Strindberg and Music
Strindberg came from a musical family. Two of his siblings. Axel and Anna, became professional musicians although his sister gave up her career when she married Hugo von Philp. Axel later set to music several of August’s poems and was the key player during the so-called Beethoven evenings towards the end of his life when a group of friends gathered in his apartment at Drottninggatan to play music and enjoy a late supper.
Strindberg did not have any formal musical training, unlike the rest of his siblings, but he managed to teach himself to play several instruments: piano, flute, mandolin, guitar, cornet.
During his many travels he would bring his guitar and sing at social gatherings.
While he was still living at home his favourite composers were Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart. Later on, while he was living in Berlin at the beginning of the 1890’s he also came to love Chopin and Schumann who were introduced to him through the Polish writer and amateur musician Prsybyszewski. Schumann’s rousing piece, Aufschwung, became a favourite of his.
During his more melancholy years in Paris leading up to his ‘Inferno crisis’ music became his greatest comfort and one of his friends has told us how Strindberg used to visit another Swedish expat, fru Sophie Kjellberg, who lived in Montparnasse. She would play Bach, Grieg and Sinding for him and often Strindberg would turn up before Sophie had cleared away the dishes after dinner. Strindberg was so keen to start the musical enjoyment that he would volunteer to dry the dishes to speed up proceedings. Algot Ruhe writes: ‘He sat on a wicker chair without a back rest in the middle of the floor and undertook his chosen task under bizarre monologues. When it was all done, fru Kjellberg went over to her pianino which almost occupied the whole of one of the small rooms. On the other side of the wall, behind the pianino, there was a small sofa and in the corner of that sofa Strindberg would sit for hours, alone in the dark, listening to the music.’
As soon as he had put down roots in Stockholm again in 1899 Strindberg hired a piano and started his ‘Beethoven evenings’ which continued until a few months before his death in 1912.
Even though his brother Axel and his new friend Tor Aulin, the composer, tried to introduce him to different composers Strindberg was not very keen on Brahms and he hated Wagner whom he called ‘the musical representative of Evil’. The music should be emotional, passionate, stirring. Purely romantic music did not cut any ice with Strindberg.
Music plays an important role in Strindberg’s later dramatic works. In fact, The Chamber Plays have borrowed their title and format from chamber music. It is significant that all his wives and his last love, Fanny Falkner, were very good pianists. After the divorce from Harriet he asked his sister, Anna, to come and play for him. Music had a soothing and healing effect on Strindberg. It was almost a religious feeling. When Tor Aulin and Axel three months before Strindberg’s death played The Eroica and Schumann’s third symphony for him, Strindberg commented on that evening in a birthday card to Aulin with immense gratitude: ‘From Saul to David’.