The musician, pedagogue, conductor and composer Gustav Adolf Tiburtius Bengtsson was born in Vadstena on 29 March 1886 and died in Linköping on 5 October 1965. As a composer he is most well known for his orchestral works, including three symphonies, solo concertos and the suite I Vadstena kloster. As a performing musician, he was a violinist in the Royal Court Orchestra during 1906−1908, worked as an organist in Motala in the years 1910−1922 and was the leader of orchestra societies in Karlstad (1921−42), and Linköping (1943−1949). Moreover, he was a music teacher at the teachers’ college in both Karlstad and Linköping.
Family background and early music studies
Gustaf Bengtsson’s father, Johan Fredrik Bengtsson (1845−1903), was an extremely well educated organist and music teacher. During his many years of study in Stockholm Johan Fredrik Bengtsson shared lodgings with a distant relative, Johan Lindegren (1842−1908), who in time would become Sweden’s foremost counterpoint expert. The two students encouraged each other and passed their examinations with flying colours. Johan Fredrik had a beautiful tenor voice and was an occasional substitute in the Royal Opera’s choir, in which Lindgren also sang. With his education complete, he settled in the town of Vadstena in 1876 where he had a job as organist at both the Cloister Church and the Hospital Church. He also led a music society and, as a music teacher, founded a school orchestra. He married Selma Cassel, whose father Johan Cassel had been an organist in Vadstena up until his death in 1875.
Gustaf was the couple’s next youngest child and it was discovered early on that he had an exceptional memory for music and he was also gifted with perfect pitch. There was often music making in the Bengtsson home and Gustav was trained from the age of six on the piano, organ and violin. They put together a family string quartet and over the years played all of Haydn’s quartets (his father insisted they play it from memory), as well as works by Mozart, Schubert and Mendelssohn, in addition to countless arrangements. Even at the age of three he followed his father up into the organ loft and could soon play parts of the music for the worship service. At twelve years of age he began to substitute for his father at the Hospital Church, and at age fourteen he filled in at the Cloister Church.
It was a fatherless, but fairly experienced and well educated eighteen-year old young man who came to Stockholm in 1904 for advanced studies at the Kungliga Musikkonservatoriet (the Royal Conservatory of Music). In 1906 he graduated with brilliant marks in organ performance, in 1909 he completed a cantor’s degree and in 1916 a music teaching degree. Still, the private lessons he received from his father’s former classmate, Johan Lindegren, during his first time in Stockholm were probably of greater importance. Lindegren had already stopped teaching at the conservatory but was much in demand as a private teacher, although he was quite restrictive about the students he chose to teach. However, he welcomed Bengtsson, teaching him counterpoint and composition a couple of hours weekly – without monetary compensation. For Bengtsson part, those four years up until Lindegren’s death in 1908 provided him with the most rewarding lessons he would ever come to have. Lindegren had time enough to determine that Bengtsson showed an outstanding ingenuity, persevering diligence and remarkable talent.
Composition studies and early works
With his rich experiences at home Bengtsson had no problem acting as second violinist in both the Konsertföreningen (the Stockholm Concert Society) under Tor Aulin and during 1906−08 in the Hovkapellet (the Royal Court Orchestra) under conductors such as Conrad Nordqvist and Armas Järnefelt. The same day that he auditioned for the Hovkapellet, he sat in with the orchestra for a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. He gained much valuable training by playing both concert and opera music.
While studying with Lindegren, Bengtsson composed his first symphony during the years 1907−08. However, he had to wait eight years to premier his work when Ivar Hellman and the Norrköpingssymfonikerna (Norrköping Symphony Orchestra) – with Bengtsson himself playing the viola part – gave a rare orchestra concert in the auditorium of the Vadstena folk high school. The orchestra also played the symphony shortly thereafter in Motala and Norrköpping. Between the completion of the work and its premier, Bengtsson managed to write a second symphony.
The new symphony was written between 1909 and 1912 when Bengtsson received the government’s composer’s stipend, enabling him to continue his studies in Berlin. While there he looked up the composer Paul Juon who was raised in Russia. Through him, Bengtsson was able to engage with Russian musical heritage, mixed with the German tradition of Brahms. There were studies in composition and orchestration, but also attendance at a great number of concerts. Juon had good connections with Sweden and had several other Swedish students at the same time, including Algot Haquinius.
In March of 1910 Bengtsson went on to Paris; not primarily to study, but to experience the city and its culture as a tourist. It seems that he did not search out the radical trends of the time, in the form of the impressionists or the Swedish ballet, but attended opera performances and, above all, he visited organs built by the legendary Aristide Cavaillé-Coll found in several Paris churches. After Paris he travelled to Leipzig where he had hoped to take lessons from Max Reger. But Reger was out on a long concert tour and instead, Bengtsson searched out the legendary theoretician Hugo Riemann, whom he experienced as sluggish and tired. He felt far less inspired as compared to his studies with Lindegren.
Work in Motala, Karlstad and Linköping
Back home in Sweden, he took a job as organist and choir director in Motala (1910−22), where he founded the Motala vocal quartet society. For three decades he worked as the first conductor for the Östergötlands sångarförbund (the Östergötland’s choral society), even though he simultaneously worked in the town of Karlstad. He closely followed what went on in Stockholm and is considered to be one of the founders of the Föreningen svenska tonsättare (the Society of Swedish Composers). In 1916 he was initiated into the Masonic Lodge of St. Jacob in Linköping. Over time, Motala and its limited offering of musical activities began to feel too small.
In the autumn of 1921 he began his job as a music teacher at the teachers’ college in Karlstad, where he soon became a welcomed concertmaster in the orchestra society from 1921 to 1942, as well as assistant conductor. The following year he married Elsa Sylvan, MA, and they had three children. Organ playing continued to take a high priority, as did his compositional activities, resulting in a chorale book for school and home. His talent for composing came into its own in 1924 when the college’s new building was inaugurated with a celebratory cantata, written especially for the event. He used a text by the conservative and pugnacious Karlstad bishop, J.A. Eklund, perhaps best known for the text to the hymn ‘Fädernas kyrka’. This same bishop wrote the text for the cantata titled Lützen, for the 300th anniversary of this important battle in 1632 during the Thirty Year’s War. Bengtsson contributed to other events such as a cantata for the 350th anniversary celebration of Karlstad’s founding in 1934. King Gustav V attended the festivities, and shortly thereafter dubbed Bengtsson as a knight in the Order of Vasa.
When Karlstad’s theatre was reopened in 1937 after extensive renovations, the Hovkapellet conducted by Nils Grevillius came from Stockholm to give a concert together with Sweden’s foremost opera singers. The concert began with the premier of Bengtsson’s Festpolonäs no. 1, a work that came to be performed often during the 1940s. In 1942 Bengtsson left Karlstad due to a significantly reduced influx of students coming to the teacher’s college. Perhaps he also needed a change of scene since his middle child, a fifteen-year old son, died that same year. During his twenty-one years in Karlstad he had, among other activities, conducted all three of his symphonies for the orchestra society. Although Bengtsson became best known for his orchestral works, during his years in Karlstad he also wrote a musical setting to Bishop Thomas’ ‘Frihetssång’ from 1928 and a string quartet in G major; the latter was his first major work to be performed on the radio (1931).
In 1942, thanks to his substantial credentials, he was hired as a teacher at the teacher’s college in Linköping – even though he heard from several sources that they wanted more youthful energy. He remained in that job until 1949 when he retired at the age of 63. At the same time he also quit his positions as conductor and program director for Linköpings orkesterförening (Linköping’s Orchestral Society), which he led for seven years. The society included professional military musicians as well as very competent amateur string players. However, he did not stop working. On the contrary, he instead took on the job as the first rector for Linköping’s newly founded community music school and was active there during 1949−56.
Composer in his free time
Bengtsson’s extensive administrative and teaching duties often limited his composing and it was mainly during vacations that he was able to write. The family’s summer home was located along a beach on a point of land in Lake Vättern – by the village of Nässja, seven kilometers west of the town of Vadstena. He was very much a person who liked being out in nature and he found inspiration from the sailboats on the big lake, from walking in the woods and along the fields of grain. Every year after his holidays he usually presented a new work.
Gustaf Bengtsson died at age 81 and was buried in the Nässja cemetery with a breath-taking view of Lake Vättern.
Orchestral works with and without a soloist
Gustaf Bengtsson has a relatively small creative output, but despite its high quality, performances of his music have been relatively rare in the larger cities. The Kungliga Filharmoniska Orkestern (the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) in Stockholm played his music on only six occasions, between 1916 and 1946. His early works maintained a continental romantic style with Brahms and possibly Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss as prime examples. Among these works, one can count his three symphonies, violin and cello concerto, as well as the concertante works with violin and viola as double soloists.
In later compositions he readily included tones of folk music, as in the Värmland rhapsody, Älven sjunger. In the Orchestra suite no. 1 he quotes a Värmland polska (couple folk dance in ¾ time), and ‘Värmlandsvisan’ (based on a traditional melody) shows up in the bridal march. The suite’s Aria and Saraband contain a slightly more archaic tonal language that can also be seen as typical for him.
Gustaf Bengtsson debuted as a conductor in 1912 when he collaborated in an extra symphony concert with the Hovkapellet where they presented a program in which three young composers had the opportunity to premier their own works. Kurt Atterberg contributed his first symphony, Oskar Lindberg led in with an overture, returning later with the symphonic poem, Vildmark. Bengtsson premiered his second symphony with great success.
In the frequently performed orchestral suite, I Vadstena kloster, the composer paints an illusionary atmosphere from the Vadstena Cloister’s medieval heyday. The composer captures the mood by using archaic scales and by referring to the Birgittine hymn‘Rosa rorans bonitatem’ in the first movement’s peaceful duet between violin and cello. Other orchestral works are also inspired by the place he lived, among them the symphonic poem Vettern, in which he claimed to have translated only what Lake Vättern itself told him.
Bengtsson never composed at the piano, but wrote down his works only after he had totally completed them in his head. His compositional style follows traditional forms with a natural and well-developed counterpoint that conveys a warm romantic feel. The music has richly and personalized orchestration, preferably with undulating and vibrant melodies. At times, his music can result in a fairly complex polyphony.
Although it is his orchestral works that dominate, one cannot overlook other lyrical gems including pieces for violin and piano and a ‘particularly pleasant’ (as one critic put it) string quartet. His cantatas are so strongly connected to special events that they were never performed more than once. A very large part of his work consists of music used for the church, for example, chorale preludes for organ.
Stig Jacobsson © 2016
Trans. Jill Ann Johnson
Frimureriska tonsättare och frimurerisk musik. Uppsala 2006: Forskningslogen Carl Friedrich Eckleff, pp. 317−318.
Hedwall, Lennart: Den svenska symfonin, Stockholm: AWE/Gebers, 1983.
−−−: Cd-booklet to Symfoni nr 1, I Wadstena kloster, Vettern, Sterling CDS-1008-2, 1997.
Jacobsson, Stig: Cd-booklet to Violinkonsert, Cellokonsert, Sterling CDS-1063-2, 2004.
Mannerbjörk, Tord: ‘Gustaf Bengtsson (1886−1965). Hans liv och hans verk’, D-level thesis in musicology, University of Gothenburg, 2006.
The Bengtsson family's private archive.
Summary list of works
Orchestral works (3 symphonies, I Vadstena kloster, Älven sjunger, Vettern, etc.), concertante works (violin concertos, cello concertos, Canone concertante, Sinfonietta concertante All'Antico), chamber music (string quartet, string quintet, piano trio, violin sonata, etc.), organ works, vocal works with orchestra (Dödens ängel, cantatas, etc.), songs with piano, choral works.
Festive polonaise no. 1, 1937. Premiered in Karlstad 10 October 1937 by the Royal Court Orchestra, conductor: Nils Grevillius.
Festive polonaise no. 2, 1941. Composed for, and awarded a prize at the composition competition for Skansen’s 50th anniversary. See also Orchestral suite no. 1.
I Wadstena kloster, suite. Three tone paintings, 1948. Premiered in Norrköping 30 January 1949 by Norrköpings orkesterförening, conductor: Heinz Freudenthal.
Orchestral suite no. 1, 1941. Premiered in Norrköping 31 March 1946 by Norrköpings orkesterförening, conductor: Heinz Freudenthal.
Festive polonaise no. 2, Aria, Sarabande, Värmlandspolska, Wedding march.
Symphony no. 1 op 6 C minor, 1908. Premiered in Vadstena 11 March 1916 by Norrköpings orkesterförening, conductor: Ivar Hellman.
Symphony no. 2 D minor, 1910. Premiered in Stockholm at the Royal Opera 6 December 1912 by the Royal Court Orchestra, conductor: the composer.
Symphony no. 3 C minor, 1922 (1949/50). Premiered in Karlstad 13 March 1932 by Karlstads orkesterförening, conductor: the composer.
Vettern, symphonic poem, 1949. Premiered in Norrköping 16 April 1960 by Norrköping’s symphony orchestra, conductor: Heinz Freudenthal.
Älven sjunger, Värmlandsrapsodi, 1936. Premiered in Karlstad 14 March 1937 by Karlstads orkesterförening, conductor: the composer.
Canone concertante for violin, viola and chamber orchestra, 1952. Premiered in Norrköping 21 February 1954 by Sierold Landström, violin, and Rudolf Rucker, viola, Norrköpings orkesterförening, conductor: Paavo Berglund.
Concerto for violin and orchestra B minor, 1940. Premiered 4 February 1944 Sven Karpe, violin, Linköpings orkesterförening, conductor: the composer.
Concerto for cello and orchestra A minor, 1932. Premiered in Karlstad 9 April 1933 by Gunnar Norrby, cello, Karlstads orkesterförening, conductor: the composer.
Largo for violin and viola with the accompaniment of string orchestra, 1923. Premiered in Karlstad in the 1920s by Karlstads orkesterförening, conductor: the composer.
Sinfonietta concertante all’antico for violin and viola and orchestra, 1930. Premiered 29 August 1932 on the radio with Ernst Törnqvist, violin, Sven Blomqvist, viola, the Swedish Radio Orchestra, conductor: Nils Grevillius.
Adagio, for violin, viola and organ/strings, 1923.
Gratulation, for violin and piano (‘For K. Atterberg’s 50th birthday 12 December 1937’), 1937.
Idyll, for violin or cello and piano, 1930s. Premiered on the radio 28 April 1937 with Gunnar Norrby, cello. Stockholm: Abr. Lundquist.
Piano trio, C minor. Premiered in the 1910s by Norrköpingstrion. Lost.
Sonata, for violin and piano.
Sonatine, (Canon) G major for violin and piano, 1944.
String quartet, G major, 1929. Premiered on the radio 1931.
String quintet, A minor, 1907. Merton London 2005.
Three Swedish folk songs, in arr. for violin and piano, 1930s.
Mazurka, 1910s. Röder, Leipzig.
Chorale book for the teaching college, school and home. Stockholm: Abr. Lundquist, 1928.
Short preludes for all the chorales in the 1921 hymn book supplement. Stockholm: Abr. Lundquist.
 Miniatures for organ harmonium, Stockholm: Abr. Lundquist, 1941. [Meant also for the theoretical study of homophony and polyphony and form.] 1. Aria, 2. Sarabande, 3. Fugue-Prelude, 4. Fugue, 5. Canon.
Book of preludes for the school and home including preludes for organ or organ harmonium for all chorales in the Swedish chorale book from 1939, 1941. Stockholm: Abr. Lundquist, 1941.
 Preludes to alternative chorales in the 1921 hymn book supplement, 1935. Stockholm: Abr. Lundquist, 1935.
Preludes to the new chorales from 1937. Stockholm: Abr. Lundquist, 1938.
Preludes to all the chorales in the Swedish hymn book of 1918.
Variation, fugue and chorale on Vi tacke Dig, o Jesu god. Played on the radio 7 February 1938 by Nils Eriksson.
Songs with orchestra
Dödens ängel (J.O. Wallin), Solo baritone, mixed choir and orchestra. Premiered 3/11 1935. Nordiska Musikförlaget, 1935, 1943.
De hava hållit sig vid det ena.
En dag (V. von Heidenstam), for 2-part choir, solo and orchestra. Nordiska Musikförlaget.
Festive cantata for Karlstads 350th anniversary 30 May 1934 (Olle Lundkvist), for soli, choir and orchestra.
Freemason canata for the inauguration of the new Johannes hall Karlstad 8 Dec 1923 (J.A. Eklund).
Friska vindar, for men’s choir and orchestra.
Gammal Frimurare-Sång, for voice, piano and small orchestra.
Cantata for the inauguration of the new teacher’s college building in Karlstad 4 February 1924 (J.A. Eklund).
Lützen (J.A. Eklund), cantata on the anniversary of the battle, 1932.
Mitt land (Bo Bergman), for two voices and strings or piano, or men’s choir and organ, 1929.
Sång i dagningen (Josef Oliv), for baritone & piano or orchestra, 1926.
Songs with piano
Ballad on Stockholm 700 years.
Biskop Thomas Frihetssång, 1928.
Din ande kan bevara (J.A. Eklund).
Four Christmas songs for the school and home set for one voice (or unison singing) with piano or organ harmonium. Stockholm: Abr. Lundquist, 1930. 1. Julvisa (Edit Ahrenlöf), 2. Julpsalm (Jeanna Oterdahl), 3. Julsång (J.A. Eklund), 4. I juletid (P. Nilsson).
Kväll över slätten.
Lovsjungen Herren (J.A. Eklund).
Om jag vore målare.
Sång i dagningen.
Three songs op 16, for mezzo-soprano or baritone (B. Nyström). Stockholm: Abr. Lundquist. 1. Vårnatten, 2. Hemma, 3. En vit viol.
Three songs. Carelius. 1. Blomstermånad, 2. Sylvia, 3. May.
Song in a major key (Ebba Waerland).
Äktenskapsfrågan (G. Fröding).
Blomstermånad (Josef Oliv), for men’s choir. Wilhelm Hansen, 1931; Nordiska Musikförlaget, 1963.
Detta är Sverige (R. Ekström), for women’s choir. Stockholm: Abr. Lundquist, 1943.
Engelbrekt (K-G Ossiannilsson), also for soli, choir, orchestra. Performed on the radio 1935, and in Stockholms konserthus 7 May 1942. Stockholm: Abr. Lundquist.
Envar sin egen lyckas smed, for children’s choir. Lyckoslanten.
Julsång (C.H. Ekstam), for men’s choir. Stockholm: Abr. Lundquist.
Lovsjungen Herren (J.A. Eklund), for men’s choir. Stockholm: Abr. Lundquist.
Lyft mig (J. Skog). Noteria.
Trogen vid ditt kors (J.A. Eklund), for men’s choir. Stockholm: Abr. Lundquist.
Två sånger i folkton, for mixed choir. 1. Nu går jag tyst (B. Nyström), 2. Jutta kommer till folkungarna (V. von Heidenstam).
Vandring i skogen (G. Bengtsson), for children’s choir. Lyckoslanten.
Vinternatt (Artur Stjernhjelm), for men’s choir 1910s.
Östgötasång (B. Mörner), for men’s choir. Carl Gehrmans.
Östgötasång ‘Så grann står Östergyllen’ (Sten Granlund), for men’s choir. Stockholm: Nordiska Musikförlaget, 1930.