Hugo Alfvén - life and work

For decades, Hugo Alfvén (1872–1960) was Sweden’s most celebrated composer. His music was heard at almost all national ceremonies. His milestone birthdays were celebrated as major events, he received an abundance of awards and his works appeared constantly in concert programmes. His personality also contributed to the attention he received – his sharp features were often displayed in the press and his womanising was discussed just as often as his musical creations.

Hugo Alfvén was born in Stockholm in 1872 as the fourth of a total of six siblings. His father, Anders Alfvén, was a master tailor. His mother Lotten’s maiden name was Axelsson Puke. His parents were members of Stockholm's first Baptist congregation, whose choir was led by his father.

His father died in 1881 when Hugo was nine years old. To make ends meet for the family, Lotten Alfvén started a grocery store in Östermalm. Hugo Alfvén was deeply attached to his mother.

Considering the family’s circumstances, it is remarkable that several of the children were able to get an education. Hugo Alfvén started playing the piano at the age of eleven, but soon switched to the violin. In 1887, aged 15, he was accepted as a student at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, where he also received training in the theory of music. That same year he began studying painting with Otto Hesselbom, and a year later with Oscar Törnå. 

Faced with a choice between music and art, he opted definitively for music when, in the autumn of 1890, he was hired as second violinist at the Royal Swedish Orchestra. He remained with the orchestra until 1892, gaining important knowledge of different works, orchestral composition and, not least, conducting.  

He then continued his musical studies: violin with Lars Zetterqvist, counterpoint and composition with Johan Lindegren. His first symphony was performed in 1897 and was largely received positively. That same year, he left Sweden to travel and study in Berlin, Paris and Brussels. 

Alfvén's breakthrough as a composer came with the premiere of his second symphony (op. 11) in 1899. From that moment on, he was considered one of Sweden’s leading composers, and one immediate consequence was a commission to write a cantata in celebration of the new century: Sekelskifteskantaten (Cantata for the Turn of the Century, op. 12). This was the first of a long series of commissioned pieces composed by Hugo Alfvén.

During a visit to Sicily in 1902, Alfvén met the Danish–German artist Marie Krøyer (1867–1940), who was married at the time to the prominent Danish painter P.S. Krøyer. This meeting was the beginning of a marvellous yet problematic relationship. Alfvén spent the summer of 1904 with the Krøyers in Skagen, where he wrote the rhapsody Midsommarvaka (Midsummer Vigil), one of his most frequently performed orchestral works.

Also in 1904, he visited Leksand, later his adopted home. He was invited to lead the Leksand church and parish choir, for which he wrote several pieces. In 1905, Hugo Alfvén’s and Marie Krøyer’s daughter Margita was born. Alfvén continued to travel abroad and to compose: Marias sånger (Maria’s Songs, op. 21) for voice and piano, the symphonic poem Skärgårdssägen (A Tale from the Archipelago, op. 21) and his third symphony (op. 23). A little later, he wrote Festspel (Festival, op. 25) for the inauguration of the new Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm and the choral composition Sveriges flagga (Sweden’s Flag) for the first celebration of Sweden’s Flag Day.

Before the recognition of music copyright at the end of the 1920s, composers’ only sources of income were commissions, sales of sheet music and any grants they might receive. In 1910 Hugo Alfvén had the good fortune to be appointed Director Musices at Uppsala University. This gave his small family a secure means of support. Alfvén’s duties included responsibility for the music at the University’s ceremonies, directing the Royal Academic Orchestra and lecturing on the history of music. In Uppsala, he also took over as musical director of the male-voice choir Orphei Drängar. The summer holidays, which he spent in Leksand, were his principal time for composing.

Between 1910 and 1920, he produced two major works for orchestra: the ballet Bergakungen (The Mountain King, op. 37) and the fourth symphony, known as I havsbandet (From the Outskirts of the Archipelago, op. 40). At the end of the decade, his relationship with Marie broke down.

As the years passed, Hugo Alfvén wrote fewer major pieces on his own initiative, but more commissioned works. His personal creativity found a rich outlet in works for choir, primarily Orphei Drängar and the Siljan Choir, which he also directed for many years. These works included the arrangements of folk songs that are still widely sung throughout Sweden.

Upon retiring from his post as Director Musices, Hugo Alfvén moved permanently to Leksand. He had then recently married his second wife, Carin Adolphson (1891–1956). For Alfvén’s 70th birthday in 1942, a nationwide collection was organised to pay for a house to be built for him and his wife in Leksand. The house, Alfvéngården, was built in the village of Tibble and the couple moved in in 1945. 

When Carin died in 1956, Hugo Alfvén was 84 years old. This did not deter him from remarrying three years later, his new wife being Anna Lund (1891–1990) from Mora, who had sung in the Siljan Choir. Hugo Alfvén died in 1960. His grave in Leksand cemetery is adorned by a bust made by his friend, sculptor Carl Milles.


Despite the changes in musical fashions during Hugo Alfvén’s long life, he remained a faithful exponent of the late Romantic style. He wrote music with complex harmonies and a noted feeling for painterly effects, both in works for large orchestra and in compositions for voice and piano. As a composer, Alfvén tends to be associated with Swedish folk music, though in reality only a limited part of his large catalogue of works is linked to folk tunes and songs. 

The fact that Hugo Alfvén also composed film music is less well known. When sound film arrived at the end of the 1920s, there were no specialised composers of film music. Alfvén, who was used to composing works on commission, began to write for the new medium. The largest cinema production featuring his music was the French–Swedish film based on Viktor Rydberg’s novel Singoalla (1949). 

Alfvén’s everyday life actually involved more conducting than composing. In Uppsala he led weekly rehearsals of the Royal Academic Orchestra, Orphei Drängar and Allmänna Sången. He had recurrent engagements with the Siljan Choir and he was in regular demand as guest conductor of symphony orchestras both in Sweden and abroad. For many years, moreover, he was principal conductor of the Swedish Union of Male Choirs. He was known for his superb conducting technique, which he had learned during his studies abroad.

For many years, Hugo Alfvén devoted his spare time to painting, both in watercolours and oils, both landscapes and portraits. Apart from providing relaxation from his musical duties, his art also made welcome financial contributions towards Alfvén’s extravagant lifestyle.

Hugo Alfvén and Uppsala

When Hugo Alfvén was appointed Director Musices at Uppsala University in 1910, it was a new departure for him in many ways. To begin with, having permanent employment was a new experience for him. Also, Uppsala was a new city for the Stockholmer Alfvén, and he was unaccustomed to operating in an academic milieu. It was his first appointment as permanent conductor of an orchestra, in his case the ancient Royal Academic Orchestra. Another novel activity was lecturing on the history of music (a task for which Alfvén, who stammered, was ill suited and that disappeared from his duties after a few years). The same year, moreover, he became permanent director of a choir for the first time: Orphei Drängar. 

As is obvious, the new post was a thorough change for Hugo Alfvén, who was 38 by this time, but the security and status offered by the post made all the challenges worthwhile. Along with Marie and their five-year-old daughter Margita, he moved into the residence that came with the job: Linneanum. The choir Orphei Drängar rehearsed in the same building.   

Alfvén’s first involvement with Uppsala and its university, though, came earlier, in 1907, when he was commissioned to write a piece for the bicentenary of Carl Linnaeus’s birth. However, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, who was supposed to deliver the text, was late providing his contribution, which forced Alfvén to rethink. In place of the planned piece, he composed his Uppsalarapsodi (Uppsala Rhapsody, op.24), based on melodies from student songs.

In the Royal Academic Orchestra, Hugo Alfvén had a small-scale orchestra made up primarily of students and university employees. These forces sufficed for many of the performances included in his and the orchestra’s university responsibilities, such as music at doctoral degree conferment ceremonies. However, for larger projects he needed to supplement the numbers with musicians from restaurant orchestras and military bands. 

Oddly enough, Alfvén did not compose anything expressly for the Royal Academic Orchestra. However, an augmented orchestra performed in several major commissioned works, such as the Cantata for the 1917 Reformation Festivities in Uppsala (1917) and the Cantata for the 450th Anniversary of Uppsala University (1927).

When Hugo Alfvén became conductor of Orphei Drängar, he could not have imagined what the position would mean for him personally. At that time, OD was a gentlemen’s club as much as it was a male choir. As a member of the club, he acquired several close friends. Furthermore, some of the pieces he wrote for the choir spread his fame far and wide: Lindagull (1919), Gryning vid havet (1933), Aftonen (1952) and others. From 1919 onwards, moreover, he became conductor of Allmänna Sången, which was a male choir at that time. 

The official residence in Linneanum, though historic, was cramped and old-fashioned. In 1929 he was able to move into a new building, Musicum, which apart from the residence of the Director Musices contained a rehearsal hall for the Royal Academic Orchestra and Orphei Drängar. 

When Hugo Alfvén retired in 1937, he could look back on many eventful years in Uppsala. He had experienced numerous musical triumphs in the city, composed many pieces of music, acquired a large number of friends and in general taken a place in the social life of the city. Despite formally being emeritus, his appointment was extended until 1939, when he left Uppsala for good and settled in Leksand.

Gunnar Ternhag, june 2022 (Translation: Timothy Chamberlain, UU) 

Last modified: 2022-10-06