Thomas Byström (1772−1839)


Thomas Byström, born 28 August (or 2 September) 1772 in Helsinki, died 2 October 1839 in Stockholm, was a military officer, pianist, violinist, music teacher and composer. Elected into the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1794. Piano and organ teacher at the educational institution of the academy in 1818−35. Emerged as a composer of violin sonatas, piano pieces, and songs.

Early Years

Thomas Byström was the son of Anders Byström (1724−1802), a businessman and member of parliament who, in 1788, was also elected mayor of Helsinki. Thomas may have received some preliminary musical education early on, however, already in 1785, he was sent to Reval, where greater possibilities existed for more comprehensive training. It is unknown who his teachers were, but they can probably be identified amongst Reval gymnasium’s cantors and other eminent musicians, such as the conductor Michael Andreas Tewes and the pianist Carl Friedrich Agthe.

Military Career

In 1787, Byström moved to St Petersburg, where he underwent the Imperial artillery and engineering cadet school, taking his officer’s exam in 1791. He received instruction in languages and also, most likely, in music. After volunteering for Swedish military service, he was accepted in 1792 as a second lieutenant at the Svea artilleriregimente (Svealand Artillery Regiment) in Stockholm. That same year he was commissioned as a company officer at Krigsakademien (the Military Academy) at Karlberg, where he also gave piano and violin lessons and, in 1794 at least, worked as a music teacher. In 1799 he graduated with a Swedish military degree.

Byström spent 1805−06 in Pomerania, as staff aide in Gustav IV Adolf’s general staff, becoming captain in 1806 and aide at artillery headquarters in 1807. In the Finnish war, he served as major at the headquarters in Åland, as the King’s chief aide. He was then appointed as an interpreter at the Russian-Swedish peace negotiations and, from 1809, was engaged as a translator at the Kunglig Majestäts kansli (the Royal Government Offices) in the languages of German and French.

Even after the political revolution in 1809 Byström’s military career continued, leading to his appointment, in 1813, as lieutenant colonel. Due to a re-organisation of artillery administration, Byström’s position at the Kungliga Krigskollegium (the Royal Military Board) was terminated in 1816. He then took the drastic step to, once again, enter into Russian service. However, after only three months in St Petersburg, he returned to Stockholm and found himself left without income opportunities, as he lacked the necessary permission to enter the service of a foreign power.

Byström now had only his modest translator’s salary to live on until, in 1818, he was engaged as a piano and organ teacher at the educational institution of the Kungliga Musikaliska akademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Music). In 1825 he received a post in the Krigskollegium and in 1827 gained the right to re-enter the Swedish army. From 1806, he was secretary of Kungliga Krigsvetenskapsakademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences) where he was a founder member in 1796. Byström was awarded Svärdsorden (the Royal Order of the Sword) in 1832.

Musical Career

Byström’s musical reputation must have been considerable as, in 1794, he became the first Finnish-born member of the Musikaliska akademien. He belonged, among others, to governor-general Anders Fredrik Skjöldebrand’s musical circle, where he performed as both pianist and violinist. He then emerged as a composer, publishing nine songs in the periodical Musikaliskt Tidsfördrif from 1794 until 1800. The earliest were simple strophic ballads, but some of the later examples (‘Då jag var liten’, ‘Den lyckliga barndomen’ and ‘A ma Guitarre’) are through composed, with richly diverse accompaniments. The journal Musikaliskt Tidsfördrif also published a voluminous work of variations, Air Russe Variée (1798-99), and an elegant and vibrant polonaise (1805).

Byström’s greatest work is his three sonatas for piano and violin, for which he, in 1800, vainly advertised for sponsors in the newspaper Stockholms-Posten. However, thanks to the support of a friend in Pomerania, the sonatas were published in 1801 by Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig. These works, which despite a certain dominance of the piano part, can be described as true ‘duet sonatas’, each with a three-movement form and maintaining a classical style throughout. They exhibit highly melodic themes and driving dynamics, and also include a number of surprising structural and harmonic liberties.

Curiously, Byström decided not to continue his promising composing career, but published, in 1821, a Swedish translation of Vierling’s textbook on basso continuo and composition, Läran om generalbasen, which the Musikaliska akademien approved for use in universities, churches and schools. The book possesses a certain value due to Byström’s own commentary and clarifications.

When Byström became a piano teacher at the educational institution of the Musikaliska akademien in 1818, only cantors and organists were trained there. The number of students fluctuated between 6 and 31 throughout his tenure, with the average being around 20. The piano teacher should also teach organ, but in 1824, this became an independent subject, and thus Byström’s salary was reduced by half. In 1833, the whole of his piano teaching ceased, and Byström, already strained economically, became almost bankrupt. It is a testimony of his reputation as a teacher that he was appointed piano teacher for Crown Prince Oscar, later Oskar I.

The fact that Byström’s economic problems increasingly worsened is particularly evident in his estate’s inventory, where the debts are more than four times the size of the assets. From 1809, Byström was married to Carolina Asping, and the couple had ten children, nine sons and one daughter. Three of the sons died in infancy, but two would devote their interest to music, Johan Thomas (b. 1810) and Oscar Fredrik Bernadotte (b. 1821).

Lennart Hedwall © 2014
Trans. Robin McGinley

Publications by the composer

Publications by Byström
Afhandling om Ryska Artilleriet, in Kungl. Krigsvetenskapsakademiens handlingar, 1808.

Vierling, Johann Gottfried: Läran om General-Basen, trans. Thomas Byström, Uppsala: Palmblad och Stockholm: Deelen, 1821 (org. Allgemein fasslicher Unterricht im Generalbass mit Rücksicht auf dem jetzt herrschenden Geschmack in der Composition durch treffende Beispiele erläutert).


Anteckningar om Kongl. Sveas Artilleriregemente 1794−1894, Stockholm: Norstedt, 1898
Cronhamn, Johan Peter
: Kongl. Musikaliska akademien 1771−1871. Historiska anteckningar, Stockholm: Seelig, 1871
Hedwall, Lennart
: Oscar Byström. Ett svenskt musikeröde från 1800-talet, Hedemora & Södertälje: Gidlund, 2003
Kleberg, Henrik Johan Saxo
: Krigskollegii historia 1630−1865, Stockholm, 1930
Klemetti, Heikki.: 'Thomas Byström − en finländsk klaverspelare och tonsättare från 1700-talet', Suomen Musiikkilehti, 1936
Lappalainen, Seija: Thomas Byström suomen musiikin klassisimin edustajana, lic. diss. in musicology, Helsingfors universitet 1988
Lappalainen, S.: 'Viulusonaatti 1700-luvun lopulla ja soumalais-routsalainen Thomas Byström sen edustajana', in: Hannu Apajalahti (ed.), Den gemensamma tonen: Föredrag från seminariet Det gemensamma rikets musikskatter på Hanaholmen, kulturcentrum för Sverige och Finland, Esbo den 2.−4. december 1988, Helsingfors: Musikvetenskapliga sällskapet i Finland, 1990 
Lappalainen, S.: 'A breath of classsicism in the North: composer officer Thomas Byström', in Finnish Music Quarterly, no. 1, 1991
Lundén Cronström, Ingegerd: 'Anornas brokiga väv I. Släkten Byström 1649−1909, stencil ed., n.d. (1969)
Lundén Cronström, I.: 'Helsingforsborgmästaren Anders Byström och hans son Thomas Byström', in Historiska och litteraturhistoriska studier, vol. 45, 1970
Marvia, Einari: 'Thomas Byström', in Suomen Säveltäijia, vol. 1, Porvoo: Söderström, 1965
−−−: 'Thomas Byström 1772−1839', in Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 63, 1981
[Nekrolog], Helsingfors Tidningar, 7 March 1840

Summary list of works

Quadrille for small orchestra, chamber music (three violin sonatas), piano music, nine songs.

Collected works

Quadrille for small orchestra.
Trois Sonates pour le Clavecin ou Pianoforte avec accompagnement d’un Violon.
Obligé, for piano.
Air Russe Variée.
Nine songs.

Works by Thomas Byström

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

Number of works: 5