Wilhelm Stenhammar

Wilhelm Stenhammar is one of the finest and most versatile of Swedish composers. He has become with his long and impressive sequence of orchestral works, chamber music and songs, a cornerstone of Swedish musical literature and acquired a world wide audience.

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Born on 7th February 1871 in Stockholm, died 20th November 1927 in Gothenburg. He was brought up in a strictly religious, musical home. His father was the composer and architect Per Ulrik Stenhammar. In 1887 he received piano lessons from Richard Andersson, who had been taught by Clara Schumann. Studies with Wilhelm Heinze 1888-1890 resulted in an organist’s degree. At the same time he studied counterpoint with Joseph Dente and composition with Emil Sjögren 1888, and Andreas Hallén 1889-1892. In 1892 he made his début in three capacities: as pianist in Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, as chamber musician in Saint-Saëns’ Piano Quintet and as composer with the choral ballad I Rosengård, written in 1889. In 1892-1893 he studied the piano with Heinrich Barth in Berlin. He gave frequent solo and chamber music performances on long concert tours together with the Aulin Quartet. Towards the end of the 19th century he began appearing as a conductor, e.g. at the Stockholm Opera. He lived in Florence in 1906 1907. In the latter year he became Director of Music and conductor of the Gothenburg Orchestral Society, an appointment which he retained until 1923. Bruckner and Carl Nielsen were among the composers introduced by him during this time. He was Director of Music at the Stockholm Opera, 1923-1925 and was awarded a State Composer’s Fellow ship 1894-1898. He became a Member of the Royal Academy of Music 1900 and Hon. Ph.D. of Gothenburg University 1916. 

Wilhelm Stenhammar’s career as pianist and conductor laid the foundations of modern Swedish concert music. His forward-looking repertoire sense was beneficial to new music (Rosenberg, Atterberg, etc.), but he himself never acquired a modernist vocabulary. Possibly his late incidental compositions for the Lorensberg Theatre in Gothenburg (including Strindberg’s A Dream Play, Romeo and Juliet, and Chitra) come close to impressionism. 

He is one of the finest and most versatile of Swedish composers. While only a student he wrote songs (e.g. I skogen) which are still on the standard repertoire. His early, ardently poetical Three choral songs to poems by J.P. Jacobsen and his three Brahms-like Fantasies for piano are also frequently included in concert programmes. Following studies in Berlin, however, his music acquired an unfortunate Wagnerian touch, especially apparent in his operas Gildet på Solhaug and Tirfing, whose chilly reception plunged him into a crisis. After a few years’ silence he returned with a long and impressive sequence of orchestral works, chamber music (six sing quartets) and songs which have become the cornerstones of our musical literature and, thanks not least to gramophone records, have also acquired a world wide audience. 

Stenhammar himself played his Concerto for Piano No. 1 in Bb minor in Copenhagen, in Berlin (under Richard Strauss) and with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester (under Hans Richter). Arthur Nikisch conducted the première performance of his concert overture Excelsior! with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1897. His Serenade for orchestra (1911-1913/19), his Symphony No. 2 (1911-1915) and the song cycle Visor och Stämningar (1908-1909) are among the peaks of his achievement. 

Stig Jacobsson
Source: STIM / Swedish Music Information Centre

Selected works:

  • Concerto for Piano No. 1 in Bb minor
  • Concerto for Piano No. 2 in D minor
  • Florez och Blanzeflor
  • Symphony No. 2
  • Two Sentimental Romances for Violin and Orchestra