Hjalmar Meissner (1865−1940)


Carl Hjalmar Meissner was born 1 March 1865 in Helsinki, Finland and died 28 May 1940 in Stockholm. He was a Finnish-Swedish pianist, conductor, arranger, composer and author. As a conductor, he worked mainly as a bandleader for military music and theatre ensembles, but also as an opera and symphony orchestra conductor. His profession as a composer arose mostly from his work as pianist and conductor. He was married to operetta singer Emma Meissner in 1899.

Education and early years as musician and composer

Hjalmar Meissner's father was the German composer, conductor and cellist August E.H.B. Meissner (1833−1903). His mother, Abela Mathilda Backman, was Swedish. The Meissner family came from a long ancestral line of musicians from Grabow in Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Germany. Abela Mathilda Backman was daughter to consul and printer Charles Henri Backman and Mathilde Smith de Serre from Gothenburg, Sweden. Smith de Serre was a descendent of French nobility. Because of his international background, ensconced in high culture, Hjalmar Meissner was particularly receptive to diversions such as French opera and operettas.

Displaying precocious musical talent, Meissner commenced studies at the Musikkonservatoriet (the Royal Conservatory of Music) in Stockholm when he was only 10 years old. He studied harmony, violin and piano between 1875 and 1880. 1880−82 he continued studies in Paris, taking piano lessons from Théodore Ritter and studying harmony with Auguste Durand. He made his piano debut in 1878 and began to work professionally, giving performances in Finland and Sweden, in parallel with his studies. His debut as an orchestra conductor began with the Tivoli Opera in Kristiania (Oslo) for the 1884−85 season. Afterwards he was employed as a conductor at Nya teatern 1885−87 and at Svenska teatern in Helsinki 1887−91.

Throughout the 1880's and 1890's most of his incidental music was composed for productions such as Swedish playwright and theatre director Harald Molander's Kungarna på Salamis (1888) − for the anniversary of the Finnish poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg − and author C.J. Fröberg's Rosenkind (1889) in addition to piano music, such as the set of variations Hur man komponerar (How to compose) (1894) based on the folksong ‘Spinn, spinn dotter min’. Hur man komponerar could better be described as a compositional style manual.

Theatre and military musician a musical jack-of-all-trades

In 1888, Meissner completed his degree in music at the Musikkonservatoriet. In 1889 he combined work as theatre conductor with employment as Director of Music of the Band of the Royal Kalmar Regiment in Hultsfred, for which he wrote marches and arranged music. Under his direction, the Band improved noticeably, receiving much attention from around the nation. From 1891−96, the Band was engaged permanently at Blanch's Café in Stockholm and the Garden Society of Gothenburg − in addition to its main military duties. Most of Meissner's musical endeavours were preoccupied with military music. As part of the Stockholm Exhibition of 1897 he was responsible for the performances of three military bands at Arenateatern. Meissner assumed his military music duties while simultaneously performing other musical activities and did not retire from the Band of the Royal Kalmar Regiment until 1914.

From 1897, Meissner worked together with ‘theatre king’ Albert Ranft, who ran several of the Stockholm theatres. From 1914 Meissner was employed for various periods as music director and conductor at several of Ranft's theatres including the Vasateatern, Östermalmsteatern and Oscarsteatern. From 1908−10 he was even music director at another of Ranft's theatres: Kungliga Teatern (the Royal Opera). His repertoire encompassed the most popular musical revues of the day in addition to opera and operettas.

In October of 1914 Meissner changed course, accepting a position as assistant conductor at Göteborgs orkesterförening (Gothenburg Orchestral Society) under chief conductor Tor Aulin. By 1920 he had returned to Stockholm, serving as an administrator and conductor of Stockholms konsertförening (the Stockholm Concert Society), where he was responsible for school concerts. From 1921−29 he worked at both Oscarsteatern and Vasateatern, but when Ranft went bankrupt in 1929, Meissner's employment was terminated. He worked afterwards as a guest conductor, master of ceremonies, columnist and author. From 1926 he was often on the radio as a programme host, columnist and conductor.

The unpretentious composer

Despite published compositions, at the celebration of his 70th birthday in 1935 Meissner denied that he had been a composer. As a composer of stage music, he did not have any recognisable style since his aspiration in writing such music was to serve performances of opera and operettas. This was the nature of incidental music – serving the function of effectively emphasising the dramatic plot. Several of these musical elements are reflected in Meissner's potpourri Från Vasateaterns glada dagar (From the happy days at Vasateatern) (1905), where lines are cited from various musical revues in an assortment of rhythms and keys.

Known for his contributions to Swedish military music, Meissner cultivated epochal traditions with competent, idiomatic writing, adding many arrangements and new works to the Swedish repertoire such as Kalmar regementes gamla marsch (Kalmar regiment's old march). Moreover, many references to folk music can be heard in Meissner's works. Influences from French romantic music are distinguishable in pieces such as his piano suite Mélancholie, Le papillon and Chanson (1881). Meissner can also be identified on numerous recordings from this time period: mostly as conductor, but also as pianist, not least as an attentive accompanist. On several gramophone records Meissner performs in his own compositions.

Meissner's wife was the famous operetta singer Emma Meissner, (née Ekström, 1866−1942). They married on 7 May 1899; the marriage was childless. The couple inspired the Swedish 1920’s ‘king of revues’ Ernst Rolf, to the famous couplet ‘Jag är ute när gumman min är inne’ (I'm out when my old lady is in).

Hjalmar Meissner was elected to the Kungliga Musikaliska akademien (Royal Swedish Academy of Music) in 1921 and received the Litteris et artibus award in 1925.

Toivo Burlin © 2015
Trans. Thalia Thunander

Publications by the composer

En musikers minnen. Episoder och anekdoter, Stockholm: Bonniers, 1914.
Teaterhistoria och teaterhistorier. Minnen och anteckningar från en 40-årig verksamhet inom teaterns roliga och oroliga värld, Stockholm: Åhlén & Åkerlund, 1924.
Musikanter och dilettanter, Stockholm: Åhlén & Åkerlund, 1925.
Dagsländor och nattfjärilar, Stockholm: Åhlén & Åkerlund, 1926.
Gamla glada Stockholm. Minnen upptecknade av Hjalmar Meissner, illustrator: Arne Lindenbaum, Stockholm: Fritzes, 1939.


Edenstrand, Åke: Civila och militära musiker, in Musiken i Sverige bd III. Den nationella identiteten 1810−1920, Stockholm: Bokförlaget Fischer & Co, 1992, p. 167.
Glimstedt, Herman: Hjalmar Meissner, in Svenska män och kvinnor, vol. 5, Stockholm: Bonniers förlag, 1949, p. 273.
Jonsson, Leif & Tegen, Martin: Musiklivet privat och offentligt, in Musiken i Sverige, bd III, Den nationella identiteten 1810−1920, Stockholm: Bokförlaget Fischer & Co, 1992, p. 125.
Lewenhaupt, Inga: Emma O Meissner, in Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 25, 1985−1987, pp. 334.
Lindgren, Jens: Hjalmar ger jassen sitt gillande, in Noterat, no. 3, 1996, pp. 65−71. 

Rosenquist, Claes: Albert A Ranft in Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 29, 1995−1997, p. 659.
Salmenhaara, Erkki: Meissner, Hjalmar, in Sohlmans musiklexikon, vol. 44, 1977, p. 480.
Tegen, Martin: Musiklivet i Stockholm 1890−1910, diss. Stockholm: Stockholms kommunalförvaltning, 1955.
Tegen, Martin: C Hjalmar Meissner, in Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 25, 1985−1987, p. 332.
Meissner, Carl Hjalmar, musikdirektör, in Vem är det: Svensk biografisk handbok, 1925.


Kungl. biblioteket, Krigsarkivet, Musikmuseet, Musik- och teaterbiblioteket, Stockholms stadsarkiv

Summary list of works

Music to theatrical works of which three are acknowledged and well-known: (Kungarna på Salamis, Rosenkind, Kabaret kanariefågeln), piano works (solo pieces and etudes) in addition to military music (marches, potpourris and arrangements such as Kalmar regementes gamla marsch).

Collected works

Incidental music
Kungarna på Salamis, 1888.
Rosenkind, 1889.
Kabaret kanariefågeln, n.d.

Incidental music arrangements
Präriens vilda ros, n.d.
Mister Bondy, n.d.

Mélancholie, piano solo. Svensk musiktidning, Musikbilaga, 1881.
Le papillon, piano solo. Svensk musiktidning, Musikbilaga, 1881.
Chanson, piano solo. Svensk musiktidning, Musikbilaga, 1881.
Lefve general'n!, march, ca 1883.
På maskeraden, waltz, 1886.
På landet, five tone paintings for piano, 1887: 1. Morgonstämning, 2. I skogen, 3. Landtlig dans, 4. På sjön, 5. Aftonstämning.
Orientalist-kongressmarsch [march], 1889.
Skymningstankar, waltz for piano by Hjalmar Meissner, 1890.
Carnaval-polka, ca 1891.
Hennes namn, waltz, ca 1892.
La capricieuse, ca 1892.
Hur man komponerar, gammalt tema med variationer, 1894.
Tryckfrihet, damernas vals under pressens vecka, ca 1905.
Kärlek och ballong, ca 1905.
På sjön, piano solo, 1908.
En smålandstrall, ca 1918.

Arrangements for piano
Potpourri from the opera Diamantkorset by Sigfried Saloman, 1887.
En tid som gått, famous tunes from the 1850s, 1899.
Från Vasateaterns glada dagar, potpourri arr. by Hj. Meissner, ca 1905.
Svenskt porträttgalleri, våra stora män o kvinnor i musikalisk belysning, ca 1913.

Military music
Marche Triumphale for 28 men.
Potpurri over old Swedish folkdances, n.d.
Kalmar regiment's old march, n.d.

Military music arrangements
Visor och trallar från Småland, n.d.
Smålandstrall, ca 1918.