August Elfåker (1851−1914)

August Herman Elfåker (né Andersson) was born on 27 July 1851 in Älvsåker (a village in the province of Halland) and died in Stockholm on 6 November 1914.  In 1877, after studying at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stockholm, he graduated as a music director. In 1881 he found work as a music teacher in Gothenburg but emigrated to the USA four years later, settling in Chicago as a choirmaster and composer. It was here that his first symphony was performed. His few extant works largely comprise songs and vocal music. He returned to Stockholm at the end of the 1890s.

August Elfåker is one of many older Swedish composers whose life history is hard to pin down. He is barely mentioned in the literature, he left no archive and his music is extremely rarely performed. Nonetheless, he was highly and diversely active in music, and worked in numerous cities. However, a musical biography of Elfåker has yet to be properly compiled.

Life

From the countryside to the city

August Herman Elfåker (born Andersson) was born in 1851 in Lerberg in the rural village of Älvsåker, about twenty kilometres south of Gothenburg, to Anders Andersson from Älvsåker and Maria Beata Persdotter from nearby Tölö. August Elfåker grew up with four siblings, three of whom were from his mother’s previous marriage. In the catechistic examination rolls the father is registered as a tenant farmer, which means he worked a smallholding on land owned by someone else.

August Elfåker entered the Musikkonservatoriet (the Royal Conservatory of Music) in Stockholm in 1871, graduating with a music director’s degree in 1877. In 1881 he moved to Gothenburg to do a brief stint, a year or so, as a supply teacher of music at the city grammar school. He remained in Gothenburg, probably working as both a private music teacher and an organist. While his actual means of employment is unknown, it can be assumed that he did some composing as well.

In Scandinavian Chicago

In 1885, August Elfåker travelled from Gothenburg to the USA to settle in Chicago, where he worked as an organist, music teacher and choirmaster. His main arena of activity was the Scandinavian music scene, which with the 50,000 or so Swedes resident in the city was flourishing. Elfåker led The Svithiod Singing Club (‘a male chorus always of great prominence in Chicago musical circles’), The Scandinavian Quartet Club and, between 1890 and 1892, Det norske kvartetklubb − all of them male choirs. He also continued to compose, producing several works that can be tied to his American period, having been published by the Swedish-owned and orientated Chicago-based music publisher Enander & Boman.

His first symphony was performed with documented success during a Scandinavian concert held during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago 1893 by Theodor Thomas´orchestra under the baton of Oscar Ringwall, a Swedish-American clarinett-player and conductor.

Ernst Lindblom, who published his theatrical memoires from Chicago (1916) writes: ‘August Elfåker was considered a highly proficient composer in Chicago. Many solo songs and quartets were created there by his genius, and with respect to his personality he was a genuine artist.’ This quote emphasises how Elfåker devoted much of his time to composing in Chicago alongside his other occupations. A presentation of him in Från tonernas värld (Christmas 1906 issue) mentions that he was also active in New York and Canada, which would explain the fact that some of his works were published in New York.

Back in Stockholm

On 8 October 1897, the Swedish language newspaper Texas-Posten reported that August Elfåker ‘has settled in Stockholm, where he intends to teach organ, harmony, composition and instrumentation’ − in other words effectively what he was doing in Chicago. He had apparently returned for reasons of health.

Elfåker continued his role as choirmaster by being the first ever conductor of Sekelkören, a large (by today’s standards) mixed choir assembled for the new century. Otherwise, his work in Stockholm is unknown although it was likely to have been a combination, again, of teaching, composition, choir conducting and organ playing. Since he had a large number of songs published separately by publishing houses such as Elkan & Schildknecht or by magazines, one may conclude that the years after his homecoming from the USA were a productive period for Elfåker the composer.

August Elfåker remained true to Stockholm, where the church rolls say he lived alone until his death in 1914.

Works

The grounds on which to form an idea of August Elfåker the composer are just as shaky as those for his biography, and many of his works must be written off as lost. Elfåker moved several times, which usually creates lacuna in a composer’s production, and left no archive of his works. One must therefore assume that his musical production was larger than the sum of his known oeuvre, but just how rich it was will never be known.

The clearest indication that Elfåker’s production was greater than what has been preserved is the discrepancy between the large number of songs and the small number of instrumental works, of which his symphony is the most prominent. No composer can write a symphony without having composed a considerable number of instrumental pieces, and one is left to conjecture that he wrote all kinds of instrumental music, large and small.

The presentation of him in the magazine Från tonernas värld (1906) claims that he wrote ‘songs, organ pieces, piano pieces for violin and piano, quartets and symphonies’. This might well be true, even if the existing material suggests a more limited output.

Another observation: August Elfåker had a remarkable number of works published, firstly during his Chicago years and then while in Stockholm. This should mean that his publishers must have judged his music to have marketable potential, and therefore that it made the grade and suited the tastes of the time. Sure enough, his songs, which dominate this material, are very similar to other popular vocal music of his time, with a piano part imbued with standard late-Romantic chromatics, suggesting thorough familiarity with contemporary compositional styles. Moreover, the vocal line consists in general of long, expressive arcs, while Elfåker’s choice of poets to set to music resembles the preferences of many of his colleagues.

Since most of the printed songs come with dedications, we gain some insight into his music circle. Dominant amongst the names are well-known singers: Theodor Björksten, Carl Fredrik Lundqvist, Oscar Bergström, Dagmar Möller, Matilda Taube and Arvid Ödman, who were probably personal acquaintances of Elfåker’s. The dedications indicate that the songs were intended for the concert hall rather than the domestic salon.

As far as is known, his Sinfonia elegica has been performed only once. Music historian and composer Lennart Hedwall writes the following about it: ‘The piece is mostly sensitive and driven, and in style reminiscent of, for instance, Alfvén’s fin-de-siècle romanticism with its slightly leaden, sombre atmosphere and cautious “Nordic” feel.’

1887 saw the publication in Chicago of Zions sånger för kyrkan och hemmet, for which August Elfåker had arranged the music for mixed choir and written some tunes. The lyrics were by Fredrik Nibelius (1850−1897), a Swedish-born pastor in the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, who also wrote spiritual poems and song lyrics. Nibelius, who hailed from Hedemora in central Sweden, was active in several towns in Illinois. The collection ‘contained, however, far too many platitudes to earn its creator a bardic reputation’ wrote Ernst Skarstedt frankly in Våra pennfäktare (1897); from Elfåker’s point of view, it was nothing more than a piece of casual work.

Gunnar Ternhag © 2014
Trans. Neil Betteridge

Bibliography

Från tonernas värld, Musiktidningens julnummer 1906, p. 7.

Sources

Musik- och teaterbiblioteket

Summary list of works

Works for orchestra (2 symphonies), songs with piano accompaniment, piano pieces, chorales.

Collected works

Orchestra
Symphony nr 1, A-major, before 1893.
Sinfonia elegica in c-minor for orchestra.

Violin and piano
Air religieux för violin och piano. According to Idun, no. 47, 1897.

Piano
Björneborgarnas marsch [march], arranged for piano, 1885.
Evening in the valley, nocturne for piano. To Miss Matilda Enander. John Church Co, Cincinnati, 1886.
Fantasi.
Napoleons marsch över Alperna [march], arranged for piano. Enander & Boman, Chicago, 1886.
Toner från fosterjorden. A collection chosed Swedish folk melodies arranged for piano solo. 1. Gammal marsch, melodi från Orsa, 2. Det står ett ljus i Österland, 3. Wermelands-visan. Published by Enander & Boman, Chicago, 1886.

Voices(s) and piano
Blommornas blomma ('När sommaren ler öfver mo och fjell').  Elkan & Schildknecht, no. 1820, 1899.
Båten gungar sakta (Toivo [= Sigrid Elmblad]). To Mrs Dagmar Möller. Elkan & Schildknecht, no. 1722, 1898.
Caprifol ('Söfvande doftar caprifol', Gustaf Ullman). Printed in Från tonernas värld, 1906, p. 3.
Den som jag älskar, älskar jag ändå ('Låt hvem som vill', Ernst Josephson). Elkan & Schildknecht, no. 2005, 1901−1902.
Då hvita böljor mot stranden.
Då lösta böljor mot stranden slogo (Toivo). To Mrs Dagmar Möller. Elkan & Schildknecht, no. 1721, 1898.
En sång vid uppgången till templet ('Jag lyfter mina ögon upp till bergen'). Stockholm: Publisher unknown.
Godt och ondt ('Di lärda di letar i böcker', Maja X [= Fanny Alving]). Printed in Se glad ut, Visor och kupletter vid piano, no. 4, 1910?.
Hjertats saga ('Var skog har nog sin källa', Sigurd [= Alfred Hedenstierna]). To Mr Theodor Björksten. Elkan & Schildknecht, no. 1320, 1891.
Hon stod vid stättan i sommarhättan (Erik Axel Karlfeldt). Printed in Se glad ut!, Visor och kupletter vid piano, no. 5, 1910?.
I skogen dväljes jag stilla (Ninian Waernér). Printed in Svensk musiktidning, Musikbilagan, annual volume 19, 1899, pp. 352−353.
Kungasonen ('Helt tyst i dryckesrunden', Edvard Bäckström) for baritone or bass and piano. To the opera sing Mr C. F. Lundqvist. Published by Elkan & Schildknecht, no. 1352, 1891.
Lifsens hambo eller Giftas och skiljas ('Å giftas, ja giftas', Maja X). Printed in Se glad ut, no. 6.
Liten Karin ('Min Karin, nu visa dig glad', Karl Snoilsky). Printed in Svensk sång, annual volume 1, pp. 140−143.
Maynight ('Through the cloudy night of May')/ Maiennacht ('Durch die wolkigen Maiennacht')/ Majnatt ('Hör en dämpad viskning gå') for soprano or tenor and piano. Cincinnati: John Church Co, no. 5344, 1887.
Mor ('Vyss, vyss gossen min', Ernst Lindblom). Elkan & Schildknecht, no. 1518, 1894.
Sagorna ('Hon lekte med mig förr så gladt', Edvard Bäckström). To Mr Arvid Ödman. Elkan & Schildknecht, no. 1321, 1891.
Sjung.
So sleep my heart ('How tranquility the sun goes down')/ Slumra hjerta ('När solen lämnat himlens hvalv'). Brooklyn: G. L. Spaulding & Kornder, 1888.
Spring is near ('In ev´ry village sprouting')/ Vårbrytning ('I varje träd som knoppas'). Chicago: Enander & Boman, 1887.
Vin, kärlek och sång ('Om ädelt vin du dricka vill', Daniel Fallström). To the opera singer Oscar Bergström. Elkan & Schildknecht, no. 2173, 1904.
Vårbrytning. To Mr Emma L. Peterson. Stockholm: Elkan & Schildknecht, no. 1314, 1891.
Väpnarens visa om Helig rosengård ('Hon sitter der blek om kinden', Hugo Tigerschiöld). Printed in Från tonernas värld, annual volume 7, 1906, pp. 1−2.
Whither ('Bird, where away so fast')/ ('Vöglein wohin so schnell?', Emil Geibel). Boston: Oliver Ditson & Co, no. 52546−4, 1887.
Zuleima ('Fly, fly fågel på silfversky', Johan Nybom). To Mrs Matilda Taube. Elkan & Schildknecht, no. 1353, 1891.

Chorals
En vänlig grönskas rika dräkt (Carl David af Wirsén). Printed in Hemlandssånger, no. 408, 1882.

Printed song collections
Zions sånger för kyrkan och hemmet. The text partly written, partly collected and organised by Fredrik Nibelius. The music partly composed, partly chosen and arranged for mixed choir by August Elfåker. Chicago: Enander & Bomans förlag, 1887.

Folk music transcriptions
Göingarne: gammal skånsk smädevisa, transcribed by August Elfåker. Published in Kläm.