“Even in the popular ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, the Singers kept things light, crisp and transparent, sometimes bringing the levels down to a whisper”


Wilhelm Peterson-Berger

Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (1867-1942), Swedish composer and critic, is said to represent a quintessential “Swedishness” in the romantic, nationalistic vein of the time.

Wilhelm Peterson-Berger  |  Killebukken  (1898)

“His criticism, especially negative regarding new music, earned him many enemies, but his idealism was highly influential on the cultural life of Stockholm.”

— Anna Hersey
    Scandinavian Song: A Guide to Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish Repertoire

“Criticism must be ruthless.”

— Wilhelm Peterson-Berger

Recognized for his contributions to Swedish musical life both as composer and as one of Sweden’s most widely read music critics, Wilhelm Peterson-Berger drew his inspiration directly from the mountains, sea coast, lakes, and forests of northern Sweden. He was born in Ullånger on the northern Swedish coast and raised in the north.

Peterson-Berger Memorial
Xauxa Håkan Svensson / Wikimedia Commons

Peterson-Berger came to music at an early age and received training in organ and composition at the Royal College of Music. His major influences were Grieg and Wagner.

In his early twenties, Peterson-Berger began making yearly visits to Jämtland in northwest Sweden near the mountainous border with Norway. There he would hike with groups of friends, always carrying a music notebook to jot down melodies and musical ideas inspired by the countryside. In his late forties he built a rustic-style house on Frösö, an island in Lake Storsjö, and eventually retired there.

Autumn of 1895 found him working for the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheterin as one one of its most widely read writers. His music criticism, considered blunt, conservative, and acerbic (Sibelius was a target), provoked a measure of hostility from the established musical leadership — to the detriment of his career as a composer. For two years he also produced operas at the Royal Stockholm Opera even though the conductor was suing him for defamation. Most of his major works — five symphonies and six larger musical dramas — did not find a friendly reception.

His shorter works for piano, voice, and chorus, however, found a solid place in Swedish musical life. He is best known for Frösöblumen I, II, and III (Flowers of Frösö) — three sets of short piano pieces. Fifty years after his death, he was still considered among the most popular Swedish composers, and his works for voice — about 80 songs — remain part of the core repertoire for many Swedish choruses today.

His setting of Killebukken, a Scandinavian folk tale in a very old Norwegian dialect, highlights some of the attractive qualities of his shorter works — fresh harmonies, compelling melody, a brisk tempo, and an interest in using folk materials for serious musical purposes.

Verse by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832 - 1910), translation provided by Allan Erickson

Killebukken, lammet mit,
Skjönt det ofte går tungt og stridt
oppetter slette fjelde,
följ du vakkert din bjælde.

Killebukken, lammet mit,
læg så dygtig på skindet dit;
Mor vil ha det til fælden
som hon syr sig om kvælden

Killebukken, lammet mit,
læg så dygtig på kjödet dit,
ved du det ikke, tuppen,
at mor vil ha det i suppen?

Little billy goat, my pet,
Although it’s often a struggle
To climb the bare mountains,
Keep following your bell carefully.

Little billy goat, my pet,
Be clever to protect your fur.
Mom wants it for a blanket,
Which she is sewing in the evening.

Little billy goat, my pet,
Eat well and fatten up.
Don’t you know, my pet,
Mom wants you in the soup.