Karl Ragnar Althén was born on 19 November 1883 in Stockholm, and died there on 14 July 1961. After studying music in Berlin, he worked for many years as an organist in St Matthew’s Church in Stockholm. He was a pianist, conductor and composer primarily of songs, including the very famous ‘Land, du välsignade’.
Studies in Stockholm and Berlin
Ragnar Althén studied at the Kungliga Musikkonservatoriet (the Royal Conservatory of Music) in Stockholm, where he graduated with a degree in organ playing at the age of twenty in 1903. Two years earlier he had been excluded from his studies owing to ‘a lack of natural talent and diligence’, which, given that he apparently never considered the organ an inspirational tool, is perhaps not so surprising.
However, both talent and ambition seem to have impelled Althén to enrol at the internationally renowned Konservatorium der Musik Klindworth-Scharwenka in Berlin, where he studied for Xaver Scharwenka (piano), Philipp Scharwenka (composition) and Robert Robitschek (conducting). Between the years of 1906 and 1909, Althén also worked as an organist for the recently founded Swedish Victoriaförsamlingen (Victoria Congregation) in Berlin.
Organist in St Matthew’s
After his return to Stockholm, Ragnar Althén had as his main occupation that of organist for the parish of St Matthew in Vasastaden, a position he held for almost 40 years (1916 to 1953), although he remained active until 1957. In 1917 he assembled an orchestra as a section of the Matteuspojkarnas ungdoms- och idrottsförening (the St Matthew’s boys’ youth and sports association), which had been founded by the parish priest Vilhelm Viklund in order to instil Christian values in the young male members of his flock. This orchestra still survives as the S:t Matteus symfoniorkester (St Matthew’s Symphony Orchestra).
The Matteuspojkarnas choir had written for them a number of simple yet tonally elevated utility songs to lyrics that synthesised the male physical ideal, religion and patriotism. Althén was a devoted clubman and belonged to the Birger Jarl lodge of the Odd Fellows society, to which he contributed music. He became an associate of the Kungliga Musikaliska akademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Music) in 1950 and was a knight of the Order of Vasa and of the Order of the North Star.
Althén’s achievements as a composer are clearly tied to his other musical activities and his private life. The majority of his songs were written during his marriage to opera singer Ruth Whitefield (1918−1941) and constitute his most important works. Many of them he performed with his wife, the piano part exhibiting his own technical skills as a pianist. Alongside his parish work, he was also busy as an accompanist and chamber musician. A common feature of his own songs is his instruction to the pianist to nuance his or her playing ‘as the lyrics demand’, the mark of a practised lied pianist’s sensitivity.
The significance of piano playing to his self-identity also manifests itself in a bequest to a fund in support of Swedes wishing to study piano abroad. A second marriage to Märta Granberg in 1941 gave rise to a number of songs composed to lyrics by her father Göran Granberg.
To posterity, Ragnar Althén is a ‘one-hit wonder’ by virtue of the huge success he had with his imposing national romantic setting of Elisabeth Björklund’s ‘Land, du välsignade’ (1926). The song is still part of the modern repertoire as a show-piece for Swedish tenors, as exemplified by the legendary Jussi Björling recording. Its majestic tone can also be heard in many other patriotic songs, but is combined in ‘Du Sveriges land’, for instance, with an effective faculty for tone painting, where brief motifs and textures clearly illustrate the shifting themes and moods of the lyrics. A more existential, German-inspired expressivity with rich chromatic harmony is expressed in such titles as ‘Det var en dröm’ (‘Ach, einmal nur’), ‘Grüsse zur Nacht’ and, above all, in what is probably his single most outstanding composition, ‘Hvad her vi elske’.
The piano part is often the driving force behind these compositions, while the vocal line has a simpler declamation. In the more artistic of his songs, the music is in part highly advanced with its large spans, octaves and rich harmonic language. A common idiosyncrasy is his use of the left hand for his tone-painting motifs. The Musik- och teaterbiblioteket (the Music and Theatre Library of Sweden) houses a private archive containing both printed sheets and autographs, including handwritten pieces for a large chamber orchestra that were used for his own song performances with the Matteuspojkarnas orchestra.
Only a handful of pieces for organ and piano have survived. Of these, the two marches Vasaduken and Festmarsch are of any real length, and effectively exploit the genre conventions without becoming bogged down in cliché. Already in their original form they are of symphonic dimensions, so it was only natural for them to be scored for orchestra (by Althén’s friend and colleague Edvard Åkerberg). A Pastorale for organ demonstrates mimicry of piano techniques, and through its extant playing instructions makes a fascinating snapshot of contemporary organ practice.
Althén composed a good many smaller utility works for liturgical purposes and for use by his various societies, all of which bear clear witness to how more at ease he was composing for four-part male choir than for mixed choir. A similar multi-movement form unites many profane and sacred celebratory cantatas and demonstrates not least a well-schooled composer’s ability to effectively capture different kinds of style and form even in very brief passages.
Jonas Lundblad © 2016
Trans. Neil Betteridge
Gunnard, Sven (ed.): Matteus’ församling 1906−1956: en minnesskrift, Stockholm: Matteus’ pastorsexp., 1956.
Harnesk, Paul (ed.): Vem är vem? 1. Stor-Stockholm, Örebro: Vem är vem, 1962.
Lindfors, Per: ‘Ragnar Althén’, in: Svenska män och kvinnor, vol. 1, Stockholm: Bonnier, p. 76.
Nyström, Pia & Anne-Marie Elmquist: Kungl. Musikaliska akademien: matrikel 1771−1995, Stockholm: Kungl. Musikaliska akademien, 1996, p. 240.
‘Ragnar Althén’, in: Sångartidningen, 1937.
Törnblom, Folke H.: ‘Althén, Ragnar’, in: Sohlmans musiklexikon, 2nd ed., Stockholm: Sohlman, 1975.
Kungliga Biblioteket, Stockholm, Musik- och teaterbiblioteket.
Summary list of works
Vocal music (celebratory cantatas), piano pieces (marches), songs (Land, du välsignade and others).
Festmarsch. Arranged for orchestra by Edvard Åkerberg. 1930.
En sommarmelodi, waltz intermezzo arranged for military orchestra by Edvard Åkerberg.
Vasaduken, march arranged for orchestra by Edvard Åkerberg.
Valse-Klerk, valse lente arranged for orchestra by Albert Löfgren.
Anna-Lisa, schottische for piano, 1907.
Festmarsch, performed at the opening of the Stockholm world fair, 1930.
Humoresque for piano, 1904.
‘Den ofärdiga’. Piano works for the fifteen-year-old Kurt Atterberg.
Prière à toi, valse lente, for piano.
Vasaduken, march for piano, 1922.
Violin-Romans, for violin and piano in G major or A-flat major. Also in a version for flute, clarinet and strings.
Se, vi gå upp till Jerusalem, organ chorale.
Pastorale for organ.
With accompaniment by piano or orchestra.
Anna-Stinas vaggvisa (‘Liten Anna Stina min sof’), song for one voice and piano, 1908.
Barnets bön (‘När små barnens böner stiga’, L. Raphael), song for voice and piano. [Also with German text (‘Wenn die kleinen Kinder beten’). Versions for voice and orchestra in G minor and B-flat minor.]
Berceuse (‘Var vid gott mod, mitt barn’, G. Granberg), song for voice and piano.
De blindas dag (‘När sista prakten flammar’, E.A. Karlfeldt), song for one voice and piano, performed with unison choir and military band.
Det var en dröm (‘Ach, einmal nur’, J. Sturm), song for one voice and piano. [Also with Swedish text (En enda gång). Version for voice and orchestra in E minor.]
Du Sveriges bygd (B. Mörner), song for voice and piano, 1924. [Version for orchestra, most likely arranged by Sam Rydberg, 1926.]
En sommarmelodi (‘Nu skymmer det’, N.-M. Folcke), song for one voice and piano, 1921. [Arrangement for orchestra by Edvard Åkerberg.]
En visa om jäntor (E. Westling), song for one voice and piano, 1936.
En visa om sommaren (‘Två hästar gå i hagen’, Georg Granberg), song for one voice and piano, also with German text, 1937.
Flickan i byn (T. Hultgren), song for voice and piano, 1930.
Fridsönskningar (‘Vankar du trött’, A.T. Gellerstedt), song for one voice and piano.
Grüsse zur Nacht (‘Du silbernes Mondenlicht’, W.C. Gomoll), song for one voice and piano.
Hans und Grete (‘Guckst du mir denn’, L. Uhland), song for one voice and piano, 1909.
Hvad her vi elske (L. Bödtcher), song for one voice and orchestra, C major, 1917. [Version with Swedish text in E major, also published with English text.]
Härjedalen (‘Var hälsad de väldiga viddernas land’, G. Granberg), song for one voice and piano, 1939.
I solnedgången (‘Satte jag mig på bergets kam’, G. Fröding), song for one voice and piano, 1915.
Jämtlandslåt (‘Det jodlar, det leker’, A.H. Preinitz), song for voice and piano, 1908.
Kvällstankar (‘Alla ljusa minnen’, G. Granberg), song for voice and piano. [Version for voice and orchestra in B minor. 1937.]
Köpmannasång (G. Granberg), song for voice and piano, 1947.
Land, du välsignade, tag min sång (Elisabeth Björklund), song for voice and piano, 1926. [Version for voice and orchestra, E-flat major.]
Ljusa aftonskyar (D. Fallström), song for one voice and piano, 1915.
Midsommarnatten (‘Skön är midsommarnatten’, G. Granberg), song for voice and piano, 1945.
Midsommarvaka (G. Granberg), song for voice and piano, 1945.
Mot alla stjärnor spanar (V. Ekelund), song for one voice and piano, 1938.
När löven falla (‘Fall gyllene höstlöv’, K. Hed), song for one voice and piano, 1915.
Odd Fellow's fana (‘Fana, du som oss förenar’, H. Sandberg), song for one voice and piano, 1926.
Odd Fellow's sång (‘Sjung ut för all världen’, M. Bergholz), song for one voice and piano, 1940.
Skördevisa (‘När liarna uppå ängarna slutat’, Ejve), song for one voice and piano, 1937.
Svana-Lillas ballad (‘I fjärran land en konung dog’), song for voice and guitar/lute or piano, 1951.
Svanesund (‘Brant stupa bergen’, T. Hultgren), song for voice and piano.
Svensk sång (‘Sverige är vårt fosterland’, F. Nycander), song for voice and piano, 1929. [Version for orchestra in F major.]
Svenskmannasång (‘Vill du fostra dig själv’, T. Rydberg), song for one voice and piano, 1940. [Version for orchestra in D major.]
Sveriges ungdom [Landsbygdens ungdom] (‘Fram kamrater!’, Per Karl), song for voice and piano, 1936. [Version for orchestra in D major.]
Sång för Röda korset [Svenska Röda Korsets sång] (‘Det famnar kring jorden’, J. Torby), song for voice and piano, 1943.
Sång på Barnens dag (‘Det är fest’, T. Hultgren), song for voice and piano.
Sångaren (‘Jag sjunger mig fri’, S. Påhlman), for voice and piano, 1922.
Sången om moder Sverige (‘Tag ifrån gamla Sverige’), song for voice and piano (G. Granberg).
Till veteranerna. Odd Fellow-sång (‘Minns du, broder’, H. Sandberg), song for voice and piano.
Timmermanssång (‘På kullens topp’, A. Wahlstedt), song for voice and piano, 1936.
Ungfåglarnas visa (‘Ut ifrån bo’, A.T. Gellerstedt), song for one voice and piano, 1905.
En vintervisa (‘Jag sörja, jag sörja’, G. Fröding), song for one voice and piano, 1910.
Vandringssång (‘Här komma vi sjungande’, N. Hedström).
Visa (‘Arla står jag upp’, Heinrich Heine), song for one voice and piano, 1920.
Visa (‘Många tusen kronor’, A.T. Gellerstedt), song for one voice and piano, 1908.
Secular choral music
Dagens timmar (‘Morgonen ljuva’, freely based on Liber Cantus), song for mixed choir, 1919.
Därhemma (K. Hed), for men’s quartet.
Förtröstan (‘Jag är trött’, F. Sander), for men’s quartet.
Här komma vi sjungande el. Vandringssång (N. Hedström), for unison choir with piano and in a version for men’s choir, 1934.
Kantat vid invigningen av Alnö hembygdsgård (‘Vågorna välva’, G. Granberg), for baritone solo, mixed choir, women’s choir, fiddle and piano, 1944.
Kantat vid M.P.s 25-års jubileum (‘De voro så unga’, T. Ryberg). [Orchestrated by Edward Åkerberg, 1940.]
Land, du välsignade, tag min röst. Version of the solo song in Sånger för manskör, vol. 38. Another version in Bibliotek för blandad kör, no. 10.
Svensk sång (‘Sverige är vårt fosterland’). Version of the solo song in Sånger för manskör, vol. 47.
Vårt Östergötland [Ditt namn är Sverige!] (T. Hultgren), for men’s choir, 1931. Also in Sånger för manskör, vol. 48.
I Herrens helgedom (‘De tempel som vi bygga’, E.N. Söderberg), cantata for mixed choir, women’s choir, soprano and baritone solo as well as organ or piano, 1925. [Separate version of the section Det är så ljuvt att träda i Herrens helgedom, for soprano and organ.]
Kantat på Mikaeli-dagen (‘Saliga äro de människor’), for mixed choir, women’s choir, baritone solo and organ.
Kantat vid kyrkoherdeinstallationen i Matteus kyrka den 22 okt 1950 (‘Var trogen intill döden’), for mixed choir, soli and organ.
Lovsång (‘Tider växla, allt försvinner’, T. Hultgren), for mixed choir, 1931.
Långfredagshymn (‘Det är så tyst’, C.D. af Wirsén), for mixed choir, 1922.
Medeltida hymn (‘Det var en himlens örtagård’, J.A. Eklund), for mixed choir, 1931.