Sven E. Svensson (1899−1960)


Sven Erik Emanuel Svensson was born on 3 November 1899 in Västerås and died on 22 April 1960 in Uppsala. He was a music theorist, conductor and composer. At Uppsala University he was director musices (1939−60) and teacher of music theory (1928−60). He was made honorary doctor in 1945, a Knight of the Order of Vasa in 1949 and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1951. He mainly composed orchestral music and is believed to have been responsible for the works of Gustaf Fredrici (1770−1801), in all likelihood an historical figure of his own invention.


Sven E. Svensson was born into circumstances that precluded formal study, and as a child in Uppsala earned his keep as a restaurant and cinema musician. In 1909 he took up private studies in the violin and harmony for Wilhelm Lundgren, acting director musices at the university. He continued his violin studies between 1917 and 1919 for Peder Møller in Copenhagen, where Svensson also worked as a theatre musical director. In the early 1920s he studied the history of music for Carl-Allan Moberg, who advised him to take self-studies in ‘speculative music theory’. He went on to study composition for Wilhelm Stenhammar in the mid-1920s and orchestral conducting for Ernst Kunwald in the 1930s – on two separate occasions (1932 in Berlin and 1937 in Wien).

Svensson precociously put his phenomenal capacity for work into composition and conducting on the one hand, and the theory and systematics of music on the other, this latter in a manner unprecedented in the Nordic countries at the time.

For many years he sat on the composer’s scholarship board of the Kungl. Musikaliska akademien (Royal Swedish Academy of Music) and was a music critic for Upsala Nya Tidning (1932−41). He was often engaged as an expert by, amongst other bodies, the Svenska musikerförbundet (the Swedish Musicians’ Union), the substantial Military Music Commission at the end of the 1950s and the Svenska ungdomsringen för bygdekultur (the Swedish Folklore Association) as a judge at the Zornmärkesuppspelningar folk music contest.

Svensson was made an honorary doctor at Uppsala University in 1945 and a Knight of the Order of Vasa in 1949. In 1951 he was elected as a member of the Kungl. Musikaliska akademien, which awarded him its Medal for the Promotion of Music in 1959. Svensson declined a position at an American University on grounds of health. He also struggled financially and only managed to clear his debts just before his death.

Svensson was something of a cultural celebrity in Uppsala by virtue of his eccentric manner, and was the model of the ‘Laban från Observatorieparken’ character in Gösta Knutsson’s Pelle Svanslös (Peter No-Tail) stories. Svensson died in 1960 and was buried in Uppsala old cemetery. Musicologist Nils L. Wallin declared that ‘[t]here was about him the same whiff of improbability as certain Thomas Mann archetypes.’

Svensson as conductor, teacher and researcher

As a docent of musicology at Uppsala University, Carl-Allan Moberg had opposed the appointment of director musices Hugo Alfvén as the head of music theory teaching in the subject, preferring the young Svensson, who at the time (1928) was involved in the founding of the Uppsala musikskola (Uppsala School of Music). When, following a bitter recruitment battle, Svensson succeeded Alfvén as director musices in June 1939, he continued his teaching in music theory.

Svensson had already been a vocal advocate back in the 1920s of voluntary music education at Uppsala elementary school (later established) and of the municipal music school, which was eventually founded in 1956. According to elementary school principal Karl Söderberg, Svensson was the single most influential instigator of these schools, his passion for open, advanced music education nationwide no doubt fuelled by his own constraints in this respect as a child.

Svensson was Sweden’s leading 20th century music theoretician and published writings in both the analytical and systematics field, including acoustics and comparative musicology. His paper on the tonal structure of the Inuit music tradition (1956) was widely discussed by comparative musicologists around the world. The folk music movement engaged him as an expert on the chronicling and cataloguing of collected tunes, which led him into the field of organological research. He published a sizeable portion of editions of the historical Swedish repertoire, including works by Andreas Düben, Johan Helmich Roman and Ferdinand Zellbell the younger. These he performed on radio and at concerts, bringing to the attention of a broader audience the music with which his fellow-musicologists were working.

Both as a music theoretician and a composer, Svensson was heavily influenced by the theories of Hugo Riemann, and was one of only a handful of scholars – at least towards the end of his life – who adhered to the theory of harmonic dualism, in which the minor keys derive from a presumed undertone series that was taken, in mirror image of the sequence of sharp key signature fifths of the overtone series, to progress instead in flat key signatures through descending fifths. For Riemann, it remained a mere hypothesis, but according to an anecdote that thrived amongst his students and colleagues, Svensson claimed to have had an epiphany one night on the streets of Uppsala, in which the undertone series was visited upon him as a genuine sensory experience. This was not, however, the only discovery of Svensson’s to be concocted with a liberal dose of fantasy.

One peculiarity in Svensson’s music theory was the calculation of a so-called ‘fifth tension’ in melodies, phrases and harmonic progressions based on how far round the circle of fifths two tones resided. Here there were similarities with Jacques Handschin’s Der Toncharakter, which was published, however, long after Svensson’s earliest tract on this theory.

Svensson as a composer under his own name

In his youth, Svensson composed chamber music of a certain sophistication, of which the piano trio in F minor from 1925 is the most noteworthy; subsequently, after taking up the office of director musices in Uppsala, orchestral music came to dominate his output, although his two completed string quartets suggest that he never completely abandoned the genre.

Disregarding his music and cantatas for Uppsala University’s conferment ceremonies, there are solo concertos that deserve particular attention. Svensson’s single movement viola concerto is a mature and original work that manifests a keen awareness of (if, perhaps, not an ear for) contemporary aesthetic trends. The 1951 clarinet concerto also presents a completely different tonal idiom than that in the music for academic contexts.

Svensson’s admiration of Max Reger is evident in many of his works as a kind of inner tonal disintegration through tonally derivable principles − a compositional application of Riemann’s harmonic functions. This is also connected with the ‘fifth tension’ theories, in which melodic and harmonic progressions seen, in theory, as relatively independent can be proven to be closely related, lending certain works a modernist sound with a disciplined rigour that penetrates the post-romantic. However, Svensson never approaches the narrow yet dominant strain of Swedish ‘high modernism’ but claimed instead that he could physically-empirically prove the primacy of tonal music.

A neoclassical style can be discerned in some works, such as the Concerto grosso from 1940. His most history-aware compositions have, however, a unique and mysterious genesis.

Compositions as Gustaf Fredrici

Standing out amongst Svensson’s music historical research is the alleged discovery of a Viennese Classical composer of Swedish birth by the name of Gustaf Fredrici. Svensson published several works by Fredrici and analytical articles, and performed his works with various orchestras live and for broadcast on the radio. Fredrici remained a ‘mystery’ to musicologists after Svensson’s death in 1960, even though there is rich circumstantial evidence that Svensson himself had written the works he had ascribed to Fredrici. The reason given by Svensson for the lack of original testimony to his historical personage is that as an illegitimate descendent of the Swedish royal family Fredrici had been given a new identity – hence his absence in the Swedish parish rolls.

Whether Fredrici’s music was the product of an academic jape that went too far, a deliberate work of musicological fraud or simply the product of a delusional mind will never be known. Fredrici should be seen as more of an alter-ego than a pseudonym, one that gave Svensson an outlet for his gift for imitating historical styles. The singular circumstances of its genesis notwithstanding, the music is fascinating and deserves a place in the modern repertoire, if only as a curiosity.

Mattias Lundberg © 2016
trans. Neil Betteridge

Publications by the composer

Bonniers illustrerade musiklexikon (ed.), Stockholm: Bonnier, 1946.
‘Emil Sjögrens vokala lyrik: En stilistisk studie’, Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 17, 1935, pp. 44−80.
En anonym Uppsalatonsättare från Bachtiden, Uppsala: Kyrkosångsförbundet, 1950.
‘Gustaf Fredrici: En svensk wienklassiker’, Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 20, 1938, pp. 5−29.
‘Gustaf Fredrici och Martin de Ron: Wienklassicism i svensk tonkonst’, Nordisk familjeboks månadskrönika, vol. 2, 1939, pp. 175−183.
Harmonilära, together with Carl-Allan Moberg, Stockholm: Gehrman, 1933.
Hugo Alfvén som människa och konstnär, Uppsala: Nyblom, 1946.
[Interview with Svensson on Gustaf Fredrici], Expressen, 9/9 1956.
Joseph Haydns stråkkvartetter, Stockholm: Geber, 1948.
‘Kyrkotonerna och koralharmoniken’, Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 15, 1933, pp. 29−47.
‘Martin de Ron: En svensk förromantiker’, Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 22, 1940, pp. 5−28.
Musik i teori och praxis, Uppsala: Ehlin, 1952, new edition. Stockholm: Liber, 1961.
Musikens instrumentala former, together with Per Lindfors & Carl-Allan Moberg, Stockholm: Radiobiblioteket, 1943.
‘Musikteori och pedagogik’, Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 15, 1933, pp. 138−153.
Några blad ur körsångens historia, Uppsala: Nyblom, 1949.
‘Några studier i Peterson-Bergers harmoniska stil’, in: Ernst Arbman et al. (eds), Wilhelm Peterson-Berger: Festskrift, Stockholm: Natur och kultur, 1937, pp. 161−176.
Orkestern och dess instrument, Stockholm: Bonnier, 1942.
‘Oscar Byström som musiker: En biografisk skiss’, Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 18, 1936, pp. 43−71.
‘Om undervisning i harmoni- och stämföringslära’, Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 41, 1959, pp. 147−159.
‘Studier i eskimåmusikens intervallförråd och tonalitet’, Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 38, 1956, pp. 135−150.
Violinskola, together with Charles Barkel, (unpubl.). 
‘Till frågan om Bachs harmoniska polyfoni’, Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 14, 1932, pp. 10−27.
‘Till frågan om intervallernas dissonansintensitet’, Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 33, 1951, pp. 87−126.
‘Till förståelsen av dissonansbegreppet’, Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 13, 1931, pp. 163−170.
‘Vårt tonsystem och dess temperaturer’, Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 32, 1950, pp. 152−186.


Forslin, Alfhild: Runeberg i musiken, Helsingfors: Svenska litteratursällskapet, p. 334.
Frimureriska tonsättare och frimurerisk musik, Uppsala: Forskningslogen Carl Friedrich Eckleff, 2006, pp. 322−323.
Moberg, Carl-Allan: ‘Sven E. Svensson’, Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 42, 1960, pp. 5−11.
Mörner, C.G. Stellan: ‘Den gåtfulle Gustaf Fredrici’, Svenska Dagbladet, 18/6 1972.
Ramsten, Märta: ‘Hartsa med brylcreme: Om tradition och folklorism i 50-talets folkmusik’, Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 62, no. 1, 1980, pp. 79−97.
Skagegård, Lars-Åke: Författaren, Musikern, Radiomannen Gösta Knutsson, Uppsala: Konsultförl. 1995.
Svanholm-Bohlin, Eva: ‘Sven E. Svensson som musikteoretiker’, 3-betygsuppsats, Institutionen för musikvetenskap, Uppsala universitet, 1967.
Torell, Unn: Karl för sin katt: Gösta Knutsson som vi inte minns honom, Uppsala: Uppsala Publishing House, 2008.
Wallin, Nils: Minnesnotis över Svensson, Hembygden, no. 39, 1960.
Svensson, Sven E.: Självbiografiskt formulär vid inval i Kungl. musikaliska akademien (Kungliga musikaliska akademiens arkiv E3a:I).
Uppsala universitets matrikel 1937−50.


Uppsala universitetsbibliotek

Summary list of works

Incidental music (Trettondagsafton, Österbyspelet, Östhammarspelet), orchestral music (symphony, Concerto grosso, Fantasia gallica, solo concertos, occasional pieces, etc.), chamber music (2 string quartets, piano trio, wind sextet, etc.), piano music (suite), vocal music with orchestra (Trefaldighetsnatten, En kort mässa, 5 cantatas, etc.). Under the name Gustaf Fredrici: Orchestral music (2 unfinished symphonies, 2 solo concertos), chamber music (clarinet quintet), vocal music with orchestra (unfinished requiem), choral music (Ave Maria).

Collected works

Incidental music
Trettondagsafton, orchestral suite for incidental music, 1934. [4 movements reused in Divertimento for string orchestra (see below).]
Östhammarspelet, music for the amateur play (P. Johannes), for orchestra, 1947.
Österbyspelet, music for the amateur play (G. Österberg), for orchestra, 1949.

Orchestra music
Symphony E minor, 1936−37.
Uppland. Overture for orchestra, 1938.
Celebratory overture, for orchestra 1939.
Concerto grosso, for orchestra, 1940.
Carmen saeculum, for orchestra. For the 100-year anniversary of the SHT, 1944.
Graduation music, 1941.
Academic celebration music, for orchestra, 1946.
Graduation music, 1947.
Celebratory overture for the Riksspelmansstämman in Uppsala, for orchestra, 1954.
Rhapsody for the Riksspelmansstämman in Karlstad 1957, for orchestra.
Fantasia gallica, for orchestra, 1959.
Spel opp, I spelemänner, rhapsody for the Riksspelmansstämman i Borås 1959, for orchestra.
Overture in the style of Telemann, for orchestra.

Solo concertos
Concerto for viola and orchestra, 1947.
Concerto for clarinet and orchestra, 1951.
Concerto for violin and orchestra (incomplete).

String orchestra
Serenade for two string orchestras, 1941.
Serenade for string orchestra, 1945.
Music for the installation of the professor (Carl-Allan Moberg), for string orchestra, 1947.
Divertimento for string orchestra. Overture and four danses from the music for Trettondagsafton [see above], 1948.
Serenade no. 2, for smaller string orchestra, Andante con moto.
Gånglåt, for string orchestra.

Chamber music
Piano trio F minor, 1925.
String quartet D major, 1938.
String quartet G major, 1941.
Divertimento for violin and viola, 1948.
Fantasie on I denna ljuva sommartid, for string quartet, 1948.
Sextet for wind instruments (fl., ob., cl.,, fag., cor.), 1960.
Variations on a theme by Bellman, for string quartet.

Vocal music with orchestra
A short mass, for choir, soloists and orchestra, printed 1932.
Psalm 150, for choir, soli and orchestra, 1933.
Cantata on Jesu meine Freude, for choir, soli and orchestra, 1935.
Höstvisa, for voice and orchestra (O. Thunman), printed. 1939. [Also called Höstsång.]
Cantata for the faculty of theology's doctoral convocation 1941, for choir, soli and orchestra.
Cantata for prof. E. Louis Beckman, for choir, soli and orchestra, 1943.
Trefaldighetsnatten, for choir, soli and orchestra, 1947.
Vandringen (J. Fridegård), from Den svarta lutan, 1957.
Cantata for Norrköping, 1958.
Beväringsvisa, for mixed choir and orchestra (O. Thunman).
Cantata on I denna ljuva sommartid, for choir, children’s choir, soli and orchestra.
Sveavisa, for mixed choir and orchestra.

Works for piano
Suite for piano, 1960.

Vocal music
12 small motets, 1936.
Selinda och Leander, for choir a capella. Printed in Läroverkskören, 1939.

As Gustaf Fredrici
If not otherwise noted, only piano reductions.
Ave Maria, for choir a cappella, score.
Concerto, piano and orchestra.
Concerto, cello and orchestra [contended date 1792].
Quintet B-flat major, clarinet and strings.
Requiem, choir, soli and orchestra (incomplete.)
Rondeau, for keyboard.
Symphony C minor, score. Fragment.
Symphony D minor. Two movements in a supposedly incomplete symphony. One movement printed 1940.

Works by Sven E. Svensson

There are no works by the composer registered