Oscar Byström (1821−1909)


Oscar Fredrik Bernadotte Byström was born on 13 October 1821 in Stockholm and died on 22 July 1909 in Spillersboda, Frötuna. He was a soldier, pianist, organist, conductor, composer and hymn tune researcher. He ran a piano and a singing institute in Stockholm. Music reviewer on the journal Bore 1850–51. Inspector of the Royal Conservatory of Music 1866−72. Director of the Musical Society of Turku (Åbo, Finland) 1872−94. During the 1880s and 1890s he toured and wrote extensively, pleading the cause of earlier church music with Gregorian roots and of traditional hymn tunes.

(Statens Musikverk)

Musical and military training

Oscar Byström was the son of Thomas Byström (1772−1839), soldier, musician and composer, and his wife Carolina Asping. He himself was convinced that he was the son of the then Crown Prince Oscar, later Oskar I, but this has yet to be proved.

Byström received his first music tuition at the hands of his father, who between 1818 and 1833 was keyboard teacher at the educational institution of Kungliga Musikaliska akademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Music). In the autumn of 1834 he was admitted there as a student in the harmony class taken by Erik Drake, concurrently studying the organ. In the spring of 1836 Byström became a cadet at Krigsakademien (the Swedish Military Academy), which had a music teacher of its own, Eric Jacob Arrhén von Kapfelman. It is not known whether he actually taught Byström, but the latter dedicated to him a collection of songs which were written in 1848. Byström’s début as a composer came in 1839 or 1840 with ‘Romance’, to words by Vitalis (Erik Sjöberg), a rather sentimental, almost ballad-like song.

After passing out from Krigsakademien in Karlberg in 1841, he served at Karlsborg Fortress in 1841−42, and in the autumn of 1842 was gazetted as a second lieutenant in the Svea Artillery Regiment. Between 1844 and 1847 Byström studied at Högre Artilleriläroverket (the artillery college), Marieberg. During this time and in the years that followed, he wrote several vocal compositions, six of which were published in 1851 in the booklet entitled Sånger vid Piano.

Contacts at court

Byström gained access to the royal court in his student years, possibly through his father’s good offices, but also due to his having acquired something of a reputation as a dance pianist in high society. Family tradition has it that during the mid-1840s he was Princess Eugénie’s piano teacher, and in Prince Gustaf’s diary we read that Byström and the prince played piano duets and composed music together. Then in 1852 Byström is mentioned as director of the choir at the royal court. This musical friendship with the prince engendered a number of compositions for male voice choir.

Prince Gustaf was in the audience when Byström made his public début as a pianist, at a soirée at Stora Börssalen (the hall of the Stockholm Stock Exchange building) on 11 December 1849. On that occasion he played the piano parts in chamber works by Carl Helsted and Beethoven, as well as performing piano music by Chopin and Charles Mayer. Reviews tell us that he had made previous concert appearances, albeit anonymous, and that he had ‘a host of pupils’.

Byström seems to have remained a habitué of the royal court after the prince died in 1852, as witness, for example, a cantata-like piece in three parts for male voice choir, Sång till H.K.H. Kronprinsen d. 22 April 1855, a tribute to Crown Prince Carl, the future Karl XV. Byström is also said to have written a Sorg-Cantat in memory of Prince Gustaf. An instrumental introduction to a work of this kind is extant, but with the title Vid Direktör Hohmans begrafning (At the funeral of Direktör Hohman). This is an austere, dignified funeral march in traditional vein.

In the circle of Franz Berwald

At a concert on 16 December 1851, Byström took part in the premiere performance of his Duo for piano and cello. This work, in G major, is written as a single long movement, but with clearly distinct sections. It was well received but at the same time criticised for its ‘modern’ touches, which must mean that Byström had moved closer to the style of Franz Berwald, as is confirmed by the compositions which followed, namely the two string quartets and the D minor symphony.

Byström is often claimed to have been a pupil of Berwald’s. This cannot be confirmed, but the two of them were very close in and around 1850. Byström took part in trial performances of Berwald’s piano trios, but it is hard to see any influence from them in Byström’s own piano trio − first performed in its entirety at an earlier soirée, in 1851 − while, as already remarked, such influence is manifestly present in the duo.

The relationship between Byström and Berwald also subsisted in another context. In 1853 Byström married Elisabeth Dorothea Augusta Bäckström (1835−1902), the daughter of a wealthy Linköping merchant, and five children were born to them between 1854 and 1861. Byström invested his wife’s dowry in a Stockholm property, Regeringsgatan 59, where Berwald and his family were living, and before long they were seeing a great deal of each other. Byström also invested heavily in a Gotland limestone quarry. The business did not prosper, and he asked Berwald for assistance, but not even that could stave off bankruptcy, and Berwald felt more or less duped. Their friendship lived on regardless, and finally Berwald helped Byström and his brother-in-law to purchase the quarry. The bankruptcy forced Byström to sell his Stockholm property, but the family were able to stay on there till 1859.

Byström’s first string quartet, in C minor, dates from the 1850s − the exact year, regrettably, is not known; he himself has written 1856 on one of the two surviving scores. This work in three movements demonstrates his consummate mastery of both classical form and chamber music writing. Despite Adolf Fredrik Lindblad’s many contributions to the genre, Byström’s is the sole native Swedish counterpart to Berwald’s three quartets, and there are touches of his melodic and rhythmic gesturing and also of his sequence and modulation techniques. An undated piece probably also written in the 1850s is an overture in D for orchestra, an elegant buffa piece with a pastoral introduction and a smoothly ongoing main section, recapitulating the introductory part towards the end and rounding off with a brilliant coda.

Relations with the Berwald family came to an unhappy end. In connection with a memorial concert following Berwald’s death in 1868, Byström was accused of having purloined the suddenly vanished score of Berwald’s completed Sinfonie capricieuse. Berwald’s son Hjalmar went so far as to allege that the symphony Byström presented in 1872 was none other than the missing Capricieuse itself.

Military, scholarly and musical careers (1857−1871)

Byström was promoted to captain in 1857. He served as an officer of engineers at Karlsborg in the summer of 1864 and was made intendent (quartermaster) at Utredningsförrådet (the central ordnance depot) in Stockholm. He resigned his active commission in 1871 but remained an officer on the reserve till 1881. In 1865 he was dubbed a Knight of the Order of the Sword.

During the 1860s Byström also devoted himself to engineering topics, and an essay by him, entitled (in Swedish) ‘An attempt to ascertain how the specific heat of metals rises with temperature’, was published in the transactions of Kungliga Vetenskapsakademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences). To this end he invented a ‘hydropyrometer’ which could also be used for measuring gas or air pressure in blast furnaces, an invention for which he was awarded a prize at the 1862 Great London Exposition.

Byström’s more official commitments included his work in Musikaliska Konstföreningen (the Swedish Art Music Society), founded in 1859, which he chaired between 1870 and 1872. He had been elected to membership of the Kungliga Musikaliska akademien in 1864, and between 1866 and 1872 he was inspector of Musikkonservatoriet (the Royal Conservatory of Music). In 1871 he published Allmän musiklära, a textbook recommended by the academy for use in schools.

The first two movements of Byström’s D minor symphony were played by the conservatory orchestra on 20 December 1871. This, like his D major quartet, dates from the 1860s, and it was performed in full, under the direction of Ludvig Norman, at Kungliga Teatern (the Royal Opera) in 1874. The symphony and the quartet are Byström’s most significant works − close-knit, balanced and deftly written. The Berwald influences hinted at relate, in the symphony, mainly to the thematic material, which, like his precursor’s, is distinct and never ‘romantically’ ingratiating, while the quartet, with its conciseness of structure and intermittent bizarreries, shows still greater independence. On his retirement from the inspectorship, Byström was made an honorary professor.

The Musical Society of Turku

In 1872 Byström successfully applied for the directorship of the Musical Society of Turku (Åbo, Finland). This meant taking charge of a 12-strong orchestra and two music students. In addition to giving concerts and appearing on other occasions, the ensemble served as theatre and opera house orchestra. Byström’s position was none too enviable in that he also had to balance the books on his own account, and the orchestra’s workload was heavy to say the least of it. During Byström’s first year no fewer than 175 performances were given.

In addition, Byström had to personally supply the orchestra with new repertoire, and during this initial year he arranged 57 works for his players. 230 and 239 appearances respectively are reported for the next two years thereafter. For bigger concerts the orchestra was reinforced by skilled amateurs, which enabled Byström to perform symphonies by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and also, with a chorus, parts of oratorios like The Creation.

During his Turku period Byström wrote a couple of orchestral pieces − Fantasi över finska melodier and Andantino in D minor − and in Helsinki in 1875 he was able to present his light opera Herman Wimpel, which was not much of a success, possibly because the music, with some justification, was rated portentous in relation to the simple plot. Byström also conducted a performance of his symphony in Turku in 1875, and that same year he went on tour in Sweden with his daughter Anna, who had made her début in Stockholm as a singer the previous year.

Songs and hymn tunes (18761909)

On his return to Stockholm, Byström resumed his teaching activity. He had already advertised a piano institute of his own in 1868. In the autumn of 1876 he took part in a Christina Nilsson concert, as well as giving a soirée of his own, and in the years that followed he collaborated with various female singers in several concerts in the provinces and in Finland, often with himself at the organ.

At this time he was mainly occupied with an opera, Miguel de Cervantes, to a libretto by Ernst Wallmark. This was never completed, though the idea was still going strong in 1898, at the time of the competition for the official opening of the new Stockholm opera house.

In 1880 Byström attended a couple of meetings on the subject of hymn tunes. Subsequently he was to devote more and more attention to church music and hymn tune research, though he continued his teaching activity by also setting up a school of singing in 1882. In 1881 he began holding monthly motet evenings, featuring early music, in St James’s Church, the programmes for which also included antiphonal performances of hymn tunes in ‘rhythmic’ form by children’s and adult choirs. Before long, more recent music had also come to be included, and in 1883 he directed the first performance of the Brockes Passion Oratorio composed by Handel in 1716.

Between the summer of 1883 and 1894, Byström gave roughly 1,700 concerts in various churches all over the country, and the schoolchildren in every parish were required to practise hymn tunes and sing them together with him and his soloist. In Stockholm in 1888, to the same end, he started a ‘school of church singing’ for preschool children.

Byström also took an interest in folk music, and in 1877, at his suggestion, Kungliga Musikaliska akademien issued an appeal for the collection of Swedish folk music. Byström was also intent on proving a Gregorian origin for the old traditional hymn tunes. He was now an established scholar, and state grants enabled him to visit London, Paris, Solesmes, Rome and Milan in 1886 and Germany in 1897 to study early church music. He published a succession of works on hymn tune history, with copious introductions, and in the hymn tunes he reverts to earlier rhythms and harmonies, while in the Gregorian chants he adds rhythms and accompaniments of his own which, although in keeping with contemporary taste, were of no lasting value. ‘Eja! Mitt hjerta’, a Dalarna hymn tune published in Musical News in London in 1891, earned him a medal at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

By 1895, Byström’s interest in hymn tunes had grown almost obsessive, as witness the insertion in his C minor quartet that year of an Intermezzo featuring two ancient hymn tunes and a sequence in a simple four-part setting. The work was now dubbed Quartetto svedese. That same year a new performance took place of his D minor symphony, now with the hymn tune ‘Hela verlden fröjdes Herran’ (Praise the Lord, each tribe and nation) inserted at the end of the finale. Both compositions benefit by performance in their original versions, divested of these alien elements. Byström worked on his own, doggedly standing aside from contemporary trends favouring a renewal of Swedish church music, with the result that his efforts in this field had little impact and no lasting effect.

Lennart Hedwall © 2014
Trans. Roger Tanner

Publications by the composer

'Försök att utröna, huru det specifika värmet hos metallerna tillvexer med temperaturen', in Öfversigt af Kongl. Vetenskapsakademiens förhandlingar 17, Stockholm: Kongl. Vetenskaps-akademien 1860.
Hydropyrometern, inventerad af O. Byström
(also in English and French translation), Stockholm, 1862.
'Beskrifning öfver en Hydropyrometer', in Öfversigt af Kongl. Vetenskapsakadermiens förhandlingar 19 (1862), Stockholm: Kongl. Vetenskaps-akademien, 1863.
'Kalktegelfabrikation och byggnader af kalktegel af d:r A. Bernhardi sen. Föredrag vid Svenska slöjd-föreningens allmänna sammanträde den 7 februari 1866', in Svenska slöjdföreningens handlingar och tidskrift för teknologi, Göteborg, 1866.
'Berättelse om de åtgärder akademien vidtagit angående choralbokens omarbetning' (together with Franz Berwald), in KMA:s handlingar 1866, Stockholm, 1866.
Allmän musiklära, Stockholm: Lundquist, 1871.
'Om kyrkosången. Föredrag vid nordiska skolmötet den 11 augusti 1880', in Necken no. 16−17, 1880.
Motettaftonen: blad för kyrkomusik, utg. och red. Oscar Byström, 11 no., 1882−83.
Prof-Melodier till psalmer ur svenska psalmboken (1819), Stockholm, 1885.
Den Svenska Psalmsångens vid Offentlig Gudstjenst mest begagnade melodier, Stockholm, 1892.
Svenska Messan lämpad till texten i den nya kyrkohandboken, Stockholm, 1894.
Luthers Kirchenlieder nebst ihren Melodien. Leipzig, 1897.
Sekvenser, Antifoner och Hymner. Ur medeltidens kyrkosång i Sverige, Stockholm, 1899.
Ur Medeltidens Kyrkosång I. Sekvenser, Antifoner och Hymner, Stockholm, 1900.
Ur Medeltidens Kyrkosång II. Sekvenser, Antifoner, Hymner, Psalmer och Andliga Visor, Stockholm, 1903.
Fridsröster tillegnade Svenska Fredsföreningen. I−IV, Stockholm, 1903, 1904 and 1907.
'Ur den svenska gregorianska sångens historia', in Från svenska hem, 1904.

At Musik- och teaterbiblioteket there also exists a diary in autograph, which describes Byström's travels to England, France and Italy in 1866 and to Germany in 1897.


Berwald, Franz: Die Dokumente seines Lebens, Erling Lomnäs (ed. in collaboration with Ingmar Bengtsson and Nils Castegren), Kassel: Bärenreiter 1979
Castegren, Nils
: 'Oscar Byström och hans Quartetto svedese', liner notes to the CD edition Musica Sveciae MS 510, 1987
Dillmar, Anders
: 'Dödshugget mot vår nationella tonkonst'. Haeffnertidens koralreform i historisk, etnohymnologisk och musikteologisk belysning, diss. Lunds universitet, 2001
Dixelius-Brettner, Hildur
: Signe Hebbes minnen samlade och efter muntlig berättelse nedskrivna, Stockholm: Åhlén & Åkerlund, 1919
Eckerdal, Lars
: 'August Nilsson, en pionjär som koralupptecknare', in Melos och logos. Festskrift till Folke Bohlin. Skellefteå: Artos, 2011
Hedwall, Lennart
: Konsertlivet i Åbo under Oscar Byströms kapellmästartid 1872−1876. En kommenterad konsertförteckning, Åbo: Åbo akademi, 1990
−−−: Oscar Byström. Ett svenskt musikeröde från 1800-talet, Hedemora: Gidlund, 2003
:'Oscar Byström, en kyrkomusikalisk pionjär', in Kyrkomusikernas tidning, no. 5, 1959
: 'Oscar Byström', in Den svenska symfonin, Stockholm: AWE/Gebers, 1983, pp. 168−171
: Liner notes to Oscar Byström: Orkesterverk, Sterling CDS-1025-2, Stockholm, 1998
Hillman, Adolf
: Franz Berwald. En biografisk studie, Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1920
Lagus, Wilhelm
: Musikaliska Sällskapet i Åbo 1790−1890, Åbo: 1890
Lindfors, Per
: 'Byström, Oscar Fredric Bernadotte', in Svenska män och kvinnor, Stockholm: Bonnier, 1942
Lindgren, Adolf
: 'Oskar Byström', in Svensk Musik-Tidning no. 1 1902
Lundén Cronström, Ingegerd: 'Anornas brokiga väv. Släkten Byström 1649−1909', stencil edition n. d. (1969)
Moberg, Carl-Allan: Kyrkomusikens historia, Uppsala: Diakonistyrelsen, 1932
Nodermann, Preben
: 'Studier i svensk hymnologi i anslutning till den av Nodermann och Wulff utgivna koralboken af 1911', diss. Lunds universitet, 1911
Norlind, Tobias
: 'Byström, Oscar Fredrik Bernadotte', in Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 7, Stockholm: Svenskt bibiografiskt lexikon, 1927
Rosas, John (ed.)
: Musikaliska sällskapet i Åbo 1790−1965, Åbo 1965
Roos, Mathilda
: 'Några ord om Oscar Byström och kyrkomusikens renässans', in Idun, 1906
Rybrant, Stig
: 'Tonsättare Byström återuppväckt i radio', in Svenska Dagbladet, 740221
Svensson, Sven E.
: 'Oscar Byström som musiker. En biografisk skiss', in Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 17 (1936), pp. 43−71
Tegen, Martin
: 'Prins Gustaf (1827−1852). Biografi och dagboksanteckningar', stencil edition (Stockholm 1968)
Wallner, Bo
: Den svenska stråkkvartetten. Del I: Klassicism och romantik. Stockholm: Kungl. Musikaliska akademien, 1979

Summary list of works

Orchestral music (a symphony, an overture, 3 waltzes, Fantasi över två finska visor etc.), chamber music (2 string quartets, a piano trio, a duo for cello and piano), songs with piano accompaniment, music drama (the light opera Herman Vimpel and the opera Miguel de Cervantes, unfinished), works for wind instruments, adaptations of church music.

Collected works

Opera, operetta and stage music
Herman Wimpel, operetta, first performed in Helsinki in 1875.
Miguel de Cervantes, opera, incomplete.
Med Sveriges allmoge (Hugo Fröding), incidental music composed and arranged in 1896.

Orchestral music
Vid Direktör Hohmans begrafning, for military band, 1850?
Three waltzes 'pour grand Orchestre', in A major, F major and E major, 1851.
Overture in D major, 1860−?
Symphony in D minor, 1870−72 (rev. in 1895).
Fantasi öfver Finska Melodier, 1872 (rev. in 1896).
Andantino in D minor, 1876.
Till konungens Lif-Garde. Koralfantasi över 'Vår Gud är oss en väldig borg' [choral fantasy] for military band, 1890.
Psalm no. 496 'Vaker upp' or no. 3 'Oss välsigna', choral fantasy for military band, 1890.
Finish songs harmonised and composed for orchestra, 1875.

Chamber music
Trio pour le Piano, Violon et Violoncello, E-flat major, 1850.
Duo pour Violoncello ou Violon et Piano, 1851.
String quartet in C minor, 1850s, (rev. as Quartetto svedese 1895).
String quartet in D major, 1860s.

Piano music
Souvenir du 4:ième Février, waltz for piano, 1851.
Mazurka pour le Piano, 1851.

Vocal music
Songs for male choir
Vår och kärlek, 1846.
Skärkarlens visa, 1840s.
För Prins Gustaf, 1851.
Sång till H. K. H. Kronprinsen den 22 april 1855.

Songs at the piano

Six songs, publ. 1851(?)
Tre sånger i ms, tillägnade Kapfelman [Three songs], 1848.
Romance, 'Ännu du hör' (Vitalis), in Musikaliskt bibliothek för sång, 1839?
Det stumma språket (von Binzer), in Album för Sång, 1861.
På lifvets ocean (F(redrik)R(ettig)), in Ny Illustrerad Tidning, 1876.
Hymn till Sverige (Filip Tammelin) with accompaniment by military band.

Arrangements of folk chorales and (two) Norwegian folk songs in manuscript.

Works by Oscar Byström

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

Number of works: 10