Alice Tegnér (1864−1943)

Alice Charlotta Tegnér (née Sandström, born in Karlshamn 12 March 1864, died in Stockholm 26 May 1943) found fame in the great many children’s songs that she composed over the decades from the 1890s onwards. The songs became exceedingly popular and many of them are still central to the Swedish children’s song tradition. She was also a successful organist, teacher and choir leader in Djursholm. Her contributions to art music consist of numerous solo songs, choral pieces and cantatas, and on the instrumental side, a violin sonata.

Life

Early years: music studies and teacher training

Alice Tegnér was born on 12 March 1864 in the southern harbour town of Karlshamn. Her father, marine captain Eduard Sandström, was a great music lover who could sing and play several instruments. Alice Sandström showed early talent and her father encouraged her to both play in the traditional note-reading manner and to experiment and improvise; he also taught her foreign languages. It was on his initiative that the 13-year old Alice, on leaving her private school in Karlshamn, moved to Stockholm with her elder sister to study at the Åhlin Girls’ School. She would remain in the Stockholm area for the rest of her life.

Her introduction to the capital’s music scene galvanised the young Alice, but although her father had planned for her to apply to the conservatory after her two years at school, she attended instead the royal advanced teacher seminary for women from 1880 to –83. She was a passionate concert-goer during her student years and an active socialite, enjoying dances, games and parlour music, as she records in her diaries. Even at this stage she displayed a tendency to live an intense, fast-paced life, something which seems to have been one of her characteristic traits − as an elderly woman she was known to walk fast, almost at a run. During her seminary period she also developed her musical skills, in part through piano lessons for Ludvig Norman in the spring of 1883.

On graduating as a teacher, she spent a year working as a governess in the service of landholder Nils Grotenfelt on his Järvikylä estate in Savolax, Finland. Once back in Stockholm, she took a similar position with publisher Frans Beijer, where she became acquainted with his brother-in-law Jakob Tegnér, whom she married in 1885. She continued to teach, both in private and at her old seminary.

Djursholm as a music environment

In 1891, after having lived in the city for a few years, she and Jakob moved with their two sons Gösta and Torsten to the newly established suburb of Djursholm and settled in a house that they named Tegnabo.

The garden town of Djursholm was in many respects a modern project materially as well as culturally, and could count writer Viktor Rydberg and poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt amongst its residents. This proved a fruitful milieu for Tegnér to work in and she soon became a pivotal figure on the local music scene. She organised numerous evening recitals, taught music in the new coeducational school, played organ and worked with the choir for the services in the chapel, all without remuneration. Her work in the chapel was led by artist and lay preacher Natanael Beskow, who, along with his wife, children’s author-cum-illustrator Elsa Beskow, belonged to Tegnér’s circle of friends and collaborators. Under Tegnér’s informal leadership, the Djursholm choir became one of the country’s best mixed choirs − although as a woman she was prohibited from conducting such an ensemble in public.

During the Djursholm years, she continued her own musical training with lessons in piano for Lennart Lundberg (1893−94), in composition and organ for Gustaf Hägg (1898) and counterpoint and composition for Johan Lindegren (1901−03). It was at this time that she produced her one major chamber work, the 1901 violin sonata.

Solo and group songs

It was also while living in Djursholm that Alice Tegnér wrote her first children’s songs. The first book of Sjung med oss, mamma! was published in 1892 by her brother-in-law Fredrik Skoglund’s publishing house, and would be followed by another eight collections over a period of 40 years. The songs she based on the intimate domestic environment, and had a simple appeal that was absent in the relatively few Swedish songs for children that existed at the time. In this, Tegnér became something of a pioneer in the genre, which would soon be cultivated by many others. A large number of her songs have become more than popular − ‘Mors lilla Olle’, ‘Bä bä, vita lamm’ are two of her best-known. She was very protective about the musical structure of her songs and did not appreciate other musicians interfering with their own harmonies or arrangements.

Tegnér wrote Sjung med oss, mamma! to help spread the joy of singing throughout the country, in which spirit she also wrote songs for young people and adults. 1904 saw the publication of the collection of classroom songs Unga röster, and was followed a year later by Sjung, svenska folk!, both of which were edited by Tegnér and replete with her own compositions.

Hers was an ambition that very much caught the zeitgeist. In 1905, Tegnér helped to form the Samfundet för unison sång (the unison singing society), the aim of which was educational in a national, idealist and Christian spirit with an inferred anti-labour movement polemic. The goals of the society were important for the composer, who had won a competition in 1901 for a new Swedish national anthem, and very much informed the songs she selected and wrote for the two above-mentioned books, which sold around the country in large numbers during the first half of the century. Sjung, svenska folk!, almost one million copies of which have since been printed, was a particular success.

Many of Tegnér’s children’s songs contain elements of physical movement, such as dancing, playing and marching, and it is in line with this that she wrote the music to the rhythm-based musical pedagogy of the Jaques-Dalcroze method in 1917.

The post-Djursholm years

In 1912, the Tegnérs moved to another house, this one named Kikut in Tullinge, where Jakob Tegnér was already financially engaged in the sale of land and house building. This took Alice away from her active, creative role in the Djursholm set and the short train links to the capital. She would remain in Tullinge until 1929, when she moved, a few years after Jakob’s death, back to Stockholm as a financially independent woman.

Alongside her songs, Tegnér devoted herself to the traditional art music genres. She wrote choral works − treble or ladies as well as mixed − for the Djursholm choir and for schools, and, for much of her life, solo songs for adult singers.

Tegnér was actively involved in the Swedish school system and composed several cantatas for school ceremonies. She also composed cantatas for other such grand occasions, and while it seems her first was written to mark the opening of the KFUK building in Stockholm in 1907, most of them were produced around the 1920s and 30s.

In 1926 she was voted into the Kungliga Musikaliska akademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Music). By this time, her children’s songs had gleaned widespread fame, with selected ones having been published in England (1914) and Germany (1918). Despite this, she was a modest person, as we learn from Moses Pergament’s account of when, in 1934, she asked his opinion on her new children’s songs: ‘I am sending you today, in genuine dread, the 9th issue of Sjung med oss, mamma! […] At my age one should really keep quiet. But there were some tunes that I wanted to bring out in the company of a couple of beloved poems that to my knowledge have not been put to music before.’

Her final years were spent in the glow of the growing popularity of her children’s songs. In ‘A.T.’s Song Parade’, which toured the country from 1939 with the composer herself at the piano, little dramatisations were made of the songs with children playing the various roles. In 1943, the same year that she died at the age of 79, Nu ska vi sjunga was published on her own initiative and came to be the most successful school songbook ever in Sweden.

Works

Songs

Alice Tegnér was a skilled songsmith, trained since childhood to create a melodic line to a given lyric. Much of the success of her children’s songs can be attributed to the quality of her melodies, which consist of fairly small, simple building blocks that are repeated, varied or contrasted with a different type of movement. That the melodic development is not based on a few simple rules was shown in a study by Björn Lindblom and Johan Sundberg published in 1970. The relatively wide scope of the songs is easily balanced by the melodic and rhythmic energy that makes them attractive to children. The accompaniment is unadorned but at times can contain some quite effective tone painting.

Nature and play, especially outdoors, are typical themes in her songs for the very young. Playfulness and a freedom from sentimentality and didacticism contribute greatly to their vibrancy, much more so than for the songs for older children and young adults, into which themes of fatherland and religion make a frequent appearance.

Vocal works and instrumental music

While her songs for children were published in ample measure, the rest of Tegnér’s production largely remained unpublished until the past few decades, when much of her choral music came out in print. Many of her songs for treble or ladies’ choir have spiritual lyrics, are accompanied on the organ/piano, and intended for youthful singers. They are short and contain something of the freshness and simplicity of her children’s songs. The songs for mixed choir are largely a cappella with generally religious or meditative lyrics written by, amongst others, Runeberg, Karlfeldt and Rydberg. Many of these works, such as ‘Ej med klagan’ (Runeberg) and ‘En hymn till stjärnan’ (Söderberg), contain a digression to a fairly remote key in the middle sections, typical of the romantic harmonic idiom; although in Tegnér’s case, these asides are a mild colouring of the songs’ musical progression rather than dramatic statements.

Her solo songs include a group of early German-language works that are conventional in style. The lyrics she used were sourced from Goethe or from contemporaries like Viktor Rydberg and, in one instance, poet Karin Boye. In most of these songs, the fatherland and religious motifs are quite explicit, while the other songs are often the most interesting, amongst them a group devoted to the months of the year with lyrics by Elsa Beskow and some songs about birds (‘Entitan’, ‘Trasten i grantoppen’).

Not all of Alice Tegnér’s cantatas are preserved in a complete state. Their lyrics alternate between high ceremony and classroom mundanity, the latter kind possessing a musical vitality that, again, is reminiscent of her children’s songs. There are also choral movements here that are of the same high standard as her stand-alone choral works.

The violin sonata is rather conservatively romantic in style, yet elegant and skilful. The scherzo has the form of a playful minuet and the slow movement is colourful and personal. There are also some surviving pieces for piano and for cello and piano.

Legacy

Alice Tegnér occupies a special place in Swedish music history; no other music of the time enjoyed as much widespread fame as hers, and in her later years she became the object of an intense personality cult. At the same time, she has never ‘counted’ as a composer, and there are fairly comprehensive histories of Swedish music written during her time in which she hardly receives a mention. Her name is even unknown to many of those who grew up singing her songs.

Her songs enjoyed renewed popularity and appreciation in 1963 with the release of a top-selling LP, on which singers such as Alice Babs, her daughter Titti Sjöblom and Bengt Hallberg gave them a modern, sometimes jazzy twist. Since then, many new editions of her songs have been published, making them widely available both in print (although without piano accompaniment) and on record. Tegnér’s art music is not as easy to find and still contains much to discover.

In the latter decades of the 20th century, Alice Tegnér, having once been lauded in more general terms, became the subject of more in-depth study; one such work is Lennart Reimer’s doctoral thesis on her children’s songs from 1983.

Anders Edling © 2014
Trans. Neil Betteridge

Publications by the composer

24 sånger ur B. C. Rodhes Abc- och läsebok: första läsåret. With music by Alice Tegnér. Stockholm, 1900.
Sjung, svenska folk!: en samling sånger af svenska diktare och tonsättare.
Stockholm, 1906.
Borgmästar Munte.
With pictures by Elsa Beskow. Stockholm, 1922.
Beskow, Elsa: Blomsterfesten i täppan. With music by Alice Tegnér. Stockholm, 1928.

Bibliography

Alice Tegnér in memoriam, Stockholm 1943.
Broström, Ulla: 'Alice Tegnér', in: Svenska kulturpersoner. Halmstad: Affirmera, 1993, pp. 13−20.
Enefalk, Hanna: 'Alice Tegnér och 'den fosterländska saken”', Personhistorisk tidskrift, vol. 109, no. 1, 2013.
Heijne, Ingmar von: 'Den obekanta fru Tegnér', in: Kristina Ljunggren (ed.), Svenska kyrkan i kulturhuvudstaden, Stockholm: Stockholms stift, 1997, pp. 130−132.
−−−:'Djursholms kapell: glimtar från de första hundra åren', in: Djursholmsbilder 1998, Djursholm: Samfundet Djursholms forntid och framtid, 1998, pp. 289−331.
−−−: Fru Musica på Djursholm, in: Kungl. Musikaliska akademiens årsskrift 2004, Stockholm: Kungl. Musikaliska akademien, 2005, pp. 69−71.
Klingberg, Göte: 'Alice Tegnérs "Sjung med oss, mamma!”', in: Folklig vers i svensk barnlitteratur, Stockholm: Natur och kultur, 1994.
Lindblom, Björn och Johan Sundberg: 'Towards a generative theory of melody', Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 52, 1970.
Palmborg, Stina: Alice Tegnér, Stockholm: Natur och kultur, 1945.
Reimers, Lennart: Alice Tegnérs barnvisor, Bromma: Edition Reimers, 1983.
Ryberg, Inga: 'Alice Tegnér − den svenska barnvisans skapare', Carlshamniana, vol. 14, Karlshamn: Föreningen Karlshamns museum, 1999.
Tegnér, Stina: 'Alice Tegnér', in: Germund Michanek (ed.), Min svärmor, Uppsala: Lindblad, 1959.
Tegnér, Torsten, 'Alice Tegnérs Tegnabo', Fataburen, 1955.
Zethelius, Gustaf: Alice Tegnér − redaktör för unison sång i nationalismens tjänst, Uppsala universitet, Institutionen för musikvetenskap, 2012.

Radio programmes
Tobeck, Christina: 'Tonsättarinnor i ett manligt musikliv: Alice Tegnér', part 1−6 (originally broadcasted in May−June 2013) in Sveriges Radio P2.

Summary list of works

Songs (including the collection Sjung med oss, mamma!, parts of Unga röster and Sjung, svenska folk), chamber music (the violin sonatas and pieces for violin/piano and cello/piano), piano works, vocal works (some 70 songs as well as cantatas and choral pieces with and without accompaniment).


Works by Alice Tegnér

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

Number of works: 203