Sara Wennerberg-Reuter (1875−1959)

Sara Margaret Eugenia Eufrosyne Wennerberg-Reuter  was born 11 February 1875 in Otterstad, Västergötland, and died 29 March 1959 in Stockholm. She studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stockholm 1893−95, at the conservatory in Leipzig 1896−98, and at the Music Conservatory in Berlin 1901−02. 1906−46 she was the organist at Sofia Church in Stockholm (with a permanent position from 1918). In 1921 Sara Wennerberg-Reuter  was elected to the Society of Swedish Composers and in 1931 she was awarded the royal medal Litteris et artibus.

Early years in Västergötland and Gothenburg

Sara Wennerberg-Reuter  was born at Djurgården in Otterstad Parish, Västergötland. Her home was artistically inclined: her father was the genre painter and farmer Brynolf Wennerberg, the only brother of the eminent politician and composer Gunnar Wennerberg. Sara’s mother Eugenie (née Schoug) was a talented amateur pianist − and Sara’s first piano teacher. Both parents encouraged Sara Wennerberg’s musical and artistic talents. After the family moved to Gothenburg − her father was less fortunate as a farmer  − she studied with, among others, the cathedral organist Elfrida Andrée, who came to significantly influence Sara Wennerberg’s continued development.

Even more important and admired was Sara’s uncle, the county governor, cabinet minister, poet and composer Gunnar Wennerberg. He actively promoted his niece’s career in every way possible: economically, socially and artistically. He thought highly of her talent, and his advice and opinions are preserved in a collection of letters. According to her uncle, she should prioritise composing larger works, such as string quartets, rather than songs. Yet her songs and piano pieces came to be highly regarded in the final decades of the 19th century, not least among the publishers and the numerous skilled amateur musicians of the time. There was, and still is, the inherent contrast between dreams and reality that many composers are forced to endure. Gunnar Wennerberg also engaged in rather extensive lobbying on Sara Wennerberg’s behalf. He writes in a letter: ‘I have told him myself what I think: you deserve to be “fattened up” like a prize young calf!’

Studies in Leipzig and Berlin

Thanks to Gunnar Wennerberg’s financial support, Sara Wennerberg was able to continue her studies abroad. In Leipzig, she studied piano with Carl Reinecke and counterpoint and composition with Salomon Jadassohn. The latter facilitated the performance of her motet Den 114de psalmen at the Leipzig synagogue, a work that is now lost. She also experienced the not insignificant success of her Festmarsch for winds in Leipzig. This work became part of the repertoire of some of Germany’s finest military bands. She also attracted the attention of the press as a composer and pianist.

After returning to Gothenburg in 1898, Sara Wennerberg earned a living for several years as a private teacher and pianist. She frequently performed at Elfrida Andrée’s public concerts. Reviews were generally positive, although she, like many other musician-composers, was often judged to be  a better soloist than composer. In 1901, she was provided with the opportunity to return to Germany, this time to Berlin and its music conservatory, where she studied composition under Max Bruch. Their correspondence has been preserved, and they appear to have had an excellent relationship. During this time, Sara Wennerberg worked on an ambitious, yet unfortunately unfinished, piano concerto. The work seems to have interested both student and teacher, and why it remained unfinished continues to be an unanswered question.

A recital of her own

Back home in Sweden, Sara Wennerberg felt that she was now prepared to present herself as a composer in grand style. She did so in April 1904 with a recital of new works at the Great Hall of the Vetenskapsakademien (the Swedish Academy of Sciences) in Stockholm. Criticism was harsh, especially for her Sonata in E minor for violin and piano, the concert’s most ambitious work. The violin sonata was the 19th century’s preferred genre and virtually all composers from this time period made an attempt at this genre. But her predecessors Edvard Grieg and Emil Sjögren had already set a high standard. It was now Sara Wennerberg’s turn to be critiqued − and she was judged as being too simplistic. However, her smaller pieces were met with greater approval. Interestingly, one writer reflected: ‘Perhaps the composer’s real talent is in what one could call a ‘refined variety show’, a genre which certainly is not to be despised, but rather indicative of the future.’

As suggested earlier, Sara’s mentors included Andrée, Wennerberg and Bruch, who all wanted to support their protégé’s development by encouraging her to compose more complicated works. But her attempts at this genre were met by a contrasting perspective. It falls outside the scope of this article to further immerse ourselves in this contradiction, but it is obvious that Sara Wennerberg-Reuter was most successful when she wrote in smaller formats.

Stockholm organist and upper class pianist

As a trained organist with high marks (after her final exam in Stockholm in 1895, she was awarded P.A. Berg’s jeton, an award for outstanding organ playing) it was only natural for Sara Wennerberg to seek a job in the service of the Church. She succeeded in 1906 (1905 according to her own statement) at the then newly built Sofia Church in Södermalm, Stockholm, where she remained for the next forty years. Meanwhile, she continued to perform as a pianist, often at the soirees of the upper class, which she frequented with ease her entire life. In one letter she wrote: ‘My old work “Höststämning” appears to have caught on with the Royals, so I am always asked to play that piece. The Crown Prince spoke with me quite a bit ... ’

From 1907 Sara Wennerberg was happily married to the theologian and stenographer Hugo Reuter − hence her double name. She taught, along with her work as an organist, at her former fiancé Karl Valentin’s music school, and became known there as an ‘extremely interested and conscientious music teacher.’ Nothing, however, could prevent her from continuing to pursue what she considered to be her true profession:  as a composer. For the consecration of Sofia Church, she wrote, as was common for organists at the time, her own cantata. Additional cantata commissions followed, including for the Saltsjöbaden School in 1915 and for the City of Lidköping’s 500th anniversary in 1946. Other important compositions are her Skogsrået for soli, choir and orchestra from 1912 and several men’s quartets. In these works, one can trace influences from Gunnar Wennerberg’s quartets; he wrote several of the 1800’s most cherished works within this genre.

Works and personality

Sara Wennerberg-Reuter’s major works  show influences of, not least, her teacher Max Bruch. Like him, she witnessed the style they both represented become obsolete with the passage of time. Despite her conservativeness, she seems to have taken this with equanimity: ‘I write old-fashioned music!’ In an article from 1916, without naming any names, she clearly distances herself from contemporary late romaticism and expressionism, retaining the ideals from her youth throughout her whole life.

Sara Wennerberg-Reuter was at her finest when she composed solo songs, choral music and men’s quartets, although sometimes her choice of lyrics appears to be somewhat problematic. She often wrote music to lyrics written by her personal acquaintances − one cannot escape the reality that their poetry was not always of high caliber.

Sara Wennerberg-Reuter was a strong, yet likeable personality. Many anecdotes are still told of her as an admired heroine − and she seems to have been amused by all the attention that was payed to her. Outgoing, charismatic and supremely aware of her great talent, she was also capable of displaying true humility. Sara Wennerberg-Reuter had the privilege of retaining her good qualities until the end of her life.

Michael Waldenby © 2016
Trans. Thalia Thunander

Bibliography

Agnevik, Maja: ‘Sara Wennerberg-Reuter. Att vara kvinna och kompositör kring sekelskiftet 1800/1900‘, C-level thesis in musicology, Uppsala University, 2013.
Andersson, Mari: ‘Sara Wennerberg-Reuter’, 60-point thesis in musicology, Stockholm University, 1983.
Waldenby, Michael: Människor, myter och musik. Senromantikens inflytande på kyrkomusikens utveckling i Stockholm under 1900-talet, Stockholm: Verbum, 2005. [Includes a comprehensive chapter on the composer.]

Sources

Musik- och teaterbiblioteket.

Summary list of works

Chamber music (violin sonata etc.), piano works, songs, choral works (Påskhymn, motets etc.).


Works by Sara Wennerberg-Reuter

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

Number of works: 1