Joseph Dente (1838−1905)


Joseph Gottlieb Dente, born in Stockholm 23 January 1838 and died 24 May 1905 (also in Stockholm). Dente was employed as a violinist with the Royal Court Orchestra from 1853 and then as a conductor at the Royal Opera (second chief conductor from 1872, chief conductor 1879−85). Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1870. Teacher of counterpoint, composition and orchestration at the Royal Conservatory of Music 1882−1903. Dente was a versatile composer, and included among his published works are chamber music, piano pieces, together with solo and choral songs. His breakthrough as a composer was with the operetta I Marocco, but his most important work is the internationally award-winning Symphony in D minor.

Xylography by E. W. Hansen 1890. (Kungl. Biblioteket, Stockholm)


Joseph Gottlieb Dente was born in Stockholm on 23 January 1838. He received his initial musical education from his father, Joseph Dente, who was music director at the Första Livgrenadjärregementet (First Lifeguard Grenadier Regiment) in Linköping. He also studied violin in his hometown with court musician and later concert master Edouard d'Aubert, considered the most talented violinist of his time in Sweden. He subsequently studied in Brussels for one of his day's greatest violinists and teachers, Hubert Léonard, a professor at he Conservatory of Brussels. In harmony and composition he was taught by ‘Winge’, probably Otto Daniel Winge, music theory teacher at the educational institution of the Kungliga Musikaliska akademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Music). He is also said to have studied counterpoint with Johan Lindegren, who was four years his junior.

 Even as early as fifteen, on 1 July 1853,   Dente was employed as a violinist in   Hovkapellet (the Royal Court Orchestra)   and he remained in various positions at   Kungliga Teatern (the Royal Opera) for   more than three decades. In 1858 he was   assigned to orchestrate the suddenly   deceased hovkapellmästare (chief   conducter of Hovkapellet) Jacopo Foroni’s   unfinished operetta Advokaten Pathelin.   Alongside being a violinist, he was also   repetiteur from 1861, and now sought to   establish himself as a composer. In 1866   his own ‘opéra comique’ I Marocco was   presented in the Kungliga Teatern   programme. The work was favourably   received by both critics and audiences, and   reappeared in the repertoire in the   following year, being produced again as late   as 1895. Dente’s interest in composition is also evidenced by the fact that, in 1867, when a composition class was established at Kungliga Musikkonservatoriet (the Royal Conservatory of Music), he applied and was accepted as a student, even though, at 29, he was generally considered too old. The teacher was Franz Berwald, from whom he had already received ‘instruction and advice regarding composition’s higher division’. Already at this time he was characterised by his colleague Johan Alfred Ahlström as one of the ‘most prominent’ among domestic composers.

In 1868, Dente was promoted from ‘secundviolinist’ to concertmaster. By this time he was already long established as a concert soloist, with performances in Scandinavia, Germany and France. In 1870 he became a member of Musikaliska akademien whilst at about the same time he abandoned his career as a soloist, to concentrate on conducting, having taken this up a few years earlier. In 1872 he became conductor at Kungliga Teatern, and seven years later was promoted to hovkapellmästare. Concurrent with his position at Kungliga Teatern, Dente had other conductor duties, including being leader (i.e. choirmaster) of the music-oriented brotherhood Par Bricole from 1869−80.

As early as 1885, at the age of 47, Dente retired with a pension from Kungliga Teatern and became, along with Conrad Nordqvist, artistic director of the choral society Musikföreningen in Stockholm, a position he held until 1891. During the years 1890 and 1891, he temporarily rekindled his association with the opera house, now as leader of the Hovkapellet symphony concerts. His conducting style is referred to in contemporary accounts as calm, almost phlegmatic, which could possibly be related to the asthma that constantly tormented him and that occasionally forced him into stillness.

In 1882, Dente started another musical career: as a teacher of counterpoint, orchestration and composition at Musikkonservatoriet. It was here that he came to perform perhaps his most significant achievements. Many eminent Swedish composers received from him a solid training in compositional craftsmanship. Among his students were Helena Munktell, Lennart Lundberg, Ernst Ellberg (who became his successor), Wilhelm Peterson-Berger and Wilhelm Stenhammar, as well as other composers mainly focused on church music such as Gustaf Hägg, Otto Olsson and Ivar Widéen. Dente’s tendency towards counterpoint is also reflected in his most famous work, Symphony in D minor from 1887.

Dente was unmarried. His associations comprised primarily colleagues and co-workers at Kungliga Teatern; his circle of friends included the conductors and composers Ludvig Norman, August Söderman and Conrad Nordqvist, and the opera singer Pelle Janzon, for whom he composed a collection of ‘Songs for Bass Voice’. During the winter season his friends were regulars at Operakällaren, a restaurant located in the building of Kungliga Teatern, and the summers were often spent at the village of Skokloster, hosted by another colleague, conductor at the theatre Södra teatern Oscar de Wahl (father of the actor Anders de Wahl).

In 1903, Dente retired from Musikkonservatoriet and thereafter lived a withdrawn life. He died on 24 May 1905.


Dente’s production is relatively sparse yet demonstrates a breadth that reflects his diverse musical activity as an instrumentalist and conductor: stage music, orchestral works, chamber music, solo and choral songs. The two works that became hugely successful during his lifetime, an operetta and a symphony were also his most extensive compositions.

Stage music

Joseph Dente’s operetta (‘opéra comique’), the one-act play I Marocco, was adopted by Kungliga Teatern in 1866 and reappeared on the repertoire the following season; the subsequently published title song ‘I Marocco’ appeared in a song collection of operatic and operetta music. Despite the success of this work, and although Dente was employed at the theatre for almost another 20 years, he composed, to the best of our knowledge, no additional music for the stage.

Instrumental works

Dente’s first orchestral work, Symphony-Allegro (1867) is a student work from Musikkonservatoriet; it was chosen to be presented at the academy's formal gathering of the same year. With his Symphony in D minor ‘for large orchestra’, he was to experience, just over 20 years after I Marocco, a second − and last − great success as a composer. This four-movement work was composed in 1887 and won an award at a composition competition in Berlin the following year. It was accepted for publication in 1890, both in full score and in an arrangement for piano four hands by Musikaliska konstföreningen (the Swedish Art Music Society). The symphony seems to be the only one of Dente’s compositions which in modern times has appeared in a larger context. In 1992 the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra recorded the piece for radio broadcast.

Dente’s main instrument was the violin, and his only solo concerto was dedicated to this instrument, of which only the orchestral string parts remain extant. A Romance for violin and piano was published in 1889.

The string quartet is the only instrumental genre within which more than one work of Dente’s survives. None of his three string quartets, however, were published. During his studies, he also wrote a piano quartet.

For solo piano Dente composed a ballad which, in the early 1900s, was published in a larger collection of character pieces for piano by Swedish composers.

Vocal works

The only major song collection that Dente published contains ten ‘Songs for Bass Voice’ to texts by Atterbom, Tegner, Wallin, Runeberg and Lenngren. The collection was composed for the opera singer Pelle Janzon, who belonged to his closest circle of friends. Dente also published a small collection of songs to texts by Runeberg.

Despite his years of activity as a choir director, including for Musikföreningen, Dente’s choral production is limited to a few sacred works, including two psalm settings, Davids 100 psalm and Kör a capella till text ur Davids 86e Psalm, both unpublished.

Sverker Jullander © 2013
Trans. Robin McGinley


Castegren, Nils: 'Franz Berwalds kompositionselever vid Musikkonservatoriet 1867−68', Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 56, no. 1, 1974.
Davidsson, Åke: 'Dente, Joseph', in Sohlmans musiklexikon, vol. 2, 1975.
Hedwall, Lennart: Den svenska symfonin, Stockholm: AWE/Gebergs, 1983, pp. 177−179.
Höjer, Leonard:
Musik-Lexikon, Stockholm: Lundqvist, 1864.
Lundin, Claës: Nya Stockholm: dess yttre och inre förhållanden; dess olika folkklasser, typer och personligheter; dess kyrkor och bönesalar, vetenskapsmän och konstnärer; dess värdshus, skådebanor och kaserner, föreningar och arbetaresamfund; dess tidningar och literära kretsar; dess sällskapslif, förlustelser och idrotter till lands och vatten under 1880-talet, Stockholm: Geber, 1890.
Selander, Nils och Edvard: Två gamla stockholmares anteckningar, Stockholm: Norstedt, 1920.
Svensson, Sven E: 'Joseph Gottlieb Dente', in Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 11, Stockholm: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon 1945.


Musik- och teaterbibliotektet

Summary list of works

1 operetta (I Marocco), 2 orchestral works (Symphony-Allegro, Symphony in D minor), 1 violin concerto, 1 piano quartet, 3 string quartets, piano music (Ballad), songs (including 3 songs to texts by Runeberg, 10 ‘Songs for Bass Voice’ to texts by Atterbom, Runeberg, Tegnér and others), sacred choral music (including ‘Herre var mig nådig’, musical settings of Psalms 86 and 100).

Works by Joseph Dente

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

Number of works: 12