In Focus

In an interview several years before his death in the French-English journal The Song Journal, Ivar Hallström summarised his life with the words: 'I have lived a very happy life, without any major blows, with much applause and great successes and indeed quite a few minor impediments' − a remark that reveals self-distance and distance to his own art, but that also implies a not entirely easy existence in the 19th century's musical Sweden.

Early years

Ivar Hallström was the son of bank superintendent (a high ranking official in the Swedish central bank) Paul Fredrik Hallström and Anna Maria Casparsson. He started playing piano at the early age of four, and under the tutelage of Edmond Passy and Theodor Stein he became an accomplished pianist. Aside from his piano studies, he finished school in 1844 in Uppsala, following which he studied law, graduating with a degree in the same in 1849. Upon completion of his studies he held a series of different jobs in Stockholm's law offices. During his time in Uppsala he had got to know Prince Gustaf, and found in him a good friend and mentor. The musically gifted Gustaf had composed music to the comic opera Hvita frun på Drottningholm in 1847, and Hallström had contributed a pair of musical numbers. The work was performed in 1847 at the Kungliga Teatern (the Royal Opera), however with limited success.

On Prince Gustaf's initiative Ivar Hallström was employed as a librarian for the then Duke of Östergötland, who would later become King Oscar II. Hallström was hired in 1853 and held the position until his death. As part of this position Hallström was also required to assist the king at various musical events in the royal court, and to present new young singers to Oscar as potential recruits for the Kungliga Teatern, an activity that Hallström found both cumbersome and monotonous in his later years.

After a study trip to France, which involved new and vital musical impressions, Ivar Hallström left law. He dedicated himself entirely to composition from 1854. He was elected as a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1861 and the same year he took over Adolf Fredrik Lindblad's school of music, where he had been a piano teacher from its foundation. He ran the school until 1872 when it was closed down. Hallström's output consisted up to the 1860's mainly of Swedish romantic songs and smaller works for piano. In 1860 he debuted with the cantata Blommornas undran and later Herr Hjalmar och skön Ingrid, both of which were set to texts by Oscar Fredrik (the soon to be King Oscar II).

Ivar Hallström became a member of Kungl. Musikaliska akademien (The Royal Swedish Academy of music) in 1861.

The dramatic composer

Both of the above works could be seen as pre-studies for Hallström's first work for the stage, Hertig Magnus och sjöjungfrun, which was produced in 1867. It was an immediate success, but as a result of a cast member's illness only six performances took place. When the production restarted interest in it had waned. However, it showcased Hallström as a high calibre dramatic composer. His ability to capture the dramaturgical process with a distinct feeling for musical phrasing and harmonic colour had not previously been heard in Swedish music dramas. This resulted in a collaboration with Frans Hedberg, in whom Hallström found a first class librettist of international calibre. They later worked together on four operas.

In Hertig Magnus Hallström's musical dramatic idiom is clear from the start: a rare ability to weave in a folk music tone, but without letting it become an adjusted art music version of folk music, and at the same time use this sound in a dramaturgical context. Hallström's musical ideal was characteristically French with strong influences of, among others, Fromental Halévy and Charles Gounod, and some features of Giuseppe Verdi could also be made out in his work, as in the finale of the dramatic second act. Hertig Magnus aroused great interest in the press of the time, and music historian and critic Adolf Lindgren (1846−1905) wrote an enthusiastic article in Ny Illustrerad Tidning, in which the work was counted 'among the greatest dramatic tone poems our country has to offer'.

Hallström's success with Hertig Magnus led him to focus his production on music theatre. With it Hallström showed that he could master more than just the great dramatic expressions. During the following years he wrote operettas with clear influences of French opéra-comique: Den förtrollade katten (1869), Silverringen (1870), and Mjölnarvargen (1871), of which the first was a collaboration with Hedberg. In these works, Hallström's weakness for spirited, snappy couplets in the style of Offenbach comes through, and even though the work does not share the same status as his operas, it shows his genuine feeling for timing and the dramatic line − Hallström's trademark as a composer.

Ivar Hallström's connection to the Kungliga Teatern had begun early for him with his employment as librarian and singing teacher for Oscar II in the beginning of the 1850s, and led, as previously mentioned, to his being appointed to bring forth promising talents who could potentially be hired at the opera. When the new ballet master was looking for an appropriate composer for full-length ballets in 1870, Hallström was a convenient choice. He composed three ballets: En dröm (1870), Ett äventyr i Skottland (1871) and Melusina (1882). The middle work was a collaboration with Conrad Nordqvist, and its fourteen numbers were divided evenly between the composers. At this time Nordqvist was the acting head of the chorus and the assistant conductor at the Kungliga Teatern. Hallström's music in the ballets exposes his taste for the French: he was well acquainted with Léo Delibe's Coppélia and Adolphe Adam's Giselle, whose works were frequently performed at the opera.

Towards a Swedish national opera

In the beginning of the 1870's Hallström, together with Frans Hedberg, started working on what would become his most popular and most performed work. The old nature-mythical ballad about the maiden who, on the way to the early service on Christmas Day, is kidnapped by the Mountain King and taken into the mountain to be his wife is a well-known theme in Sweden as well as in other Nordic cultures. From this story Hallström and Hedberg created Den bergtagna, a French grand opéra in five acts with grandiose scenography by Fredrik Wilhelm Scholander and Christian Jansson, and magnificent vocal passages and ballet choreography. The opera premiered in May 1874 and came at the time to be considered a Swedish national opera. By 1910 it had been performed 84 times.

Hallström's opera "De Bergtagna" was the most performed Swedish opera of the 1800s.

"De bergtagna", scenes from act II, III:1, III:2 and V. Wood engraving based on a drawing made by R Haglund.

The opera went through a series of revisions; the primary focus was to shorten it, as it was seen to be far too long. The different versions came in handy, however, and were used at productions in Munich, Copenhagen, and Hamburg. The work is divided up into individual numbers, but as a result of Hallström's ability to combine rich musical themes and refined orchestration with dramaturgical precision, it is nonetheless his most elaborate and musically well-accomplished work. His collaboration with Frans Hedberg comprised two further works. Three years after Den bergtagna came Vikingarna (1877), a work in which the brusque and melancholy Nordic is contrasted with the light and sun-drenched image of Provence. The music has tangible Wagnerian influences, particularly in the depiction of the passionate relationship between Isaura of southern France and the Nordic viking Rolf. In terms of form it is Hallström's most through-composed opera.

Continued work in opera

From 1881−85 Ivar Hallström was employed as the vocal instructor at the Kungliga Teatern, a position that is more or less the same as the répétiteur's. During this time he trained three young singers: the tenors Arvid Ödmann and Olof Lemon, and baritone Oscar Bergström, all of whom came to form a strong core among the soloists at the Kungliga Teatern. In 1879 Hallström came into contact with Queen Elisabeth of Romania through his closeness with the royal court. The Queen was well known as an author of novels and plays under the pseudonym Carmen Sylva. She found in Hallström an artistic kinsman, and his visit in Romania with Arvid Ödmann was the inspiration for an opera in a Romanian environment: the revolutionary drama Neaga. As with Den bergtagna, the opera was written as a grand opéra, but was revised to four acts and premiered in February 1885 at Kungliga Teatern with significant success. The opera has a revolutionary theme and the music is kept to darker colours than in previous works. There are no allusions to Nordic folklore here, but Hallström had a good ear for folk music even outside of Sweden. In his travel diary he writes about a folk festival with Romanian folk music that he transcribed and later used in the opera's ballet numbers. The music has an strange, genuine folk music sound due to Hallström's completely avoiding a salon-style folk music arrangement, and he leaves the music more or less untouched, reproducing its irregular accents and pentatonic harmonies. This freshness also pervades the opera's music in general.

During the 1880s a number of Ivar Hallström's lesser works were also performed. Silferringen (1880, written 1870) was a social-realistic attempt at portraying the conditions at an English spinnery. In 1886 the operetta Aristoteles was performed at Nya teatern, followed by the fairy play Per Svinaherde in 1887. One opera Hallström worked on for the duration of the 1880s was Jaguarita l'Indienne, whose plot is set in India. The opera was grandiose in construction but was never produced, most likely due to the huge cost staging would have incurred.

The 1890s brought about a reduced flow in Hallström's music dramatic output. In 1892 Granadas dotter was produced, and its twelve performances came to be Hallström's last premiere at the Kungliga Teatern. The work was well received, among other things for the refined and sonorically-advanced orchestration. In January 1894, in connection with the demolition of Gustav III's opera house to make way for the current one, an opera competition was announced. Hallström and Hedberg submitted Liten Karin, an opera about Erik XIV and Karin Månsdotter. The five man prize jury found none of the submitted works worthy of first or second prize, but they awarded Hallström third prize and one thousand kronor, an overt demonstration of condescension towards Sweden's most gifted musical dramatist. With the fairy play Hin Ondes snaror (1900), which was performed at Stora teatern in Gothenburg, Hallström bid farewell to the opera stage. He was weakened by a heart condition from which he suffered for many years, and he died in April 1901.


Ivar Hallström's legacy is problematic. He was both celebrated and castigated by his contemporaries, and his memory faded from posterity. Hallström was a self-taught composer, and as such he was seen to be incapable of writing the orchestration for his operas, an opinion that is stubbornly held still today. Conrad Nordqvist is named as orchestrator for his works. He and Hallström were colleagues at the theatre and had additionally worked together on the ballet Ett äventyr i Skottland; no doubt Hallström found a good teacher in Nordqvist. However, all orchestra manuscripts are in Hallström's hand, often re-touched fair copies. In addition, his orchestration manuscripts are of an elegant early romantic-classical style, while Nordqvist's are rather stylistically similar to a more saturated orchestral sound. Despite his time's and our time's parsimonious attitude, Hallström experienced 'much applause and great successes', and with his generous reputation and good-natured temperament he was probably able to survive 'quite a few minor impediments'. In spite of this, no other Swedish composer of opera has had fourteen operas produced at the Kungliga Teatern, and these with significant public acclaim.

Ivar Hallström's tomb at Maria Magdalena churchyard in Stockholm.

Adolf Lindgren, who was initially gushingly enthusiastic over Hertig Magnus in 1867, kept a respectable distance to Ivar Hallström as a musical dramatist, and pinpricked the quality of his music. Hallström's connection to the royal court, which without a doubt improved his chances of having his works performed at the Kungliga Teatern, also loomed large. Quotes such as the following (which Lindgren repeated in his obituary) may be seen as representative of the opinions the cultural elite of Sweden had of Hallström at the time: 'We dare not say, if his muse, without the royal court's often unhealthy influence, possibly could have developed heartier and more wholesome forms; the scent of wild twinflowers with which she loves to adorn herself are now undeniably somewhat overpoweringly mixed with the perfumes of the salon, in order that she be recognised as a full incarnation of the people's patriotic song'.

Anders Wiklund © 2015
Trans. Nicole Vickers