Albert Rubenson (1826−1901)


Albert Rubenson was born in Stockholm on 20 December 1826 and died in the same city on 2 March 1901. He studied violin and composition from 1844 to 1848 in Leipzig, where he also played in the Gewandhaus Orchestra. From 1850−51 he played viola in Sweden’s Royal Court Orchestra. As a composer, Rubenson created in the spirit of Mendelssohn and Schumann, including a symphony, string quartets and several song collections among his list of works. Rubenson was also a teacher of musical notation and campaigned for a ‘Swedish school’ of composition built on professional principles. He was invoked into the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1872. From that year until his death, Rubenson worked as director of the academy’s educational institution.


Albert Rubenson has been described variously as ‘a Swedish Greig’ and as Sweden’s first national romanticist. With his few, but high quality works in the symphonic genre and his activity as a visionary music critic, he is one of the 19th century’s more interesting individuals in Swedish music life.

As the son of Jenny Levin and merchant Wolff Rubenson, Albert Rubenson grew up in Stockholm’s Jewish community within a milieu that was culturally engaged and where music was present in many different contexts. Rubenson’s great-grandfather on his father’s side, Ruben Wolff, had emigrated from Poland at the beginning of the 1790s and served as a rabbi in Stockholm’s Mosaic congregation until 1828. But it was not the music of the synagogue that attracted Albert Rubenson. Early in his life he took violin lessons from Peter Elwers who was a member of the Hovkapellet (the Royal Court Orchestra).

In 1844 at the age of eighteen, Rubenson moved to Leipzig to study at the new music conservatory founded by Felix Mendelsohn the previous year. Besides playing with the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra he studied violin under Ferdinand David, harmony and counterpoint with the philosopher and music theorist Moritz Hauptmann, as well as composition with Danish composer Niels W. Gade, who was working in Leipzig at the time. When Gade was forced to return to Denmark as a consequence of the Danish-Prussian war of 1848, Rubenson followed him to Copenhagen in order to continue his studies. While there he also played in the city’s symphony orchestra.

Two years later he returned to Stockholm where he played viola in the Hovkapellet until 1851. Soon after, Rubenson began his remarkable career as a writer in Ny tidning för musik (new journal for music). In addition to promoting the ideals of the new romantic style, which he came into contact with while in Leipzig, it appears that Rubenson was a proponent of an overall improvement of the quality of music in Sweden. At that time, musical life was more influenced by dilettantism than professionalism. Two years after the journal met its demise (1859), he and composer and colleague Ludvig Norman, along with librettist Frans Hedberg, grounded the short-lived but influential publication Tidning för theater och musik (magazine for theatre and music). It was here that he refined those views about music that he had previously introduced.

Simultaneously with his career as a writer, Rubenson was also focusing on his composing. A symphony in C major, already completed while a student in Leipzig, was revised in 1851 and performed in 1857 under the hovkapellmästare (chief conductor of the Royal Court Orchestra), Jacopo Foroni. Two string quartets had, at that time, already seen the light of day, the first in F major (from 1848), was published posthumously in 1935 by C. F. W. Siegel in Leipzig, and the second quartet in A minor is dated 1850. Two symphonic ‘intermezzos’ from 1860 and 1871 received their debuts in 1868 and 1871 respectively. Intermezzo no. 2 was renamed by the composer as Trois pièces symphoniques, most likely before a performance at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900, where Rubenson was named patron of the renowned Concerts Colonne. In addition he wrote an orchestral suite in C major (1850−51), the comic opera En natt bland fjellen from 1858, concert overtures (1859, 1866), music for male choir, piano pieces and several collections of songs (to texts by, among others, Heinrich Heine in 1858 and Robert Burns in 1866). By request from the author himself, Rubenson composed incidental music for Bjørn Bjørnson's drama Halte Hulda (1865).

Rubenson’s financial independence made it possible for him to take several long trips to places such as Denmark, Germany, Italy, France and Switzerland. His travels abroad, as well as his composing, more or less came to a halt after 1872 when, at the age of 46, Rubenson became manager for the Kungliga Musikaliska akademien (the Royal Swedish Music Academy), receiving the title of director in 1880. Alongside the regular orchestra rehearsals Rubenson introduced weekly chamber ensemble rehearsals in preparation for the yearly public concerts. By request, there was also ensemble playing, concerts and music lectures conducted by the students themselves, for which Rubenson generously lent the academy’s great hall.

Despite Rubenson’s central place within Swedish music life for almost a half-century, there are many questions still waiting to be answered. Which cities did he travel to during his many trips abroad and whom did he visit? And, above all, why did he stop composing? Rubenson died unmarried and left no children behind.


As a critic Rubenson involved himself not only with compositions and performances, but also with educating the public. In addition, he was critical of how music criticism was conducted in Sweden at the time, and advocated for a sharpening and raising of quality on all levels − for everyone’s benefit. He challenged composers to take on larger instrumental forms, and with a more professional touch, raise themselves above the level of the dilettante. Rubenson claimed that the widespread dilettantism in Sweden was characterised by a far too one-sided focus on melody. The melody was perceived by the dilettante as a sort of reinforcing declamation of the sung text. When this view is transferred to instrumental music, the dilettante would inevitably search out programmatic associations and notions, as if the music were a sort of wordless recitative, a declamatory void that must be filled.

What Rubenson felt was lacking − and which he propagated for − was what he called (using words that suggest an early familiarity with German-speaking music critic, Eduard Hanslick) the musically beautiful, in other words, the interplay between melody, rhythm and harmony in a architectonically perfect form: ‘the materials of a musical art work, content, form and purpose are merely tones, tonal formations, tonal beauty’. In order to achieve these ideals, the composers are required to separate themselves from following the classicists’ lead, and instead cultivate their own, individual uniqueness. This uniqueness can be ’universal’, as it is among the German masters, or it could be ’national’, like it is among the French and the Italians. However, Rubenson meant, that for a Swedish composer with a Swedish ’temperament’ it is the Swedish national character and sound of folk music that must be highlighted.


The question is how Rubenson, in his own music was able to reconcile the need for an ‘artistic treatment of the architectural element in the music’, given folk music material that, at least in the vocal context, is more appropriate where ‘the setting for the sung event is Swedish’. In other words, material that tends to draw attention away from the pure tonal formations, and instead toward emotions, nature and an environment that is non-musical. Can Rubenson, with the Swedish folk song as a starting point, reach his goal and lay ‘the ground work for a national art music, the Swedish school, that we still lack’?

In his earlier work such as the second string quartet in A minor from 1850, there is no obvious folk music motif. If there is anything Swedish or Nordic, it is rather a sense of melancholy. In Rubenson’s hands it becomes an emotion in which the building of the contrasting moods of the individual movements together give the listener a particular insight into melancholy’s emotional process.

Rubenson’s way of formulating melodic phrases and motifs has been criticised for being abrupt and fragmented. But it can also be perceived as a sophisticated way of avoiding an emotional storm created just for show, which Rubenson called ‘a false pathos’. This applies not only to the A minor quartet, but to his first and only symphony in C major from 1851. It reinforces the fragmentation of Rubenson’s melodics with its wayward tone colour (with which he anticipates modernists such as Debussy and Schoenberg). This is a technique that requires a thoroughly considered approach in performance, especially if the instrumental shifts overlap the phrasings and natural rhythm of breathing. Although the emotional quality of the symphony in C major differs significantly from the earlier A minor quartet, it also characterises the symphony’s melodic lines which embody a mocking elusiveness. In the first movement, this pertains to both the principle and secondary themes, whose fleeting allusions invite one into the intricate play of the piece’s development.

The timbre of Rubenson’s melodics is even more pervasive in the Symphonic intermezzo no. 1 from 1860. There the motif is additionally embossed with a Nordic folk quality of the ascending introductory phrase for solo cello, reminiscent of ‘Ack Wärmeland du sköna’ (a song about the Swedish region of Värmland based on a folk tune). This same phrase colours the main theme of the first movement and returns as a final echo in both the first and last movements. In the concert overture Drapa, from 1866, the ‘national folk quality’ is pitted against the character of the ‘universal’ march in an equally simple and effective play between major and minor modes. In Rubenson’s hands, this creates a distinctive unit in the otherwise rhapsodic form. The results become simultaneously festive and solemn − humorous and emotional. Like most of Rubenson’s music it is a piece that should be given a permanent place in Swedish orchestral repertoire.


Overall, it can be said that Rubenson avoids over-dramatisation as a tool to capture the audience’s attention. Instead he exhibits a personal strategy that unites the elements of folk music with a totally thought out form, without succumbing to the possibilities of its programmatic elements. Perhaps one could describe Rubenson’s ‘national’ style of art  music as dialectic mediation between the folk music material and its saturation with preconceived associations − and a purely strict form. Perhaps one can perceive Rubenson’s fragmented musical language as an expression of subtle romantic irony.

We do not find any definitive answers in written documents from Rubenson’s estate and he failed in his ambition to give rise to any ‘Swedish school’ that could have provided substantial leads. However, both of the Swedish composers Hugo Alfvén and Wilhelm Peterson-Berger mention Rubenson’s influence in their respective memoirs (the first in negative and the second in positive terms), while composer and pianist Valborg Aulin thankfully dedicates her first string quartet to one of her teachers − Rubenson. That Rubenson strove to raise the standards of Swedish composers there is, however, no doubt.

Ulrik Volgsten © 2014
Trans. Jill Ann Johnson

Publications by the composer

Kungl. Musikaliska akademien. Historisk-statistiska uppgifter rörande musikkonservatorium 1771−1896, Stockholm, 1897.


Carlsson, Carl-Henrik: Rubenson släkt, in Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 30, 1998−2000.
Hedberg, Frans: Albert Rubenson, in Svea, 58, 1902, pp. 236−239.
Hedwall, Lennart: Den svenska symfonin, Stockholm: AWE/Geber, 1983.
Helmer, Axel
: Svensk solosång 1850−1890, Stockholm: Svenskt musikhistoriskt arkiv, 1972.
Jonsson, Leif: Ljusets riddarvakt: 1800-talets studentsång utövad som offentlig samhällskonst, diss., Uppsala, 1990, p. 357.
Jonsson, Leif & Tegen, Martin (eds): Musiken i Sverige, 3. Den nationella identiteten 1810−1920, Stockholm, 1992, p. 201f.
Norlind, Tobias & Olallo Morales: Kungl. Musikaliska Akademien 1771−1921, Stockholm: Lagerström, 1921.
Pettersson, Tobias: De bildade männens Beethoven. Musikhistorisk kunskap och social formering i Sverige mellan 1850−1940, diss. in musicology, Göteborgs universitet, 2004.
Reese Willén, Anne: I huvudstaden, musiklivets härd: den strukturella omvandlingen av Stockholms offentliga konstmusikliv ca 1840−1890, diss. in musicology, Uppsala universitet, 2014.
Volgsten, Ulrik: Från snille till geni: den svenska kompositörsrollens omvandlingar från Kraus till Måndagsgruppen och dess betydelse för synen på musik, Möklinta: Gidlunds, 2013.


Musik- och teaterbiblioteket

Summary list of works

Comic opera (En natt mellan fjällen), stage music (Halte Hulda), orchestral works (1 symphony, orchestral overtures, 2 symphonic intermezzos etc.), chamber music, (2 string quartets, etc.), vocal music (songs for solo voice, choral music etc.).

Collected works

Stage music
En natt mellan fjällen, operetta/comic opera, text after Jens Christian Hostrup, 1858.
Halte Hulda, incidental music to the play by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, 1865.

Orchestral music
Hambo-polska, 1846.
Symphony in C major, 1847, rev. 1851.
Suite in C major, 1850−1851).
Tradegy-overture in C minor, 1858.
Julius Caesar, overture, 1859.
Symphonic intermezzo, 3 movements, 1860.
Drapa, overture, 1866).
3 symphonic pieces, Trois Pièces Symphoniques, 1871.
Festival march, for the inaugeration of the new building of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, 1878.

Chamber music
Duet for two violins, E-flat major, 1847.
Sring quartet in F major op. 2, 1848.
String quartet in A minor, 1850.
Violin-Quartett (Skämt), 1857.
Scherzo for string quartet, 1861.

Piano music
Fantasie-sonate/Impromptu, 1859−60.

Voice and piano
Melodies to poems by Pehr Tomasson op 1., 1849.
Poems by Heinrich Heine op 3., 1852−53.
Sex digte af Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Jens Christian Hostrup og Robert Burns, 1866−69.
Six songs [poems by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Robert Burns, 1867.
I skogen, 1848.
Romans, 1849.
Der Trauernde (Im Schwäbischen Volkston), 1845.
Vesper, 1845.
Wehmut, 1845.
Den Arme Peter, n.d.
Der Schäfer, n d.
Dig, blott dig!, n.d.
Flickan till sin älskare, sketch, n.d.
Lied einer norwegischen Jenta, sketch, n.d.
Nach der Werbung, 1844
Och minns vad du lovade, n.d.

Mixed choirr, soli, orchestra and organ
Sigurd Slembe (Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson).

Double choir and piano
Vårt land (Runeberg), 1855.

Mixed choir
Die Nachtblume, n.d.
Gute Nacht, n.d.
Swedish folksongs, arrangement, 1855.

Male choir/quartet
Korsfarersang (from Sigurd Slembe).
From Orvar Odd's poem: Vid konung Oscars död.

Works by Albert Rubenson

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

Number of works: 11