Milk Maids, Triptychs, and Voices beyond the Grave: The "Unsung" Collaborations between Carl Michael Bellman and Joseph Martin Kraus

By van Boer, Bertil | Scandinavian Studies, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Milk Maids, Triptychs, and Voices beyond the Grave: The "Unsung" Collaborations between Carl Michael Bellman and Joseph Martin Kraus


van Boer, Bertil, Scandinavian Studies


ON 24 JUNE 1782, the newly-appointed Vize-Kapellmastare of the t Royal Spectacles in Stockholm, German-born Joseph Martin Kraus, was surprised on the occasion of his twenty-seventh birthday by a group of Swedish friends who catered a dinner party that included, according to a letter the composer wrote to his parents, three bottles of Arrack, a liter of brandy, and an unspecified number of bottles of wine and beer. (1) These well-wishers also left Kraus to pay the bill, which was at once an inauguration into the sort of Anacreonic society of creative artists illustrated by Johan Tobias Sergel and championed by poet Carl Michael Bellman, (2) as well as his introduction to a close circle of friends whose sole purpose was to create new works for Gustavian society of the period. Given this auspicious moment in a tradition well-defined by other artistic disciplines, it was almost inevitable that all three of these men would seek out each other for friendship, collaboration, and creative companionship thus forging a bond that would lead to a series of unique interdisciplinary works and in turn to the definition of some of the more interesting aspects of Gustavian culture.

However auspicious the future of this triumvirate, the year 1782 was not the beginning of their eventual collaboration. Within two months of the surprise party, Kraus witnessed the postponement of his monumental opera AEneas i Cartago and set off on a four-year grand tour of Europe to study the latest trends in the theater. Within a year, Sergel journeyed to Italy as part of the entourage of Gustav III to help his monarch choose those pieces of classical sculpture that still grace the Museum of Antiquities in Stockholm today; further, he would refine his own art in preparation for its subsequent revival in Sweden following his return. Finally, Bellman was at the height of his theatrical career, actively writing short comedies in competition with his friend Carl Israel Hallman as well as performing at the Swedish Comic Theater and occasionally at court. An appearance in 1783 as the market crier in the pastiche Tillfalle gor tjufven was considered the definitive performance of the time of the stock character of a demented German. (3) At this stage in the careers of all three, the intersections lacked a catalyst; although they likely knew of each other through mutual friends, such as the court wastrel and sometime poet Johan Gabriel Oxenstierna or the pianist-songwriter Olof Ahlstrom, there is no documentation of any meeting other than perhaps the most cursory or coincidental sort.

By 1787, however, this situation had changed, as circumstances developed that moved all three inevitably into the orbit of one another. Kraus, who had been briefly part of Gustav's entourage in Italy as well during 1783-1784, returned from his travels a seasoned composer with a modest and growing international reputation. His first duties once back in Stockholm were to take over the reigns of the musical establishment, first the entire instructional curriculum of the Royal Academy of Music in February of 1787, followed just over a year later by his appointment as Hovkapellmastare with all of the social stature and responsibilities that these new positions entailed. Bellman too had raised his social profile by this date, eschewing the formerly biting satire or parodies of his songs in favor of a more conservative, artistically-refined poetry. This he began to publish in earnest, much of it with overtly royalist overtones such as his song on the victory of the Swedish navy at Hogland on 17 July 1788 or a collection of versified commentaries on Sunday texts from Advent to Palm Sunday published under the title A Ceremony of Zion. (4) Though financially still insolvent, Bellman became, in a word, almost respectable, developing the persona he described in an autobiographical portrait of himself drafted in the spring of 1794:

   Som jag almant ar kand ... sa ar jag En herre af mycken liten
   djupsinnighet, ock fragar eij efter om solen gar eller jorden axlar
   sig. … 

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