Knut Bäck (1868−1953)


Knut Bäck (1868−1953), born in Stockholm on 22 April 1868 and died in Gothenburg on 27 October 1953, was a Swedish piano pedagogue, composer and music critic. As a piano teacher and critic Bäck came to have a major influence in his second hometown, Gothenburg. As a composer Bäck left behind nearly 10 works in print as well as several works in manuscript form, mostly vocal and piano pieces and two works for choir and orchestra, written at the end of his life. Bäck had the most success with the ballad Tomten (1905). He became a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1912.


Childhood and studies

Knut Bäck was born on 22 April 1868 in Stockholm into a family of civil servants. His parents were Johanna Karolina Malmström and Ludvig Kristoffer Bäck, a protocol secretary at the Swedish steel industry’s trade organisation, Järnkontoret. Bäck entered the Beskowska School in Stockholm during the autumn term in 1876 and graduated in May of 1886. He had begun piano studies the previous autumn with Richard Andersson. After graduating he continued to study piano performance with Andersson up until 1891. Meanwhile he also studied harmony and composition under Emil Sjögren during1886−88, counterpoint with Johan Lindegren (1888−90), and later studied orchestration with Andreas Hallén (1890−91).

After completing his studies in Sweden, Bäck continued to advance in his music studies in Germany. In 1892 he travelled to Berlin together with two schoolmates, Knut Andersson and Wilhelm Stenhammar. Their mutual teacher, Richard Andersson, recommended that all three study piano with Heinrich Barth, who was Andersson’s own teacher at the Berliner Hochschule für Musik (Berlin conservatory of music). Barth had been a student of Hans von Bülow and Carl Tausig, who in turn were both students of Franz Liszt. At the same time Bäck, in contrast to his schoolmates, also studied composition under Max Bruch from 1892 to 1894 at the same institution.


After his return from Berlin, Bäck began teaching piano and music theory at Richard Anderssons musikskola. He had earlier worked at the music school as a harmony teacher when it was founded in 1888. At the same time Bäck also gave private lessons in piano performance and music theory.

In 1896 Knut Bäck moved to Gothenburg where he continued with his pedagogic work. The following year he married the piano teacher Dagmar Charlotta Augusta Malm (1873–1959), the daughter of the wholesaler Johan Maximilian Fredrik Malm in Gothenburg. His wife was a great help when he started his own music school, based on the principles of Andersson’s school. Knut Bäck became a sort of Richard Andersson for Gothenburg’s music life and generations of pianists received their training at his school. Among them are the pianists Elisif Lundén-Bergfelt and Wollmar Sandell, composers such as Knut Håkanson and Åke Hermanson – within more serious genres – and Herbert Steen-Östling and Margo Sandström who took more of a popular music direction. Conductors such as Sten Frykberg also received their music education from Knut Bäck. Knut Håkanson reviewed a public student concert given on 13 April 1928 as follows: ‘the young Sten Frykberg played with enviable assuredness and calm’.


According to contemporary reviews, Knut Bäck was considered an ‘excellent’ pianist, but with his humble and shy nature he did not pursue a high profile solo career, but rather his activities as a pianist were mainly focused on the playing of chamber music. During his studies at Richard Anderssons musikskola he performed together with Wilhelm Stenhammar in Christian Sinding’s Variations op. 2 for two pianos and later also in Brahms’ Haydn-variations.

After moving to Gothenburg, Bäck performed mainly as a chamber musician, mostly in a string of piano trios. As the accompanist for violinists and singers he participated in performances of Brahms’ Sonata in A major and Scandinavian art songs. Perhaps Bäck’s greatest performance was in 1908 when he and the Gothenburg symphony orchestra, conducted by Stenhammar, performed Beethoven’s Fantasy in C minor op. 80, for piano, choir and orchestra.

Music critic

For a large part of his life in Gothenburg, Bäck also worked as a music critic. The years from 1927 to 1930 are most often mentioned regarding his involvement with the newspaper, Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts- Tidning, and beginning in 1931 until his death he wrote for Göteborgs-Posten. Among the many extant reviews in the Bäck Collection at the Musik- och teaterbiblioteket (Music and Theater Library of Sweden) it is clear, however, that Bäck worked as a critic for Göteborgs-Posten already in the 1910s. As a reviewer Bäck was unbiased, open to new musical expressions and also wrote in a factual and accurate style. Bäck’s reviews are thus an interesting source for understanding the Gothenburg music scene during the first half of the 1900s.


Following in the footsteps of Brahms and Schumann

Knut Bäck’s shyness meant that, with regard to his activities as a composer, he also kept a low profile. Julius Rabe described that for Bäck’s 75th birthday there were plans to pay tribute to him on the radio by performing a number of his songs, ‘and it took a bit of diplomatic ingenuity to persuade him to hand over some of his carefully suppressed works.’ The majority of Bäck’s compositions are manuscripts, while his published works encompass no more than ten pieces. His compositional activities seem to have mainly occurred in two phases. Most of his published compositions were created before the 1910s. During the last ten years of his life Bäck seems to have resumed composing which means that he revised earlier compositions, such as his youthful work Tomten from 1948, and at the same time wrote a couple of major works for choir and orchestra.

Bäck’s compositional style is to a high degree influenced by the Classical-Romantic styles in the spirit of Schumann and Brahms, who also inspired his teacher Richard Andersson as well as Stenhammar’s youthful compositions. This international, German-oriented style was combined in Bäck’s work with influences from Swedish folk music in the spirit of August Söderman. This applies most significantly to many of Bäck’s songs, of which some were consciously written in a folk style. This folk music foundation returns as well in the theme and several of the variations in the op. 2 as well as the piano collection, Lyriska Melodier och Studier op. 7. 


Bäck's first composition appears to be the Theme and variations for piano op. 2 performed by the composer at one of Richard Andersson’s public student recitals in 1891. The Variations work was printed by the Musikaliska konstföreningen (the Swedish Art Music Society) in 1895, and a letter sent into the music journal the Svensk Musiktidning commented on the work as follows: ‘the Theme (in B minor) keeps to a folk music style. The Variations are twelve in number, written with talent. The style of the Variations, however, is now becoming obsolete and tiring, more suitable as a conservatory specimen than appealing to the public.’

A string quintet in G minor from 1896−97 is missing among Bäck’s remaining manuscripts. It was played by the Aulin Quartet and Emil Sundqvist, and the Svensk Musiktidning commented in 1898: ‘The beginning of the first movement appeared slightly muddy, but then like the other movements kept to a clear popular style. No real originality was revealed in this work, but it did make a very good impression.’

Among Bäck’s many vocal compositions, one that is particularly notable is the musical setting of Viktor Rydberg’s poem Tomten for baritone and orchestra. The work was published as a piano vocal score by the Musikaliska Konstföreningen in 1901. In his musical setting Bäck seized on the poem’s gloomy attitude to life, questioning the meaning of existence. The basic tone is melancholic and the vocal part and the accompaniment have captured midwinter’s coldness and severity. The work was performed in the orchestral version in 1903 with John Forsell as soloist and conducted by Tor Aulin – it was also performed at the first Swedish music festival in 1906. The composition was reworked in 1948 and performed in its revised version in a radio broadcast in 1951.

Bäck’s piano music is – besides the previously named op. 2 – primarily intended for educational purposes. The collection Lyriska Melodier och Studier op. 7, consisting of fifteen shorter character pieces, displays a rich variety. The pieces are, according to a contemporary critic, ‘to be counted among the better creations of Swedish piano literature, and is especially a treasure for more advanced piano students.’ Two of the pieces in the collection have also been spread internationally by Louis Oesterle’s collection of Scandinavian piano pieces, Album of Scandinavian Piano Music.

Bertil Wikman © 2016
Trans. Jill Ann Johnson


Anderson Bengt: Tonsättaren Knut Håkanson som musikrecensent i Göteborg. Kulturvärnare med närhet och humor, Göteborg: Altfiol i Väst, 2011.
Andersson Bengt: Oss tonsättare emellan. Brevväxlingen 1913-1929 mellan Knut Håkanson och Josef Eriksson. Excerpt and commentary Bengt Andersson, Gothenburg: Altfiol i Väst, 2015.
‘Bäck, Knut’, in: Svenska män och kvinnor, Stockholm: Bonniers förlag, 1942−55.
Nystroem, Gösta: ‘Knut Bäck 75 år’, in: Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning, 21 Apr. 1943.
Hilleström, Gustaf: Kungl. Musikaliska akademien Matrikel 1771−1971, Stockholm: Nordiska Musikförlaget, 1971.
Kungl. Musikaliska akademiens årsberättelse, 1952−53.
Norlind, Tobias: ‘Bäck, Knut, in: Allmänt musiklexikon, 2nd rev. ed., Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1927.
−−−: ‘Knut Bäck’, in: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 7, Stockholm: Bonnier, 1929.
Rabe, Julius: ‘Knut Bäck’, Röster i Radio, no. 42, 1943.
Törnblom, Folke H.: ‘Bäck, Knut’, in: Sohlmans musiklexikon, 2nd ed., Stockholm: Sohlmans Förlag, 1975−79.
Uppström, Tore: Pianister i Sverige, Stockholm: Nordiska musikförlaget, 1973.

Summary list of works

Works for piano (including Theme and variations, 1895), songs with piano, Tomten for baritone and orchestra, (1906, rev. 1948), works for choir.

Collected works

Voice and piano
In print
Four songs for one voice with piano op. 1. 1. Folkevise (‘Nu tændes Stjerner’), 2. Folkevise (‘Alt udi den feire Sommer’), 3. Madrigal (‘Vaar, som klæder Dal og Lide’, Ernst von der Recke), 4. En blomma (‘Hon spirade upp’). Elkan & Schildknecht, Stockholm 1894, autograph in MTB (with corrections and deletions 1951).
To Folkeviser (E. von der Recke) op. 2. 1. Folkevise (‘Alt falder Løvet i Lunden tæt ‘), 2. Jeg sadled min Hest en Morgenstund. Copenhagen: Det Nordiske Forlag, Elkan & Schildknecht.
Ingalill (G. Fröding), op. 3. Copenhagen: Det Nordiske Forlag, Elkan & Schildknecht, 1897. Autograph in MTB (in D minor, and E minor)
Tomten. Poem by V. Rydberg for baritone and orchestra, piano vocal score with text, op. 5. Stockholm: Musikaliska konstföreningen, 1900.
Och många tusen kronor, det vill jag inte ha, melody for one voice with piano. Stockholm: Elkan & Schildknecht, 1894.
Tindrande, fagra stjärna (D. Fallström). Swedish song. Gammalt och nytt af svenska tonsättare, edited by Karl Valentin. Stockholm: Ljus, 1900, pp. 108-111.

In manuscript
Abend am Heidestrand (‘Nun röten sich die Lande’, F. Evers) op. 6a, autograph in MTB.
Abendrot (‘Und die Sonne lag’, F. Evers) op. 6b, autograph in MTB.
Ett Helicons blomster (‘Och skulle jag sörja så vore jag tokot’, G. Fröding) op. 8, 1907, autograph in MTB.
Guld och gröna skogar (‘Kära lif, du lofvar stort’, T. Hedberg) op. 9a, autograph in MTB.
Höbärgning (‘Nu blommar blå förgätmigej’, Karl-Erik Forsslund) op. 9b, autograph in MTB.
En regn- och vemodsvisa (‘Det regnar tyst öfver staden’, E. Kleen) op. 10a, autograph in MTB.
En höstvisa  (‘Rundt om mig en höstkvälls tystnad’, E. Kleen) op. 10b, autograph in MTB.
Gullebarns vaggsånger (‘Spörj östan, spörj vestan’, V. von Heidenstam) op. 11a, autograph in MTB.
Den afundsvärde (‘Du ryttare, säg smeden’, V. von Heidenstam) op. 11b, autograph in MTB.
Barnafrågor (‘Säg, säg varför sticka flingor sitt täcke’), autograph in MTB.
Björken (‘De vitaste stjärnstenar brinna’, S. Siwertz), autograph in MTB.
Jugend (‘Am Schlehdorn’, F. Evers), autograph in MTB (rev. 1941).
Jungfru Margits vårvisa (‘Det är den fagra tiden’), autograph in MTB.
Linden (‘När dagen tvinar’, S. Siwertz), autograph in MTB (corr. 1944).
Längtan heter min arvedel (E.A. Karlfeldt), autograph in MTB (corr. 1941).
Nocturne (‘Ekan glider på stillnat vatten’, E. Kleen), autograph in MTB (rev. 1941).
Poppeln (‘Stilla i skymmande syner’, S. Siwertz), 1909, autograph in MTB.
En rägn- och vemodsvisa (‘Det rägnar tyst’), autograph in MTB.
Emil Kleen. Ur ‘Ungdomsmanuskript’, autograph in MTB.
Sjung mig sånger (S. Siwertz), autograph in MTB (rev. 1941).
Till Greta G. (‘Inte knäpp och inte knyst’, A. Gellerstedt), autograph in MTB.
Den unga lönnen (‘I den vintriga blödande gryningens brus’, S. Siwertz), 1910, autograph in MTB.
En visa (‘Det faller ett gulnande löf på min väg’, E. Kleen), 1908, autograph in MTB.

In print
Theme and variations for piano (B-flat minor) op. 2. Stockholm: Musikaliska konstföreningen, 1895. Theme: Andante con moto, Var. I: Poco più lento, Var. II: Allegro molto − Poco meno mosso − Allegro molto, Var. III: Tempo I ma poco sostenuto, Var. IV: Allegretto scherzando, Var. V: Moderato ma un poco agitato, Var. VI: Andante, Var. VII: Molto allegro, Var. VIII: Andante, Var. IX: Allegretto, Var. X: Grave ma non troppo lento, Var. XI: Allegro moderato, Var. XII: Con fuoco − Pomposo.
Lyriska melodier och studier. Smärre pianostycken op. 7.Stockholm:  Abr. Hirschs Förlag, 1899, autograph in MTB (1898). 1. Arietta: Andantino con moto, 2. Preludium I: Andantino con moto, 3. Preludium II: Allegro moderato, 4. Preludium III: Allegro, 5. Scherzino: Molto vivace, 6. I Ländlerstil: Allegretto con grazia, 7. Novelett: Moderato − Allegretto scherzando − Tempo I, 8. Bagatell: Allegretto, 9. Romans: Allegretto, 10. Studie: Allegro, 11. Intermezzo: Allegro moderato − Andante, 12. Capriccio: Molto allegro, 13. I folkviseton: Con moto, 14. Impromptu: Allegro moderato.
Like a Folk-song op. 7 no. 14. Album of Scandinavian Piano Music, forty-one pieces, selected and fingered by Louis Oesterle in two volumes, Vol. 1 Twenty-five pieces p. 21, New York: G. Schirmer, 1902.
Novelette op. 7 no. 7, Album of Scandinavian Piano Music, forty-one pieces, selected and fingered by Louis Oesterle in two volumes, Vol. 2 Sixteen pieces p. 2, New York: G. Schirmer, 1902
Fantasistycke. Svensk Musiktidnings Musik-Album 8, Stockholm, 1900.

Choir and orchestra
Människa, av kvinna född (text from the book of Job and the book of Syrachs), for choir and orchestra, 1944-45. Score, autograph in MTB.
O död, hur bitter är du, for choir, organ and orchestra (1944). Orchestral score, choral score, piano vocal score, orchestra parts, autograph in MTB (commented Dec.-48 and Sept. – 52).
Introduction to choir (‘O död, hur bitter är du’), orchestral score autograph in MTB.
Tomten (‘Midvinternattens köld är hård’, Viktor Rydberg), lyrical poem for baritone and orkester, 1948. Score, orchestra parts, autograph in MTB.