Armas Järnefelt (1869−1958)


Edvard Armas Järnefelt born 14 August 1869 in Vyborg, died 23 June 1958 in Stockholm. Swedish-Finnish conductor and composer. First engagements as répétiteur in the 1890s in Germany. 1898–1903 conductor of Municipal Orchestra in Vyborg. 1905–32 conductor of the Royal Court Orchestra in Stockholm (1911 Chief Conductor of the Royal Court Orchestra; 1923 First Chief Conductor of the Royal Court Orchestra). 1932–36 Conductor and artistic director of the Finnish Opera in Helsinki. 1942–43 Conductor of the Helsinki City Orchestra. Guest performances in Vienna, Berlin, Rome, Gothenburg, Malmö, among others. Became Swedish citizen 1909.

Background and education

Armas Järnefelt was born into an influential family in Finnish cultural life. His father Alexander Järnefelt (1833–1896) was a general, governor and senator, his mother Elisabeth née Clodt von Jürgensburg (1839–1929), who came from St. Petersburg, had a well-known literary salon in Helsinki. Among his siblings, the poet Arvid Järnefelt (1861–1932) as well as the painter Erik (Eero) (1863–1937) gained attention nationally resp. internationally. His younger sister Aino (1871–1969) became the wife of Jean Sibelius who was introduced to the Järnefelt family by his younger study fellow Armas Järnefelt. They remained friends throughout their lifetime. Despite the Finnish-Swedish background of their father and the German-French-Russian of their mother, all Järnefelt siblings were fostered and educated in the Finnish language. The family was known in Finland for their fennoman attitude.

Armas showed talent as a pianist and started studying music in Helsinki in 1887 at Martin Wegelius’s Music Institute. He specialised in composition and piano. As a music student Järnefelt was fond of the music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Grieg. Unlike his older study fellow Sibelius, the strong pro-Wagnerian attitude of his composition teacher Wegelius became also his own. Järnefelt as an opera conductor became a faithful champion of Wagner’s works throughout his career; he even staged some of them and his compositions for orchestra show a clear influence of the New German School.

After his studies in Helsinki, where Ferruccio Busoni was among his teachers, Järnefelt moved to Berlin in 1890 to study composition there with Albert Becker. One year earlier Sibelius had done the same but continued on to Vienna. Järnefelt stayed in Berlin and other German cities for longer periods until 1894. Here he attended concerts and for the first time performances of Wagner’s operas. The last step in his formal education as a composer was a stay in Paris where he took lessons with Jules Massenet in 1892/93. From 1895 to 1898 he tried to establish himself as a professional musician in Germany, working as a répétiteur at theatres in Breslau, Magdeburg and Düsseldorf.

The years in Vyborg and Stockholm

In 1898 he moved to Vyborg and became the conductor of the Municipal Orchestra until 1903. In 1904 he had his first guest appearance as an opera conductor in Stockholm. He succeeded Wegelius as the director of the Music Institute in Helsinki in 1906.

In 1907 he decided to move to Stockholm permanently. During these early years Järnefelt wrote the majority of his orchestral compositions. He focused on writing for the orchestra after 1892, starting with his Ouverture Lyrique. He had success with his orchestral pieces in his homeland Finland and even abroad. The symphonic poem Korsholma (1894), his central work, was published in Breitkopf & Härtel’s series Salonorchesterbibliothek. Apparently he was aiming to have his pieces for orchestra performed in Germany, as some of his works bear German titles and the directions for tempo and delivery in many of his orchestra works are in German too. Having started a career as a professional conductor, he practically stopped writing music for the orchestra after the turn of the century.

Composer of songs and piano music

As a song composer his output stretches throughout his entire musical career. The reason for this may be that he was married twice to opera singers for whom he wrote most of his songs. Together with his first wife, the soprano Maikki Pakarinen (1871–1929), he tried to establish himself as an accompanist and composer of songs in Finland during the early 1890s. They recorded some of them together in 1904. This marriage lasted from 1893 to 1908. His second wife Olivia Edström (1876–1971), whom he married in 1909, was a mezzosoprano. All of his 82 songs are composed for the high or middle voice register. Beside German, Nordic and French influences, also those of Russian composers like Scriabin and Rachmaninov can be detected in them. Järnefelt set mostly Swedish and Finnish texts to music, but also some in German.

His compositions for the solo piano are few as are his chamber works; most of them originated during his years of studying music. His piano compositions show traces of the music of Oskar Merikanto, Sibelius, Chopin, Schumann and Liszt and his late organ works are influenced by late Romantic French organ music.

Incidental music, film music, cantatas and choral music

He wrote music for five dramas. A remarkable fact is that Järnefelt was the first composer in the North to receive a commission to write film music, namely for the movie Sången om den eldröda blomman (1919). It is the only music for a Swedish silent film that has been preserved. Järnefelt arranged some numbers from it separately. Despite its success, it remained his only film music.

After the turn of the century, Järnefelt increasingly composed music on commission, including the Juhla-alkusoitto (Festival Overture) (1902) and the cantata Maan sävel (Song of the Earth) (1934). Altogether he composed 13 cantatas between 1897 and 1948. A large part of his choral music was written late in his career. 23, that is, the majority of his 36 pieces for choir, are written for male choir.

Lost works and fragments

It is unclear how many of Järnefelt’s pieces have been lost. In his correspondences he mentions compositions that have probably never been completed. For instance, in a letter to his mother he told her that he had finished two movements of a symphony that has not been preserved. Perhaps he used music of it in Korsholma or in his Symphonic Fantasy.

Original versions of some pieces have been lost, like the piece for orchestra Lapsuuden ajoilta (From Childhood Days) which became Suomalainen rapsodia (Finnish Rhapsody). From the four-part symphonic poem Kanteletar only one movement, the Pastoraali, has prevailed. Moreover, some pieces for orchestra that he composed during the 1930s are no longer traceable, and from his incidental music some are only preserved as vocal scores or as fragments.

Stylistic traits

As a whole, his oeuvre is rather small. A common hypothesis that is presented in the research literature about Järnefelt blames Sibelius's success as a composer for Järnefelt's decreasing interest in the composition of larger works and even composition in general. However, this hypothesis remains to be proven. What is notable is that the experienced opera conductor Järnefelt apparently never tried his hand at writing an opera, and that he abstained from composing a work related to the Kalevala despite his fennoman family background. Generally, one can observe a decline in his ambitions as a composer after 1900. His most complex and ambitious work is the Symphonische Fantasie for orchestra from 1895. Aside from Wagner, influences of Richard Strauss’s orchestral music can be heard in it, for instance, in the rich instrumental texture. The Finnish critics were not in favor of this piece, which became a turning point in his work as a composer.

After the Symphonische Fantasie he wrote simpler and shorter pieces for orchestra, of which two became his most popular ones: the Berceuse and Praeludium for orchestra, the latter of which was originally a part of his Kleine Suite (Suite in E-flat major), were and still are the most performed and recorded works from his oeuvre. Originally Berceuse was written for piano and violin. He arranged it for small orchestra and other instrumental combinations, as did other musicians. The total number of the available arrangements of this piece is around 100.

Perhaps because of these small-scale works he gained the reputation as a miniaturist. His style as a composer and his aesthetic values remained throughout his life entirely within late-Romantic standards. He did never appreciate the music of the 20th-century modernists, neither as a musician nor as a composer. His works have been performed and recorded in Sweden and Finland continuously and occasionally in Great Britain.

Martin Knust © 2016


Complete bibliography in Salmi, 424−27 and Salmi/Zilliacus, 308−12.
Bergman, A: ‘Finländska musiker i Sverige’, in: Musikrevy, 1973.
Frimureriska tonsättare och frimurerisk musik, Uppsala 2006, p. 312.
Glimstedt, Herman: Armas Järnefelt, Stockholm, 1932.
−−−: ‘Armas Järnefelt’, in: Svenska män och kvinnor, vol. 4, Stockholm: Bonnier, 1948.
Haapanen, T: Suomen säveltaide, Helsingissä: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Otava, 1940.
Heiniö, Mikko et al. (eds): Suomalaisia säveltäjiä, Helsinki: Otava, 1994.
Helasvuo, Veikko: Sibelius and the music of Finland, Helsinki : Otava, 1952.
Huldén, Lena & Kari Kilpeläinen: ‘Armas Järnefelts notmanuskript: ett värdefullt tillskott till samlingarna i Helsingfors universitetsbibliotek’, Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 75, no. 2, 1993, pp. 87−89.
Karila, Tauno: Composers of Finland, Helsinki: Suomen Säveltäjät, 1965.
Marvia, E (ed.): Suomen säveltäjiä, 2 vol., Porvoo: Söderström, 1965−66.
Salmenhaara, Erkki (ed.): Suomen musiikin historia, vol. 2, Kansallisromantiikan valtavirta 1885−1918, Porvoo: Söderström, 1996.
Salmi, Hannu (ed.): Armas Järnefelt. Kahden maan mestari, Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 2009. [With a complete bibliography.]
Salmi, Hannu & Lasse Zilliacus (eds): Armas Järnefelt. Kompositör och kapellmästare i Finland och Sverige, Stockholm: Atlantis, 2014. [With a complete bibliography.]
Åhlén, Carl-Gunnar: ‘Armas Järnefelt’, in: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 20, Stockholm: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, 1973−75.
−−−: ‘Armas Järnefelt’, in: Sohlmans musiklexikon, vol. 3, 1976.




Kungliga Biblioteket Stockholm, Musikmuseet Stockholm, Riksarkivet, Statens Musik- och teaterbibliotek, Helsinki University Library.
Portrait: Kungliga Operan Stockholm.

Summary list of works

Incidental music (Miranda, Det förlovade landet, Titus, Fåglarna), film music (Sången om den eldröda blomman), 25 works for orchestra (Suite, Korsholma, Heimathklang, Suomalainen rapsodia, Symphonic Fantasy, Serenade, etc.), works for piano solo, 82 solo songs, 13 cantatas, works for choir. Among his Swedish works is counted most of the incidental music, the film score and songs.

Collected works

This lists contains only works written after 1906 when Järnefelt moved to Sweden and those composed for or published in Sweden. The titles of vocal pieces are given in their Swedish original. For a complete work list cf. Salmi, 406–16 and Salmi/Zilliacus, 293–303.

Incidental music

Titus, 1910.
Fåglarna, 1927/28.

Film music

Sången om den eldröda blomman, 1919.

Works for orchestra

Preludio funebre, 1930.
Juhlakaikuja, 1932.

Solo songs

Du är sol, du är vår, 1908.
Serenad, 1908.
Den flygande holländaren, 1908.
En visa, 1908.
Farväl, 1908.
Ödets stjärna, 1908.
Skymning, 1908.
Carmen, 1909.
Nocturne, 1910.
Lina, 1910.
Vågsång, 1910.
Till en brud, 1919.
Tretton år, 1922.
Du, 1933.

Organ solo


Works for choir

På havet for male choir, 1933.
Betlehems stjärna for male choir.
Dvärgens hämnd for male choir.

Works by Armas Järnefelt

There are no works by the composer registered