Natanael Berg (1879−1957)


Carl Natanael Berg (Rexroth-Berg) was born on 9 February 1879 in Stockholm and died there on 14 October 1957. While still at school he took singing lessons with Julius Günther between 1897 and 1900. After finishing school he studied veterinary medicine from which he graduated in 1902. He worked as a military veterinarian in several regiments until 1939. As a composer he was self-taught. He belonged to the generation of the 1910s which aimed for a more modern and national style then previous composers. Berg’s compositions are highly influenced by continental music, especially that of Richard Strauss. He was also co-initiator and chairman of both FST and STIM.


A musical childhood (1879−1896)

Natanael Berg, who was born on 9 February 1879 in Stockholm, grew up in a musical home. His father Carl Johan Berg was a music teacher at the secondary schools Norra Latin and Norra Real and was also the organist at Skeppsholmskyrka (Skeppsholm’s Church). Berg’s mother, Ottilia Berg b. Åberg, studied piano at the Kungliga Musikkonservatoriet (The Royal Conservatory of Music). The composer, who had seven siblings, wrote in his memoirs that the family often sang together. His parents played piano four-handed and his father also practiced cello. ‘Yes, all there was in our little home was music.’ Berg received his first piano lessons from his mother and his father taught him the flute. At Norra Latin he also had tuition in organ playing and he was a psalm singer at the Skeppsholmskyrkan. Early on Berg improvised on the piano and at the age of nine he wrote his first composition. Jakob Adolf Hägg, who was a close friend of the Berg family, became aware of the young boy’s musicality and gave him some informal lessons.

Study years (1897−1909)

Between 1897 and 1900 Berg studied solo singing with Julius Günther who was also the teacher of the well-known baritone and opera director John Forsell, Berg’s cousin on his mother’s side. Berg also took lessons in harmony, but according to his own words it was ‘too stupid’. For a while he toyed with the idea of pursuing a career as an opera singer. After his graduation from school in 1898 he wished to study medicine, but that was only possible in Uppsala at that time. To be able to continue his studies at the conservatory, Berg decided to study veterinary medicine in Stockholm where he graduated in 1902. He became a district veterinarian in Byske, north of Skellefteå in Northern Sweden, where he stayed for three years. Most of his songs and piano pieces originated from his time there.

Privately he also studied Otto Malling’s book about instrumentation. In 1905 Berg turned to Wilhelm Stenhammar to seek advice, who asked him to send him some of his compositions. When they first met, Stenhammar complimented Berg’s song ‘Saul och David’ but suggested he take thorough formal studies. Berg resigned from employment as a veterinarian and returned to Stockholm in 1907 where he took lessons in counterpoint with Johan Lindegren. But his studies only lasted four months because Berg was unsatisfied with the tuition. Stenhammar encouraged the young composer to broaden his horizons: ‘See other art, painting, sculpture, architecture, theatre. And landscape and clothing and people. And of course hear music, the best. This is best done in Germany.’ And so in 1907/08 Berg went on his first study tour, which he financed on his own.

In Berlin Strauss’s Salome left a lasting impression on him while in Munich he heard Tristan und Isolde and parts of Parsifal for the first time as well as Eugen d’Albert’s Tiefland. For his songs ‘Saul och David’ and ‘Eros vrede’ Berg received the Statens tonsättarestipendium (the State Composer’s Scholarship) with which he financed a second study tour. Amongst others, this tour took him to Dresden, where he met Richard Strauss in person after the premiere of Elektra, and to Paris. In 1909 he travelled to Vienna and Prague. The continental musical life gave Berg many formative experiences and impulses for his further artistic work. In the same year he married German-born Berta Rexroth. In private and as a veterinarian he called himself Rexroth-Berg from then on, but not as a composer. He got divorced in 1925 and married his second wife Elsie Sandberg five years later. To finance himself, Berg served as a veterinarian in several Swedish regiments. He was promoted in 1929 to the rank of a major and retired ten years later in 1939.

An emerging composer (1909−1918)

Berg’s debut as a composer took place at a concert on 26 March 1909 where an orchestrated version of ‘Saul och David’ and ‘Eros vrede’ were performed with John Forsell as a soloist. During that time he wrote some songs based on poems by Nikolaus Lenau, among them ‘Traumgewalten’. This inspired Berg’s first orchestral work, a symphonic poem with the same title. It premiered in 1912 in Stockholm. Stenhammar who was an important adviser and critic for Berg over the past years refused the work because it was ‘outrageously German’. This led to a break between the two men − Stenhammar wrote to Carl Nielsen some years later: ‘Since then he is my bitter enemy’. When Traumgewalten was performed in Dortmund, it was complimented as pioneering work. Until today it is Berg’s most frequently played work.

Shortly after the premiere of the symphonic poem, the composer’s first opera Leila was staged at the Kungliga Teatern (the Royal Opera) in Stockholm. Symphonic works and stage music were the main focus in the following years. Berg’s first symphony Alles endet was entstehet from 1912/13 was influenced by the tragedy of the Titanic. Soon after the second symphony Årstiderna, Berg wrote a symphonic poem bearing the title Selbst ist der Mann! When he fell in love with his second wife Elsie, he composed an additional movement that remained unfinished until 1939, and called it his third symphony with the title Makter. This late revision is the reason Berg’s symphonies are counted differently in contemporary articles.

In 1918 he had a wager with his friend Kurt Atterberg in which they agreed to write a light piece of 20 minutes duration. The result was Berg’s fourth symphony Pezzo sinfonico – regrettably it was two minutes too long. During these years Berg also composed his ballets Älvorna and Sensitiva, although Sensitiva was never performed. He began to write an opera called Josua, but did not complete it. Israels lovsång for choir and orchestra, which was originally included in Josua, was later performed as a separate piece.

‘I am STIM’ (1918−1924)

In 1914 four young and ambitious composers met to initiate a composer’s society, but their initial efforts failed. Four years later Kurt Atterberg, Natanael Berg, Oskar Lindberg and Ture Rangström’s plan finally came to fruition; on 29 November 1918 Föreningen Svenska Tonsättare, FST (the Swedish Society of Composers) was founded in Stockholm. Its aim was to look after the artistic and economic interests of the composers and to promote Swedish music both at home and abroad. Natanael Berg was elected as the first chairman and in the beginning the FST’s offices were housed in Berg’s home. In 1922 he and the academy’s secretary Olallo Morales represented the FST at the international composer conference in Berlin.

The following year Berg travelled to Amsterdam to establish ties with the local copyright collecting society. This resulted in the founding of the Svenska Tonsättares Internationella Musikbyrå, STIM (Swedish Performing Rights Society) in 1923. Here Berg was also appointed as first chairman. On a journey through Europe he negotiated with other societies about a future cooperation. Berg liked to tell the anecdote that when he once was asked about his authority he answered ‘I need no one’s permission – I am STIM.’ Despite, or because of, his great commitment and his hot temper, conflicts emerged both within the boards of FST and STIM which resulted in Berg’s withdrawal as chairman from both institutions. When his demand for compensation for his work was refused, he even resigned from the FST in 1928; he did not return until 1942.

Successes and frustrations (1924−1957)

In 1921 Berg was offered the position as second conductor in Gothenburg by Stenhammar but he refused. Perhaps he was still offended by Traumgewalten. Instead he continued to focus on composing. After five years Berg finished his last symphony Trilogia delle passioni in 1924. This was followed by the cantata Höga visan which is one of his most important works. His opera about the Swedish national hero Engelbrekt (1926–28) bears national romantic traits and here Berg’s melodics refer to Swedish folk tradition. The opera was a great success when it was performed in Braunschweig. The premiere of his next opera Judith took place at the international music festival in 1936 in Stockholm where members of the royal house and the government were present.

Over the following years Berg’s compositions, including his new operas Birgitta and Genoveva, were performed less and less. The decreasing interest in and attention to his music irritated and frustrated the composer. In 1932 Berg was designated as a member of the Kungliga Musikaliska Akademien, KMA (the Royal Swedish Academy of Music) but he attracted great attention when he retracted his membership after attending only one meeting. He explained his withdrawal with his impression that the academy’s board seemed more interested in economic and juridical questions than in musical matters. Several years later he publicly criticized Stockholm’s musical institutions KMA, the Kungliga Teatern and Radiotjänst (the Swedish public radio service) sharply. In the years before his death, Berg worked on an opera about the biblical kings Saul, David and Salomon. However he did not make much progress and Tre konungar remained unfinished. Natanael Berg died on 14 October 1957 at the age of 78 in Stockholm.


Together with Atterberg, Rangström and Lindberg, Natanael Berg belonged to the generation of the 1910s, which was also called the ‘Youngswedes’ (‘ungsvenskarna’). They were all autodidacts as composers with the exception of Lindberg. They were in opposition to earlier Swedish music and aimed for a more modern and national style. But Berg was more cosmopolitan and contrary to his colleagues, and his compositions show practically no influences of Swedish folk music. Instead he was highly influenced by the late German romantics, especially by Richard Strauss. This can be seen in his striking orchestration, the use of dissonant harmonies and Berg’s preference for programmatic titles. His orchestral works tend to be bombastic and emotive and are full of temperament, which is maybe a reflection of the composer’s often impetuous and short-tempered personality. His later style is more withdrawn and refined, of which Trilogia delle passioni (1919−24) and the cantata Höga visan (1924/25) are fine examples. In an article celebrating Berg’s 50th birthday in 1929 one can read that he ‘[…] spoke the boldest and latest tonal language of all contemporary Swedish composers.’ But the new musical movements which emerged in the following years did not have an impact on Berg’s oeuvre so his music was seen as old-fashioned for that time – a fate which Natanael Berg shared with others of his generation.

Berg composed about 50 piano pieces, most of them were written during his time as a veterinarian in the countryside. They are mostly small character pieces; Berg showed no interest in classical forms like the sonata. Chamber music also did not play an important role in his work. Here Berg’s piano quintet and his string quartet in E minor are to be mentioned. A huge number of his nearly 50 solo songs were composed before 1910 and some of them were orchestrated by Berg subsequently.

His interest in German and Swedish poetry also had an influence on his orchestral music which mainly came from the 1910s. All of Berg’s five symphonies bear programmatic titles and are based on a poem or a motto. Besides his orchestral works, stage music played an important role for Berg. He completed three ballets and five operas for which he also wrote the libretti. Raised in a religious home, Berg was a religious man and he even had a private audience with the pope in 1952. So it is certainly no coincidence that many vocal pieces and operas, like Höga visan, Saul och David, Judith and others are based on the Old Testament. However, it is interesting to note that he did not compose any explicitly sacred works. Today many of Berg’s compositions are still waiting to be recorded, especially his songs and his operas.

Carola Finkel © 2016


Berg, Natanael: ‘En tonsättarens minnen’ (Memoarerna), 1955−56, handskrift, Kungliga Biblioteket, Stockholm Natanael Bergs donation L.137.
Berg, Stig: ‘L.137: reflexioner kring en handskriftssamling och dess uppordnande: historik, metodik, beskrivning, spridda personliga iakttagelser och minnesbilder’, in: Burius, Anders (ed.), Några hyll(nings)centimeter: Festskrift till Folke Sandgren, Stockholm: Kungliga Biblioteket, 1998, pp. 279−286.
Brodin, Gereon: ‘Natanael Berg’, in: Sohlmans musiklexikon, vol. 1, Stockholm: Sohlman, 1975, 2nd ed., p. 423.
Edström, Olle: Harmoniskt samspel: sjuttiofem år med STIM, Stockholm: Svenska tonsättares internationelle musikbyrå, 1998.
Haglund, Rolf: ‘Natanael Berg’, in: Sadie, Stanley (ed.): The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians, vol. 3, London: Macmillan, 2001, 2nd ed., p. 328.
Hanson, Sten: Det praktiska tonsätteriets historia: Föreningen Svenska tonsättare genom 75 år, Bromma: Ed. Reimers, 1993.
Hedwall, Lennart: ‘En programsymfoniker’, in: Den svenska symfonin, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell Förlag, 1983, pp. 257−262.
Isaksson, Axel: Natanael Berg: veterinär och tonsättare, Skara: Veterinärhistoriska muséet, 1990.
Jacobsson, Stig: ‘Berg, Natanael’, in: Stig Jacobsson och Hans-Gunnar Peterson (eds), Swedish Composers of the 20th Century: members of the Society of Swedish Composers, Stockholm: Swedish Music Information Center (Svensk musik), 1990, p. 23.
Rabe, Julius: ‘Natanael Berg: Engelbrekt’, in: Radiotjänsts operabok II: tolv nya operor beskrivna för radiolyssnarna, Stockholm: Radiotjänst, 1940, pp. 251−277.
Rundberg, Alfred: ‘Natanel Berg’, in: Svensk operakonst, Halmstad: Meijels Bokindustri, 1952, pp. 320−354.
Walin, Stig: ‘Natanael Berg’, in: Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, vol. 1, Kassel et al.: Bärenreiter, 1949, 1st ed., pp. 1684−1685.
Wallner, Bo: ‘I drömmens våld: om en symfonisk dikt av Natanael Berg’, in: Profiler: fem essäer om svensk tonkonst under förra seklet, Stockholm: Musikaliska akademien, 2002, pp. 6−31.
Wiklund, Anders: ‘Natanael Berg’, Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Personenteil vol. 2, Kassel et al.: Bärenreiter, 1999, 2nd ed., pp. 1245−1246.


Kungliga Biblioteket, Statens Musik- och teaterbibliotek, Stiftelsen Musikkulturens främjande (Nydahlsamlingen), Swedish Music Information Centre (Svensk Musik).

Summary list of works

5 operas (Leila, Engelbrekt, Judith, Birgitta, Genoveva), 3 ballets (Älvorna, Sensitiva, Hertiginanns friare), orchestral works (5 symphonies, symphonic poems, including Traumgewalten), 3 works for solo and orchestra (violin concerto, serenade for violin and orchestra, piano concerto), vocal music with orchestra (Mannen och kvinnan, Israels lovsång, Höga visan, etc.), chamber music (piano quintet, 2 string quartets), piano works (ca 50), songs (48), choral works.

Collected works

Leila, dramatic poem in four acts (Natanael Berg after Lord Byron), 1907−10. Premiered Stockholm 29 February 1912.
Josua (Natanael Berg), 1914 [only scene 1 from act 1 is complete]. Premiered 12 April 1932.
Engelbrekt opera in four acts (Natanael Berg), 1926−28. Premiered Stockholm 21 September 1929.
Judith (Natanael Berg after Friedrich Hebbel), 1931−35. Premiered Stockholm 22 February 1936.
Birgitta (Natanael Berg), musical drama in five tableaus, 1936−41. Premiered Stockholm 10 January 1942.
Genoveva (Natanael Berg after Friedrich Hebbel), 1943−54. Premiered Stockholm 25 October 1947.
Tre konungar (Natanael Berg), 1950−54, 1957 [incomplete].

Älvorna, 1914. Premiered 11 May 1921.
Sensitiva, 1919 [never performed].
Hertiginnans friare, 1920−21. Premiered 29 April 1922.
Opieätaren, 1922 [incomplete].

Symphony no. 1, ‘Alles endet was entstehet’, 1912−13. Premiered Stockholm 9 January 1914.
Symphony no. 2, ‘Årstiderna’, 1915−16. Premiered Stockholm 7 April 1916.
Symphony no. 3, ‘Makter’, 1916−17 [part 1] and 1930−39 [part 2]. Premiered 24 January 1918 [part 1], Stockholm 9 December 1942 [two parts].
Symphony no. 4, ‘Pezzo sinfonico’, 1918. Premiered Stockholm 20 March 1919.
Symphony no. 5, ‘Trilogia delle passioni’, 1919−24. Premiered Uppsala 1 November 1926.

Solo instrument and orchestra
Violin Concerto in E minor, 1918. Premiered Stockholm 19 September 1919.
Serenade for solo violin and orchestra, 1923.
Flute Concerto, 1927 [incomplete].
Piano Concerto C sharp minor, 1930−31. Premiered Stockholm 7 December 1932.

Other orchestral works
Traumgewalten, symphonic poem, 1910. Premiered Stockholm 3 February 1912.
Varde ljus!, symphonic poem, 1914. Premiered 11 January 1917.
Suite for orchestra, 1930. Premiered 29 November 1931.
Serenade for a small orchestra, 1939.
Klar sikt, military march, 1943. Premiered 13 September 1943.
Reveranza, A musical tribute to Armas Järnefelt, 1948−49. Premiered Stockholm 17 August 1949.
Suite for  a small orchestra.

Vocal works with orchestra
Saul och David for baritone and orchestra, 1907. Premiered 26 March 1909.
Eros’ vrede for baritone and orchestra, 1907. Premiered 26 March 1909.
Predikaren for baritone and orchestra, 1911, re-orchestrated 1949. Premiered 22 juni 1913 Stuttgart, re-orchestrated version 3 October 1950.
Mannen och kvinnan for soli, choir and orchestra (Gustaf Fröding), 1911, re-orchestrated 1949.
Israels lovsång for choir and orchestra (Exodus 2:15) [from the incomplete opera Josua], 1915. Premiered 10 December 1917.
Die badenden Kinder, orchestration of the solo song 1918. Premiered 6 March 1919.
Cantata in memory of Karin Åhlin (= Cantata for the 1922 anniversary of Åhlinska skolan) for two female voices, women’s choir, children’s choir and orchestra, (Maria Boethius), 1922. Premiered Stockholm 25 November 1922.
Höga visan for Soli, choir and orchestra (Old Testament), 1924−25. Premiered Stockholm 8 May 1927.
Barn, hålla varandra i händerna (Erik Axel Karlfeldt), orchestration of the solo song.
Blomstermånad (Josef Oliv), orchestration of the solo song.
Dalmålaren (Erik Axel Karlfeldt), orchestration of the solo song.
Davids 23 psalm (Old Testament), orchestration of the solo song.
Det bødes der for (Jens Peter Jacobsen), orchestration of the solo song.
En kärleksvisa (Gustaf Fröding), orchestration of the solo song.
Hedstämning (Gustaf Fröding), orchestration of the solo song.
Längtan heter min arvedel (Erik Axel Karlfeldt), orchestration of the solo song.
På judiska kyrkogården i Prag (Oscar Levertin), orchestration of the solo song.
Stille, du elskede (Jens Peter Jacobsen), orchestration of the solo song.
Vinternatt (Gustaf Fröding), orchestration of the solo song.
Vivant Westmannias! (Johan Olof Wallin), orchestration of the solo song.

Chamber music
Piano Quintet, 1916. Premiered 15 April 1918.
String Quartet, 1917.
String Quartet E minor, 1919.
Violin Sonata [only movement 1 in A major].

Frühling (Spring) E-flat major, 1898.
Marsche triumphale G major, 1898.
Klokkeklang D major, 1898.
Schwipp E minor, 1899.
Serenade F major, 1899.
Efter stormen B-flat major 1900.
Elegie F-sharp minor, 1901.
Schneeflocken C major, 1901.
Visa i folkton G major, 1901.
[Allegretto] D major, 1902.
Den 10. August 1902 E minor, 1902.
Etude G major, 1902.
Fliegentanz G major, 1902.
Valse brillante A-flat major, 1902.
Ro! D major, 1903.
Vals E-flat major, 1903.
År 1902 G minor, 1903.
Nordiska musikfesten i Helsingfors May 1921, 1921.
Polonaise B-flat major (from Hertiginnans friare, arr.), 1921.
Serenata D major (from Hertiginnans friare, arr.), 1921.
Sevillana A major (from Hertiginnans friare, arr.), 1921.
Vid spinetten F major, 1923.
Et les cloches sonnaient G minor, ca 1924.
De späda plantor små E-flat major, 1930.
Berceuse A major, 1944.
Singoalla-Fragment C minor, 1944.
[Andantino] D major, 1956.
Romanza F-sharp major, 1957.
Ach, du lieber Augustn C major (Arr.), two pianos.
Albumblatt G minor.
Albumblatt E-flat major.
De späda plantor små (anon.) [Piano with text, pub. as a piano piece].
Du bist die Ruh! E major.
Hesse (h-e-ess-ess-e) [B-E-E-flat-E-flat-E] E minor.
Hispanique A minor.
Impromptu. I F major.
Impromptu. II B-flat minor,
Klagan! E-flat major.
Romance A major.
Romance B-flat major.
Romance G major.
Sorg G minor.
Stämningsbild C minor.
Vinterbilder. 1. Vinterskog F major, 2. Vinterdag F major, 3. Vinternatt F-sharp major, 4. Skymning A major.
[Andante] G minor.
[A major].
[C major].
[C major].

Giv mig! (anon.), 1903.
Fylgia (Gustaf Fröding), 1906.
Längtan heter min arvedel (Erik Axel Karlfeldt), 1906.
Ung kärlek (Erik Axel Karlfeldt), 1907.
Kvinnohand (Natanael Berg), 1908.
Mitternacht (Hanns von Gumppenberg), 1908.
Von ferne (Hanns von Gumppenberg), 1908.
Ach Mariechen! (anon.), before 1910.
Am Bette eines Kindes (Nikolaus Lenau), before 1910.
Andenken (Joseph von Eichendorff), before 1910.
An der Bahre der Geliebten (Nikolaus Lenau), before 1910.
Bitte (Nikolaus Lenau), before 1910.
Böljebyvals (Erik Axel Karlfeldt), before 1910.
Das Schwert (Ludwig Uhland), before 1910.
Das süße Wörtchen (Mathilde Walker), before 1910.
Det är fullbordat (Gustaf Fröding), before 1910.
Die badenden Kinder, 1910.
Die blauen Frühlingsaugen (Heinrich Heine), before 1910.
Die Nonne (Ludwig Uhland), before 1910.
Frühling (Edvard Paulus), before 1910.
Frühlingsfeier (Ludwig Uhland), before 1910.
Gleicht doch nichts ... (Erik Axel Karlfeldt), before 1910.
Gute Nacht! (Karl Dräxler-Manfred), before 1910.
Höst (Gustaf Fröding), before 1910.
Ich hör’ ein Vöglein locken (Adolf Böttger), before 1910.
Im Frühling (Mathilde Walker), before 1910.
In der Ferne (Ludwig Uhland), before 1910.
May, lilla Maybarn (anon.), before 1910.
Sehnsucht nach Vergessen (Nikolaus Lenau), before 1910.
Ständchen (Friedrich von Schack), before 1910.
Sorgebudet (Gustaf Fröding), before 1910.
Still! (anon.), before 1910.
Säv, säv, susa! (Gustaf Fröding), before 1910.
Traumgewalten (Nikolaus Lenau), before 1910.
Wein nicht, ich bin dir gut! (anon.), before 1910.
Vinternatt (Gustaf Fröding), ca 1920.
Stille, du elskede (Jens Peter Jacobsen), ca 1921.
Barn, hålla varandra i händerna (Erik Axel Karlfeldt), ca 1925.
Blomstermånad (Josef Oliv), ca 1925.
Dalmålaren (Erik Axel Karlfeldt), ca 1925.
Det bødes der for (Jens Peter Jacobsen), ca 1925.
En kärleksvisa (Gustaf Fröding), ca 1925.
Hedstämning (Gustaf Fröding), ca 1925.
På judiska kyrkogården i Prag (Oscar Levertin), ca 1925.
Vivant Westmannias! (Johan Olof Wallin), ca 1925.
Davids 23 psalm  (Old Testament), 1926.
Julevisan (Maria Boethius), ca 1940.
Bröllopspsalm (John Nilsson), ca 1955.
Byte (Axel Liffner), ca 1955.

Choral works
Mädchen mit dem roten Mündchen for men’s choir (Heinrich Heine).

Works by Natanael Berg

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

Number of works: 22