Samuel Åke Malmfors, born in Stockholm on 2 December 1918, died in Stockholm on 7 March 1951, was a composer and choir and orchestra conductor. He received his training at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stockholm during 1938−45 as well as on a study trip to Italy in the spring of 1948. His greatest success came with his choral music, which is often marked by imaginative sonorities in a lyrical, French-influenced style. ‘Månsken’ for mixed choir is Malmfors’s best-known composition – an ethereal and dreamy interpretation of Bo Bergman's text. The breakthrough for the piece came in 1947, and since then it has appeared regularly in the repertoires of Swedish choirs.
Childhood and youth
Åke Malmfors was born in Stockholm on 2 December 1918. His father, Sam Malmfors, was the manager of a power plant but had a great interest in music, which included both choral singing as well as piano and organ playing. His father had also studied harmony and was able to read musical scores. Åke’s mother, Xenia (née Ohlsson) had taken piano lessons as a youngster. During much of his childhood Malmfors lived in Stockholm where he had the prominent conductor and singer, Einar Ralf, as a teacher.
After the family moved to Falun, Malmfors took lessons with Anders Jobs, who alongside the teaching profession was active as an organist and composer. Jobs showed great commitment to music teaching, and it was within this context that Malmfors’s interest in music began in earnest. He sang in a choir, played the piano, organ and cello, and even had the opportunity to try out conducting the high school student association's choir and orchestra. Aside from music, Malmfors had difficulties in school and he barely managed to pass his junior secondary school examinations in 1935.
Music studies in Stockholm
Because his father was a friend of Sven Kjellström, then Director of the Musikkonservatoriet in Stockholm (the Royal Conservatory of Music, from 1941 Kungliga Musikhögskolan, the Royal College of Music), Malmfors made contact with Melcher Melchers, who taught counterpoint, composition and other subjects at the conservatory. Malmfors moved to Stockholm and studied harmony with Melchers beginning in 1935. In the spring of 1938, he was accepted as a student in the counterpoint class at the conservatory and was able to continue with the same teacher. During 1936−38 Malmfors also took cello lessons from Gunnar Norrby, and starting in 1936 Malmfors’s first compositions appeared, written for voice and piano.
After two years of study in the counterpoint class, Malmfors was admitted in 1940 to the composition class. His teacher, Melchers, was schooled in France where he had moved among composers such as Satie, Milhaud and Poulenc, and his teaching was markedly coloured by his French education. It is clear that the influence of French music was passed on to Malmfors. Malmfors recounted for his family that on one occasion at the Musikhögskolan, a teacher thought that a Frenchman had composed a piece of music written by him.
During his time at the Musikhögskolan Malmfors also studied choir and orchestra conducting – with David Åhlén respectively Tor Mann – and he graduated as a music teacher in 1943. In the spring of 1945, he completed his studies in composition. Malmfors composed vocal as well as instrumental music during his student years, and many of his most performed works, including his choral piece ‘Månsken’ from 1945, and his most comprehensive works, including the String Quartet from 1943, were created during this period.
Malmfors began work as a conductor while still at the Musikhögskolan, first for the choir of the diocese of Stockholm’s church youth association beginning in 1942, and then for the Huddinge orkesterförening (Huddinge Symphony Orchestra) in 1943. His teacher in choral conducting, David Åhlén, described Malmfors as having ‘this indefinable ability, very rare among conductors, to inspire his orchestra and choir members to perform far beyond their ordinary standard’. In 1946 the job of music director in Huddinge was announced, which Malmfors applied for but did not get. One reason may have been that Malmfors had a handicap, a birth injury to his right arm. The arm had limited mobility and was partially atrophied. Some felt that the handicap was very problematic particularly within the profession of conducting and that Malmfors should not have chosen this career path. One of these was Olallo Morales, composer and conductor as well as an inspector for the country's state-subsidised orchestras when Malmfors worked in Huddinge.
In 1945 Malmfors had also applied for a job as a sound engineer at Radiotjänst (the Swedish Radio service), but he did not receive this either; because of his handicap he was too slow handling the controls. Instead Malmfors focused his energies on a career in Eskilstuna, where he became the director of the orchestra in the autumn of 1946. Malmfors was deeply engaged in this work and implemented changes to the orchestra’s programmes, establishing a more difficult repertoire; he also managed to increase the amount the orchestra received in grants.
Studies in Italy
In the spring of 1948 Malmfors took a leave of absence to travel to Italy where he studied choir and orchestra conducting with Bonaventura Somma respectively Tullio Serafin. But when Malmfors then returned to Eskilstuna in the summer, he found that he had been fired and he was forced to seek a new job. The orchestra’s board was of the opinion that Malmfors was only contracted for one season at a time, and had decided to choose a different conductor. Malmfors did not manage to find a permanent job but had to settle for shorter assignments, including with the Sveriges Radios Underhållningsorkestern (the Swedish Radio’s Entertainment orchestra) and the Radiokören (the Swedish Radio Choir).
Career as a composer
Fortunately his career as a composer had taken off, particularly after the Radiokören’s 1947 performance of ‘Gammal nederländare’ and ‘Månsken’ under the direction of Einar Ralf, Malmfors’s former teacher, who was moreover the director of the Kungliga Musikhögskolan. In a radio review from the same year the following opinion was given: ‘This music definitely does not live on dry desktop-counterpoint, but is born of a composer’s fantasy that, beyond the templates of harmonic theory, superbly masters the possibilities of choral sonorities and understands how to put them in the service of an artistic idea.’ Both of these pieces came out in print in 1945, the same year that they were composed, but their popularity now increased. ‘Månsken’ was recorded with Eric Ericson as the conductor, who also included both ‘Månsken’ and ‘Gammal nederländare’ in an instruction programme in the radio series ‘Sjunga i blandad kör’ (Singing in a mixed choir).
Malmfors’s String quartet from 1943 was played on the radio in 1948, but did not enjoy an overwhelming response. His success was instead that much greater with the new choral music he composed in 1947−48: the songs ‘Pilarna’, ‘I fjärran dis’ and ‘Mångård’, all of which were published in 1949.
Malmfors had further success with his choral music on 8 May 1950, when his just over six-minute-long ‘Kontrabasen’ for men’s choir and piano was premiered by the KFUM-kören (the YMCA choir) and Martin Lidstam, who had also commissioned the work for the choir's 25th anniversary. The concert was broadcast on the radio that same day. In the autumn of 1950 Malmfors succeeded Hildor Lundvik as conductor of the Bellmanskören (the Bellman Choir) in Stockholm. In early March 1951, however, Malmfors suddenly fell ill and died on 7 March, at only 32 years old.
Malmfors’s creative output is small and consists mainly of vocal music, particularly art songs, and choral music. In much of his work the influence of French music is on clear display. This was already being discussed during Malmfors’s lifetime, as when a reviewer at the premiere of his Introduktion och Allegro for saxophone quartet saw similarities to the music of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. At the radio broadcast of the String quartet in 1948, the composer himself pointed out the French influence: ‘My quartet is fairly French influenced but perhaps there are also more personal inflections in it.’
The three choral works composed in 1943, ‘Hans und Grethe’, ‘Wiegenlied’ and ‘Scherzlied’, have more traditional harmonies and a light-hearted tone, and particularly the first and last-named pieces show similarities to the choral music of Wilhelm Peterson-Berger and August Söderman. In January 1945 Malmfors composed the two choral works with which he had his greatest success: ‘Månsken’ and ‘Gammal nederländare’, both with texts by Bo Bergman. In ‘Månsken’ the composer paints, with both dreamy sounds and a playful melody, a sheer and vibrant picture of silver light and elves during the midsummer night the text describes. A characteristic feature of this and also other music of Malmfors is the use of frequent shifts between sonorities. ‘Gammal nederländare’, in contrast, features a burlesque style, but like ‘Månsken’ it is largely built on the characteristic intervals of the Dorian and Lydian church modes. ‘Pilarna’ and ‘I fjärran dis’ (1947) move within a sonoric world that is close to ‘Månsken’, while ‘Mångård’ (1948) has something closer to an atonal musical language, especially in the sparse introduction.
Per-Henning Olsson © 2016
Trans. Jill Ann Johnson
Connor, Herbert: Svensk musik, vol. 2, Från Midsommarvaka till Aniara, Stockholm: Bonnier, 1977.
Davidson, Rolf: Musik i närbild, Stockholm: Sveriges Radio, 1967.
Hedell, Kia: ‘Svenska körer sjunger svenskt?’: Presentation av och reflektioner kring en kartläggning av svensk musik i fyra körers repertoar, Uppsala: Department of Musicology, 2007.
Sjögren, Anna: ‘Malmfors, Åke’, in: Sohlmans musiklexikon, vol. 4, Stockholm: Sohlman, 1977, pp. 429−430.
Sjögren, Anna: Åke Malmfors, Bachelor thesis, Department of Musicology, Uppsala universitet, 1972. [Includes a comprehensive biography and works list.]
‘Åke Malmfors’, in: NE Online.
Summary list of works
Orchestral music (Tango, Scherzo etc.), chamber music (string quartet, violin sonata, Introduction and Allegro for saxophone quartet), organ music (Passacaglia and Fugue), piano music (Tango etc.), songs (Det är vackrast när det skymmer, Undinen, Bortom berg och mörka vatten, etc.), choral music (Gammal nederländare, Månsken, Pilarna, etc.).
The majority of the autographs are at the Musik- och teaterbiblioteket, Stockholm.
Tango. Pastisch för orkester, 1940. [Orchestrated version of Tango. Pastisch a la Milhaud. See under Piano.]
Scherzo, 1946. Premiere filmfestival Locarno, Schweiz.
3 movements for orchestra, undated. Andante, Andantino, Vivace.
Sonata for piano and violin op. 2, 1940−41. Premiere Kungl. Musikhögskolan, Stockholm 25 April 1941.
Introduction and allegro for saxophone quartet, 1941. Premiere Kungl. Musikhögskolan, Stockholm 17 April 1942.
String quartet, 1943. Premiere Kungl. Musikhögskolan, Stockholm 27 April 1944.
Passacaglia and fugue, 1948. Premiere Stockholm 1981(?).
Tango. Pastisch a la Milhaud, 1940. [The piano piece Tango för orkester is based on. See under Orchestra.]
Slowfox (I) av Who-Who, 1949. [The piece that forms the basis of Säg minnes du. See under Songs.]
Vals, likely ca 1949.
Slowfox (II), ca 1949. [Partly with text: Säg minnes du. Compare with Säg minnes du under Songs.]
Slowfox (IV) av Who-Who, ca 1949.
Songs with piano
Godnat (‘Aa, kunde jeg give dig’, F. Nygaard), 1936.
Modern (‘Vill du något gott’, V. Rydberg), 1936.
Zigeunerlied (‘Rothe Abendwolken’, from the Hungarian by H. Conrat), 1937.
En majvisa (‘Nyss fåglarne sjöngo’, G. Fröding), 1937.
Höst (‘Ren trista höstregn’, C. Fleischler), 1937.
Helgmålsringning (‘Det ringer till vila’, J.O. Wallin), 1939. Premiere Matteus Church, Norrköping autumn 1939.
Det är vackrast när det skymmer (P. Lagerkvist), 1941. Premiere Skogskapellet, Falun 24 March 1941.
Undinen (‘Lätt på fot och finger’, Hj. Gullberg), 1942. Premiere Kungl. Musikhögskolan, Stockholm 30 October 1942.
Bortom berg och mörka vatten (Hj. Gullberg), 1942. Premiere Kungliga Musikhögskolan, Stockholm 30 October 1942.
Dryckesvisa från år 1940 (‘Vi släcker vår törst av dräggen’, P. Lagerkvist), 1943.
Tyst är det rum (P. Lagerkvist), 1943. Premiere Gustav Vasa church, Stockholm 13 March 1951 (?).
Som en våg (P. Lagerkvist), 1948.
Säg minnes du, 1949. [Text set to Slowfox (I) av Who-Who. See under Piano.]
Apokalyptisk tid (‘Bibliska gestalter skrida’, P. Lagerkvist), 1949.
Hoppets fackla (P. Lagerkvist), undated. [According to Anna Sjögren’s thesis on Åke Malmfors a gramophone recording of the song was recorded. However there are only a few sketches of the musical material extant.]
Mixed choir a cappella
Stille Nacht for 3-part choir. 1939. [For SAB]. Score, 2 copies, 1 in pencil.
Hans und Grethe (‘Ringel Reihn!’), 1943. Stockholm: Gehrmans musikförlag, 1944. Premiere Kungl. Musikhögskolan, Stockholm 20 April 1944.
Wiegenlied (‘Da oben auf dem Berge’, from ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’), 1943. Stockholm: Gehrmans musikförlag, 1944. Premiere Kungl. Musikhögskolan, Stockholm 20 April 1944.
Scherzlied (‘Storch, Storch’, from ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’), 1943. Stockholm: Gehrmans musikförlag, 1944. Premiere Kungl. Musikhögskolan, Stockholm 20 April 1944.
Gammal nederländare (‘Det är inte roligt att stå och vänta’, B. Bergman), 1945. Stockholm: Gehrmans musikförlag, 1945. Premiere 1947.
Månsken (‘Nu badar allt i nattens ljus’, B. Bergman), 1945. Stockholm: Gehrmans musikförlag, 1945. Premiere 1947.
Pilarna (‘Vid låga stränder drömma vi’, S. Siwertz), 1947. Stockholm: Gehrmans musikförlag, 1949.
I fjärran dis (‘I fjärran dis av silvergrå oxid’, S. Siwertz), 1947. Stockholm: Gehrmans musikförlag, 1949.
Mångård (‘Dödsstilla mångård, nattens irisring’, S. Siwertz), 1948. Stockholm: Gehrmans musikförlag, 1949.
Mixed choir with instruments
Te Deum för for mixed choir and organ (‘Halleluja! Lova Herrens namn’, Psalms 135 and 136), 1944. Stockholm: Nordiska musikförlaget, 1948. Premiere Kungl. Musikhögskolan, Stockholm 21 April 1945.
Men’s choir with instruments
Kontrabasen for men’s choir and piano (‘Hör hur jag ropar’, S. Siwertz), 1949. Stockholm: Gehrmans musikförlag, 1949. Premiere Stockholm 8 May 1950.