Saturday, 3 November 2012

Remembering the departed on All Saints' Day in Sweden and Finland

This photo and the ones below were shot this evening at the old cemetery in Viken.

All Saints Day, 1 November, was in AD 731 designated a day of remembrance for saints of the church  who had no days of their own. In 1772 All Saints Day was mover to the first Sunday in November in  Lutheran Sweden - and Finland, which was part of the Kingdom of Sweden at the time. In 1953 All Saints Day was in Sweden moved to the Saturday between 31 October and 6 November. Two years later the same happened in Finland.

In the 20th century people in Sweden and Finland began to put candles on the graves of the departed on All Saints' Day. This custom is said to have originated with the wealthy families in towns and cities. After WW II it spread to all parts of both Sweden and Finland. In Finland many people also light a candle in their home in remembrance of their departed forebears.

A professional rescue diver - a hundred years ago

This is how a professional Swedish rescue diver looked like a hundred years ago. 

Friday, 2 November 2012

John Forssell - the man who "discovered" Jussi Björling

There are of course several people who played an important role in the "making" of Jussi Björling, arguably the greatest operatic voice of the 20th century. However, if we had to choose on such person, it would without doubt be John Forssell (1868 - 1941), prominent Swedish baritone, opera administrator and teacher of voice.

Björling was only 14 when his father David - also a singer, who had performed together with his three sons - died in 1926. Without the father there was no future for the quartet, and Jussi worked for a while in a shop in Ystad, a small town in southern Sweden

However, the Ystad pharmacist and church singer Salomon Smith, knew John Forssell, the director of the Royal Opera in Stockholm, who also was a professor at the Conservatory and the Royal Opera School. In 1928 Björling took the train to Stockholm for a meeting with Forssell, organized by Smith. 

This first meeting between the two was not particularly positive. Forssell, who noted that Björling did not know much about the theory and history of music, did not even bother to listen to him sing. However, the famous Swedish tenor Axel Öhman, who had heard Björling sing "Recondita armonia", soon convinced Forssell to let Björling have a real audition, which took place on August 21. 

Forssell, who also was present at the entrance examination for the Conservatory a couple of days later, wrote in his diary: "Only 17. A phenomenon. Should be taken care of. Might become something".

Forsell saw to it that Björling soon was able to enter the Conservatory and the Royal Opera School. Forsell became Björling's teacher at both schools, and he also saw to it that the aspiring young talent was boarded with a headmaster's family, and that he got a stipend. Forssell even became Björling's guardian. 

It did not take long before the teacher realized that his pupil was ready for a major role. On  20 August 1930, Björling made his debut at Royal Opera as Don Ottavio in Mozart's Don Giovanni. Soon a great number of other roles followed. And the rest is opera history ...

Björling was by no way the only famous pupil of Forssell's. Others were e.g. Joel BerglundAksel SchiøtzHjördis Schymberg, Set Svanholm, and Inez Wassner.

John Forssell in his perhaps most famous role as Don  Giovanni (The Royal  Opera  in  Stockholm, 1906)

John Forssell made his own operatic debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, in 1896 as Figaro in The Barber of Seville. He was the leading baritone of the Stockholm opera until 1918, and continued to perform at the theater until his retirement in 1938. 

Forsell also made an impressive international career, appearing in leading opera houses, such as the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, the Vienna State Opera and the Berlin State Opera. His most famous role was probably the title role in Mozart's Don Giovanni.

John Forsell as Hans Heiling in Heinrich Marschner's opera with the same name. (1906, Stockholm)

Forssell left a large legacy of gramophone recordings, some of which are now available on CD. The British  audio restoration engineer Keith Hardwick had this to say about Forssell's voice: "His voice was a dark, warm, expressive baritone, very well produced and equalized."

Below you can listen to Forssell performing "Svarta Rosor" (Black Roses) by Jean Sibelius and the song "Soldatgossen" (The Soldier Lad) by another, earlier Finnish composer, Fredrik Pacius

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Nino Rota - the great maestro of film music

"When I’m creating at the piano, I tend to feel happy; but - the eternal dilemma - how can we be happy amid the unhappiness of others? I'd do everything I could to give everyone a moment of happiness. That's what's at the heart of my music."
Nino Rota

If I would be asked to name the best ever composer of film music, I would not hesitate to choose Nino Rota (1911 - 1979), the great Italian maestro of film scores. Rota was not only a prolific film composer - the list of his film scores includes at least 173 films - but above all the musical quality of his scores was - and still is - astounding. In addition to the film music, Rota found the time to compose a lot of "ordinary" music, e.g. ten operas, five ballets and a countless number of works for orchestra.

The list of directors Rota co-operated with during his long career includes many of the greatest directors of his time, most of them of Italian, but also many others. Here are just a few of them: Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio de Sica, Franco Zeffirelli, Francis Ford Coppola, King Vidor, Sergei BondarchukLina Wertmüller, Jan Troell.

Here a five of my personal Rota favorites:

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Capri in the 1890s

A view of Capri (early 1890s)
Capri is still one of the most popular spots to visit in Italy. It was quieter in the early 1890s, when the photo above was taken, but still today it retains much of its old charm. 

In the latter half of the 19th century, Capri became a popular resort for European artists, writers and other celebrities. In Scandinavia Capri become known particularly through the book "The Story of San Michele" (1929) by the Swedish physician and writer Axel Munthe (1857 - 1949). Munthe built and lived in a villa on the island.  

For comparision, a contemporary picture of Capri:

Pictures of Stockholm in the late 19th century

The Royal Palace
Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, was established in the 13th century as a fortified defense outpost against pirates operating in the Baltic. Thanks to its strategic location between the Baltic Sea and the lake Mälaren, Stockholm quickly became the most important city in Sweden. 

The last decades of the 19th century were a time of major expansion for Stockholm. During the 1880s more than 2000 buildings were added, and the population grew from 168.000 to 246.000. 

Below is a selection of photos and drawings of Stockholm in the 1880s and early 1890s:

Monday, 29 October 2012

When professors looked like professors

Professor N.H. Nilsson

There was a time when university professors were a highly respected elite in their communities. And they also had the right "look", as you can see from these Swedish early 20th century professors, appearing on the cover of the weekly news magazine "Hvar 8 Dag" (Every eighth Day) in 1906. The magazine regularly featured academics on its cover page.

Professor P.G. Eklund
Professor S.E. Henschen
Professor Vitalis Norström
Professor Rudolf Kjellén
Professor Hjalmar Sjögren

Professor Carl Magnus Groth
Professor Carl Wahlund
Professor Hugo Blomberg
Professor Gustav Knut Hamilton

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Skatesurfing on ice in Sweden (in the 1880s)

Windsurfing is today an extremely popular sport in many parts of the world, also in Sweden. However, due to the country's northern location, the season for ordinary surfing is rather short. But there has been a winter alternative - skatesurfing or sailing) on ice - for at least 130 or so years in Sweden.

I am not familiar with the history of Swedish skatesailing, but based on what His Excellency, William Widgery Thomas Jr. - who served as the American Ambassador in Stockholm in the 1880's - writes in his book about his time in Sweden, it was a popular sport already then.

Widgery Thomas describes a day, right after Christmas, when he saw "hundreds of Stockholm youth, girls as well as boys" skating on the frozen sea ice, and among them "about twenty to thirty white sails slowly flying over the ice". "The sails were indeed there, but where was the boat - and where was the mast? None of these could be found, or rather a boy replaced them both".

The enthusiastic ambassador then goes on telling that he knows of no other activity, which in the same way gives you a feeling of "flying forwards".

The ambassador chose the picture below to illustrate what skatesurfing on ice in Stockholm looked like:

Skatesurfing on ice in Stockholm in the 1880s

Flower power in Helsingør

Flowers are a good way to catch the attention of ladies. These flowers were on sale in Helsingør last Wednesday.

An old photo of Norwegian Lapps

These Norwegian Lapps, photographed in the 1890s, could not have had any idea of the fact that their country was to become one of the world's most affluent nations, a hundred years later.