Emmy Köhler (1858−1925)


Emmy Christina (Kristina) Köhler (née Welin) was born 22 May 1858 and died in Fresta, Upplands Väsby, north of Stockholm, 2 February 1925. She was a vocal composer, writer and teacher. Married to the Deputy Director to the Ministry of Finance Sven Köhler, and resident of Norrsätra farm in Sollentuna. She published song books for children, and has a special place in the living Swedish song tradition with her Christmas tune 'Nu tändas tusen juleljus'.

An overlooked genre

Despite numerous performances of ‘Nu tändas tusen juleljus’ in churches, homes and schools during Advent and the Christmas holidays, the woman behind the music and lyrics, Emmy Christina Köhler (née Welin), has been overlooked in music history. That music research has not taken notice of this masterpiece may be because the song consists of many elements which the majority of musicologists pay the least attention to. The text satisfies a social need, the song has a specific function (Christmas celebrations), the melody is relatively simple, and even those who cannot read music are able to learn to sing the song via oral transmission.

All this gives the song, which was composed in 1898 and first published in Korsblomman magazine in 1899, a low cultural capital. Lacking references to material things, and focusing on stars that glitter like Christmas lights, the lyrics to ‘Nu tändas tusen juleljus’ (Now a thousand Christmas lights are lit) brighten the darkest time of the year with the merry Christmas tidings of joy, love, peace and hope. In 1943, the song first began to be included as one of the Swedish school standards, and in 1986 it became a part of the Swedish hymnal as Psalm 116.

Family, education, and teaching

Emmy Köhler was the daughter of Royal Chamberlain Armand Welin and Baroness Wilhelmina Rappe, and the sister of the inventor Axel Welin. She studied at Högre lärarinneseminariet (the Advanced Teacher Seminary for Women) in Stockholm and became active as a teacher, composer and author − focusing on children’s songs, edifying stories and Christmas plays. She married the Deputy Director of the Ministry of Finance, Sven Köhler, and settled in Sollentuna on Norrsätra farm.

As a teacher at the Royal Court, she taught Prince Erik (Gustav V’s youngest son) and others to read and write. Köhler also published the children’s song collections Berits visor and Lill-Berits visor. With illustrations by Elsa Maartman (later known by her married name, Elsa Beskow), she also published ‘Den lille vedhuggaren’ in 1894 in the Christmas magazine Jultomten, skolbarnens egen jultidning. The children’s book Gunnar och Ingas roliga bok (1898) includes a section with nursery rhymes including games and dances.

Imaginative and moralistic songs

In Köhler’s imaginative, adventurous songs, animals are often personified. For example, in Svalebarnen the swallow boy gets a jacket and the swallow girl a dress, probably in the hope that the children will recognise their own world in that of the birds. In any case, Köhler lets the animals speak, perform human actions, wear clothes − serving as role models. She often allows both the animals and the people to perform in the same song.

Köhler also wrote songs about play, the outdoors, and adults’ work. Influenced by contemporary Swedish national and provincial enthusiasm about nature, Köhler’s ‘Utmarschen’ reflects this nationalism and the feelings roused by Swedish nature. In her sentry song, ‘Vaktpostparaden’, a little soldier sings in period style about protecting his homeland. This patriotic spirit was inculcated in boys during the turn of the century, when a wave of nationalism and love for the motherland swept through Sweden. Nationalism is also noticeable in Köhler’s song about the fire brigade, ‘Brandkåren’, in Gunnars och Ingas roliga bok.

In contrast with the adult trend in fin de siècle literature, there is, as with other nursery tunes at the beginning of the ‘children’s century’, something somewhat moralistic about Köhler’s songs. She acquaints us with a variety of healthy, vibrant and sprightly boys and girls. The moralizing tone of certain songs, wagging a forefinger at its listeners, may seem a bit odd today. Weaving in symbols of masculinity with related gender stereotypes, the mood of several of these songs fluctuates from pretentious to cheeky. Despite this, the songs are truly based on contemporary educational ideals, and could be used in part to make child raising more pleasurable for both adults and children. Far into our own times, Köhler’s songs have remained a part of the children’s and adults’ song tradition in Sweden. Still sung in homes, schools and churches, despite the occasional scolding finger, Köhler has genuine insight into the mind of a child.

Camilla Hambro © 2016
Trans. Thalia Thunander

Publications by the composer

Tre julberättelser, Stockholm: Hökerberg, 1898.
Gunnars och Ingas roliga Bok: Sagor och visor, Stockholm: Hökerberg, 1898.
Några drag ur Thorborg Rappes lif, Stockholm, 1903.
Lill' Berits visor: Gamla och nya sånger för barn, Stockholm: Lagerström, 1920.


Andersson, Hans & Telemann, Ulf: Hon och Han, Lund: Lund University Press, 1995.
Bäckstöm, Ann-Sophie
: ‘Barnvisans kvinnliga pionjärer: en kollektivbiografisk studie ur ett genusperspektiv om en grupp kvinnor som författade, illustrerade och komponerade barnvisesamlingar 1885-1922’, C-level thesis in history, Luleå University of Technology, 2006.
Lindhjem, Anna
: Kvinnelige komponister i Skandinavien, Fredrikstad, 1931.
Netterstad, Märtha
: Så sjöng barnen förr. Textmaterialet i de svenska skolsångböckerna 1842–1972, diss., Stockholm University, Stockholm: Rabén & Sjögren, 1982.
Rappe, Thorborg
: ‘Några drag ur ett ädelt lif’, in: Dagny. N.F. 5, 1902:16, pp. 331−339.
Reimers, Lennart
: ‘Barnslig musik genom tiderna’, in: Gunnar Berefelt (ed.), Ur Barndomens historia. Stockholm: Centrum för barnkulturforskning, Stockholm University, 1995.
Zetterholm, Finn
: Barnvisan i Sverige, Stockholm: Proprius, 1969.

Summary list of works

Songs (Nu tändas tusen juleljus etc.)

Collected works

Alla barnen nu till kvarnen (E. Köhler).
Brandkåren (E. Köhler).
Båtvisa (E. Köhler).
Fisken i badkaret (E. Köhler).
Fåfänga Greta (E. Köhler).
Gunnars hästar (‘Gunnar han har hästar’, Tegnér), for voice and piano.
Härmningsvisa (E. Köhler).
Höstvisa (E. Köhler).
Ingas morgonvisa (E. Köhler).
Julgranens visa (E. Köhler).
Juliga visor [2-part] (E. Köhler).
Julklockorna (E. Köhler).
Konvaljen (E. Köhler).
Kvarnvisa (E. Köhler).
Lata Pelle (E. Köhler).
Lille vedhuggaren (E. Köhler).
Många träd i skogen stå (E. Köhler).
Nu tändas tusen juleljus (E. Köhler).
Räv och höns (E. Köhler).
Skördevisa (E. Köhler).
Sotarns visa (E. Köhler).
Svalebarnen (E. Köhler).
Tomtelek (E. Köhler).
Utmarschen (E. Köhler).
Vaktparaden (E. Köhler).
Vi äro kungens vaktparad (E. Köhler).
Älvdans (E. Köhler).

Works by Emmy Köhler

There are no works by the composer registered