Ernst Ellberg (1868−1948)


Composer, musician and teacher Ernst Henrik Ellberg was born in Söderhamn on 11 December 1868 and died in Stockholm on 14 June 1948. His music, which includes chamber music, symphonic works and a never performed opera, stylistically follows a national-romantic line. During the years 1887−1905 Ellberg was a violist in Sweden’s Royal Court Orchestra and from 1903 to 1933 he taught composition, counterpoint and orchestration at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

(Svenskt Porträttarkiv)

Student years and first job

Ernst Ellberg was accepted as a student at the Kungliga Musikkonservatoriet (the Royal Conservatory of Music) in Stockholm in 1886. His studies included orchestration and composition under Joseph Dente – who had been a student of Franz Berwald – as well as violin under Johan Lindberg (who had studied with both Ferdinand David and Joseph Joachim). For a time he also studied trombone. Already after one year as a student at the music conservatory, and alongside his studies, Ellberg served as a viola player in the Hovkapellet (the Royal Court Orchestra).

Ellberg completed his studies in 1892 and continued to work as a musician in the Hovkapellet. Over and above his work as a musician he periodically worked at the Kungliga Teatern (the Royal Opera) as a répétiteur and conductor, mainly for performances of ballets – including his own En sommaridyll that premiered in 1899. For a time after he had quit as violist in the Hovkapellet and had succeeded Dente as a teacher at the Kungliga Musikkonservatoriet, he led performances at the Kungliga Teatern including the premier in 1907 of his ballet Askungen.

Composer Ellberg

Ellberg debuted as a composer in 1890 with the string quartet in E-flat major. The following year he wrote ‘Introduction and fugue for string orchestra’ that was premiered at the Kungliga Teatern in 1894 – the same year that he was awarded the Statens tonsättarstipendium (the National composer’s stipend), which he held until 1896. At that point he had already completed the Overture in F minor in 1892. In 1985 he composed a string quintet and in 1898 the ballet En sommaridyll.

However it was above all with the Symphony in D major from 1896 that he drew attention to himself. Musicologist, Lennart Hedwall writes in Den svenska symfonin that although Ellberg’s symphony cannot be considered as particularly personal, the work still distinguishes itself with its smooth treatment of thematic material ‘with often finely developed and character-filled contrasting periods’. Hedwall also points out that some passages of the second movement are ‘almost Berwaldian in spirit’.

Ellberg’s teacher Dente had also been a student of Berwald, and one can with good reason assume that Berwald’s symphonic repertoire was thoroughly studied during Ellberg’s lessons with him. In his own music, Ellberg had demonstrated great skill in instrumentation and treatment of the orchestra, and with his deep knowledge of Berwald, received through Dente, he was commissioned in 1909 by the Berwaldstiftelsen (the Berwald foundation) to create a score to Sinfonie capricieuse, based on Berwald’s unfinished drafts. The symphony with Ellberg’s score premiered in 1914.

Contemporary critics were not particularly generous toward Ernst Ellberg’s own music. His ballets were considered to be lacking in fundamental expressions, distinctive melodic character and dramatic dimension. The allegation that his ballet Askungen lacked intrinsic humour seems a little strange.

Ellberg worked for many years on the opera Rassa that was awarded second prize in the Operans tonsättartävling (The opera composer’s competition) in 1947. In an interview in connection with the announcement of the presentation of the prize, Ellberg said that it was not a modern opera and that the action was played out during Queen Christina’s reign (1632-1654): ‘It is more in the old style. It has a Lappish motif, but as to who wrote the libretto, this shall remain a secret.’ Six months later Ellberg died.

Educational Activity

Ellberg had left the Hovkapellet in 1905, partly in order to focus on his own composing and partly (and above all) to put his energy into teaching at the Kungliga Musikkonservatoriet where, from 1903 to 1933, he taught composition, counterpoint and orchestration. Thereafter he taught orchestration for another ten years for the degree of military music director. Ellberg received the title of Professor in 1916.

Besides the score for Berwald’s Sinfonie capricieuse it is also Ellberg’s work as a teacher that has made the largest impression on Swedish musical life. His many students include names such as Gunnar de Frumerie, Ivar Hellman, Lars-Erik Larsson, Oskar Lindberg, Seth Svanholm, David Wikander and Waldemar Åhlén. There are also many accounts about Ernst Ellberg whose personality brought together a graceful elegance and a Bohemian devil-may-care attitude. During his lectures he gladly scattered sarcastic remarks about that were passed along among his students. It is also said that students who made sure to meet him during his daily morning walks with his dog in Humlegården park could always count on an insightful conversation. Perhaps the following line, thought to be said by Ellberg during one of these Humlegården walks, says something about his character: ‘If people just wanted to sit home in the evenings and play string quartets, there would never by any misery and few revolutions in the world!’

Göran Persson © 2016
Trans. Jill Ann Johnson

Publications by the composer

Ellberg, Ernst et al: Helena Munktell. Några minnesblad, utgivna av vänner, Stockholm 1920.


‘Ernst Ellberg’, Svenska Dagbladet, 16 June 1948.
‘Ernst Ellberg’, Dagens Nyheter, 16 June 1948.
Hedwall, Lennart
: Den svenska symfonin, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1983.
Lindfors, Per: ‘Ernst Ellberg’, in: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 13, Stockholm: Samfundet för Svenskt biografiskt lexikons utgivande, 1950.
Norlind, Tobias
: ‘Ernst Ellberg’, in: Allmänt musiklexikon, vol. 1, Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1927, p. 324.

Summary list of works

Opera (Rassa), 2 ballets (En sommaridyll, Askungen), orchestral works (symphony, Vårbrytning, Overture, Festmarsch, Fosterländsk marsch, etc.), chamber music (string quartet, 2 string quintets, etc.), songs, piano works, vocal music (ca 20 works for men’s choir and men’s quartet).

Collected works

Stage music
En sommaridyll, ballet, 1898.
Askungen, ballet, 1906.
Rassa, opera, 1947.

Introduction and fugue for string orchestra in C major, 1891.
Overture in F minor, 1892.
Gavotte, E major, 1894.
Symphony in D major, 1896.
Vårbrytning for orchestra, 1906.
Celebratory march in A major, Expectant, 1938.
Fosterländsk marsch B-flat major, n.d.

Chamber music
Celebratory march the 11 Dec. 1887 for piano, flute, violin, cello, 1887.
String quartet in E-flat major, 1890.
String quintet in F major, 1895.
String quintet in B-flat major.
Scherzo-canon for string quartet.
Valse restaurant. For violin, cello, trumpet, piano.
Quartet for violin, cello, organ harmonium and piano. [Incomplete score.]

Men’s quartet
En glad visa.
Stjernfallet (‘Så sorgset nyss’).
Visa (‘Och linden blommar’)
Vårvisa (‘Nu är den ljufliga vårens tid’).

Men’s quartet and soloist
Kärlekens snaror (‘Nej, jag vill ej bli kär’, C.F. Dahlgren) for solo baritone and men’s quartet.

Men’s choir
Här är landet (‘Hör, vad budskap’, W. Nordin). TTBB.
Harrgårstösa i äppelapla (‘Dä satt å sang’, G. Fröding).
Höstsvalan (S. Ullén). TTBB.
Höststämning (‘Allena vandrar jag’, E. von Quanten.). TTBB.
Höstvisa (‘Om hösten är det nog så bra’, Z. Topelius). TTBB.
Jäntblig (‘Och akten er för jäntor’, G. Fröding). TTBB.
Septemberparoll (‘Burgunder i bägarn!’). TTBB.
Serenad (‘Tyst står skogen’, S. Lundwall). TTBB.
Till hafs! (‘Hell dig, du sjungande storm’, J. Roosval). TTBB.
Tindrande, fagra stjärna (D. Fallström). TTBB.
2 Quartets for men’s voices. 1. Stjernfallet (‘Så sorgset nyss’, E. von Quanten.), 2. En glad visa (‘Hör Anna lill’’, Z. Topelius).
Vi ses igen (‘Och vårsol lyste’, V. Rydberg).
Visa (‘Och linden blommar’, A.P. Qvist). TTBB.

Men’s choir with soloist
Svea-hymn (‘Hell, moder jord’, S. Lundwall) for large 5-part men’s choir with solo quartet.

Voice and piano
Du är mig kär! Carl XV, 1894.
Sverige (‘Jag vet ett land’, E.G. Geijer).

Piano solo
Humoresque G major, 1896.
Intermezzo [later renamed Tomtarne dansa].

Piano four hands
Gavotte, E major, 1894.

Works by Ernst Ellberg

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

Number of works: 1