Melcher Melchers (1882−1961)

Henrik Melcher Melchers was born in Stockholm on 30 May 1882 and died in Stockholm on 9 April 1961. His earliest music training he received here, but his most important he had in Georges Caussade’s composition class at the Paris conservatory just before the First World War. He remained in Paris for 14 years, returning to Stockholm in 1919 to become a long-standing teacher of composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music. He composed a number of works in a French, though not modernist, spirit.

Life

Background and studies in Stockholm

Melcher Melchers was born in Stockholm as Henrik Melcher Svensson, son of merchant Johan Svensson and his wife Kristina Wilhelmina Sjöblom. In 1896, on finishing school at the age of 14, he enrolled at the Musikkonservatoriet (Royal Conservatory of Music in Stockholm). Extant songs, written by the adolescent Melcher Svensson and dedicated to his three siblings, create an impression of a harmonic childhood and a musical home. After leaving the conservatory in 1903 with a degree in music teaching, he served as a violinist in various theatre orchestras in Stockholm and as a violist with the Konsertföreningen (the Stockholm Concert Society, forerunner of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) and in the Hovkapellet’s (Royal Court Orchestra’s) symphony concerts. Meanwhile, he was also studying composition for Johan Lindegren.

The Paris years

Nothing is known of the young Melchers’s artistic endeavours, but when he travelled to Paris in 1905 it was to study sculpture as well as to apply himself to music. He apparently spent his early days in an artists’ colony by the Place des Invalides, during which time he struck up a friendship with fellow conservatory students Charles Hägerstrand and Hans Ekegårdh, who was also a successful painter. His circle of friends in Paris also included Albert and Siri Engström and author Gustaf Hellström.

As a creative Nordic soul residing in Paris, Melchers typically moved in the same circles as influential artists and intellectuals. There, at the renowned Café de Versailles and Café du Dôme, where he was a regular, he made the acquaintance of such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani and Leo Trotsky.

Melchers earned a living teaching piano, but composition probably mattered most to him. In 1907 he had a work, the song ‘Sancte spiritus’, published by a Parisian house. The following year he was accepted into Georges Caussade’s composition class at the conservatory, one of a limited quota of foreign students permitted. Melchers studied under Caussade for four academic years until the summer of 1912. He was widely praised for his diligence and was awarded second prize in counterpoint in 1910. By his own account it was in Paris that he ‘completely transformed’ his compositional studies.

Melchers often played along with violinists Ekegårdh, Hägerstrand and Sven Kjellström in the Swedish church in Paris. When a new church building was to be consecrated in 1913, he was asked to compose a cantata for the event. He was also made conductor of the church choir and in 1914 a composition recital of his own works was arranged in the church’s parish hall, the ‘Salle suédoise’. It is not unlikely that he was envisaging at this time a possible career as a church musician – he took his organist degree in Visby in 1913.

One of Caussade’s students, Germaine Tailleferre, who entered his class just as Melchers was leaving, became an acquaintance of his and would, a few years later, make her name as one of the group of composers known as Les Six. According to Tailleferre’s memoires, it was Melchers who, with the backing of their mutual friend Erik Satie, instituted a concert society-cum-art gallery called ‘Lyre et Palette’ in an unheated studio in Montparnasse, a quarter of Paris that was otherwise very much a stranger to such musical manifestations. The repertoire of the society, which held concerts nigh on every Saturday, was not exclusively modern; so while hosting the much publicised ‘Festival Erik Satie et Maurice Ravel’, the society also performed music from older eras, and even some Nordic works by Grieg, Sibelius, Daniel Jeisler and Melchers himself. Melchers led these concerts for at least a year, with many prominent musicians amongst the performers. It was only later that Les Six entered the scene. In the literature, ‘Lyre et Palette’ is described as the principal forum for this group, but Melchers’s input has remained virtually unacknowledged, and his name appears in but a single international context – namely Matisse’s portrait of him that was published in the programme for a ‘Lyre et palette’ concert.

After Paris: Stockholm, with some detours

In 1919, after the end of the First World War, Melchers left Paris and returned home to Stockholm. The following year he worked as a music critic at the short-lived Christian liberal Dagens Tidning. In 1921, he studied conducting, initially in Brussels and later in Sondershausen, which was a centre of music at the time. That same year he married the Dutch pianist Henriette Hartog, whom he had met in Paris.

In the autumn of 1921, he was taken on as a teacher at the Karl Wohlfart school of music, at the Arbetarnas bildningsförbund (the Workers’ Educational Association) and the newly formed and Francophile Stiftelsen för musikkulturens främjande (a foundation for the promotion of music culture), which initially offered music training. Melchers’s express ambition at this time was to introduce Swedish audiences to the new wave of music coming out of France.

In 1925 he resigned these positions to become assistant teacher of harmony at the Musikkonservatoriet. In 1934, he was made permanent teacher of counterpoint, composition and orchestration, as of 1939 under the title of professor. This position he resigned in 1947, although he did continue to do some teaching. As a teacher he was cut from the same strict, traditional cloth as Caussade, without for all that any hint of authoritarianism or hostility towards modern trends, and would famously cry out ‘the French would never tolerate that!’ every time he felt that some task had been poorly executed. His students included Åke Uddén, who went on to study for Caussade, as well as Erland von Koch, Åke Malmfors, Sven-Eric Johansson and Hans Leygraf. Some of his students found, however, his teaching too academic and chose to study for Hilding Rosenberg instead.

A cautious but enterprising nature

When Melchers first arrived in Paris, he had, as a composer, a Nordic bent and a penchant for German Late Romanticism. This predilection continued to inform his compositions during his studies there, but the larger works he turned out immediately afterwards show a gradual drift towards the French modus operandi. While his primary influences were César Franck and his successors, he also drew inspiration from Debussy and Ravel and made the occasional sortie towards Satie and Les Six. His productivity as a composer was fairly even all the way from his juvenile years, through his Parisian years and into the 1920s, concluding with his second piano concerto from 1931. He also composed another work for an official occasion besides the cantata for the Swedish church in Paris in 1913: his only completed symphony, written to mark the opening of Stockholms Konserthus (the Stockholm Concert Hall) in 1926. It came second after Kurt Atterberg’s winning cantata Sången.

Melchers’s devotedness to ‘Lyre et Palette’ bears witness to a vigorous enterprising sprit at a time when he found himself at the epicentre of modernism in Paris; otherwise, however, his life throws up little evidence of adventurousness and there are surprisingly few traces of the new French music that he wished to promulgate in Stockholm in 1920. He seems to have shown no creative interest in being provocative or experimental or in talking openly about his life as a musician in Paris, a tale that ought to have been worth the telling. ‘He lived a quiet life and never raised his voice,’ someone once said of him, while others testify to a man who  ‘his fishing line and his garden as much as his violin and his writing desk’.

Works

For orchestra

Melchers started to compose orchestral works a few years after his studies for Caussade. First, there was a Svensk rapsodi, a rather conventional rendition of Swedish folk music, and then three symphonic poems: Näcken, an orchestral fantasy on ‘Näckens polska’ in a partially French style; La Kermesse, inspired by a Rubens painting of carousing villagers; and, lastly, Elégie. His only symphony, in D minor, was composed in 1924−25 and has a whiff César Franck – a composer he so admired – in many of its details. It thus falls into a French tradition of Franck-inspired orchestral music, and the vehement language it contains is not without its similarities to Paul Dukas’s symphony.

Melchers also composed a violin concerto and two piano concertos in the 1920s and 1930s, the second of them for his wife Henriette. They are, like his larger-scale works in general, accomplished in terms of both their thematic work and orchestration, and well-balanced in their different sections. 

Chamber and piano music

Melchers’s string quartet from 1922 has an opening movement thematically akin to those of Debussy and Ravel, but without their lightness of touch, and a burlesque final movement notable for its metric changes that give it a consistent, rhythmically pronounced septuple metre.

The 1926 cello sonata and the 1928 violin sonata are also formally well-constructed, rich in tone and soberly romantic in expression.

Noteworthy amongst his piano pieces is Trois danses [caractéristiques] from the early 1910s, which has a French taste to it containing a possible dash of Satie.

Songs

A substantial collection of juvenile songs has been preserved from his years at the Stockholm Musikkonservatoriet. These were followed by a number of one-off songs based on Norwegian, German, French and Swedish poems. Melchers composed two song cycles, one with eight Zigeunerlieder from 1906−10 to lyrics borrowed from Johannes Brahms’s work by the same name, and one – unpublished – with four settings of Knut Hamsun’s Feberdigte from 1914. The composer scored all his Zigeunerlieder and two of the Feberdigte songs himself.

Anders Edling © 2016
trans. Neil Betteridge

Bibliography

Cederschiöld, Gunnar: Efter levande modell, Stockholm: Natur och kultur, 1949.
Edling, Anders: Franskt i svensk musik 1880−1920, diss., Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1982, pp. 192207.
−−−: ’Melcher Melchers’, in: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 25, Stockholm: Norstedt, 1987.
−−−: CD-liner notes Melcher Melchers, Pianokonsert nr 2 och symfoni d-moll, Phono Suecia PSCD 717, 2002.
Hellström, Olle: ‘Melcher Melchers’, in: Svenska män och kvinnor, vol. 5, Stockholm: Bonnier, 1949.
Tailleferre, Germaine: ‘Mémoires à l’emporte-pièce’, Revue internationale de musique française, vol. 19, 1986, pp. 24ff.

Sources

Musik- och teaterbiblioteket.

Summary list of works

Orchestral music (symphony, 3 symphonic poems, 2 piano concertos, violin concerto, etc.), chamber music (string quartet, violin sonata, cello sonata, etc.), works for piano (2 variation pieces, 3 dances, etc.), approx. 20 solo songs, 1 cantata.

Collected works

Orchestra
Svensk rapsodi, 1914.
Näcken, 1916.
La kermesse, 1919.
Elégie, 1920.
Symfoni, 1925.

Solo instrument and orchestra
Poème för violin och orkester, 1914.
Pianokonsert no. 1, 1923.
Violinkonsert, 1927.
Pianokonsert no. 2, 1931.

Piano
Nouvellette, 1907.
Theme and variations, 1913.
Theme and variations, n.d.
Marche triste, n.d.
Trois danses, 1914?
Jettie smiling, 1916.
Tre tangos, n.d.

Chamber music
Scherzo for string quartet, 1907.
String quartet, 1922.
Violin sonata, 1926.
Cello sonata, 1928.

Solo, choir and instrument
Kantat vid invigningen av Svenska kyrkan i Paris, 1913.

Solo songs
Högsommarlek (N. Hammarstrand), 1901.
Julhymn, 1903.
Livsglädjen (G. Fröding), 1906.
Sancte spiritus, printed 1907.
Et Savn (H. Christensen), 1910.
Acht Zigeunerlieder, 1906−10 [later orchestrated].
Meine Liebe ist grün, 1911.
Les Penseurs, ca 1914.
Les Lilas blancs, ca 1914.
Titania (G. Fröding), ca 1914.
Ett drömackord (G. Fröding), ca 1914.
Gangspilsvise (K. Hamsun), ca 1914.
Les penseurs (E. Verhaeren), ca 1914.
Les lilas blancs, ca 1914.
Ur Salomos Höga visa, ca 1914.
Feberdigte (K. Hamsun), 1914.
Med røde Roser, 1914.
Und morgen wird es wieder Flieder regnen, 1921.
En visa om när jag var lustig med Welam Welamsson (G. Fröding), n.d.