John Fernström and his music

A short biography

Boel Lindberg, March 1993


JOHN FERNSTRÖM (1897-1961), Swedish composer, conductor, and music educationist, was born in 1897 in Ichang, China. He was the second son of the Swedish missionary Axel Fernström and his wife Klara. When John Fernström was nine years old, he and his brother were sent home to Sweden to get a better education than it was possible to provide for them in China. They became enrolled in a private school in Osby, a small village in the north part of Scania, the most southern province of Sweden.

The school-years in Osby lasted until 1913, when John Fernström passed his "realexamen"(the final exam at the middle school level at that time). His musical studies did not start until two or three years before his graduation. In his autobiography he reveals that it was the reading of a cheap novel about a violin virtuoso that made him want to try to learn to play the instrument. His first efforts on the instrument seem to have been a result mainly of self-instruction. The only teacher he could find was an organist in a small village nearby who did not play the instrument himself but "knew the grips on all insuuments. A visit to Malmö, the province capital of Scania, gave him opportunity to find a text-book on how to play the violin and from this he picked up how to play in different positions and elementary bowing-techniques. A fine ear and training in sight-reading in the school's choir, helped him to develop considerable skills on the violin quite fast.

From this time on, a future as a musician seems to have been his main aim. There is, however, also evidence in his autobiography that he also worked quite intensely with drawing and painting during his school years. This interest was later to become an important source for inspiration in his practice as a composer and at the same time a possible refuge from it.

Studies in Violin

In the FalI following his graduation from the school in Osby, John Fernström was accepted as a student at the conservatory in Malmö. This was a small private school, founded some years earlier by an Italian violinist, Giovanni Tronchi, who had spent some years in Malmö as a restaurant musician. Fernström stayed at the school for almost three years. The quality of the education seems to have been uneven and it was only the studies for the violinist Carl Nordberger (1885-1965) and the pianist John Wilhelm Heintze (1886-1937) that Fernström remembers in his autobiography as being interesting and stimulating. When Nordberger moved to Stockholm, Fernström decided to follow him and he left the conservatory in Malmö. Half a year of private studies for Nordberger made it possible for him to apply for a position in the newlyfounded government subsidized orchestra in Heisingborg, a coastal town in Scania, 60 kilometres north of Malmö.

Fernström got the position at the Helsingborg Symphony Orchesua and began his work with them in the Fall of 1916. An important reason for him when he decided to apply for the job was the good communications with Copenhagen that this town offered. A short travel with the ferry to Helsingör and less than one hour's ride on the train to Copenhagen, made it possible to visit this town often. Copenhagen offered quite an alert music life and there were several good teachers who could be consulted. Fernström chose to work with Max Schlüter and studied violin with him 1917-1924 except for the period Fall 1921-Spring 1922, which he spent in Berlin. Here he studied first with Alfred Wittenberg and later with Issay Barmas. The latter encouraged him to work towards a debut as a soloist in Berlin during the season 1922/23. Fernström tried to find enough money for another year abroad but could not find anyone willing to sponsor him or lend him the money. His father, who by now had returned from China did, for example, not approve of such a career.


Instead Fernström returned to Helsingborg and to the position as a violinist in the orchestra there. He took up his studies for Max Schlüter in Copenhagen. Apparently the time in Berlin had been stimulating in many ways for he now felt an urge to study composition. Again Copenhagen offered help. Fernström found in Peder Gram (1881-1956) a teacher who took his ambitions seriously. Gram himself had been enrolled at the conservatory in Leipzig during the years 1904-1907. 0ne of the more influential teachers at this conservatory was Stephen Kreh.

Fernström became a student of Gram for seven years or until about 1930. They kept in touch also later in life. He composed around twenty works during the time he more regularly studied with Gram and most of those works were probably shown to Peder Gram. The exact dating of those works is problematic. Fernström never seems to have cared much in keeping his files and drawers in order and it is rare to find a date when a composition was compteted on his autographs.


There is much evidence that he did not start to use opus numbers for his compositions until around 1930 and that he at that time made a retrospect numbering that does not accurately show in what order the pieces were composed. Works from this period include three symphonies, the first of which Fernström destroyed alreadyaround 1925. 0ther early works are a violin concerto, two variation works for orchestra, a cantata for male soli, male chorus and orchestra, a suite for string orchestra, two string quartets, and songs.

At the same time as those studies in composition were pursued, Fernström tried to maintain his status as a fairly good solo violinist. He was now and then soloist at the concerts of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra and he also made several tours as a soloist in the southern parts of Sweden. Accompanist to Fernström from the early 1920s was Gustaf Paulson, a native of Helsingborg, and a talented pianist and organist, later also a very productive composer. Fernström and Paulson soon became very close friends, and later also brother in laws, when Fernström married Paulson's sister Dagmar. Paulson, like Fernström, went to Copenhagen for lessons in piano and composition and it was he who suggested to Fernström that he should study with Peder Gram, the teacher he himself had chosen. In Fernström 's marriage to Dagmar Paulson two daughters were born in 1926 and 1929 respectively. In the latter year Fernström went away for a year of studies at the conservatory in Sondershausen in Germany. This leave was made possible to a great extent through money that his wife had managed to save by prudent housekeeping. Fernström used the time in Sondershausen to study conducting. His aim was to try to take over the conducting of some of the concerts that the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra gave.

He was only partially successful in this. It was not until 1932 that he was appointed superintendent with duties to be in charge of a new series of concerts for young people. Those concerts included lectures on various musical topics and sometimes Fernström also composed special music to illustrate the lectures. The series soon became very popular and the concerts therefore often had to be doubled. Every concert season he also conducted one or two concerts within two of the other series that were offered: a series called Popular Concerts and a series labelled Symphony Concerts. He also had some opportunities to get his own works performed within those series. Works that were composed during the 1930s include one opera - Achnaton - two symphonies, a clarinet concerto, a viola concerto, and a few smaller orchestral works. His engagement as a conductor for male choirs in Helsingborg is mirrored in his worklist by compositions for male chorus. Further, his near relationship to Gustaf Paulson, by now organist in one of the most important churches in Helsingborg, probably favored the composition of a Mass and a Stabat mater. Some chamber music like a string quartet and a couple of sonatinas for two violins also date from this decade. Again, the dating of works from this period in Fernström 's life is rather uncertain. Several works that have a date of completion after 1940 seem to have been started on already duringthe 1930s. The uncertainty in the dating ofworks from this period is most probably due to the great changes in Fernström's life that occurred again and again from 1935. They made the latter part of the 1930s and the first years of the 1940s extremely difficult and distressing for him. In 1935 his wife died suddenly. "It was a shocking experience, which I still today [end of the 1950s] cannot speak about without great concern". Fernström writes in his autobiography.

Too soon he fled into a new marriage. This did not turn out as a happy marriage and the solidity between Fernström and his new wife was not strong enough to hold for all set-backs that Fernström experienced during the following years. In 1939 he was bypassed when he applied for the position as the chief conductor for the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra by a much younger man. In anger he turned in his resignation for the job as superintendent that he held with the Helsingborg Orchestra. He moved to Malmö where he had been promised a position as conductor for a newly formed orchestra that was to broadcast music for the Swedish Broadcasting Company. The promise turned out to be worth much less than Fernström had expected and he soon faced the necessity to seek financial help as an unemployed person. During the greater part of the 1940s he then struggled to survive and support his two daughters (he lived apart from his second wife by now) through various lesser commissions as a conductor for a provincial amateur orchestra - Sydvästra Skånes orkesterförening - for the mixed University chorus in Lund, and also for some other choirs. He also managed to get several commissions to compose incidental music for the new theatre in Malmö (from 1944).Another source of income was the composition of jubilee cantatas for several trade unions. From about 1942 the work as a violin teacher in the new school music organisation in Lund also gave some money. In 1944 he moved to Lund and settled there for the rest of his life.

Recognition as composer

In 1943 Fernström started to get some recognition as a composer outside Scania. He managed to get his Concertino for flute, women's choir and small orchestra, opus 52, performed in Stockholm by the Philharmonic Orchestra. It was received very well and the following season his sixth symphony, opus 40, as well as some of his other works were performed in Stockholm. Works by him now also started to be broadcasted. For some years he seemed to belong to the group that critics in the newspapers in Stockholm labelled as "promising and interesting".

A look at Fernström's list of works reveals that he composed more during the 1940s than he ever had done before. Indeed, most of the works from opus 45 to 88 were composed during this decade. He also spent considerable time on instrumentation of the opera Gilgamesj, which had been left unfinished by his close friend, the composer Ture Rangström when he died in 1947.

By the end of the 1940s Fernström's problems as a professional musician and composer seemed to be solved. He was appointed leader of the municipal school music in Lund and conductor of the Lund Symphony Orchestra, with a salary that could support a family. He had also married for the third time and his son was born in 1951. His wife, Elisabeth Maull, was a professional singer. She began already around 1945 to keep records of all her husbands works and she also collected reviews of performances of his works.


When Fernström was appointed leader of the school music in Lund it was agreed that he should have enough time available to continue to compose music. He also composed some very fine works during the first years in this position up until about 1953: two string quartets (op. 91 and 93), a trio for violin, viola and violoncello, (op. 90), his twelfth symphony (op. 92) and his second violin concerto (op. 95). Much inspiration for this seems to have been gathered during his attendance of the ISCM concerts in Bruxelles in 1950.

Only one work, Three Choral Songs for mixed choir a cappella, op. 97, was composed after 1953. This sudden break in his output seems to have several reasons. One is all the administrative duties that went with the leadership of the school music. Those duties became especially heavy from 1951 when, partly as an initiative from Fernström, a Nordic Youth Symphony Orchestra was created in Lund. This orchestra offered possibilities for young musicians from all Scandinavian countries to get orchestral training for a period of four weeks during the summer. The initiative was a great success and Fernström energetically worked for good results. His great pedagogical skill, acquired especially during his work with amateur orchestras all over Sweden during the 1940s, now was at its height. There never seemed to be enough time to compose. His creativity also started to get hampered by ill health and most probably also by difficulties in the relationship with one of the superiors in the school administration.

Fernström's windling creativity from about 1953 can probably also be explained as a reaction to the cold climate that composers like him, with roots and believes mainly within music traditions that kept to tonality or slight deviations from tonality, experienced during the 1950s in Sweden. A new generation of composers and critics became influential in Stockholm and at the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation around 1953. They were within the spell of the Darmstadt school and found music like Fernström's utterly faded and uninteresting. To Fernström, who always had been very concerned to have a good and close contact with his audience, and who always wanted to compose music that the musicians liked to play, those new winds probably were too strong.

During Fernström's last 20 years, painting and drawing, which had been of great interest to him in his teens, again started to become important. From 1942 he often spent time painting and he attended classes in Lund, Malmö and Paris, to improve his technique. Some of his works were shown on exhibitions during the 1950s.

Literary production

A portrait of John Fernström would not be complete without his literary production. He wrote about one hundred poems, most of them probably during his younger years. They have never been published and nobody has yet given them any thorough study.

Among the papers that Fernström left behind were also two manuscripts to novels. One of those is probably complete.

Fernström also wrote about music. During the first part of the 1930s he published some articles on composers like Wagner, Brahms and Liszt in the newspapers in Helsingborg. In l937, he published a book on Dietrich Buxtehude. It can be characterized as a popularly written biography. Two publications from the early 1950s are on the other hand meant for musicians. They are: Vår tids tonalitetsbegrepp [Tonality Concepts of Our Time], published in 1951 and De musikaliska formernas systematik [Systematics of the musical forms], published in 1952. Both publications had their origins as compendiums in Fernström's pedagogical work for amateur orchestras and especially his training of conductors for those orchestras.

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