Gunnar Malmström (1892−1961)


Erik Gunnar Malmström, born in Uppsala on 25 March 1892 and died in Stockholm on 4 February 1961, was a composer, arranger, conductor, music director and pianist. His most important musical contributions were within the area of film music, first with silent films and then with sound films, both as an arranger and a composer. He was a strong proponent of the consistent application of Wagnerian leitmotif technique in film music. As a composer of art music he also created several chamber music works and melodramas.

Early music career

Nothing is known about Gunnar Malmström’s childhood. In 1913 his name appeared on the enrollment list of Uppsala University’s medical faculty, but the following year he was missing from the university’s catalogue. It is possible that he completed an advanced music education, however, not at the Kungliga Musikkonservatoriet (the Royal Conservatory of Music) where he is not listed among the matriculated students. He may have studied privately or outside of Sweden. According to one source, he was a restaurant musician for a period of time.

His earliest published arrangements and compositions appeared around 1922 when he was some thirty years old. He seems to have left Uppsala for the capital city by 1918, according to the population register. In Stockholm he then worked until the beginning of the 1940s as a versatile musician and composer – the latter within art music, film music and popular music.

Gunnar Malmström arrived early on the theatre and silent film music scene. During the 1920s Malmström worked mainly at different cinema theatres in Stockholm. From 1926 until at least 1929 he was conductor of the Mikloskaensemblen (The Mikloska ensemble) at the Rialto cinema where, according to an advertisement in the newspaper, Dagens Nyheter (21/2 1926), this ‘popular conductor’, after a detailed study of Hawaiian music literature, reinforced the cinema orchestra with ‘Hawaiian guitars’. Afterward he had a similar job at the cinema Metropol-Palais (renamed Lyran in 1932), which opened in 1927 on Sveavägen, the same street in Stockholm as the Rialto. Here he led a nine-person orchestra – Mikloskakapellet (Mikloska orchestra). (According to unconfirmed sources both the Mikloskaensemblen and Mikloskakapellet were named after his musician wife, Sefa Mikloska-Schneider.) Around 1930 Malmström was the orchestra conductor for the cinema Ritz. Parallel to this he was engaged in other musical activities. In 1929 he recorded some twenty-five 78-rpm discs for the Edison Bell Radio company using both his own arrangements of Swedish folk songs and others’ compositions. For these recordings he was predominantly a conductor but also a performer – it was the phonogram ensemble, National orchestra, that mainly played on these records.

Silent film arranger and cinema musician

During the silent film era that ended around 1930, film music was performed live either by individual musicians, a small band or a larger orchestra, depending on the cinema’s finances and location. For example, Stockholm’s leading cinema, the Röda Kvarn had a permanent twenty-person orchestra. The music could be written in detail but there was also often room for both variation and improvisation. It was common practice that the orchestra conductor at the cinema where the film premiered – often a major cinema in Stockholm such as the Röda Kvarn or the Palladium – put together a detailed musical program that specified the music for each scene, including where the changes to the next musical work would occur. Then, with larger or smaller variations, this program would be performed wherever the film played in cinemas around the country. The music was often based on ready-made proposals of appropriate, previously composed music – a sort of film music prescription that was sent out by the film agency to the cinemas but that could be changed at will.

At the beginning of his career as an orchestra conductor and arranger, Gunnar Malmström was very much engaged in putting together such music programs, often for American films. There are at least five preserved programs by Malmström from 1926, in which he compiled and arranged music for major foreign films. He was greatly impressed by American film music arrangers who (according to film studies professor Ann-Kristin Wallengren) often worked with four or five musical themes, sometimes in the form of a leitmotif that recurred in three to seven places in a film. For the music program to John W. Brunius’s cinematic staging of Johan Ludvig Runeberg’s poems, Fänrik Ståls sägner (1926), Malmström had the Finnish conductor Armas Järnefelt as a musical adviser.

Soundtrack composer and debater                                          

From around 1928, Malmström seems to have been given greater responsibility for arranging and composing film music. He became more of an arranger and composer than a compiler of music with early examples such as the spectacular Gustav Wasa (parts one and two) and The Case of Lena Smith (1929). In The Case of Lena Smith Malmström used a form of leitmotif technique with four alternating themes. He supposedly composed all of the music for the film Never the Twain Shall Meet directed by Maurice Tourneur in 1925. However, according to Ann-Kristin Wallengren, this has been put into question by the fact that the film toured the country with a music program put together by another orchestra conductor.

At about the same time, Gunnar Malmström began to take an active part in the contemporary debate on film music, becoming a frequent commentator in the trade journals. In 1927 in the journal Musikern, Malmström initiated a debate on the aesthetics of music – in retrospect a very animated one – about the value of leitmotif technique in the composition of film music. He argued that cinema orchestra conductors should have opera, and especially Wagner’s dramatic music as a model for creating a memorable leitmotif. The debate in the Musikern ended after ten issues, but continued further in a couple of film journals, as well as the newspaper Stockholms-Tidningen, continuing up to 1928. According to Ann-Kristin Wallengren, the debate revealed that film music was seen to be hugely important to the film experience and that it was regarded as a special form of art that was in symbiosis with the moving pictures. The debate also showed that film music had not yet established obvious conventions, and instead was very dependent on other music: opera, incidental and popular music.

Gunnar Malmström was an elegant debater. He took an active part in the grounding of the Swedish formulation and establishment of film music conventions both in its theoretical aspects – by introducing new literature – and in practice as an arranger and composer. He was also later important in establishing a film’s musical language. He converted theory into compositional practice: in his own film composing he used a leitmotif technique that was inspired by both Richard Wagner and American film composers. He was also very interested in discussing the premises of sound in films. ‘Imitations of sounds’, sound effects and illustrative sound and sometimes also spoken utterances that were performed by the orchestra in real time, strongly influenced the balance in the aesthetic architecture of silent films. Malmström believed that the orchestra conductor – especially when it comes to more serious films – should sparingly use only those sounds that are meaningful for the narration of the film’s story. He was against seeking out effects for effects’ sake.

After a few years without any significant contributions to film music, a period during which sound films became established, Malmström returned to the film music world. He composed successful music for the sound films Bombi Bitt och jag (1936), Bleka greven (1937), Ett brott (1940) and Med dig i mina armar (1940). To Bleka greven and Ett brott he also contributed arrangements from other composers.

Composer of chamber music and melodramas

Gunnar Malmström also composed more typical art music works, mainly chamber music and music for melodramas. He composed and published the melodramas Vet du (1933), De båda danserskorna (1933−34) and Kvarnsången (1935) in a short, intense period during 1933−35. He utilized the texts from such disparate authors as Sweden’s Prince Wilhelm and the writer Dan Andersson. Most of the well known art music pieces that came from Malmström’s pen were written during the first half of the 1930s, which seems to show that he left film work during this period and tried a career as a freelance composer – returning in the middle of the 1930s to work in the new medium of sound films with Bombi Bitt och jag as the first production in 1936.

After these substantial contributions to the early development of Swedish sound films nothing is known of any further published compositions by Gunnar Malmström. Just like his childhood, the last twenty years of his life lack clear contours, as the sources remain strangely silent.

Toivo Burlin © 2016
Trans. Jill Ann Johnson


Edström, Olle: Göteborgs rika musikliv: En översikt mellan världskrigen. (Publications from the department of Musicology. MH, Göteborgs universitet no. 42). Göteborg, 1996, pp. 353f, 359−361, 372.
Furberg, Kjell: Svenska biografer. Stockholm: Prisma. p. 147.
Wallengren, Ann-Kristin: En afton på Röda kvarn. Svensk stumfilm som musikdrama. Diss. (Litteratur teater film, Nya serien 17). Lund: Lunds University Press, 1998, pp. 117, 124, 125, 132, 134, 144, 150, 213.

Summary list of works

Orchestral Works (Festfanfar, Preludio lirico, Scherzo, Tarantella, etc.), chamber music (Humoresque for violin and piano, Intermezzo for cello and piano, tango and tarantella for cello and orchestra), melodramas (De båda danserskorna, Lindagull, Vet du, Fädernas Arv), film music (Gustav Wasa I & II, Bombi Bitt och jag, Bleka greven, Ett brott, Med dig i mina armar).

Collected works

Film music
Fänrik Ståls sägner del I and del II (dir. J.W. Brunius), 1926. [All music in arr. by Malmström.] 
Gustav Wasa del I & del II (dir. J.W. Brunius), 1928. [All music in arr. by Gunnar Malmström].
Historien om Lena Smith (The Case of Lena Smith, dir. J. von Sternberg), 1929. [All music arr. by Malmström.] 
Bombi Bitt och jag (dir. G. Rodin), 1936. [All music composed by Gunnar Malmström.]
Bleka greven (dir. G. Rodin), 1937. [Malmström one of two composers, includes Att bygga små luftslott i himmelens höjd.] 
Ett brott (dir. A. Henrikson), 1940. [Malmström one of three composers.] 
Med dig i mina armar (dir. H. Ekman), 1940. [Malmström one of three composers, Opera parody by Malmström].

Other orchestral music

Preludio lirico op. 20 for string orchestra, 1940.
Tarantella op. 14 D minor, 1932.
Tarantella op. 18:2 G minor for cello and orchestra, 1937.
Festfanfar op. 19 for string orchestra, 1937.
Scherzo op. 2, 1942.

Vocal works with orchestra

Lindagull op. 11, melodrama (B. Gripenberg), 1930. [Recitative and orchestra.]
Vet du, melodrama (Prince Wilhelm), 1933. [Recitative and orchestra.]
De båda danserskorna, melodrama (Prince Wilhelm), 1933−34. [Recitative and orchestra.]
Fädernas arv (G. Malmström), 1935. [Voice & military orchestra, also in a version for voice and orchestra.]
Kvarnsången, melodrama (D. Andersson), 1935. [Soprano, mixed choir and orchestra.]

Chamber music
Humoresque op.5 [violin and piano] 
Mellanspel [cello and piano] 
Tango op.18:1, 1937. [cello and orchestra]
Tarantella op. 18:2 for cello and orchestra, 1937.

Popular music
Dansmusik, One-step.  
Fädernas arv (Gunnar Malmström) [voice and piano], 1936.
Längtan = Swanee (music: George Gershwin, Text: Gunnar Malmström)
Att bygga små luftslott i himmelens höjd (Erik Fridén), 1937.  
Å hi å hej. Seglarvals (Gunnar Malmström), 1938.  

Söderman-album: 60 valda tondikter (music: August Söderman) [arrangements by Gunnar Malmström and others]
Nog minns jag hur det var, när som lilla vännen for (music: August Söderman)
Svenska nationaldanser 1 (music: Richard Andersson), 1922. [orchestra]
Svenska nationaldanser 2 (music: Richard Andersson), 1928. [orchestra]
Jag vet en dejlig rosa. Folk melody. 1929.
Inga, liten kvarnpiga. Folk melody. 1929.
Vi ska' ställa te' en roliger dans. Folk melody. 1929.
Och jungfrun gick åt killan. Folk melody. 1929.
Folk melody. Vindarna sucka uti skogarna. 1929.
Folk melody. Och om jag inte hade dig (music:  G. Engelbrekt, arr. G. Malmström). 1929.
Menuet. Un peau rococo. 1929.
Visa i folkton. 1929.
Och aldrig mötas de två. 1929.
Valse moderato. Sagans prinsessa (music:  C. Dahny arr. G. Malmström). 1929.
Folk melody. Och hör du unga Dora. 1929.
Folk melody. Jag gick mig ut en aftonstund. 1929.
Folk melody. Per Svinaherde. 1929.
Folk melody. Jungfrun i det gröna. 1929.
Morgon (music:  E. Eklöf, arr. Gunnar Malmström). 1929.
Sverige (music:  W. Stenhammar arr. G. Malmström). 1929.
Folk melody. Den lille båtsmannen. 1929.
Folk melody. Sven Svanevit. 1929.

Film music programmes (likely a compilation of essentially other composers’ works)
Om människorna visste (The Mystic, Tod Browning, 1925) [Gunnar Malmström 1926].
Busters miljoner (Seven Chances, Buster Keaton, 1925) [Gunnar Malmström 1926].
Den stora paraden (The Big Parade, King Vidor, 1925) [Gunnar Malmström 1926].
Djävulens cirkus (The Devil’s Circus, Benjamin Christensen, 1926) [Gunnar Malmström 1926].
Dubbelmoral (Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Marshall Neilan, 1924) [Gunnar Malmström 1926].
Malajen (The Better ’ole, Charles Reisner, 1926) [Gunnar Malmström, 1927].
Kvinnan från Moskwa (The Woman from Moscow), [Ludwig Berger, Gunnar Malmström, 1928].

Works by Gunnar Malmström

There are no works by the composer registered