”…among his Harmonic friends he was just a human”: The Harmonic Society in Stockholm 1820–1865, music and civil society
For several decades, the Harmonic Society occupied a special place among the voluntary associations of early nineteenth-century Stockholm. During its heydays in the 1820s and 1830s, its combined forces of about 120 choristers and 40 musicians – all but a few amateurs – were hailed as the backbone of
musical life in the capital.
Drawing on evidence primarily from contemporary newspapers and letters, the article argues that the Harmonic society in its early phase provide a good illustration of a voluntary association as a key factor in an emerging civil society. In line with previous research on voluntary associations, it shows that the purpose guiding the musical society was to provide a haven for music-lovers – irrespective of estate or conviction. In their joint projects – in this case large scale choral works – everyone could come together, freed from other attachments or daily obligations.
The Harmonic Society was founded by ten men who constituted a crosssection of the 1820s middle class, with a background as tradesmen, civil servants and professionals. They soon adopted a double mission of ”dilettantism” and ”reform”. The core activity was the social commitment to singing and playing, for the sheer love of music, in private or with invited guests. However, in the early 1820s the society also started a singing school for children, and (from 1824) gave occasional public concerts, sometimes for charity. Love of music should be for the benefit of society.
In 1831, with the election of nobleman Bernhard von Beskow as chairman, the Harmonic society embarked on a different path. The aim was now to attract the attention of the royal court and nobility, thus elevating the Harmonic Society from its middle-class origins. This ambition proved successful in the sense that newspapers in the 1830s regularly reported on the activities of the society, dutifully stressing the attendance of royalties and high society. But these ambitions caused severe tensions within the society, with older members lamenting the loss of their unassuming comradeship and humbler gatherings.
From the 1840s, the society met with new challenges. The public music scene was expanding and becoming more professionalized and commercialized. New genres, not least the male choir, often formed by workers’ associations, posed a new kind of competition. From c. 1850, most of its activities seems to have waned, after several failed attempts at revival. The cultural public sphere had moved on, leaving the bourgeois amateurs’ musical societies behind.