August Söderman (1832−1876)


Johan August Söderman, born in Stockholm 17 July 1832. Studied harmony and piano at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music as a teenager. Acquired practical experience as music director for a travelling theatre company in the 1850s and later as choirmaster and second conductor of the Royal Opera from 1860 until his death on 10 February 1876. In his capacity as music director for the theatre he composed a great deal of incidental music for plays, as well as vocal works, such as solo and choral ballads and songs. These pieces proved very popular, especially on account of their purportedly folk–music influences. Söderman was a much lauded composer in Stockholm in the mid–19th century, and despite his short life, his output was considerable and many of his works are still performed to this day.

August Söderman.


Early years 1832−50

August Söderman was born in Stockholm in 1832, the eldest son of a musical family. His father Johan Wilhelm (1808−1858) was orchestra leader at many of the capital’s smaller theatres, such as Djurgårdsteatern, Södra teatern and Mindre teatern, where he conducted and arranged music for the performances. August’s younger half–brother Fritz (1838−1883) trained to become a cellist and was employed by Hovkapellet (the Royal Court Orchestra) between 1859 and 1880. August too began his music studies at an early age, and studied harmony and piano at the Kungliga Musikaliska akademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Music) from 1847 to 1850. He also played violin and oboe and was engaged from time to time by Hovkapellet as an oboist when not performing at balls and other such festive events.

Director of Music at Stjernström’s theatres, 1851−56

In the autumn of 1851, Söderman was engaged as music director for Edvard Stjernström’s travelling theatre company. Stjernström was a famous actor at Mindre teatern in Stockholm, which he had left the previous autumn to perform with his own troupe in Helsinki and other Finnish towns. There was no permanent national theatre in Finland, so dramas had to be performed by travelling companies. After one season, Stjernström needed a new music director and Söderman accepted the offer. This meant ensuring that the music required by the performances was composed, arranged and practised by the musicians, who, as was common for the time, had to be engaged locally by Söderman since the company had no orchestra of its own.

The company returned to Sweden in the autumn of 1853, playing first in Stockholm, Norrköping and Gothenburg, before Stjernström returned to Stockholm for good a year later to take over the Mindre teatern. Söderman remained as music director with the same duties he had had when travelling. He was also involved in the attempt to set up a permanent theatre orchestra, an endeavour that was dogged by financial and other difficulties. For much of Söderman’s time at the Mindre teatern, the orchestra consisted of a contracted string quartet and wind instrumentalists employed on an as–needed basis according to whatever was on the repertoire.

Studies in Leipzig, 1856−57; director of music at Mindre teatern, 1857−60

After years of hard work composing and arranging music for the needs of the theatre, with no training in composition to call upon, Söderman asked Stjernström if he could study the art. A background in harmony was certainly not enough for someone wanting to develop their music–writing skills in the modern romantic style. However, an education in composition in mid–19th century Sweden was impossible to obtain, compelling Swedish composers to study at the conservatory in Leipzig. Stjernström granted Söderman’s wish and not only gave him a year’s leave from his duties at the theatre from the summer of 1856, but also paid for his trip and his tuition.

Söderman travelled to Leipzig with his half–brother Fritz, arriving in early October 1856. He immediately set to work, but without a seat in the conservatory he had to study for private tutors, the most important of whom was Ernst Friedrich Richter. Richter and Julius Rietz were two of the conservatory’s most proficient teachers.  

For Richter Söderman studied counterpoint in accordance with the customary method, with a systematic examination of its fundamental principles, followed by double counterpoint, imitation exercises and fugue expositions all the way to four–part fugues. Evidence that Söderman learnt something from the exercises and incorporated them into his own compositions can be seen in a number of later works, such as Die Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar and Ett Bondbröllop, which feature two of these fugue ideas. As a complement to the strict counterpoint exercises, he worked with composition, mainly for a cappella choir. Söderman was also recommended by his teachers to write instrumental music such as quartets and symphonies, but it seems as if this never happened. Nor does it appear as if he did any real study of form theory.

As important as his composition studies was his exposure to contemporary music. Söderman attended a large number of concerts during his stay in Leipzig, familiarising himself with the works of such composers as Schumann, Mendelssohn, Weber and Gade as well as now forgotten names such as Schneider, Lindpaintner, Riets, Gouvy and Hiller. Franz Liszt visited Leipzig in February 1857, and amongst the works of his performed at a concert were Les Préludes, Mazeppa and the Piano Concerto no.1 in E–flat Major. Also on the playbill was a duet from The Flying Dutchman by Wagner. Wagner’s music was performed at several other concerts, introducing Söderman to his Faust Overture and the opera Tannhäuser. It was a life–changing experience for Söderman. After seeing Tannhäuser he wrote to a friend: ‘My heart weeps tears of joy that such music has been written.’ Söderman’s time in Leipzig was taken up with work, and by the end of the spring he was complaining of over–exertion and lack of money. A period of rest and a loan from Stjernström at least enabled him to complete his studies as planned.

In early July 1857, Söderman returned to Stockholm and the Mindre teatern to resume his work composing incidental music and improving conditions for the orchestra. The permanent string quartet, which now included Fritz, had always been paid per rehearsal and performance, and Söderman wanted them put on a fixed salary, but his efforts to this end came to nought.

August Söderman, 1860s.

August Söderman, photo 1860s. (Musikverket).


Chief conductor of Hovkapellet, 1860−76; journey abroad, 1869−70

After the retirement of Ignaz Lachner, the Kungliga Teatern (the Royal Opera) needed a new hovkapellmästare (chief conductor of Hovkapellet) ahead of the 1860 season. Söderman and Ludvig Norman were both nominated for the post, and which of the two was better suited to the task was a matter of some debate in the newspapers. In the end, Norman was given the permanent posting, while Söderman was put in charge of the choir, duties that he assumed in July 1860 while still composing incidental music as before. However, it was not long before his station improved; at the start of the 1862 autumn season he was appointed Norman’s deputy, conducting performances when Norman did not, a position he held until the spring of 1868. Outside the theatre, Söderman was choirmaster for the Par Bricole company 1861−65, and for the choir of Stockholms skarpskytteförenings (Stockholm sharpshooters’ society) 1863−68.

Alongside these engagements, Söderman grew increasingly established as a composer and the 1860s saw him build up a rich network of composers and musicians; however, desperate for inspiration from the new music being written on the continent, Söderman felt that Stockholm offered only limited possibilities for development. An opportunity to have this need fulfilled arrived in the spring of 1869 when he was awarded the Jenny Lind scholarship to cover the cost of a study trip to Europe, primarily to Germany and France. Before he embarked, a concert was held in Ladugårdsland Church in Stockholm in April, at which his own works were performed by Hovkapellet and Uppsala studentsångare (Uppsala student singers). The critically acclaimed concert was attended by a large, enthusiastic audience and raised substantial additional funds for his trip.

Söderman set off a few weeks later, travelling first to Copenhagen and then to Hamburg, Berlin and Hannover on an itinerary that would bring him in contact with German musicians such as Joseph Joachim and Franz Paul Lachner, and fellow Swedish musicians currently residing in the country, including Ivar Hallström and Jenny Lind herself. Unlike his first trip, which took him only to Leipzig, this second tour saw Söderman visit a large number of locations, mainly in Germany, during which time, instead of studying for a single tutor, he met a wide variety of musicians and composers. After a tour of German cities, Söderman arrived in Dresden, where he remained from August to February of the following year. Söderman attended numerous concerts and operas during his journey, and again it was Wagner’s music that captivated him most, this time The Mastersingers of Nuremburg conducted by Julius Rietz. Settled in Dresden, Söderman began work on his Signelills färd for solo voices, choir and orchestra and the opera Esmeralda to a libretto by his friend and singer Fritz Arlberg. Neither of the works was ever completed, however. Söderman made the acquaintance of a good many composers and musicians during his year abroad, and was an eager participant on the concert scene. However, he never made it to Paris, as was his plan, and none of his works were printed or performed, which he attributed to a lack of decent musicians and his own inability to promote himself. In retrospect, it must have been a difficult time for an individual composer to become established on an unfamiliar market.

Söderman returned to Sweden, and after a brief sojourn in Copenhagen again, arrived in Stockholm in May 1870. His study trip had lasted almost a year and had brought him into direct contact with the new continental trends in music, not least the works of Schumann and Wagner, which he found particularly inspirational. He resumed his employment at the Kungliga Teatern but now only as choirmaster, a position he held until his death in 1876. While he continued to coach the singers and put on performances, he also had more time and opportunity to compose. It was a very productive time, and his works grew in popularity, not just in Sweden but in Denmark, Norway, Germany and Austria as well. Many were published and widely disseminated, and many were performed in concert halls.

But it was not long after his return home that Söderman started to complain of fatigue, poverty and frustration with Swedish musical life. By the summer of 1875 he was marked by illness, and he passed away in February 1876, a few months short of his 44th birthday.

Fanny Westerdahl and August Söderman.

Fanny Westerdahl and August Söderman at Furusund the summer of 1860. Pencil and aquarelle on paper. Fritz Ahlgrensson 1860. (Nationalmuseum).



Söderman produced a substantial number of works, largely dramatic and vocal music, including solo songs, choral pieces and dramatic ballads for solo voice and choir. Non–theatrical instrumental works are few, and include some early piano pieces and orchestral sketches, as well as a concert overture in F major (probably written in the mid–1850s) and a piano quartet. His post–Leipzig period produced a number of smaller piano works and a couple of celebratory orchestral pieces from the 1870s written for the royal court. There are also two incomplete operas. His position as music director for a theatre meant that he had many occasions for which to write music, and thus little time and opportunity to compose larger works of his own. After his study trip of 1869−70, Söderman was better placed to compose, but sickness soon obstructed his endeavours and prevented him from completing the major works that he had planned.

Dramatic music

Söderman wrote a considerable amount of vocal and instrumental music for plays, both newly composed pieces and arrangements. Melodramas formed part of the important genre of new instrumental compositions, while songs were often arrangements of already familiar tunes. Whether it was separate introductory and entr’acte music or other pieces, most of what Söderman wrote for the theatre was integral to the plays, and made no claim to being performable independently outside the dramatic context. Two works from this period are nevertheless worth mentioning. The first is Regina von Emmeritz, a tragedy written by Finnish historian Zacharias Topelius during Söderman’s stay in Helsinki in 1853. The play, which proved something of a public success, is set during the Thirty Years War and centres on King Gustav II Adolf. Amongst its musical pieces are soldier choruses, marches, solo songs, duets and several melodramas, such as the female lead’s monologue expressing her powerful ambivalence towards the King, or the clash of Protestant and Catholic forces against a depictive musical backdrop. Söderman’s ability to express characters and moods can already be seen in this early work.

Hin Ondes första lärospån from 1856 is based on a play by Eugène Scribe. Söderman wrote the music for the play, which was performed with spoken dialogue and therefore referred to at the time as an ‘operetta’. The piece will have to be considered more of a mere trifle, although it is interesting that one critic praised the composer’s dramatic acumen, which manifests itself as a vividness of imagination, a warmth of sentiment and a richness of innovation, all of which are characteristic of Söderman’s future compositions.

In the 1860s, the Kungliga Teatern put on a number of large plays and historical dramas, such as Folkungalek (1864), Bröllopet på Ulfåsa (1865), Marsk Stigs döttrar (1866) and The Maid of Orleans (1867), which gave Söderman an opportunity to compose slightly larger scale pieces, the wedding march from Bröllopet på Ulfåsa quickly proving a particular public success. It has since been frequently performed outside the theatre, as has the overture to The Maid of Orleans, which is often performed as an instrumental piece titled Svenskt festspel. With its 13th century Nordic theme, Marsk Stigs döttrar typifies the mid-19th century interest in national history, and has incidental music based on older ballads, folk dances and folk songs arranged for chorus.

Wedding at Ulfåsa.

Bröllop på Ulfåsa (The Wedding at Ulfåsa). Scene from the production at the Swedish Theater in Helsingfors 1905. (Musikverket). 


Solo songs and solo ballads

Söderman’s songs are largely concentrated around his year in Leipzig (1856−57) and from the years around 1870. Notable compositions up to his stay in Leipzig include ‘Flickan i skogen’, ‘Jungfrun i rosengård’ and the eight song cycle Heidenröslein to lyrics by Heinrich Heine. The style of his songs, particularly in Heidenröslein, demonstrates Söderman’s affinity with romanticism, which was the current trend in Leipzig; Robert Schumann’s music was an exceptionally important model for Söderman’s own compositions.

In the 1860s, Söderman, like many of his contemporaries, took an interest in Norwegian poetry. The collection titled Digte og Sange was published in the early 1870s and richly illustrates Söderman’s ability to construct compositions using folk–music elements.

Söderman's first song collection "Digte og sange".

August Söderman's first song collection "Digte og Sange" published 1871 by Abr. Hirsh publishing company. (Musikverket).


Of especial interest as regards the solo songs are his contributions to the ballad genre. All of them are narrative and epic in content, usually written in the third person and often containing motifs reflecting a heroic, chivalrous ideal or dealing with folkloric subject matter. The ballads, which also often contain refrains, are composed for voice and orchestra in a dramatic style with many folk–music references; important examples are Hafsfrun (1861), Tannhäuser (1856), Die verlassene Mühle (1857), Der schwarze Ritter (1874) and Kung Heimer och Aslög (1870s). Der schwarze Ritter is stylistically the most advanced and was lauded by contemporary critics, who drew specific attention to the Schumannesque influences that they could hear in the song.

Choral music and choral ballads

Söderman’s interest in ‘songs in folk style’ − by which is meant songs that were considered at the time to be related to the folk genre − shows through in his choral music. Åtta folkvisor for male choir was printed in the 1860s, and Tre visor i folkton for male quartet was published in 1872, with Sex visor i folkton for mixed choir a year later. Probably the best known of his male chorus pieces is still Ett bondbröllop (1868), which he dedicated to Uppsala studentsångare. The song depicts a rural wedding ceremony and aside from its many folk–music ingredients has a fugued section that clearly derives from Söderman’s studies in counterpoint in Leipzig in the 1850s.

Of note amongst the profane choral pieces is the ballad Die Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar (1866), for solo, choir and orchestra. Based on a poem by Heine, the song recounts a religious legend of a sick young boy who dies after making the eponymous pilgrimage to Kevlaar. Söderman has the soloist calmly recite the entire course of events, while the chorus has the important task of conveying an almost supernatural mood with its continuous accompaniment.

In the 1870s, Söderman composed a couple of sacred choral pieces, which, unattached as they are to any liturgical context, serve as autonomous vocal works. Andeliga sånger for mixed choir and organ from 1870 comprises seven movements: Kyrie, Agnus Dei, Jesu Christe, Domine, Benedictus, Virgo gloriosa and Osanna, all of which bar one have featured in different plays (Kyrie and Osanna in Marsk Stigs döttrar, Agnus Dei and Domine in Folkungalek, and Benedictus and Virgo gloriosa in Dagen gryr). Here, Söderman makes best use of that ability − so important for theatre composers − to transfer existing music to new contexts.

His Katolsk mässa (1875) for soloists, choir and orchestra is in every respect a larger work than Andeliga sånger, and contains material that Söderman recycled from his own earlier compositions, which he expanded with different contrapuntal techniques such as the canon and double fugue. The work is rich and dramatic. The Offertorium movement is purely instrumental, just as in, for example, Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle, which had been performed in Stockholm during Söderman’s time. Söderman never got to hear his Katolsk mässa in its entirety as it was not premiered until after his death in April 1877.

Reception and significance

Already by the mid 1850s, Söderman was making a name for himself as a composer. In the next decade he became increasingly known to a growing public that eventually extended beyond Sweden’s shores. Söderman’s ability to paint moods and character was acknowledged by contemporary critics, who would often comment on the ‘national tone’ discernible in his music. Even though most of his incidental music quickly disappeared from the repertoire, a handful of his works  (such as the Bröllopet på Ulfåsa, the music for Marsk Stigs döttrar and The Maid of Orleans, some songs and choral pieces) took on a popularity of their own and were often performed independently in concert halls.

His song output was more qualitative than quantitative, the Heidenröslein and Digte og Sange collections, which stylistically echo Schumann’s lieder while maintaining a ‘Nordic folk tone’ in a manner unprecedented in Sweden, being particularly important.

King Heimer and Aslög.

King Heimer and Aslög. Painting by August Malmström, 1856. (Nationalmuseum).


Söderman’s ballads must also be considered significant and innovative contributions to Swedish music of the mid–1850s. Under the influence of Wagner, Söderman composed these works with great richness of sound, with the music effectively depicting the dramatic narrative line. Söderman never taught, but especially when it comes to his ballads, his style and musical ideas were arguably passed on to the later ballads of such composers as Andreas Hallén, Wilhelm Peterson–Berger and Wilhelm Stenhammar.

Many of Söderman’s works for choir, including Ett bondbröllop and Andeliga sånger (both of which are popular amongst choirs) and Sex visor i folkton, are today part of the Swedish choral tradition. Ballads such as Kung Heimer och Aslög also feature commonly on the contemporary repertoire. Thanks to the large number of recordings that have been made of these choral works, they are also available to a global audience.

Karin Hallgren © 2013
Trans. Neil Betteridge


Bohlin, Folke: 'En "folklig" manskörskoral från 1800-talet', in: Koral i Norden, Uppsala: Uppsala universitet musikvetenskap, 1993, pp. 19−26.
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Musik- och teaterbiblioteket

Summary list of works

Music for at least 75 plays (Regina von Emmeritz, Urdur, Hin Ondes första lärospån, Folkungalek, Bröllopet på Ulfåsa, Marsk Stigs döttrar, The Maid of Orleans, etc.), vocal pieces with orchestra (Hafsfrun, Tannhäuser, Die verlassene Mühle, Der schwarze Ritter, Kung Heimer och Aslög, Die Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar, etc.), solo songs (Heidenröslein, Digte og Sange, etc.), choral songs (Ett bondbröllop, Sex visor i folkton, etc.).

Works by August Söderman

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

Number of works: 186