Helmer Alexandersson (1886−1927)


Karl Helmer Alexandersson, born on 16 November 1886 and died in Stockholm on 24 December 1927, was a composer and violinist. During his life he gained considerable success both with his second symphony and his film music, although without achieving true recognition. Within film music he was one of the most important Swedish pioneers. However, he died early, at the age of 41 in extreme poverty.

Childhood and education

Helmer Alexandersson was born on 16 November 1886 in Stockholm as the youngest child of three to the ship provisioner Ernst Theodor Alexandersson and Mathilda Josefina Englund. Ernst Theodor died in 1900 and his children, including Helmer, were, according to the custom of the time, put under the guardianship of Captain Charles Edward Nyman (as women were not allowed to become their children’s guardian). Nyman, who had been one of the father’s clients, saw to it that all three children received a proper education. Both of the musically talented sons were educated at the Musikkonservatoriet (the Royal Conservatory of Music). The daughter, Karin Alexandersson, was educated in drama and became a famous actresses of the era − she took part in several premiers of August Strindberg’s plays.

Helmer Alexandersson appeared to have decided early on for a career in music. As a sixteen-year-old he began higher education music studies and completed his education as a violinist at the Musikkonservatoriet during the years 1902 to 1908, with the teachers Johan Lindberg and Lars Zetterquist. After his instrument education he studied harmony under Aron Bergenson and counterpoint with the legendary teacher Johan Lindegren in Stockholm. He was financed by a composer’s grant from the Swedish government in 1910 and 1911 and was also able to conduct additional instrument studies under Jean Paul Ertel in Berlin between November 1911 and October 1912. The earliest dated compositions were written during his student years, such as the first symphony in D minor.


At the end of his time as a student, Helmer Alexandersson began publishing his own works and quickly received notice as a composer: his first big public success was with Olympiska spelens festmarsch (Olympic Games Triumphal March) in 1912. The composition was commissioned by the Swedish Olympic Committee in Stockholm in 1912 and was performed by Hjalmar Meissner and the Jätte-Militär-orkestern (the Great Military Orchestra) at Stockholm’s stadium on 6 July 1912. The march was also recorded and given out on a 78-rpm disc. After a period when Helmer Alexandersson possibly earned a living as a violinist, he premiered, in the strictest sense, in 1918 with a string quartet performed by the Kjellströmkvartetten (the Kjellström Quartet). It was one of Alexandersson’s three completed works in the genre (D major, D minor and G minor).

Alexandersson’s three-movement Symphony no. 2 in G minor was composed in 1914. For this, he again received a composer’s grant from the Swedish government in 1915, and in 1919 the symphony received a pizzicato movement (called intermezzo at the time). The symphony was performed in this four-movement version on 18 April 1919 with a repeat performance on 20 April at the film theatre Röda kvarn by its concert orchestra conducted by Rudolf Sahlberg (the performance also included Alexandersson’s arrangement of Three Swedish Folk Songs). The symphony, however, was not an immediate success. Only when it was performed again on 24 January and on 4 March 1923 by the orchestra of the Konsertföreningen (the Stockholm Concert Society) conducted by Georg Schnéevoigt, did Alexandersson have a celebrated breakthrough as a composer. He achieved recognition by both the public and by older colleagues such as Kurt Atterberg and Wilhelm Peterson-Berger. The symphony was performed once more in 1925. During this same time Alexandersson also had successes with a clarinet concerto and a concert piece for French horn and orchestra. In 1923 he was elected into the Föreningen Svenska Tonsättare (Society of Swedish composers) and in 1924 he received yet another composer’s grant from the Kungliga Musikaliska akademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Music).

The cinema Röda kvarn and film music

In 1918, Helmer Alexandersson, with help of his friend and conductor Rudolf Sahlberg, was employed as a violinist, composer and arranger in the orchestra of the cinema Röda kvarn. During this era, films lacked speech, but they contained all the more musical elements. Films were by no means ‘dumb’ in the sense of silent, but were accompanied by a steady stream of programmatic music, performed live in the theatre by a music ensemble. Few films had standardised and specific music, which could rather vary quite a bit. The need for film music was relatively high after the First World War: this was partly due to Sweden’s considerable film industry that required newly composed music, and partly due to the need for music composed to foreign films. Music for silent films could be rhapsodic and associative, composed to be performed in real time to moving images. Helmer Alexandersson was very prolific as a film music composer. One important element in his compositional style that can be heard in his second symphony is the ability to create an evocative atmosphere in the melody and to make clear shifts in expression and intensity throughout the musical process − very useful for film music. His competence in composition and orchestration helped give the musical ideas a strict external form.

Helmer Alexandersson composed music at the Röda kvarn for several Swedish feature films, such as Victor Sjöström’s Ingemarssönerna (1918) and Mauritz Stiller’s Herr Arnes pengar (1919) as well as Gunnar Hedes saga (1923). Sometimes information is divided on who actually composed music to a specific silent film. Alexandersson delivered the musical material to the Röda kvarn, but it was reworked and adapted to the medium of film by the conductor Rudolf Sahlberg. Other films that Helmer Alexandersson contributed to were Victor Sjöström’s Klostret i Sendomir (1920), Gustaf Molander’s Ingmarsarvet (1925) and John W. Brunius’ Karl XII (1925). He also composed or arranged music for several foreign films such as the American films Soluppgång (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) from 1927 and Nationens födelse (The Birth of a Nation) first released in 1915, and with Alexandersson’s music in 1927.

Helmer Alexandersson’s position within music life of the 1920s

Helmer Alexandersson was hit by an, for posterity, unknown illness that led to his untimely death on Christmas Eve 1927, ‘after difficult nervous suffering’. A certificate affirming his state of poverty was issued and witnessed by a relative. This entitled the City of Stockholm to pay for his burial at the turn of the New Year of 1928. He died utterly destitute, which raises questions about his life’s situation.

Alexandersson’s orchestral and chamber music was performed on numerous occasions during the 1920s. The overall picture of his position in the Swedish music scene, from the end of the First World War until his death in 1927, was that as a composer, he was a star in the making. As such he participated prominently in the 1923 petition that the Föreningen Svenska Tonsättare (FST) submitted to the Konsertföreningen, protesting an on-going alleged lack of interest in contemporary music, and they were expressly forbidden to present music of the FST composers. In contrast to famous colleagues such as Hugo Alfvén, Wilhelm Stenhammar and Ture Rangström, who also signed the petition, Alexandersson was not as well established in music life and could not afford to have his compositions prevented from being performed. It has been suggested, and is possible but not certain, that this was detrimental to his career. It is also possible that this led him, instead, to mainly concentrate on the composition of film music in the mid-1920s. It has been suggested by conductor and music historian Lennart Hedwall that working with film music contributed to a divergence from being a ‘serious’ composer, even if film music ‘seems to have fit a composer with his temperament and imaginative orientation quite well’. However, at the time he was perceived as both a film and symphony composer. A concert programme described Helmer Alexandersson, shortly after his death:

Musically, Helmer Alexandersson takes no shortcuts on the way toward new harmonic or instrumental goals, and in all respects he stands on classical ground. The orchestration is highly effective, the form carefully rounded out and balanced, and above all, shows the musical values, harmonisation, handling of counterpoint, development of ideas and so forth, with a facility for symphonic writing, which ought to be less common. The motifs are distinguished by their vigour and reveal their Nordic origins.

Helmer Alexandersson the person: the musical legacy

Helmer Alexandersson’s final years of life, like his life in general, is shrouded in mystery with very few known preserved written sources that can shed light on his life outside of music. As far as it is known, for example, he wrote nothing about himself neither as a composer, nor as a person. What remains is his musical legacy, which has significant stylistic breadth and is quantitatively extensive. In large part, Helmer Alexandersson’s works were not published, and in many cases his compositions exist only as single handwritten manuscripts of entire scores, or in separate musical parts. For certain compositions, important parts are missing and it is unclear whether these parts have been lost, or never existed. Much of this musical legacy seems to be lessons from his student years, but it also includes music that has been publically performed on several occasions. Helmer Alexandersson’s music is still waiting to be rediscovered.

Toivo Burlin © 2015
Trans. Jill Ann Johnson


Bergh, Einar: 'Statens tonsättarstipendier', in: Svenska musikperspektiv. Minnesskrift vid Kungl. Musikaliska akademiens 200-årsjubileum 1971, Stockholm: Nordiska Musikförlaget, 1971, p. 230.
Haslum, Bengt (
ed.): Svensk populärmusik: visor, barnvisor, schlager, underhållnings-musik, jazz, Stockholm: STIM:s informationscentral för svensk musik, 1968, p. 19.
Hedwall, Lennart
: Den svenska symfonin, Uppsala: AWE/Gebers, 1983, pp. 240−241.
Törnblom, Folke H: 'Alexandersson, Helmer', in: Sohlmans musiklexikon, vol. 1, Stockholm: Sohlman, 1975, p. 100.
Winquist, Sven G: Musik i svenska ljudfilmer, Stockholm: Stims informationscentral för svensk musik, 1980.
Åhlén, Carl-Gunnar: Liner notes to Helmer Alexandersson (1886−1927). Overture in C minor Symphony No. 2 in G minor, CD Sterling CDS 1076-2, 2008.


Riksarkivet, Musik- och teaterbiblioteket.

Summary list of works

Film music (Ingemarsarvet, Herr Arnes pengar, Gunnar Hedes saga, Karl XII and more), orchestral works (2 symphonies, overtures, clarinet concerto, 2 concert pieces for French horn and orchestra), chamber music (3 completed string quartets, 2 string trios, and more), inauguration music for the 1912 Olympic Games, piano music, organ music.

Collected works

Film music
Herr Arnes pengar (directed by Mauritz Stiller), 1919.
Klostret i Sendomir (directed by Victor Sjöström), 1920. [Helmer Alexandersson has probably written the music together with Rudolf Sahlberg.]
Gunnar Hedes saga (directed by Mauritz Stiller), 1923. [Original music by Helmer Alexandersson but only with larger orchestra.]
Ingmarsarvet (directed by Gustaf Molander), 1925. [Music by Eric Westberg, Oskar Lindberg and Helmer Alexandersson.]
Karl XII (directed by John W. Brunius), 1925. [According to Svensk filmdatabas music by Otto Trobäck, according to Musik i svenska ljudfilmer 1929−1939 with music by Helmer Alexandersson.]
Nationens födelse (original title: The Birth of a Nation, 1915, directed by David W. Griffith), 1927.
Soluppgång (original title Sunrise − A Song of Two Humans, USA, 1927, directed by F.W. Murnau), 1927.
Allegro Risoluto (John Ericsson − segraren vid Hampton Roads), 1937.
Andante Funebro (Tänk, om jag gifter mig med prästen, directed by Ivar Johansson), 1941.

Film music (arrangements)
Värmländingarna (1921, directed by Erik A. Petschler). [Alexandersson has arranged the music for the silent film.]
Brödernas kvinna (1943, directed by Gösta Cederlund). [Music from 'Svenska folkvisor och danser', arranged by Helmer Alexandersson.]

Symphony no. 1 in D minor, 1908. [Allegro from the symphony exists in arr. for piano.]
Symphony no. 2 in G minor, 1914, 1919.

Other orchestral music
Adagio (E-flat major).
Adagio (F major).
Afton vid sjön.
Exotiskt Intermezzo [from Symphony no. 2 in G minor].
Festival overture, for wind orchestra.
Clarinet concerto.
Concert overture in C minor, 1910.
Concert piece for French horn in F with piano accompaniment, 1911.
Concert piece for French horn and orchestra, 1911.
Koncertstück für Klarinette in B: mit Pianobegleitung.
March for military band, 1912. [Awarded in 1912.]
Olympic Games, Boston Waltz, 1912.
Olympic Games festival march, 1912.
Overture (A−D).
Overture C minor, 1910. [With arr. for 2 pianos.]
Overture (D−F) (G minor), for piano, flute, clarinet, horn, trombone, 2 violins, viola, violoncello, double bass and drums.
Overture (A minor), for clarinet, trombone, violin, violoncello and double bass. [Also exists in arr. for piano four hands and for large orchestra].
Symphony-Finale (G minor), 1911. [Arr. for piano four hands.]

Vocal works with orchestra
Höstkväll (Solen går ned), for soprano and orchestra (V. Rydberg), 1905. [2 instrumentations, different versions.]

Chamber music

Andante (A major), for string quartet. [Incomplete score. Parts for violin I is missing.]
Andante (Allegro con moto, C major, F minor), for trombone, violin, violoncello and double bass, 1914.
Dyning, for flute, three clarinets, trumpet, alto horn, two trombones, tuba and percussion.
Excentric dance, for piano trio.
Exotic marcia, for two violins, viola and double bass.
Fantasy piece (D minor), for two violins and piano.
Fugue I (- IV), for string trio.
Fugue (D minor), for string trio.
Fugue (E-flat major), for two clarinets, violin, viola and double bass.
Fugue (F major), for string quartet.
Fugue (G minor), for string quartet.
Fugue (C major) Andante (B-flat major), for string quartet.
Fugue (Helan går, F major), for string quartet.
Quartet with double bass [violin, viola, cello and double bass].
Quintet in D minor, for B-flat clarinet, two violins, viola and violoncello. [Also as trio for piano and two violins.]
Quintets, for two clarinets, violin, viola, double bass. 1. Vaggsång, 2. Serenad, 3. Polska, 4. Fuga.
March (F major), for two clarinets, trumpet, trombone, two violins, viola and double bass.
Menuett, Andante, for two violins and violoncello.
Oriental intermezzo. Quintet for two clarinets, violin, viola and double bass.
Resignation, for valthorn och piano.
Movement (D major), for piano, violin, violoncello, double bass, clarinet, trumpet.
Sonata (Trio), for violin, alto violin and double bass.
String quartet in D major.
String quartet in D minor 'To Leif Bratt'.
String quartet in G minor.
String quartet in 'Höst'.
String trio (C major.
String trio (F major), for two violins and violoncello.
Trio for piano and two violins (D minor).

Andante (B-flat major).
Andante con moto (A minor).
Båtfärden, piano four hands.
Festival march (A major).
Ingeborg. Polka for piano.
Presto (G minor), piano four hands.
Scherzo (D major), piano four hands.
Small pieces for piano. 1. Idyll, 2. Preludium, 3. Vemod, 4. Humoresk, 5. Marsch, 6. Valse lente.
Sorg, piano four hands.
Two-step polka (D major)
Waltz (A minor, A major).
Waltz (C major).
Vågskvalp, piano four hands.

Organ music
Canon over the Chorale Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott op. 30.

Choir and solo
Fälttågssånger, no. 63 ('Vi marschera fram'), for voice and unison kör.

Voice and piano

Eko (Se sommarns ljusa kvällar).

Fru Musica (Potpurri; svenska folkvisor och danser harmoniserade för pianot), 1908.
Maientanz [by Wemheuer].
Marsch (C major) [by Erdtel].
 [by Gretscher].