Elfrida Andrée (1841−1929)


Elfrida Andrée was born on 19 February 1841 in Visby and died on 11 January 1929 in Gothenburg. She was the first woman in Sweden to graduate as an organist (1857−60) and to become a cathedral organist; she became organist of Gothenburg Cathedral in 1867 and remained so until she died. She studied composition with Ludvig Norman at the educational institution of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music (1860). As a composer of chamber music and symphonic works, she was a female pioneer in Sweden, and the same goes for her activity as an orchestral conductor. Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1879, Litteris et Artibus award in 1895, Idun ‘Women’s Academy’ fellowship in 1908.

Pioneer on many levels

Elfrida Andrée came of a politically liberal family in Visby. At the age of  14 she travelled to Stockholm to train as an organist, and two years later, in 1857, she became the first woman in Sweden to have gained an organist’s diploma at the Kungliga Musikaliska akademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Music). She did so as an extramural student (privatist), women being ineligible for admission to the academy. In 1861, when she was 20, she and her father helped, through correspondence and discussions with MPs, to bring about a change in the law, enabling women to apply for and hold organist appointments. Two years later she helped engineer another legislative change whereby women could be employed as telegraph operators.

At the age of 24, Elfrida Andrée composed a piano quintet which raised her to the élite among Swedish composers, a stratum which was wholly a men’s preserve. Two years later, in 1867, she became organist of Gothenburg Cathedral, the first woman in Europe to hold such an appointment. Her first symphony was performed in Stockholm in 1869, and two years later she herself conducted an orchestra in Gothenburg. It was at about this time that, influenced by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, she formulated her motto: ‘the elevation of womankind’. Pioneering achievements followed in rapid succession, and it was a long and unusual life that ended in 1929. This was the ‘emancipation epoch’. At her birth in 1841, women had practically no rights. By 1929, the year of her death, their financial and legal position had been radically changed, a wider range of employment was open to them and they now had the vote.

Childhood and Stockholm years

Andreas Andrée, Elfrida’s father, was a district physician in Visby. His politics were liberal and he was very much aware of the situation for girls in Sweden. Elfrida and her sister Fredrika (1836−1880, Stenhammar by marriage) received a classical, upper-middle-class education with elements of their father’s social and political radicalism, and they both took organ lessons. Fredrika had a good singing voice and later became an opera singer at the Kungliga Teatern (the Royal Opera) in Stockholm. Their father had chosen another, dual career for Elfrida, the reason being that in 1851 he had visited the Great Exhibition in London and met young women who both played the organ and managed telegraph stations.

In 1855 Elfrida moved to Stockholm. She took private organ and singing lessons and in 1857 graduated as an organist. She did so as an extramural student (privatist), by special dispensation, women being ineligible for admission to regular studies of this kind. She re-took her exam and during her final year studied composition at the Musikkonservatoriet (the Royal Conservatory of Music) under the composer Ludvig Norman. 1861 found her with a wide-ranging diploma and very high marks.

After qualifying she requested, as a woman, special permission from the government to apply for and hold an organist appointment, but her request was turned down by Archbishop Henrik Reuterdahl, a Conservative MP. Elfrida wrote to her father in Visby:

So we girls are to be oppressed in every way. Apart from becoming seamstresses or teachers, the stage is the only occupation open to us. I want to work for and pursue an objective, but what is one to do when there is such a small field to work in? Papa, can you not find something else…

At about the same time, her organ teacher had engaged her as organist in St James’s Church, Stockholm, but the clergy would not let her play, claiming that ‘the sight of a woman on the organ stool [would be] indecorous and disruptive of devotion’. Moreover, ‘Paul has said: Let your women keep silence in the churches’.

A change in the law in 1861 enabled women to apply for organist appointments. Elfrida Andrée had applied for a post in the Finnish Church in Stockholm and took up her appointment in May 1861. The organist’s profession, then, was conquered quite swiftly. The telegraphist’s proved a tougher proposition. Elfrida Andrée had already started her training in 1861. Following long-drawn-out parliamentary debates it was resolved, in 1863, that women could train as telegraph assistants, but it was not till 1865 that a handful of women, Elfrida Andrée among them, entered the employment of Telegrafverket (the electric telegraph agency). The occupation grew popular with women, and by about 1880 there were more female than male operators.

As a composer too, Elfrida Andrée was a pioneer during her Stockholm years. Women had composed songs in the early 19th century, but no Swedish women had written any major compositions. Between 1860 and 1867 Elfrida Andrée composed several chamber music works. She submitted, anonymously, a piano quintet to Musikaliska Konstföreningen (the Swedish Art Music Society). It was accepted and published in 1865. There was great surprise when it became known that the ‘man’ behind this composition was a woman.

Elfrida Andrée in Gothenburg

The post of Gothenburg Cathedral organist fell vacant in 1866, and Andreas Andrée suggested that his daughter applied for it. Gothenburg was Sweden’s biggest seaport and had a liberal stratum of politicians. They included S. A. Hedlund, editor of the newspaper Göteborgss Handels- och Sjöfarts Tidning, who had already moved, in the Riksdag (parliament) in the 1850s, that women be given access to public posts, that they be allowed to administer their property themselves and that they should attain their legal majority at the same age as men. Dean Peter Wieselgren was another. Andreas Andrée wrote to him in the winter of 1867, emphasising that as cathedral organist Elfrida Andrée would set an example to other women in Sweden and liberalism in Gothenburg would celebrate yet another victory.

Elfrida Andrée travelled to Gothenburg for an audition. There were seven male applicants, and she was convinced that she would not be given the appointment. When, in Stockholm a few days later, Andreas Andrée read out a telegram from Gothenburg stating: ‘Mamsell Andrée this evening unanimously elected organist of Gothenburg Cathedral!’ She fainted.

Her main duty was to play on Sundays, when there could be four services. The first was at 8 am, the second at 9. Matins began at 10 and could last for five hours. Evensong was at 4 pm, and there was a mission prayer service at 6 pm. Her obligations also included keeping the main organ in trim, tuning it when necessary and performing running repairs. The job was no sinecure: ‘Suffice it to say, in absolute confidence’, she wrote to her father, ‘that after all that I needed four days to rest my beastly back.’ She probably had scoliosis; her back was crooked, and she walked with a slight limp. A supernumerary organist played for minor services on weekdays. A Kantor directing the ‘chorale choir’ − consisting of schoolboys − attended services. Women were not allowed to lead congregational singing until 1905, and in that connection Elfrida Andrée’s appointment was enlarged, making her both organist and Kantor.

On arrival in Gothenburg, Elfrida Andrée was strongly supported by Dean Peter Wieselgren and the Hedlund family. Gothenburg Cathedral was a Schartauan bastion, which meant sermons lasting for hours, with depictions of punishment for sins of both commission and omission raining down over the congregation. This was something new to Elfrida Andrée, who was relatively secularised, and it took time for her to blend with her surroundings. She wore black, like a Schartauan woman, and her letters show that she ceased criticising the sermons.

Meanwhile Elfrida Andrée found herself a place in the social life of Gothenburg. She was on close terms with the family of S. A. Hedlund. She was invited to balls given by Provincial Governor Ehrensvärd and to the great dinner parties given by Dean Wieselgren. Her social circle included several other eminent families, such as that of Carl Levgren, a wealthy merchant. The Levgrens, adhering to an earlier tradition, kept a musical salon, and their home boasted two grand pianos, two harmoniums, a two-manual organ with pedals and several fine Italian stringed instruments. Carl Levgren was a skilled violinist, and his daughters too were proficient musicians. Several new chamber works of Elfrida Andrée’s were performed in this salon during the 1870s and 1880s.

Elfrida Andrée could very well have settled down in Gothenburg, playing in the cathedral and going the social round, but she had loftier ambitions. Her first emphatic step into the men’s world came with the performance of her first symphony, in C major, in Stockholm during the winter of 1869. She wrote in her diary that the work was performed at the Hammars teater and that she believed the musicians to have ‘played wrong on purpose’. She and her sister Fredrika Andrée left when the last movement began and the first violins were one bar behind the rest of the orchestra. Elfrida lay ill for three days after ‘this musical delight’. The reviewer Wilhelm Bauck slammed her completely, declaring the composition beneath ‘imperfection’. His review ended: ‘Note this golden truth: originality consists in invention, not in abnormal and least of all in hideous forms.’

The Andrée family were shaken by the review, and Andreas Andrée felt that Elfrida should stick to writing songs and small piano pieces. But she thought differently. In the ensuing correspondence she gradually arrived at an insight, and wrote:

How many times have I not felt resentment when it has been written or said, and truthfully so, that no female names can be mentioned where serious musical composition is concerned. […] No small songs shall be the first of me to be seen, for songs, indeed beautiful songs, there are many of my kin who write. Chamber music works […] now that is the beginning I wish for. It would be easier to tear a piece from the rock than to tear away from me my ideal idea: the elevation of womankind!

The following year she went to Copenhagen to see the composer Niels W. Gade. That meeting too left her shaken. Gade maintained that her being the organist of a small church would have been acceptable: ‘But of a cathedral, that is quite inappropriate. An oddity.’ And yet their acquaintance prospered. She played her newly written piano sonata to him, she showed him her symphony and her piano quartet was performed in his salon. The music had ‘made an impression’, and she returned to Gothenburg in good heart and with new ideas. ‘I want to keep moving forward, I want to be genuinely useful and I wanted to become something more than I am!’ she wrote in a letter to her father.

During the 1870s Elfrida Andrée had the wind in her sails. She spent the spring of 1872 in Leipzig and tried, unsuccessfully, to give an organ recital. She ran her school of music in Gothenburg and organised small soirée performances by her pupils. She composed works for the piano, for choir both with and without orchestra, and two major orchestral works. In the spring of 1877 she rented an orchestra and gave a private concert in Lilla Börssalen, Gothenburg. The following spring she gave a highly successful orchestral concert in the cathedral, which was filled to capacity, personally conducting her Concert Overture and an Andante. But in 1878 Gothenburg was hit by an economic crisis, and when her Snöfrid for orchestra and chorus was performed the following year, she encountered a succession of reverses, but she overcame them. After the concert she wrote jubilantly to her sister Fredrika: ‘I composed, I conducted, people applauded!’

In the score of an overture composed in 1864, she has written: ‘Mendelssohn lives.’ The same exclamation fits the second symphony, completed in the summer of 1879 but not premiered till 1893, as entr’acte music at Stora Teatern, Gothenburg. The applause following the performance was silenced, and although well received by reviewers, the symphony has had only occasional performances.

The final years

By about 1880, Elfrida Andrée was a well-known figure on the Swedish arts scene, and some of her best compositions date from this time. In the summer of 1883 she wrote a piano trio in G minor. This was published in 1887 by Musikaliska Konstföreningen. Unlike the symphony, it is performed regularly and today is almost well known.

A string quartet, written in 1887, was premiered in Copenhagen, at the 1895 Women’s Exhibition from Past to Present. All through the 19th century, string quartets were rated a genre passing female comprehension (received wisdom had it that women’s brain development came to a halt at the age of 12 or 13), and no string quartet existed with only women players, and so four women string players were recruited from various parts of the Nordic area to play the piece. This was the first-ever instance in the Nordic countries of a string quartet composed by a woman and performed by women.

Fritjofs Saga, written in 1895, was submitted to the trustees of the Kungliga Teatern as an entry in a competition for a work celebrating the official opening of the new opera house in 1898. The libretto, based on the well-known verse epic by Esaias Tegnér, had been written by Selma Lagerlöf. Fritjofs Saga is a Wagnerian grand opera. This was no success either. It was premiered by amateur musicians in Gothenburg a few years later, at one of the popular concerts organised by Arbetareinstitutet, and has yet to be properly staged.

In the autumn of 1897 Elfrida Andrée was put in charge of Arbetareinstitutet’s popular concerts in Gothenburg, a post she retained until shortly before her death, when it was taken over by her niece, Elsa Stenhammar. The popular concerts were intended to create a new audience for big symphonic concerts, a type of activity which began to be built up in Sweden from about 1900. Concerts were organised with low ticket prices and with mixed programmes ranging from piano pieces to songs, choral compositions, chamber music and symphonic music. In connection with these concerts, Andrée also began collaborating with her niece Elsa’s cousin, Wilhelm Stenhammar, who in 1907 became conductor of the newly formed symphony orchestra in Gothenburg.

Elfrida Andrée and ‘the elevation of womankind’

Elfrida Andrée never forgot the struggle for her profession. ‘The elevation of womankind’ remained her watchword right up to the day of her death. Not all women shared this view. In London in 1882 she met the singer Jenny Lind (1820−1887), who among other things held women to be incapable of dealing with an orchestra. Elfrida Andrée hurried to show her symphony to Jenny Lind’s husband, the conductor Otto Goldschmidt. While he was playing it through, Jenny Lind, standing beside him, whispered: ‘Is it possibly correct for all the instruments?’ ‘Yes, indeed, indeed’, came the reply. The Norwegian pianist and composer Agathe Backe Grøndahl was also diffident about orchestral writing, declaring in a letter to Elfrida Andrée that this was not really ‘in my genre, I think’.

As educator and as examiner of the Kungliga Musikaliska akademien in Gothenburg, Elfrida Andrée instructed and examined many women organists over the years. Interestingly, in 1889 Gothenburg was the only Swedish diocese to have any women organists, which had to do with Elfrida Andrée’s position as cathedral organist. The 1880s saw growing opposition to women as musicians and composers, which makes it something of a paradox that during this very same decade Elfrida Andrée was joined by three more women composers, namely Laura Netzel (1839−1927), whom she helped to get started as a composer in the 1880s, Valborg Aulin (1860-1928), who was very much of a recluse, and Helena Munktell (1852−1919). For all their contemporaneity, there were great differences between these four women. Valborg Aulin and Helena Munktell did not write anything for orchestra until about 1900, and Laura Netzel’s chamber music output only started in the 1890s. These three, then, emerged long after Elfrida Andrée had produced her compositions, and none of them left such political footprints as she did. Elfrida Andrée was the great trailblazer.

Elfrida Andrée’s music

Elfrida Andrée left more than a hundred works extant. Her output can be divided into three periods. During her early years in Stockholm she composed five major works in rapid succession: a piano trio in C minor, a string quartet in A minor, an orchestral overture in G minor, the E minor piano quintet and a piano quartet in A minor. In all of them she follows in the footsteps of her teacher, Ludvig Norman. These compositions have a lucidity of form and are modelled on the music of Beethoven and on the chamber music of Mendelssohn and Schubert. The piano quintet was the only work to be published. It is written in the style of the Leipzig school, but has a number of characteristic sections distinguishing her personal style: the treatment of melody, certain timbre effects, a harmony relatively free from chromatics and, last but not least, a distinct verve.

The move to Gothenburg in 1867 spelled the end of her student years, but at the same time a drift from Stockholm, the centre of Swedish music, to the periphery. Contact with professional Stockholm musicians was exchanged for contact with Gothenburg military musicians. The first symphony (1869) was composed with a view to performance in Stockholm. It is full of ideas, and in it she has tried to develop towards the orchestral style of Carl Maria von Weber and Felix Mendelssohn, but there are also long melodic sections reminiscent of early Brahms.

In Gothenburg during the 1870s, she broadened her generic range, composing songs, piano music and chamber music, still in the style of the Leipzig school. Foremost among these works are the second symphony (1879) and the G minor piano trio (1883). The symphony is cast in the four-movement mould of the romantics. A slow introduction in the first movement is followed by a perky main theme tossed between different groups of instruments and a melodic secondary theme with a fluidity of orchestral sound which puts one in mind of Felix Mendelssohn’s Italian and Scottish Symphonies. The slow movement has a warm, lyrical atmosphere and is, as an artistic achievement, more than a good second to her male exemplars on the continent. The Scherzo echoes the light music of Danish composer H. C. Lumbye and the Central European ländler, often played by her friends in Gothenburg, while the final movement, Allegro risoluto, alternates between the caressingly ingratiating and Beethovenian majesty.

The G minor piano trio is Central European in style, just like the symphony, and has three movements. The Allegro agitato of the first movement opens with a catchily vigorous main theme, while the secondary theme is in lyrical vein. The second movement, Andante con espressione, is based on two contrasting motifs, and the rondo of the finale, Allegro risoluto, is vibrantly agitato, oscillating between melodious and Lumbyean ‘strolling’ motifs.

In the last works, written after 1890, Elfrida Andrée’s style has changed. The organ symphony in B minor (1890) was a long time in the making. An early version of it had already been performed, in the cathedral, in 1871, and was probably modelled on the organ sonatas of Felix Mendelssohn. Ten years later, in 1882, she played a revised version in a concert at the Crystal Palace, London. A brief trip to Paris in the summer of 1882 added a touch of French inspiration to her repertoire. Works by Guilmant, Widor and Saint-Saëns figured regularly in her programmes and, under the inspiration of French music, she now finalised the organ symphony. There are four movements, with French sounds present from the very beginning. The second movement puts one in mind of Mendelssohn, while the third is softly sentimental and is followed attacca by the fourth, which is of Gallic grandeur.

In the opera Fritiofs Saga Andrée has left both the Leipzig school and French music behind her, instead now turning to the Wagnerian strains which were so popular at the time. A few years later, in the early 1900s and in connection with the writing of her two Swedish masses, she has ‘changed’ style again. What we now have is a mixture of Mendelssohn and the French composer Fauré − Leipzig and France, side by side. The choral sound harks back to an earlier generation of Swedish composers, but at the same time prefigures a younger generation, e.g. Otto Olsson and Ivar Widéen. During her last years, then, she became a musical polyglot.

Final remarks

From the mid-1920s onwards, Elfrida Andrée took sabbatical from her cathedral post. Every Sunday she would go down to check that the temporary replacement was in position. It was at the organ that she found an outlet for her artistic and emancipatory dreams, and she never forgot the parliamentary debate in the days of her youth. In 1905 a new cathedral organ was consecrated which had an electric blower. Bellows treaders could now be dispensed with, and Elsa Stenhammar recalls that Andrée would often lose track of time and remain seated at the organ till far into the night. On one such occasion, when nothing but the full organ would suffice to give vent to her innermost feelings, after the last echoes had died away she exclaimed: ‘Paul, old lad − try that for size!’

Eva Öhrström © 2014
Trans. Roger Tanner


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Göteborgs universitetsbibliotek, Kungliga Biblioteket Stockholm, Lunds Universitetsbibliotek, Musik- och teatermuseet Stockholm, Oslo universitetsbibliotek, Musik- och teaterbiblioteket, Stockholms stadsarkiv, Uppsala universitetsbibliotek

Summary list of works

1 opera (Fritiofs Saga), orchestral works (2 symphonies, overtures, suites, concerto for organ and brass), chamber music (2 string quartets, piano quintet, piano quartet, 2 piano trios, 2 violin sonatas), piano compositions (sonata etc.), organ compositions, solo songs, 2 masses, choral compositions and folksong arrangements.

Works by Elfrida Andrée

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

Number of works: 139