Ruth Almén was a composer, pianist, music teacher, poet and writer. She was born in Kålltorp, Bohus County on 24 September 1870 and died in Gothenburg on 19 November 1945. She studied piano with Richard Andersson, Knut Bäck, Heinrich Barth (Berlin) and Robert Lortat (Paris). She also took lessons in harmony with Gustaf Hägg and counterpoint with Wilhelm Stenhammar. Among her compositions are two piano sonatas, a violin sonata, piano pieces, songs and a piano concerto.
Background and studies
The versatile Ruth Sofia Almén was born 24 September 1870 in Kålltorp, located in the parish of Solberga in Bohus County, the daughter of the vicar Johan Aron Andersson Almén and Johanna Karolina Hellevi (née Rydingsvärd). The author Sigge Almén was her younger brother. For much of her life, until her death on 19 November 1945, she lived in Gothenburg where, from 1897, she was a teacher of piano and music theory, alongside her activities as a composer, poet and writer. Long before she completed her musical studies she published her first literary work in 1895, the poetry collection Vid synranden, under the pseudonym Runar Alm, a name by which she appeared as both a writer and a composer until 1904.
Almén’s musical development was influenced by a number of teachers, both in piano and music theory. For a term, she studied piano in Stockholm with Richard Andersson, whose enthusiasm she describes as ‘a magic wand, which transforms the beloved activity of studying into a game, from which one, with a sigh, returns to a necessary rest’ (from ‘Mitt möte med musiken’). Following this, another of Andersson’s students, Knut Bäck, taught her piano for over seven years in Gothenburg and from autumn 1897 also tutored her in harmony. Around 1900, she made many trips during the summer to take piano lessons in Berlin with Heinrich Barth, with whom both Bäck and Andersson, and also Wilhelm Stenhammar had studied. Much later she spent a year in Paris to study piano with the distinguished Chopin and Fauré interpreter Robert Lortat.
Also in the area of music theory Almén acquired influences from a number of different directions. She received instruction in harmony from Gustaf Hägg in Stockholm, and in counterpoint and fugue from Wilhelm Stenhammar in Gothenburg. She also studied the theory of musical form with Knud Jeppesen and harmonic theory with Otto Malling, both in Copenhagen, and orchestration with Karl Westermeyer in Berlin.
Ruth Almén’s musical output includes two piano sonatas, a violin sonata, piano pieces and songs, as well as a concerto for piano and orchestra. The sonatas and the concerto are large-scale works, while the songs demonstrate a miniature-like character. Several of the latter have texts that were written by the composer herself.
The sonority resulting from Almén’s manner of writing for the piano is somewhat Brahms-like. At the same time, she occasionally displays rather original ideas regarding chordal connections and harmony. Kungl. Musikaliska akademiens (the Royal Swedish Academy of Music) future long-serving secretary Olallo Morales drew attention to this, in 1905, in a review mentioning how, in one of her songs, ‘the peculiar and yet natural harmonies gave a pleasing colouration’ (Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning 18/11).
Almén’s compositions do not seem to have been publicly performed to any great extent. However, the composer participated in a performance of the piano sonata op. 2, the violin sonata and a collection of songs in the Salle Pleyel in Paris on June 8th, 1921, as well as at the Gothenburg Concert Hall on January 20th, 1922. Critical reaction by the Gothenburg press after the concert was mixed. ‘Beside purely repulsive traits, there is much that is effective with the freshness of raw talent,’ writes the initials ‘J. R.’ (Julius Rabe) in Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning (21/1 1922) and emphasises the instrumental works as the best in the programme. The Piano Sonata in B minor performed here had previously won Carl Nielsen's benevolence. It was he who recommended the work for publication to Wilhelm Hansen in Copenhagen. A large part of Almén’s other works also appeared in print during her lifetime by Swedish, Danish and German publishers.
Besides poetry and song lyrics, Almén’s written output also includes fictional stories, often of a moralistic nature, together with music educational stories aimed at children. In addition, she contributed as a writer to Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning.
In Musiktomtarna and Den underbara harpan basic terms and concepts in music teaching are portrayed in the form of fairytales. There is, for example, an episode with two little fairies named Iss and Ess (Sharp and Flat), where Iss always wants to go to the right and Ess always to the left, together with a depiction of the little garden gnomes Legato, Staccato and Portato whose personalities and body movements correspond to the different types of musical articulation with these names. Musiktomtarna carries a short recommendation by her previous teacher Richard Andersson.
Martin Edin © 2016
trans. Robin McGinley
Publications by the composer
Runar Alm [Ruth Almén]: Vid synranden: smärre dikter, Göteborg, 1895.
Runar Alm [Ruth Almén]: David bagare: berättelse, series: Bibliotek för de unga, no. 100, Stockholm: Fosterlandsstiftelsens förlagsexpedition, 1900.
Runar Alm [Ruth Almén]: Kerstin, Anna och lille Lasse, series: Bibliotek för de unga, no. 113, Stockholm: Evang. Fosterlandsstiftelsens förlagsexpedition, 1902.
‘Rosens skapelse’, Ord och bild, Sept. 1903.
Musiktomtarna: små sagor för barn som skola lära sig spela piano och sjunga, Stockholm: Norstedt, 1907.
Den underbara harpan: fortsättning på ‘Musiktomtarna’, en saga om musik för stora barn, Stockholm: Norstedt, 1909.
Egna vägar: blyertsskisser, Göteborg: Åhlén & Åkerlund, 1909.
‘Livets dröm’ [part 1], Kvinnornas tidning, vol. 5, no. 6, 8 Feb. 1925, pp. 3−4.
‘Livets dröm’ [part 2], Kvinnornas tidning, vol. 5, no. 7, 15 Feb. 1925, pp. 3−4.
‘Människogåtor: blyertsskiss’, Kvinnornas tidning, vol. 5, no. 16, 19 Apr. 1925, pp. 3−4.
‘Luftslott’, Kvinnornas tidning, vol. 5, no. 18, 3 May 1925, p. 1.
‘Skördevisa’, Kvinnornas tidning, vol. 5, no. 36, 6 Sept. 1925, p. 2.
‘Hela strängar’, Signe Lagerlöw: ‘Ruth Almén’, Kvinnornas tidning, vol. 5, no. 44, 1 Nov. 1925, pp. 1-2.
‘Tankar äro makter’, Kvinnornas tidning, vol. 5, no. 50 B, 13 Dec. 1925, p. 6.
Solhunger, Uppsala: J. A. Lindblads förlag, 1928.
‘Några minnen av professor Richard Andersson’, in: Hågkomster och livsintryck av svenska män och kvinnor, collection 11, Uppsala: J.A. Lindblad, 1930, pp. 78−82.
‘Mitt möte med musiken’, unpublished typewritten text, Lilla skandinaviska serien, Musik- och teaterbiblioteket.
‘Världsspråket’, typewritten poem, Lilla skandinaviska serien, Musik- och teaterbiblioteket, dated 22 Nov. 1940.
A.: ‘Ruth Almén’, Göteborgs-Posten, 21 Jan. 1922.
Almén, Ruth: ‘Mitt möte med musiken’, unpublished typewritten text, Lilla skandinaviska serien, Musik- och teaterbiblioteket.
‘En debuterande kompositris’, Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning, 19 Aug. 1907.
‘I fröken Anna Alméns musikskola’, Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning, 8 June 1895.
J.[ulius] R.[abe]: ‘Ruth Almén’, Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning, 21 Jan. 1922.
Lagerlöw, Signe: ‘Ruth Almén’, Kvinnornas tidning, year 5, no. 44, 1 Nov. 1925, pp. 1−2.
Lindhjem, Anna: Kvinnelige komponister i Skandinavien, 2nd ed. Per Thorvald Larsen, ed., Gressvik: Faglitterært Forlag, 2011, pp. 22−23.
Morales, Olallo: ‘Musik. Karin Schrey’, Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning, 18 Nov. 1905.
‘Ord och Bild’, Aftonbladet, 30 Sept. 1903.
Percy, Gösta: ‘Almén, Ruth’, in: Sohlmans musiklexikon, vol. 1, Stockholm: Sohlman 1948, p. 82.
‘Ruth Alméns kompositionsafton’, Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning, 20 Jan. 1922.
Musik- och teaterbiblioteket (including four letters to Richard Andersson)
Summary list of works
Works for solo and orchestra (Piano Concerto), chamber music (Violin Sonata), piano works (2 piano sonatas, piano pieces such as preludes and lyrical pieces), vocal music (11 songs).
Piano Concerto op. 6. [Lyriska stycken för piano is also marked as op. 6.]
Sonat för violin och piano op. 3.
Sonata C minor op. 1.
Sonata B minor op. 2, printed ca 1920.
Prelude and Sarabande op. 4.
Three Preludes op. 5.
Lyriska stycken op. 6. [The Piano Concerto is also marked as op. 6.] 1. Praeludium, 2. Maestoso, 3. Adagio, 4. Largo, 5. Prestissimo, 6. Espressivo, 7. Cantabile, 8. Andante, 9. Andantino, 10. Allegro, 11. Allegretto, 12. Scherzo.
Runar Alm [Ruth Almén]: Känner du det land? (R. Alm [R. Almén]), mezzo-soprano with organ or piano, printed 1904.
Afton (R. Almén), voice with piano.
Den lilla Anna-Lisa (R. Almén), voice with piano, printed ca 1908−09.
Den stora stillheten (R. Almén), voice with piano.
Hver flygtig sky (S. Gjørup), voice with piano.
Hørte en kvæld du havet græde? (S. Gjørup), voice with piano.
Nokturn (S. Gjørup), voice with piano.
Solskenslåt (R. Almén), voice with piano.
Songs at the Piano, printed ca 1906. 1. Till lifvet, 2. Sorgens rosor, 3. Hur kan vintern älska våren?