In 2003, the 150th anniversary of Emil Sjögren (1853-1918) was celebrated. This was the incitement of founding an Emil Sjögren Society. Such a society was planned already in the 1920’s by composer Ture Rangström and others, but these plans were not realised. Sjögren is not an unknown composer – he was always respected, and maybe more frequent on concert programs and discs now than some 20 years ago – yet he is worthy of more attention than he gets. His preferred genres were the solo song, the piano piece, the violin sonata and the organ music, and those organists, singers, pianists, violinists, researchers and music lovers who have a special feeling for his music may need a meeting-place. Some aspects of his life and person will be described here.
Emil Sjögren and Stockholm
Sjögren was a Stockholmer of birth, even if his both parents had moved from the countryside. His father was a clothes salesman from Kalmar, his mother was the daughter of a leaseholder who was later in charge of King Oscar I’s silver chamber. When Emil was ten years old his father died, and his mother made a living by running a boarding house in the middle of the town. Emil grew up in a female surrounding: his mother, grandmother and related women, among them a certain Hilda Klein, a tenant who engaged herself in the boy’s musical and general development. Their friendship is reflected in letters that he wrote to her from abroad. It is a tight and slightly sentimental relationship that occurs in later correspondences with women and seems to have been characteristic of him. Through all his life, he was at his best in private, familial circles. He was not, and did not want to be a public person as his younger colleagues Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Wilhelm Stenhammar and Hugo Alfvén.
At the age of 15, Emil’s musical talent was discovered by Ludvig Ohlson, an organist and piano salesman. Through this acquaintance, he got an employment at Dannström’s piano shop, where he remained until he was 30, without succeeding very well in the profession, according to his own testimony and that of his friends.
It was in Stockholm that Sjögren received his basic musical education. Ludvig Ohlson made him apply for a place at the Stockholm Conservatory, and his studies went very well. With two friends, pianist Richard Andersson and singer Johannes Elmblad, he formed a small coterie, more or less ”opponents” in the same sense as the young Swedish painters of the time, who were critical towards the national tradition and eager to go abroad. Elmblad soon became a widely-travelled artist, and Andersson founded an important school of music in Stockholm, where foreign novelties were introduced. By the way, some of the most influential young painters were personal friends of Sjögren’s, for instance Ernst Josephson and Carl Larsson. The latter describes Emil in a concise manner in his posthumously published memories:
”His discrete and silent personality conquered me even before having heard him play. Soon we became good friends, and he took me to his mother’s place, where he lived, and played the piano for hours. He also visited me, but not for playing – instead, we emptied the bottle of brandy that he had brought. The poor boy suffered from a troublesome skin disease, and he had learnt to quiet the terrible itching with alcohol …”
Larsson here touches on two problematic sides of Sjögren’s life: his grave psoriasis, which isolated him, and his use of alcohol, related to the illness but also to life among artists. Sjögren had stayed at his mother’s boarding house as long as she lived, then he experienced some very critical years before he married Berta Dahlman, who was 13 years younger, in 1897. After some time, the couple left Stockholm for different places on the countryside, finally for a home of their own in Knivsta. Their leaving Stockholm may have had economic reasons, but it also probably was an attempt by Berta to save her husband from a social life in the capital, more or less imbued with alcohol.
One link to Stockholm remained: in 1891, Emil Sjögren was appointed organist of the newly-built St. John Church, and he remained in this function the rest of his life. Although he never became a committed church musician, the evensongs of this church, with his poetic and powerful improvisations at the organ, became well-known and appreciated in the musical life of Stockholm.
Emil Sjögren and Paris
In spring 1901, the Sjögren couple went to Paris for a few months. They stayed near the Jardin de Luxembourg, at a boarding house frequented by many Swedes. This was not the first trip to Paris for Emil Sjögren – he had spent a few months there in the spring of 1885, during his three-years study journey together with his friend P.E. Lange-Müller. Sixteen years had passed, and during that period Sjögren had achieved national celebrity, and even in Paris, his E minor violin sonata had been played a few times. Two reasons are probable for this new Paris journey: to know French music better, and to become known in the great European metropolis of the time, where so many Nordic artists, musicians and authors stayed for shorter or longer periods.
Nordic culture aroused much interest in Paris at this time. Henrik Ibsen’s and August Strindberg’s dramas were produced on some of the modernistic theatres, and Edvard Grieg was known and loved by the Paris public. Grieg said himself that all Nordic composers should thank French music for what it gave them – an antidote against the over-romantic and bombastic German music after Wagner. Maurice Ravel, on his side, was just as generous in the other sense, claiming that the young generation of French composers brought much inspiration from Grieg in the years around 1900.
The Sjögren’s continued to go to Paris almost every year before 1914, mostly for a couple of months in spring, but sometimes for a whole winter season. (Sjögren could find a substitute at the organ in Stockholm during these periods.) Emil was not very good at French, but Berta was. She opened doors, and obviously put much energy on finding those personal contacts which are so important for organising concerts in another country. She described herself as Emil’s ”secretary”, but was to some extent also his manager.
The aim was thus, from the beginning, to launch Sjögren in Paris through concerts devoted to his music. The first one took place on the 28th of May 1901 in the prestigious Salle Pleyel, with the participation of one of the great violinists of the 20th century, Jacques Thibaud, then quite young. The planning of this concert is not documented, but there was a Swedish circle of Sjögren admirers, who tried to make his music known, and who was possibly active here. Swedish archbishop Nathan Söderblom, who was then working in the Swedish Church in Paris, may have participated, just like some of the numerous Swedish singers who stayed in Paris at this time. During his whole life, Sjögren had help from friends to success and security.
Before World War I, twelve concerts with Sjögren’s music were arranged in Paris, most of them in smaller concert locals and a few in private settings; however, in 1908 arranged in Salle Gaveau. The concerts always started with a violin sonata, followed by songs and piano pieces. Many artists took part, among them another celebrated violinist, George Enescu, who interested himself in Sjögren’s music more than Thibaud had done, and to whom Sjögren dedicated his fifth violin sonata.
No other Swedish composer has been launched abroad in such an intense way. And there was a response from the French side. In a concert statistic from the season 1912-13, Sjögren is represented 12 times, and he is the only Scandinavian except Grieg (represented 83 times). Sjögren is called "le maître suédois bien connu" in a Parisian paper in 1910, and it is stated in Lavignac’s big ”Encyclopédie de la musique” (this volume printed in 1922) that he is ”often played in France”. The E minor sonata was the most frequent work to be played – number two was the song ”Alt vandrer Maanen” (”The moon is wandering”), in an arrangement with an obligato violin. Many of Sjögren’s songs were translated to French for these concerts, and Berta then systematically continued this translation work, for a planned French complete edition of the songs. But as time passed, these songs did not meet the same interest in France as they had done first. A complete edition of them was published in Sweden in 1949-53, and a few years later, a Swedish edition of the five violin sonatas.
Emil Sjögren and Knivsta
In 1910, Emil and Berta bought their first house of their own: Villa Ovansjö in Knivsta, a rural community between Stockholm and Uppsala, and there they lived until Emil’s death in 1918. This elegant little house, built in the end of the 19th century, had a beautiful and solitary situation at the lake Valloxen, close to the forest and with a garden. With the train to Stockholm very close, Emil could easily combine rural life with his work as an organist in the capital.
The Sjögren household at Villa Ovansjö did not have a very vivid contact with its close surrounding. But it became a centre for the couple’s friends and for musical colleagues. The Archbishop Nathan Söderblom, the composer Wilhelm Stenhammar and the singer John Forssell belonged to them. It is a good guess that Sjögren’s own music was a central issue in the Villa’s social life. Berta and other persons in his vicinity have described Sjögren’s home in the anthology ”Musikmänniskor”, and she stresses Emil’s special talent for conversation. He rather speaks about literature and history than about music with his guests. ”His conversation is fascinating, full of profound reflection, paradox, anecdotes and the most naïve and charming jokes. His choice of words – never trivial – is personal, sometimes exquisite, also from a phonetic point of view; the phrase (shorter with the years) is like premeditated and formed beforehand.”
When the guests are gone, the habits in the Villa were rather peaceful. For Emil, composition alternated with a lot of reading, and he liked to read aloud to others, apparently with a vivid rendition of dialogues and of characters.
Villa Ovansjö is still there today, and in its garden one finds a small sculpture by Eric Ståhl, dedicated to Emil Sjögren’s memory.
Emil Sjögren and fame
Emil Sjögren was a great composer in the eyes of his Swedish contemporaries. Then, why is he not as well-known today as his colleagues Hugo Alfvén, Wilhelm Peterson-Berger and Wilhelm Stenhammar?
Sjögren’s reputation developed in the 1880’s. His second Violin Sonata had attracted the attention of Grieg and others at a Nordic festival in Copenhagen in 1886, and even before that many had seen him as highly promising. However, he acquired the favour of the broad public only ten years later. The leading music journal, Svensk musiktidning, first wrote about him as not being understood by the ordinary music listener, but from the middle of the 1890’s he was referred to in the press as the greatest composer in Sweden. For instance, a critic wrote in 1901 when his song ”A Dream Chord”, to a poem by Gustaf Fröding, was published: ”Thus writes Sweden’s greatest composer of to a work of Sweden’s greatest poet!” Strindberg sends his poem ”The Wolfs howl” to Sjögren and wants him to write an accompanying music, in the form of a melodrama, and in 1899, Verner von Heidenstam first asks Sjögren to put his poem ”Sweden” into music.
However, things change in the beginning of the 20th century. In 1908, Strindberg wrote in a letter to his best musician friend, Tor Aulin, who was also a friend of our composer: ”Emil Sjögren, who had once some tones from nature and heard song in the elements, went to Lindegren and almost got stuck in the Gregorian modes, but escaped, and then sang like a bird in the sky – for a time! Why he became silent I do not know, maybe autumn came earlier according to his own natural order. After him we have nobody.” These are beautiful words, but they contain misunderstandings: the pedagogue Johan Lindegren never was Sjögren’s teacher, and when Strindberg wrote this, the composer had not stopped to produce – he was getting recognised in Paris and still wrote songs and instrumental works of high standard.
What Carl Larsson says in his memoirs fits well with Strindberg’s words: ”He [Sjögren] was an original person, but I always had an unwelcome feeling that he – in spite of all the beauty he created – did not have the power to reach the highest level that he was surely intended for.” Ture Rangström’s fine essay on Sjögren in 1918 ends by the conclusion that he had contributed importantly to Sweden’s cultural heritage but had lost his actuality, in the après-guerre perspective of that day.
Since this time, there has not been an important place for Emil Sjögren in Sweden’s cultural life, even if Berta donated his working cabinet, which was restored at Nordiska museet. The developing choral life of Sweden could not find much in his production, where there is not a single piece for mixed choir a cappella. Organists generally turned from Romanticism to ”neue Sachlichkeit” and neo-baroque ideals, and young composers strived for other things, either along national or international lines. Jazz entered the country, and later rock and pop music. The idyll of Emil Sjögren had no place in all this, however artistic and fascinating it was in itself. It was left aside, respected but not much frequented. But this view has faded away rather much during the last decades. A composer is now allowed to make references to all possible stylistic fields, not least the Romantic one, without losing in prestige. In this spirit, it is easier to appreciate Sjögren from other angles than that of a ”cultural heritage”. For instance, his important place in Nordic solo song is proven by his presence on several disc anthologies from later years, beside Grieg, Sibelius and Rangström. In other words, the time was again ripe for an Emil Sjögren Society.
© 2004 Anders Edling / Översättning Anders Edling