Richard Ohlsson (1874-1940)

Violinist, composer and businessman Johan Richard Ohlsson was born in Stockholm 9 March 1874 and died there 28 July 1940. He studied violin at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stockholm and the Royal Academy of Music in London (with Émile Sauret). He was concertmaster of the Stockholm Concert Society 1902−10. After a promising career as both violinist and composer he left music to be a businessman.

Life

Richard Ohlsson grew up as the second of seven children in a Stockholm home in which music was performed frequently. His father, Johan Ohlsson, was a famous politician and industrialist at the time. At one point Richard attended the same school as Wilhelm Stenhammar, and as schoolboys they often performed together. 2 June 1890 ‘Pupil Rikard Ohlsson at the New Elementary School’ was the recipient of an all-embracing prize in music and singing which consisted of the complete parts to all of Beethovenʼs string quartets op. 18.

Richard Ohlsson was a precocious musical child. In 1887, when he was only thirteen years old, he auditioned to study the violin with professor Johan Lindberg at the Musikkonservatoriet (the Royal Conservatory of Music) in Stockholm, where he would pursue studies 1888−94. Competing against more than ten applicants, he was chosen for the only available opening. In 1893 he performed Camille Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto no. 3 op. 61 on his final recital. He then continued to study violin with Lars Zetterquist, who then recommended him as a pupil to the legendary violinist Émile Sauret, whom he studied with in Paris and then at the Royal Academy of Music in London (1894−97). At the Royal Academy he performed his own pieces and received the comment ‘shows exceptional talent’ on his final grade report. However, Sauret noted that his student lacked a gumptious attitude and competitive instinct. This non-existent cutthroat demeanour came to make its mark on the rest of his musical career. After returning to Stockholm in 1897 he often substituted for Zetterquist as first concertmaster of Hovkapellet (the Royal Opera Orchestra), but declined permanent employment.

Ohlssonʼs name is often associated with his excellent violin playing, but despite his position as concertmaster of the newly founded Konsertföreningen (Stockholm Concert Society, predecessor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), he never performed as a soloist. Nevertheless, it was foretold that Ohlsson would gain a high position in Swedish music society as both violinist and composer.

That these future visions were not realised was elucidated by Richard Ohlsson himself: encountering the rich music life and the high level of music on the continent dashed his own delicate self confidence. In an article published in Radiolyssnaren (November 1938) he remarked: ‘People say that Englishmen are unmusical, but when I noticed how fantastically talented they were there at the Academy compared to how it was here at the time, and when I also was able to hear what they could do in Paris, I sold my violin with the wonderful tone and became a businessman.ʼ Devastating speculations during the depression following the First World War, together with his own incapacity to call attention to himself, quieted him both as a practicing musician and composer. His music has now largely been unplayed for decades, despite certain voices  (such as Bo Wallner) speaking out to make him more well-known. From the mid 1910ʼs and onwards, Richard Ohlsson worked for his fatherʼs company.

In 1904 Richard Ohlsson married the former ‘figurante’ Ragnhild Wasmouth, who had left her employment as a ballerina at Kungliga Teatern (the Royal Opera) in 1902. They had two children: Ragna (married name Quitzau; 1905−1998) and Jan Richard (1916−2009). In 1915 Richard Ohlsson was elected as member number 546 to the Kungliga Musikaliska akademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Music).

Works

Already as early as 1891, when he was only seventeen, Ohlsson wrote an opera entitled Den röfvade nunnan (The Kidnapped Nun) for soloists, orchestra and ballet. A private performance, brought about by enthusiastic friends ages 10−18, was unexpectedly reviewed in the press. It would be his only attempt at music drama. The score reveals a driven, confident hand and dynamic disposition − aspects which also define a number of youthful compositions for violin and piano that he composed both before and during his London years. A few of these pieces, Berceuse, Barcarolle and Tarantella, he performed himself with great success at Saint James Hall in 1897. These pieces, which can be regarded together as a suite, were later performed by many other violinists, including Nils Ericsson in 1908 and several times by Julius Ruthström (in 1914 with pianist Natanael Broman). In the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet composer and critic Olallo Morales described the short violin pieces as ‘sketched with a light joyful hand, divulged as French salon music, elegant, spiritual, full of amusing outbursts and witty remarks, with the addition of being refinedly violinistic […] The audience was taken by storm.ʼ It is also worthy of mention that both Edvard Grieg and Emil Sjögren were important stylistic role models.

Richard Ohlsson has mostly been recognised in both coeval and future times for his three string quartets. The first, in E minor (1894−95), was already sketched before his years in London and it was finished there. It was performed for the first time by the Ruthström Quartet in 1914, with a critic finding it ‘in high opinion, musically interesting with undaunted freshness’. Other critics were more negative and found the music difficult to understand.

The nascency of the second quartet in D major has been listed as 1897 in music dictionaries, but the composer was very particular in his notes to list the year 1907. This piece was premiered by the Aulin Quartet in 1909 and was performed in Haag the following year. It ‘was received with warm approval by the large audience, who made energetic attempts to personally congratulate the composer − although in vain’. (Posttidningen 5 March 1909). The third string quartet in A-flat major was written in 1914 and gave the impression from beginning to end of being ‘an artistically mature work’ (Stockholms-Tidningen). It was premiered the same year by the Ruthström Quartet. One spoke of his masculine defiance, of the brilliant ending. In the newspaper Aftontidningen, Sigurd von Koch praised the quartet as a ‘particularly captivating acquaintance’. Ohlsson’s quartets knocked out current critics and brought forth a number of opinions from sensible critics who meant that the works might be the most interesting chamber music written in Sweden, that they surpassed all expectations and that they were received with infinite exultation.

The first quartet is founded in the Viennese classic ideal, encompassing rapid changes between chromatic and diatonic passages. The second quartet is somewhat harsher, with a developed counterpoint. The third quartet reveals mature artisanship, strong contrasts and a masterly treatment of the instruments. Words such as  ‘mature’, ‘real’ and ‘daring’ were often cited in reviews. The works were frequently adopted by several different ensembles, even abroad, such as the Danish Peder Møller Quartet (no. 3, 28 February 1916 in Denmark and 28 March in the main hall at the Kungliga Musikaliska akademien), the Hungarian Budapest Quartet (no. 2, 10 January 1921), the Belgian Brussels String Quartet in the 1920’s and, as recently as in 1989, by the Czech Doležal Quartet. This is unusual for Swedish string quartets, where otherwise only the quartets by Wilhelm Stenhammar have been favoured. When the Ruthström Quartet performed the third quartet at the fourth Nordic Music Days festival in Helsinki in 1921, Julius Rabe wrote that the composer ‘elicits an interest in the old familiar quartet form more than a new side […] and moreover his music also contains many less ordinary details’.

Richard Ohlsson wrote few works for larger ensembles, and the only one of his works that has been performed by Stockholmsfilharmonikerna (the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra) is Ett Närkes bondbröllop (A Närke Peasant Wedding), that was conducted in 1940 by Ivar Hellman for a radio broadcast. Hellman performed several of Ohlsson’s works together with Radioorkestern (the Swedish Radio Orchestra) in the 1930’s, including Ett Närkes bondbröllop on four separate occasions. Nils Grevillius was the conductor for one of these performances.  Ohlsson’s Svenska danser (Swedish Dances) for string orchestra (or piano four hands) does not directly quote folk music tunes, but it has a Swedish spirit and a natural melodic richness. The Konzertstück for violin and orchestra in C major was premiered by Julius Ruthström in 1921 at the Kungliga Teatern with Armas Järnefelt as conductor, and was also performed in Berlin with the great conductor Hermann Scherchen (who even included Elegie and Valse Carnavale on the programme). The work was judged as a ‘comfortable mixture of classical, romantic, neo-romantic’, aptly written for the violin.

Alla marcia funebre from the first string quartet was played at Ohlsson’s funeral.

Stig Jacobsson © 2015
Trans. Thalia Thunander

Bibliography

Hultén, Sam-Ragnar: En musikalisk 'desertör', in Musikrevy, 1954:2 pp. 39−42.
Ekbom, Torsten: unpublished bachelor's thesis, Uppsala University, 1958.

Sources

Musik- och teaterbiblioteket: manuscript and picture album compiled by his daughter dottern Ragna Quitzau (1905−1998).

Summary list of works

Opera (Den röfvade nunnan), orchestral music (Ett Närkes bondbröllop, Konzertstück for violin and orchestra), chamber music (3 string quartets, works for violin and piano), piano music.

Collected works

Opera
Den röfvade nunnan, 1891.

Orchestra
Ett Närkes bondbröllop. First perf. 9 Aug. 1931, Radioorkestern.
Konzertstück for violin and orchestra in C major. First perf. Stockholm, the Royal Opera, 8 Apr. 1921, Julius Ruthström violin.
Pastorale for string orchestra.
Romanza et con variazione for violin and orchestra.
Stella Marima, ca 1930.
Danse villageoise, ca 1935.
Valse Cognette, ca 1935.
Air för violin och orkester, ca 1933.

Ensemble
Menuett, ca 1935.
King Tut (Foxintermezzo) and Vera Blues, ca 1924

Chamber music
Andante religioso for violin and piano. Ded. to Karl Åberg. First perf. 8 Nov. 1915, Julius Ruthström, violin. [Also orchestrated and performed by Armas Järnefelt.]
Elegie for violin and piano. Perf. by Ruthström and Hellman 1923. [Also arr. for orchestra.]
Humoresque Caprice for violin and piano.
Mazurka for violoncello and piano. First perf. 1913, Olof Ruthström, cello.
Melodie. Ded. to C. Grönstedt.
Serenad for violoncello and piano.
Sonata for violin and  piano. Incomplete.
String quartet no. 1 in E minor. 1894−98. Ded. to Ruthström. First perf. 2 Feb. 1914, Vetenskapsakademiens hörsal, Ruthström Quartet.
String quartet no. 2 in D major, 1907. First perf. 4 March 1909, Aulin Quartet.
String quartet no. 3 in A-flat major, 1914. Ded. to Kurt Atterberg. First perf. 23 Mar. 1914, the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, Ruthström Quartet.
A few works for violin and piano derives from his study years in London (1897−98): Berceuse (also called Vaggvisa and  Wiegenlied), Barcarolle, Taranella, Valse Carnaval, March Solennelle, Valse Scandinave (incomplete).

Piano
Valse, designated as his maiden work, before the London era.
Swedish dances for piano 4 hands, 1895−97). [Also version for string orchestra.]


Works by Richard Ohlsson

This is not a complete list of works. The following works are those that have been inventoried so far.

Number of works: 1