielsen goes almost unnoticed outside specialist circles.
What hope for Swedish composers, then, with Sweden the dominant force in northern Europe for most of the past five centuries? The major Swedish contemporary of Grieg, Sibelius and Nielsen was Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927), with two magnificent symphonies and a gorgeous orchestral serenade, six string quartets and some exquisite songs to his credit. But even at home his work is barely heard, and there is little chance of hearing it abroad.
But one such opportunity comes to the Proms next week, when the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter sings two of his songs, and one by his longer-lived contemporary Hugo Alfven (1872-1960), on 5 August, accompanied by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under its American conductor, Alan Gilbert. Von Otter ruefully concedes that "hardly any of our composers are known abroad, with the exception of Stenhammar, maybe, who is known very little if you compare him with Sibelius or Grieg or Nielsen". But she doesn't buy my political explanation of Grieg's exceptional popularity. "Grieg is capable of writing a tune that sticks in your ear," she argues, "whereas Nielsen doesn't quite do that for you - Nielsen was a great symphony-writer."
Von Otter is a realist, too, qualifying my assertion that Stenhammar was likewise capable of some wonderful tunes. "Not at all in the same way as Grieg songs," she says. "There are no songs by Stenhammar that you can compare to them - they are not `ear-worms' in the same way that Grieg songs are. People melt when they hear `Jeg elsker deg' - `I love you' - but you need to hear Stenhammar songs a couple of times before they mean a lot. You can appreciate them first time round but not become totally enamoured with them like you can with Grieg songs. The secret of any kind of music that becomes popular is that it's very accessible."
Von Otter has been breaking a lance for Swedish song for years: it features regularly in her recitals, and she and Bengt Forsberg, her regular pianist, have dedicated two Deutsche Grammophon CDs to it: Wings in the Night (1996) - "with Sjogren, Stenhammar, Peterson- Berger, the slightly earlier composers" - and, this spring, Watercolours - "These are the slightly later ones: Lars-Erik Larsson, Bo Linde, etc." In spite of the beauty of this repertoire - and the glorious singing on her two recordings - these songs are far too little known. The particular advantage of singing even a handful of them in a Prom is that it will take Stenhammar and Alfven, in this instance, to ears that have never encountered them before. "That is absolutely right, and to sing them with orchestra isn't done that often, either."
I've heard many Finnish musicians complain that when they go abroad, all they're asked to perform is Sibelius. Since Swedish musicians don't face the same monopsony, why don't we hear them performing more Swedish music in concert? "It depends what kind of musician you are. Concert promoters know that there's a large Swedish song repertoire and they're happy to have it in a programme, whereas with a pianist or violinist it's maybe not the same …