Opera singer and theatre director Carl Stenborg was born in Stockholm on 8 September 1752, and died there on 1 August 1813. He joined his father's acting troupe while still in his teens, and in 1780 took over his theatre, which he went on to direct until 1799. Carl Stenborg was employed as a singer at the Royal Swedish Opera between 1773 and 1806, and was one of its most important lyrical actors. The majority of Stenborg's own compositions are comic operas or songs for such operas. He became a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1782.
Born into the theatre
Carl Stenborg studied with financial aid from privy councillor Adam Horn, becoming court chancellor at the age of fifteen. His father Petter Stenborg (1719−1781) was an actor with his own troupe, which toured the provinces during the winter and settled in Stockholm during the summer. Carl joined the troupe in 1768, after which he devoted all his time to opera and drama. He became a talented singer, violinist and composer. In 1780 he tendered his resignation from the court chancellery.
Carl Stenborg was taken on as a singer at the Kungliga Svenska operan (the Royal Swedish Opera) during its first year of operation. At the official opening in January 1773 he sang the male lead in Francesco Antonio Uttini’s opera Thetis och Pelée to Elisabeth Olin’s Thetis. During the remainder of the 1770s, the two singers appeared together in most of the operas staged at the Stockholm opera. Stenborg sang the male leads in Gustaf Wasa by Johann Gottlieb Naumann in 1786 and in Gustaf Adolf och Ebba Brahe by Georg Joseph Vogler in 1788. He was one of the most lionised of singers, with a voice that contemporary sources describe as soft and supple and more of a baritone than a tenor. His diction was clear and expressive and he had an innate feeling for dramatic action.
Between the royal and private theatres
While engaged in his singing career, Carl Stenborg was also active in his father’s Swedish theatre, which, by royal licence, he took over and started filling with singers from the opera choir in 1780. However, since Stenborg was employed as a singer at the opera, he was unable to perform at his own theatre and therefore to tour the provinces with it in the winter. So he bought premises near Humlegården park in central Stockholm, and gave performances during the winter season there instead.
Even though Stenborg’s theatre was largely run as a private affair, it was still closely tied to the King’s theatre. From 1782, Carl Stenborg was counted amongst the court singers, and in that year he was voted onto the Kungliga Musikaliska akademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Music). In 1784, Stenborg was able to relocate to better premises by Munkbron in Gamla Stan, which was renamed the Nya Svenska teatern (New Swedish theatre). Here in this new theatre, where the King had his own box, performances would be watched by both the royal court and the general public alike.
The repertoire was dominated by French opéra-comique, with works by such composers as Nicolas Dalayrac and François-Joseph Gossec, as well as Italian opera buffa by the likes of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and Domenico Cimarosa. There were also some original Swedish works, notably by author Carl Envallsson and composer Johan David Zander. With the lyrical repertoire becoming increasingly demanding, the theatre started staging full operas by composers such as André Grétry and Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny.
In 1788, Gustav III established the Dramatiska teatern (the Royal Dramatic Theatre), which although prohibited from putting on comic operas or other music dramas, still presented the Nya Svenska teatern with a rival, and so to distinguish his theatre from its royal competitor, Stenborg changed its name to the Svenska komiska teatern (the Swedish Comic Theatre). That same year, he received a licence from the King to perform at his own theatre, where he went on to sing acclaimed roles in opéra-comiques by Grétry, such as Zemire and Azor and Richard the Lionheart, the latter, performed in 1791, being one of the grandest comic operas the theatre ever staged.
In 1793 Carl Stenborg married Elisabeth Olin (1761−1816). Three years later, in 1796, the Dramatiska teatern broke its standing agreement and began offering a lyrical repertoire. Stenborg’s efforts to beat the competition were a financial strain on him, and he fell deeply into debt. Meanwhile, Gustav IV Adolf was making moves to restrict theatrical activities in the capital, and in April 1799 he bought the theatre from Stenborg for a sum that was enough to cover his debts, and rescinded his privilege. The plays and scores were consigned to the Kungliga Operan, where some of the actors were offered employment.
The later years
The closure of his own theatre seems to have spelled the end of Carl Stenborg’s career in Stockholm, and despite remaining under the employ of the Kungliga Operan he appeared in only one role in the 1790s, that of the lead in Joseph Martin Kraus’s Aeneas i Karthago, which premiered in 1799. For a brief time in 1800 Stenborg was president of the Kungliga Musikaliska akademien, where he had been very active in the 1780s and 1790s. However, to make ends meet he had to become involved once more with travelling troupes. In 1806 his petition to resign from the Kungliga Operan was granted, and he lived for the remainder of his life in relative penury.
Most of Stenborg’s compositions belong to the stage. He composed music for parodies and wrote a couple of comic operas as well as songs and occasional music.
The parodies date from the 1770s and formed an important part of his father Petter Stenborg’s repertoire. They include Casper och Dorotea (1775), Skeppar Rolf och Gunild (1778) and Petis och Thelée (1779), all to librettos by Carl Israel Hallman, and lampoon operas staged at the Swedish opera a few years previously (Acis and Galatea, Birger Jarl och Mechtild, Thetis och Pelée). The genre was loved by audiences. The parodies include arias and chorus as well as instrumental sections such as dances and divertissements, with music composed in a breezy, song-like style that at times draws its motifs from the parodied models and at others builds upon known folk tunes. Stenborg’s parodies are hung upon a four-part string frame, complemented at times by wind parts. Presumably, the musical ensemble at Petter Stenborg’s theatre consisted of a string quartet, which could be augmented by wind players when necessary.
Carl Stenborg also wrote a number of songs and ballets to feature in already existing works. Such works include Alexis, a ballet drama from 1777 that enjoyed a run until well into the 1790s. The 1770s also produced, apart from some occasional pieces, music for the three-act comedy Konung Gustaf Adolfs jagt. Typically for the time, this was an adaptation of a French original to a Swedish setting, for which Stenborg wrote the music for the play’s songs.
Two original compositions are Så blevo alla nöjda eller Det lyckliga tillfället from 1782 and Gustaf Ericsson i Dalarne from 1784, both to lyrics by Envallsson. The latter of the two was premiered at the opening of the Gamla Stan theatre in 1784, and centred on a collection of tableaux depicting famous tales of Gustav Vasa’s adventures in Dalarna (Dalecarlia). Stylistically, Stenborg is influenced by contemporary composers such as Haydn and Grétry. A three-movement overture in the Viennese Classical style opens the work, which proceeds with a succession of solo songs and ensembles. There are also folk tunes here too − either reproduced in their entirety for solo songs or cherry-picked for motifs for duets and vocal ensembles.
Like many other of the city’s musicians, Carl Stenborg was a Freemason. He involved himself with the activities of his lodge from the early 1770s, and contributed musical and vocal compositions, such as Musik vid parentation efter Notarius Publicus Björling. At a Masonic convention in 1787, he appeared alongside fellow singer Christoffer Karsten singing solo pieces to music by Uttini.
Karin Hallgren © 2015
Trans. Neil Betteridge
Dahlgren, Fredrik August: Anteckningar om Stockholms theatrar, Stockholm: Norstedt, 1866.
Flodmark, Johan: Stenborgska skådebanorna: bidrag till Stockholms teaterhistori, Stockholm: Norstedt, 1893.
−−−: Elisabeth Olin och Carl Stenborg: två gustavianska sångargestalter : bilder från svenska operans första tider, Stockholm: Fröhléen & Comp., 1903.
Frimureriska tonsättare och frimurerisk musik, Uppsala: Forskningslogen Carl Friedrich Eckleff, 2006, pp. 286−287.
Hagman, Bertil: 'Några gustavianska scenprofiler', in: Åke Livstedt (ed.), Confidencen: Ulriksdals slottsteater 1981−1991: ett återuppvaknande, Stockholm: Natur och kultur, 1991, pp. 102−150.
Hedwall, Lennart: 'Carl Stenborg', in: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 33, Stockholm: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, 2007−2011
Hedwall, Lennart: 'Stenborgska teatern och det svenska sångspelet', in: Leif Jonsson & Anna Ivarsdotter-Johnson (eds), Musiken i Sverige, vol. 2, Frihetstid och gustaviansk tid 1820−1810, Stockholm: Fischer & Co, 1993, pp. 351−366.
Ivarsdotter, Anna: 'The hero and the people: on national symbols in Gustavian opera', in: Inger Mattsson (ed.), Gustavian opera: an interdisciplinary reader in Swedish opera, dance and theatre 1771−1809, Stockholm: Kungl. Musikaliska akad., 1991, pp. 172−195.
Lindström, Sven: 'Vårt första nationella sångspel', Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 24, 1942, pp. 68−83.
Morales, Olallo & Tobias Norlind: Kungl. Musikaliska Akademien 1771−1921: Minnesskrift, Stockholm: Bröderna Lagerströms förlag, 1921.
−−−: Sweden and European Drama 1772−1796: A study of translations and adaptions, diss., Uppsala: Uppsala University, 1981.
Skuncke, Marie-Christine: 'Att göra "dygd" till "pölsa": tre parodier av Hallman och Stenborg', in: Dag Hedman & Johan Svedjedal (eds), Fiktionens förvandlingar: en vänbok till Bo Bennich-Björkman den 6 oktober 1996, Uppsala: Uppsala University, 1996, pp. 194−217.
Skuncke, Marie-Christine & Anna Ivarsdotter: Svenska operans födelse: Studier i gustaviansk musikdramatik, Stockholm: Atlantis, 1998.
Musik- och teaterbiblioteket, Kungliga Biblioteket, Kalmar läns museum.
Summary list of works
7 comic operas (Casper och Dorothea, Konung Gustaf Adolfs jagt, Skeppar Rolf och Gunild, Pethis och Thelée, Don Mico och Lesbina, Så blefvo alla nöjda, Gustaf Ericsson i Dalarne), music for 3 dramas, 9 vocal pieces with orchestra (solo songs, duets), 9 songs with piano, 1 choral cantata.
Casper och Dorothea eller Heroisk djurgårdsballet, parody on Acis and Galatea (I. Hallman), 1775.
Konung Gustaf Adolfs jagt, comedy in 3 acts with song (from a French original), 1776.
Skeppar Rolf och Gunild, parody on Birger Jarl och Mechtild (I. Hallman), 1777.
Pethis och Thelée, parody on Thetis and Pelée in 3 acts (I. Hallman), 1779.
Don Mico och Lesbina, operetta in 1 act (from an Italian original), 1780.
Så blefvo alla nöjda, opera-comique in 1 act (C. Envallsson), 1782.
Gustaf Ericsson i Dalarne, drama with song in 3 acts (C. Envallsson), 1784.
Pieces included in comic operas
Arias in Målaren kär i sin modell by Duni, 1782.
Ballet with vaudevilles in Alexis, 1777.
Aria from Eremiten, n.d.
Solo song with orchestra
Aria till minne av statsvälvningen, 1773.
Aria to Prologen on 1 November 1796, 'O! Du som skall en dag...'.
Högtidssång på årsdagen av Gustaf III:s kröning, 1773.
Kom Zephis blif i ett som våren.
Nu ryktet över allt, till svenska folkets heder.
Tyst hörs en röst mej kalla.
Two voices with orchestra
E non deggio.
Parentationsmusik den 6 maj 1798 uti N:O: Recitative and duet. 2 voices and strings..
Parentationsmusik för Ekeblad, 'At äga störste kungars...', 1773?
Voice and piano
Ach! At Konung, Råd och Ständer, Den 26 februari 1789.
Air. 'Hvad grufligt qval af ömhet brinna...'.
Bröder, se bålen.
En öm saknad af en god vän.
Man skall vara Herre i sitt hus.
Choir with accompaniment
Cantata on the 25 February 1808, Det fordna Grekland skröt.