The origins and history of the student orchestra culture
By Anders Carlsson
This article was originally published in Uplands nation’s paper UNB, the April issue of 2016. The following is an English translation of that article with some additions to make the context more clear to non-Swedish readers and some factual errors corrected.
Throughout the article, there are some expressions used that are so deeply rooted in Swedish and student language and culture that they need to be explained here, as they don’t have exact English equivalents.
Studentikos – “studentious”: This describes something that is typical of the lifestyle of students. You could say that studentious things make up a subculture. Studentious traditions are upheld in student unions, student nations, and other student associations, which of course include student orchestras. Studentious phenomena are generally happy, lighthearted, and don’t take themselves too seriously, although they can vary between conservative and radical, formal and relaxed, sober and drunk, elitist and equal. Studentious humor occurs in student orchestras, spex, papers and drinking songs and is usually rather low key compared to other forms of humor, and is characterized by wittiness, puns and constant references to science and social debate. During the radical era of the mid 60’s and through the 70’s much of the studentious culture vanished from Swedish universities (student orchestras did not), but during the 80’s and 90’s it grew back up again and spread to many newer colleges.
Spex: From Latin “spectaculum”= scene; show; theatre. A form of studentious theatre. Describing it would require its own article. "Spex" can also refer to any humorous or stupid antics aperson does to get attention.
Ballet: Doesn’t mean actual ballet, but refers to the dancing troupes that perform with many orchestras. The closest English term is “drum majorette”, but the ballets have taken many influences from swing dancing, show dancing and even cheerleading. The student ballets make up their own unique studentious tradition. They most likely have their origin among the dancers that used to perform in the student revues starting in the 1950's.
Student carnival: The student carnivals are also a long standing tradition, especially at Lund’s university. There is also one in Stockholm, arranged by the Royal Institute of Technology. This tradition goes back to the early to mid-19th century, when there were also carnivals in Uppsala.
Folklig - “popular”; in the sense of being enjoyed and appreciated in all layers of society, often with the exception of the upper class.
Folkrörelse – people’s movement: (often translated as “social movement” in English). An organization of very large groups of people, often from the working class and middle class. People’s movements are based around political and social issues. Important examples of Swedish people’s movements include The Labor movement, trade unions, consumer co-operatives, the temperance movement, sharpshooting movement and a number of churches, such as the Salvation Army.
Finally, something must be said about student orchestra names. They are often written in a studentious way, using bogus 19th century spelling. They can be sorted into two categories. The first category includes clever puns with references to musical terminology, such as “Kruthornen”, “Kårsdraget”, “Isterbandet”, “Snösvänget”, “Blåslaget”, “Tupplurarna” and “Hornboskapen”. The second category is made up of names that are complex references to the orchestra’s origin or affiliation. This includes “Alte Kamereren”, “Mercblecket”, “Osquar Mutter”, “Allianceorchestret”, “LiTHe Blås” and, of course, “Wijkmanska Blecket”.
The foreword of the original article:
If you have been a member of Upland’s nation for a while you have probably seen and heard the nation’s own student orchestra, Wijkmanska Blecket. A motley crew of musicians who play outdated music in weathered sailor suits decorated with medals and patches. To top it off, the orchestra performs “tricks”, a kind of wordless spexes with simple props, often with sticky or explosive content. Is this something unique of Upland’s nation? Is it the open and welcoming nation taking excentric musical marauders under its wings or is there something else to it?
And so, our story begins…
All orchestras composed of students are not student orchestras and student orchestras are not composed exclusively of students. The word “student orchestra” is defined in Nationalencyclopedin (“The national encyclopedia”) as
“an orchestra composed of active and former [university] students who perform wind music in a studentious spirit; with a repertoire consisting of humorous arrangements of famous musical pieces, performed with uninhibited joy of music. It is characterized by the colorful, decorated uniforms and the well trained ballet”.
The student orchestra tradition is a very old and uniquely Nordic student tradition. Older than the spex, whose performers usually brag about how old the roots of their tradition is. It all started in Uppsala.
In 1828, the year isn’t known with certainty, Turkiska Musiken (“The Turkish Music”) was formed. They were a group of musicians who roamed the streets of Uppsala during nighttime, playing a peculiar style of music in a not entirely sober state. Their setting contained among others piccolo flute, violin, guitar, bassoon, cello, clarinet, trumpet and French horn. Their repertoire included contemporary hits like “Slumber sweetly”, “Hulda Rosa” and the “Turks’” own favorite “Let us enjoy the short time now, let us savor it every minute” from the opera Fra Diavolo or the Inn of Terracina. The aforementioned instruments were only used as long as the society remained indoors. Out in the streets, they were exchanged for whistles, pot lids, fire stokers, gongs, triangles, ratchets, ocarinas and keys. According to legendary Uppsala poet Gunnar Wennerberg, they were “handled not without a certain skill, but no less unwelcome, wherever they were heard.” We can only guess what the Turkish Music actually sounded like, but according to one of them “this music was not only unbearable, but also posed a mortal danger for the musicians, but without it they could not survive as a society.”
So how did they come up with the name Turkiska Musiken? Turkish music was the popular name for janissary music. The Janissaries were the elite soldiers and personal body guards of the Osman sultan 1365 – 1826. In battle they always brought along large orchestras who played powerful, loud military music with loud drum beats and horns to achieve ecstasy and frighten their enemies. Turkish music, or at least what people thought was Turkish music, was very popular in Europe around 1800. It was also an inspiration for the western art music at the time. Janissary music is also the origin of modern military music. When the “Turks” took their name, they probably did it with both humor and as a reference to music terminology, just as today’s student orchestras.
According to a common myth, Uplands own Svante Wijkman is supposed to have been a member of Turkiska Musiken. As much as we would like this to be true, it is highly unlikely. Svante was a high school student at Katedralsskolan, and in the spring of 1837 he was taken up as one of the school’s “superiores”, what we today would call “straight A students”. The members of Turkiska Musiken were quite the opposite. Turkiska Musiken gathered for the last time in 1835, when Svante was 14 years old. The identities of everyone present then are known, and svante wasn’t among them. There were a pair of brothers by the name of Wijkman among the members, Sven Wilhelm and Caspar Anders. They were Svante’s cousins, and as Svante’s full name was Sven Johan Wijkman, it is quite likely that later retellings of the story have mixed him up with Sven Wilhelm, especially as they both suffered somewhat unclear fates. Svante, Sven Johan, died in 1837, probably from some disease, and no one knows where he was buried. Sven Wilhelm left for America and is supposed to have died in a battle with the natives. Caspar Anders Wijkman is buried in V-Dala’s old nation grave.
As stated before, Turkiska Musiken disbanded in 1835. One of the members, Carl Edvard Zedritz, wrote two books about the group’s adventures. They’re both hilarious. Carl Edvard Zedritz later became a professor of Latin.
It will be another few years before we encounter the next milestone in the history of student orchestras. Before we arrive there, though, it is relevant to have a look at the zeitgeist of the earlier half of the 19th century. This was the time known as “the student romantic era ”. At the start of the 1800’s, students were poor, at best struggling to finish their degrees, and at worst drinking and terrorizing the bourgeois. With time, the student lifestyle changed for several reasons. To begin with, this was the rise of the scandinavistic movement. The scandinavism was a movement rooted in the cultural, geographic and historical ties between the Scandinavian countries. Students became known as the champions of the scandinavistic movement which in turn led to student becoming popular among the common populace in a way they never had before. Student opinion became important in national politics and student got a new, independent social standing. Student life became considered as a special life style with its own rules and conditions. Nation feasts, Valborg celebrations and other student occasions were reported in the newspapers. The lofty student student life was expensive, though, and could be disastrous for the students’ economy. This led to “the Vigilance” a shady money lending business, which often meant that students took a short-term loan at a high interest, spent the money on partying, then took new loans to pay for the old ones. In 1851, Aftonbladet revealed that Sparbanken in Uppsala and Mälarbanken (banks) had for some time run a large business with student loans. In 1850 alone, 50 000 SEK was lent to students. That’s almost 4 million SEK in today’s rate! The high school reform at the time also led to a sort of democratization of the student life. Now others than only the sons of priests and noblemen had the right to study at high schools and universities. That led to a new sort of camaraderie across the societal boundaries that changed the identity of the typical student. Maybe the most important fact is that by the 1830’s the present 13 nations had taken their present form, and started getting their own nation houses. Upland’s nation got its own house as early as 1824. All the factors stated above contributed to an increasing interest for clubs and associations among students in the 1830’s and 40’s.
In 1843 the next big event in student orchestra history took place at the Hörlin yard, located at the crossing of present day Öfre Slottsgatan/ St Olofsgatan. The upper floor was rented by Snerikes nation, and there the student orchestra that is today consider the world’s oldest was formed – Hornboskapen. Or at least that’s how the story goes. The only known details about music at Snerikes that year is from a description of a summer trip to Flottsund (Uppsala southern end) were nation members in Bellman costumes sang and played. On the other hand, Snerike’s bookkeeping from 1843 clearly lists repairs and purchases of brass instruments. Witnesses report the participation of a brass band from Snerikes at the may carnival of 1845. There is evidence of a long tradition of live brass music at Snerikes during the 19th century, but the only thing known for certain is that the brass instruments owned by the nation were used. It is not known by whom, if they were any lasting ensemble or even members of the nation. Any orchestral activity at Snerikes stabilized in 1906, when gun sergeant Albert Gille from Upplands regiment was hired as musical leader. He turned the musicians at Snerikes into a real orchestra. The name Hornboskapen was first used in 1910.
The sources mentioning any other student brass bands are sparse for the rest of the 19th century, with a few exceptions. Smålands nationskapell was formed in 1869 as a chamber orchestra with a brass sextet that could perform on its own. It performed on occasions well into the 20th century, but very little is known about them. Smålands’ present student orchestra, Glasblåsarna, claim to be the heirs of this ensemble.
The story of a similar orchestra at Norrlands nation is known in greater detail, and was discovered by chance in the mid 1980’s, when the nation had a cleaning day and was about to throw away a couple of boxes of music scores. The scores were saved by music enthusiasts at the nation and after some research, the existence of previously completely unknown student orchestra was revealed! In 1862, Norrlands nation formed a larger classical orchestra and along with it a brass quartet by the name of “Blåsargesällerna” (lit. “the wind journeymen”, but it should interpreted as “the brass boys” or something like that). Blåsargesällerna were acknowledged in Norrland’s studentious paper Bergufven, who both jokingly and enthusiastically stated that the members of the nation finally could enjoy music outdoors. Remember, this was in 1862 and recorded music and radio was decades away. Bergufven kept reporting Blåsargesällernas activities in a way today’s student orchestras describe themselves, and with that, there is finally some evidence of an orchestra with a studentios name in a studentious context. A student orchestra! In 1864, a gun sergeant Karl Dillström took over the leadership of both ensembles at Norrlands. Military musicians were very important in the development of Swedish music life, as we shall see.
In 1867, the newspapers Upsala posten and Tidningen Upsala reported that the students sharpshooting corps had been training with an music corps formed by members from the different nation orchestras. We can safely conclude that they had musicians from Norrlands and Snerikes, but were there any others? That is yet unknown.
The brass bands from Snerikes, Norrlands and Smålands nations are a few precious examples of instrumental music among students from the 19th century. They have been charted by hard research work, because the mentions of instrumental music among students during that era are very sparse. It is possible that information on other ensembles has been lost, since all kinds of organizations are eager to hold on to bookkeeping, whereas music scores are often considered disposable.
Of course there was a lot music going on at the nations, but it seems to usually have been dance music on piano or strings in a more serious context.
Among students, the spoken (and sung) word became the most important medium in the latter half of the 19th century. Choires sang about politics and conflicts while the spex became a popular medium for satire and entertainment. The first spex is said to have been written and performed at Stockholms nation around 1850. The word “spex” is first mentioned in written text in 1863. Instrumental music seems to have taken a secondary role. It is not difficult to imagine that that the student orchestras eventually took some inspiration from the spexes as their performances became more show like, but that didn’t happen until the 20th century.
In 1948, the silence was finally broken with the formation of Allianceorchestret at the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg. During the 1950’s and 60’s student orchestras started appearing at all major colleges and universities in Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries. (Except for Denmark. No one has ever heard of a Danish student orchestra.) Why did this all happen so suddenly at that specific point in time? The answer is most likely to be found outside of the university world.
The Swedish wind music tradition is imported from England from where it came along with religious and political movements during the 19th century. Essentially all of the big people’s movements of the time had their own brass corps: the trade unions, the sharp shooting movement, temperance movement, mill towns, the Salvation Army and other churches. They all hail from a time when enthusiasts with liberal and philanthropist ideals sought to give the working class an education that would at the same time be a form of pleasure. These brass corps were primarily taught by military musicians supplied by the army. These military musicians eagerly took the chance to earn an extra income and thus became Sweden’s first music teachers for workers, and they would continue to do so into the 1960’s. The brass corps were intended as a place where “young people, after leaving the work place, can gather and have a both pleasant and educating pastime, through which many temptations of sloth an immoral activities can be avoided.” The result was one of the largest musical cultures in our country’s history. The corps became very popular and were often recruited to play at weddings, public openings, May 1st parades as well as giving public promenade concerts in parks to entertain people passing by. This was long before radio or recorded music, so these bands were the only common source of popular music. The Swedish people’s interest in enjoying and performing music increased enormously during the latter half of the 19th century. Since this coincided with the industrialization and urbanization of Sweden, wind music can be described as the popular music of the urbanized working class – it is what we call “folklig”. Folk music was considered rural and outdated and classical music was for rich people.
In 1939, the Swedish Music Publishers Association, the Swedish Music Dealers association and STIM arranged the Week of Music. It was a festival intended to get more people interested in playing music. In 1941, Musicfrämjandet (the society for promotion of music) was formed by among others prince Eugén, Hugo Alfvén, Kurt Atterberg and Alice Tegnér (all famous musicians and composers). In 1945, the Week of Music and Musikfrämjandet merged into a single organization. The labor movement, who had a long tradition of wind music, became a partner and The Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO), the Federation of Consumer Co-operatives (KF), and the Social Democratic Women’s Association gave yearly financial contributions. With this, the music got a more popular (“folklig”) orientation rather than classical, which benefitted the wind music.
In the mid-20th century the Public Music School (Kommunala Musikskolan) was formed, partially to favor classical music over contemporary pop music. During the 1960’s, the Public Music School became huge, which probably contributed to the golden age of student orchestras during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Public Music School often hired military musicians as teachers well into the 1980’s.
The post WWII era brought with it large educational reforms that gave youths from all layers of society the opportunity to study at college. Starting in the 1950’s, children of the working class and people’s movements started attending college to a much greater degree than before. They brought their musical tradition with them, and when it met the studentious traditions the modern student orchestra culture was born. The number of students kept increasing over the following decades and led to the expansion of the Swedish university system as well as the establishment of new universities. This is the reason that Örebro, Växjö, Karlstad and Linköping are now university towns. Of course they have, or have had, their own student orchestras.
During the 1950’s, many of the oldest of the now existing student orchestras were founded. The period between 1948–1965 saw what I like to call “the first wave of student orchestras”. In 1956, there was a student orchestra festival in Gränna. In 1958 the first ballet was formed. Promenadorquestern (PQ) at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) had been founded in 1956 and was at this time open only to male students, as was the case for most contemporary orchestras. As the story goes, the girlfriend of PQ’s leader got bored with only watching during the rehearsals, so she started a dancing troupe. This is said to have been the case for other early ballets as well. During the 50’s and part of the 60’s, joining the ballet was the only way for girls to enter the student orchestra culture. There is however, one shining exception. Hornboskapen in Uppsala got its first female member in 1933. Her name was Ann-Margret Viklund and she played alto horn in HB 1933-43. Thus, she is probably the world’s first female student orchestra musician. The student orchestra world opened up gender-wise during the 1960’s, when girls were admitted into orchestras and guys into the ballets. A few orchestras hung on to the male only rule for a very long time. The last orchestra to allow female members were Blåshjuden from Gothenburgs university – in 2004!
During the 50’s and 60’s, the student orchestra phenomenon also spread to Finland and Norway. Due to similarities in culture and history of the Nordic countries, the evolution of the Finnish and Norwegian student orchestras probably mirror that of the Swedish ones.
During the 1960’s the student orchestras kept in touch with each other despite belonging to different universities. They enjoyed visiting each other’s concerts and jam together. Jamming in the student orchestra culture has been documented as far back as 1955. Sometime in the early 60’s, the Uppsala orchestras arranged the first BRUNK (from Swedish “brunkation”, the emitting of animal sounds), an event where the orchestras in Uppsala and usually Stockholm gather and play for each other. The next step in student orchestra history was just around the corner.
In 1972, the student orchestras decided that is was time to cooperate on a national scale. On December 2nd that year representatives for different orchestras gathered in a hotel in Södertälje to form “Riksförbundet Sveriges Musicerande Akademikers Samarbetande Kårorkestrar” (The National Organization of Sweden’s Music-Playing Cooperating Union Orchestras), abbreviated Riks-SMASK. It was also decided that student orchestra music was to be defined as
“a humorus, respectless form of musical performance, often performed in an academical context, where the pure joy of music and not necessarily the musical equilibrism comes first.”
Riks-SMASK has the responsibility of making sure that the definition is honored and as far as possible spread the joyful message somewhat obscured by these big words.
It was further decided that Riks-SMASK would arrange a student orchestra festival the following year. Those attending the meeting got out a map of Sweden and after meticulous measurements, they decided that Gränna was the central point between their hometowns. Maybe the Gränna festival in 1956 had something to do with it. The problem was that Gränna didn’t have a college, and it was a bummer to hold a student orchestra festival in a place that had nu students. The solution was to cooperate with Linköping’s Institute of Technology, now Linköping’s University, who were happy to arrange the festival in order to get PR for itself and thus improving the chances of their newly graduated engineers on the employment market. The institute didn’t have its own student orchestra, so the student union took the initiative to form Linköpings Tekniska Högskolas Blåscorps, LiThe Blås. The festival took place in May of 1973 and became a standing tradition. After a few years the task of arranging the festival every year became too much for Linköping’s student union, so in 1977 it was arranged in Uppsala for the first time, in cooperation with the Uppsala University’s 500 year anniversary. Since then it has been Linköping every other year under the name SOF and every other year in Uppsala as STORK. (SOF and STORK are just different abbreviations of “studentorkesterfestivalen”) Linköping got the festival in both 1986 and 1987, because of the city’s 700 year anniversary in 87.
The festivals expanded in size year after year and in turn increased the interest for student orchestra music even more, among students and public alike. This led to the forming of even more orchestras between 1978 and 2001. I like to call this “the second wave of student orchestras”. Everyone wanted to be at the big party. Wijkmanska Blecket is part of this development. Blecket was originally founded in the spring of 1981 as a temporary orchestra to entertain Upland’s honorary member Bengt Erik “Max” Rydén on his 50th birthday that he was celebrating at the nation. The musicians who played that day enjoyed it so much that they went on to form a “real” student orchestra. Since then, Wijkmanska Blecket has become one of the most active and well known student orchestras in Sweden, even outside of the student world. More about that when the time has come to tell Blecket’s own history.
With the expansion of the festivals, the orchestras from Finland and Norway started coming to Sweden. A German exchange student from Stuttgart who took part in one of the festivals was so impressed he convinced his own university’s orchestra to get Swedish style uniforms! Since then the Allemand Chaoten Orchester has been to every festival.
The mid 60’s to the mid 70’s were a time of leftist student radicalism all over the western world, and Sweden was no exception. During this time, studentious traditions such as balls, gasques, papers, spex and carnivals were widely scorned among students and disappeared in many places. Ironically, they were still appreciated and popular among the general public. The student orchestras weren’t affected by the radicalism as far as I have been able to tell, instead their golden age began in the early 70’s. When the 80’s dawned, the interest in studentious traditions was renewed among students, and the orchestras, who had carried on the traditions during the dark times, became immensely popular.
The 70’s, 80’s and a good portion of the 90’s became the golden age of student orchestras. Festivals, shows, carnivals, anniversaries, tours, international meetings and all the happenings you can imagine came and went as there was no tomorrow. A more liberal attitude towards alcohol and everyday drinking led Pripps brewery to sponsor student orchestras, who now bathed in money. Wanted your own tour bus? No problem. Record an LP? Pripps payed for the studio time. Orchestras, and also spexes, could tour around the Scandinavian countries to sold-out venues.
During the 90’s though, things began to change and the situation turned for the worse. The orchestras started getting fewer and fewer members and when the 2000’s came around, several of them died out, particularly at the smaller colleges.
The explanation in mainly the cut-downs made in public music schools that were made during the 90’s, but also changes in student life. Back in the day when the student orchestra culture grew, you simply had to get involved in some sort of organization to have any fun during yours student years. Students didn’t have much money and entertainment was expensive. There was also the view, hailing from the student romantic era, that your college years were something special, a unique experience , and you were supposed to have fun during this part of your life. Nowadays, there is a huge offering of all kinds of entertainment for students, at least in larger university towns.
Public attitude also changed. Culture journalists, who had up to that point praised studentious performances of all kinds, suddenly turned on them. Now anything made by students was considered bad, shoddy and amateur-like by default.
According to entrepreneurs in the event business, students today have more money than they had 20 years ago. This is mainly due to the fact that more students have part-time jobs. They are prepared to pay for their entertainment and have high demands on the quality of it. Part-time jobs also mean less time for traditional student life. Today’s students are also subjected to a lot more career stress than previously, by society, universities and potential employers alike.
In the 2000’s, the future of STORK looked dark as Kuratorskonventet (the Curators Convent, umbrella organization of the nations) withdrew as financial backer. I 2004 a substitute festival was held in Linköpings student union headquarters. In 2006 a handful of hard working student orchestra musicians revived STORK and since it has taken place as it should, though not always in the spring. SOF, on the other hand, has more and more taken on the appearance of a regular Swedish town festival, complete with beer tents, dance floors with DJ’s, laser game tents and you name it for the “civilian” students. The students are allowed less and less space every year, sadly at the request of some festival goers.
In spite of the down going spiral in recent years, the audience love their student orchestras, and the musicians themselves will keep on fighting until their last breath (or at least until graduation) to keep the tradition going. In one way or another, the orchestras will keep entertaining or upsetting their audience far into the future. Student orchestras have become slightly more popular again in the 2010’s, so there is some hope for the future. So the next time you hear (or play with) Wijkmanska Blecket, keep in mind that this is not only the oldest continuous activity at Uplands nation, it is also part of a much larger studentious subculture that is part of Uppsala’s and Sweden’s history!
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