Josef Otto af Sillén (1859−1951)


Josef Otto af Sillén was born in Solna on 2 July 1859 and died in Stockholm on 14 July 1951. After completing secondary school he began a career in the military with the Västgöta-Dals regiment. He later went on to a career in the insurance industry and from 1900 until 1928 he worked as the director for the Heimdall insurance company, which he also founded. During 1903−17 he was chair of the New Philharmonic Society in Stockholm. As a composer Sillén was particularly devoted to orchestral music and, among other things, he wrote several symphonies in a late Romantic style.

Childhood and education

Josef Otto af Sillén was born into a noble family from Stora Frösunda in Solna on 2 July 1859. His father was the administrator of the provincial secretariat, Gustaf Otto Probius af Sillén, and his mother was Octavia Vilhelmina Helin. He had several siblings, including his older brother Herman Gustaf af Sillén (1857−1908), who was a naval officer and made a name for himself as one of Sweden’s foremost maritime painters.

Josef af Sillén studied at the private Beskowska skolan – an exclusive Latin school for upper class boys – together with famous names such as the Swedish princes Gustav, Oscar and Carl. He continued his education at the Teknologiska Institutet (the KTH Royal Institute of Technology), completing his high school education in 1878.

Military career and music education

Directly after graduation af Sillén began his military career as a volunteer for the pontonjärbataljonen (a corps of engineers later known as Svea ingenjörkår, Ing 1) and later in the Västgöta-Dal’s regiment. In 1879 he was registered as a student at the Kungliga krigsskolan (the Royal Military Academy) in Karlberg where he graduated in 1880. He then returned to Västgöta-Dal’s regiment as a second lieutenant, continuing to advance during the following years until he became captain in 1896.

It was likely during his time with the Västgöta-Dal’s regiment that af Sillén began to study music seriously. The regiment had good teachers, among them the music director and violinist Lars Johan Zetterquist. It seems that the violin and piano became af Sillén’s instruments of choice, and it appears that he later served as a conductor. He also studied composition and orchestration from several prominent teachers including Johan Lindegren, Wilhelm Heintze, Ernst Ellberg and Andreas Hallén.

In the insurance branch

Alongside his military career, af Sillén began a career in the insurance business during the 1880s, and in 1890 became director for the Swedish division of the Star insurance company. In 1900 he had the opportunity to found his own insurance company, Försäkrings AB Heimdall, serving as its CEO until 1928. The company handled, among other things, automobile, burglary, accident, travel, illness and transport insurance. After leaving the business world af Sillén was then increasingly able to devote himself to his great interest in music, which he had nurtured throughout his entire career alongside his job.

Activities within the music scene

Throughout his long involvement within the music scene af Sillén took part in several important organizations and events. His work within the Nya filharmoniska sällskapet (the New Philharmonic Society) was particularly significant. This society, consisting mainly of a large mixed choir with members from the upper classes, grew out of the earlier Filharmoniska sällskapet (the Philharmonic Society) that was founded in 1885 by composer Andreas Hallén. The intention of the choir was to perform concerts in Stockholm, in which the repertoire would consist mainly of larger choral works with orchestra such as Bach’s Passion music, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Brahm’s A German Requiem and others. At the founding meeting on 12 November 1903 af Sillén was elected chair of the society, retaining the position until 1917.

As a principle actor within the music scene, af Sillén was also engaged in one of the largest music events at the beginning of the 1900s in Stockholm – namely the music festival ‘Första svenska musikfesten’ (the First Swedish Music Festival) that took place at the Kungliga Teatern (the Royal Opera) on 31 May and 1 June 1906. Josef af Sillén was a member of the organizing committee as well as the library committee. This music festival consisted of three concerts with a program presenting exclusively Swedish composers, including Ludvig Norman, Franz Berwald, August Söderman, Andreas Hallén, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, and others. Through advertising in the press the organizers were able to invite music societies from both the capital city and the provinces, resulting in ca. 20 participating societies and a total of 615 singers, of which the Nya filharmoniska sällskapet was the single largest ensemble. In addition 81 instrumentalists took part along with ten well-known names such as Hugo Alfvén, Tor Aulin, Stenhammar and Hallén, who conducted the performances. This music festival was thus a huge event that was widely covered in the press.

Another event that also received considerable attention, both in the form of criticism and praise, was a concert at the venue Cirkus on 21 January 1912, in which segments of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal were performed. The event was initiated by Queen who urged af Sillén (who had been named kammarherre – a member of the royal court – the previous year) to arrange the concert. Singers from the Nya filharmoniska sällskapet as well as instrumentalists from the orchestra of the Svenska musikerförbundet (the Swedish Musicians’ Union) took part in the performance. During preparations for the concert a string of criticisms were cited in the press by leading music journalists, among them Olallo Morales, who criticized everything from the choice of the music itself, to the concert venue, to the conductor – Seeber van der Flohe (SvD 19/12 1911).  Despite these criticisms, the concert was a success and received a very good response in the reviews that followed.

Other opportunities presented themselves to af Sillén – he was a candidate for the position as the head of the Kungliga Teatern after the departure of Axel Burén; Burén had also been af Sillén’s predecessor as chair for the Filharmoniska sällskapet. However, the proposal was insufficiently prepared and instead director Albert Ranft was chosen (Svensk Musiktidning nr 5 1908). Although af Sillén did not receive that position he was involved with other important undertakings in Swedish music life. Among others, he was chosen to sit on a committee established in 1910 to sort out the issue of instituting a new concert hall in Stockholm. The question of the establishment of a city orchestra and the instituting of a new concert hall in Stockholm had been raised at a meeting at the Hotel Rydberg on the initiative of Stockholm branch of the musicians’ union (Svensk Musiktidning no. 5 1910). This shows the prominent position that af Sillén held within Stockholm’s music life during the beginning years of the 20th century. In 1907 he received the royal medal, Litteris et artibus, for his activities as a pianist, composer, conductor and chair of the Nya filharmoniska sällskapet.

af Sillén, the composer

As a composer Sillén completed some 60 compositions, many of which were symphonic works. A large part of his compositions were created during the latter part of his life, once he had left his professional duties and could give more time to his musical interests. His earlier works, most likely produced during the 1880s, were mainly works for voice and piano as well as works for violin and piano. A number of these works were given out by publishers such as Elkan & Schildknecht and Abraham Lundquist. The pieces were simple and traditional, which also pertains to his choral works.

That which distinguishes af Sillén as a composer is his relatively large output of orchestral compositions including five symphonies, five concert overtures and one violin concerto. These orchestral works by af Sillén belong to style of late Romanticism in parallel with, for example Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, but also include inspiration from earlier composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn. The first symphony is no longer wholly extant, however at least some movements from it were performed by the Mozartverein in Dresden during 1924, where his second symphony was also performed several years later. His third symphony, which has also been recorded, was performed in Stockholm by the orchestra of the Konsertföreningen (the Stockholm Concert Society) in 1937 and was positively received. This work has a traditional four-movement form with a strong central theme that characterizes the first movement. His orchestral works are perhaps not the most original but are well written and show good treatment of the orchestra.

The larger of af Sillén’s works also include his violin concerto that he dedicated to his daughter Greta, who studied violin with, among others, the world-renowned violin pedagogue Leopold Auer. She never performed the work publicly, but it has been recorded. The work was likely written at the beginning of the 1920s and also has a traditional form with three movements. This work shows off af Sillén’s good orchestration technique and able handling of the orchestra as well.

Anne Reese Willén © 2016
Trans. Jill Ann Johnson


Hedwall, Lennart: Den svenska symfonin, Stockholm: AWE/Geber, 1983, pp. 243−244.
Ribbing, Henrik: ‘Josef Otto af Sillén’, [text to the cd], Josef Otto af Sillén Violinconcerto in E minor, Symphony no. 3 in E minor, Sterling CDS-1044-2, 2001.
−−−: Josef Otto af Sillén, unpublished thesis, available at the Musik- och teaterbiblioteket i Stockholm,
Svenska Dagbladet, 19 Dec. 1911.
Svensk Musiktidning, no. 9 1906, p. 3.
Svensk Musiktidning, no. 10 1906, p. 3.

Summary list of works

Orchestral Works (5 symphonies, consert overtures, violin concerto, etc.), chamber music, songs and choral works.

Collected works

Allegretto in G major, for orchestra.
Andante in G minor, for orchestra.
Concert-allegro, for orchestra.
Högtidsmusik tillägnad Johanniterorden i Sverige, for orchestra.
Introduction and allegro i D minor, for violin and orchestra.
Concert overture D minor, for orchestra.
Concert overture B minor, for orchestra.
Concert overture no. 1 E minor.
Konsertuvertyr no. 2 F-sharp minor, for orchestra, 1938.
Concert overture no. 3 D major, for orchestra
Symfoni no. 1 [not preserved in its entirety].
Symfoni no. 2 E minor.
Symfoni no. 3 E minor.
Symfoni no. 4 D minor, 1937.
Symfoni no. 5 D minor.
Symphonisches orchesterstück D minor (under the pseudonym Chinshak Saari).
Waltz D major, for piano, clarinet and strings.
Violin concerto E minor.

Voice and piano
Aftonen (‘Hvad gör det?’, C.A. Nicander), romance for one voice and piano.
Bittida i skog (‘Ett rosende sken’), song for one voice and piano.
Fånget hjerta (‘Mitt hjerta var vitt som en fågels’, K. Asplund), for voice and piano.
Heimatlos (‘Ich habe keine Heimat mehr’, V. Domeyr), for voice and piano.
Ich will mich im grünen Wald ergeh'n’ (G.C. Röder’s Officin), romance for one voice and piano.
Musik i solnedgången (‘Att lyssna stilla’, C.D. af Wirsén).
Mötet (‘En silfverväf af måneljus’, G.C. Röder’s Officin), romance for one voice and piano.
Sol och ljus, (‘Låt solen stråla’, K. Nyblom) for one voice and piano.
Sommartoner (‘Svärma yra fjäril’, H. Montgomery Cederhielm), song for tenor or soprano with piano.
Till smärtan (‘Jag vet ej om fullare fröjd står att få’, D. Andersson).
Und wüssten’s die Blumen, die kleinen (H. Heine), voice and piano.
Vem styrde hit din väg? (‘Långt bortom fjärdens våg’, J.L. Runeberg).
Våraning (‘Det ljusnar, det ljusnar, det lider mot vår’, K. Nyblom), romance for one voice and piano.

Violin and piano
Adagio, for violin and piano.
Allegretto D minor, for violin and piano.
Allegretto [G minor]. For violin and piano.
Capriccio, for violin and piano E minor.
Three duets for violin and piano.


Allegretto [D major].
Allegretto grazioso [A major].
Aquarelle for piano.
Arabeske [sic] [C minor].
Bajadèr-dans for piano.
Four minor tone pieces composed for piano. 1. Alla Zingara, 2. Trösteord, 3. A la Rheinländer, 4. Nocturne.
Humoresque for piano.
Impromptu-étude for piano.
Källsprång, waltz for piano.
Lyrical intermezzo for piano.
Moderato [E-flat major].
Ziguenardans [sic] for piano.

Moderato G major.

Aftonskyn (‘Hvarför är du så mörk’, H. Montgomery Cederhielm), for men’s choir.
Framåt (‘Väl reser sig hotande lifvets bölja’, H. Montgomery Cederhielm).
Friden (‘Högt på himmelen solen lyser’, H. Heine?).
Frieden (‘Hoch am Himmel stand die Sonne’, H. Heine).
Kyrie eleison, for mixed choir.
Nu löser solen sitt blonda hår, (P. Lagerkvist), for men’s choir.
Serenade (‘Stjärna som blänker ned’, E. Carelius), for men’s choir.
Solsång (‘O morgonsol!’), for men’s choir.
Vid min lyckas vagga (‘Ja nu är det värt att leva’, E. Carelius), for men’s choir.

Works by Josef Otto af Sillén

There are no works by the composer registered