Emmy Köhler was an author and composer of children’s songs. Just before the turn of the century 1900 she wrote one of the best known and best loved Swedish hymns: “Nu tändas tusen juleljus”.
Emmy Köhler was born in Stockholm on 22 May 1858. She was the eldest of five siblings born close together. They grew up in a musical home and Emmy Köhler was able to lay a fine foundation early on for developing her musical gifts. She also had the opportunity of studying composition with the composer Emil Sjögren. This opportunity was thanks to her father Armand Welin who played the violin in the Kungliga Hovkapellet, apart from being a leading official at court. Her father was also one of the first to get involved in the patriotic Evangeliska Fosterlands-Stiftelsen (EFS), a low church evangelical movement within the Swedish church that emphasised the involvement of lay people. It is not clear from the sources to what degree Emmy Köhler herself was influenced by the EFS movement. Her friend Lina Sandell-Berg belonged to their circle but she herself does not appear to have had any deeper involvement.
Through her aristocratic descent on her mother’s, Baroness Wilhelmina ”Minne” Rappe’s side, she and the whole family had access to the court and eventually also personal relationships with among others Prince Erik, who Emmy Köhler taught as an adult at Thorborg Rappe’s school for the mentally handicapped: Föreningen för sinnesslöa barns vårds skola. In this context, it has been mentioned that it was Emmy Köhler who taught Prince Erik to read and write.
When her father Armand Welin died in the height of summer in 1876, he was only 45 years old. Emmy Köhler was then expected to support herself. She was 18 years old and took an appointment as a governess while at the same time training as a teacher at the Teacher Training College for Schoolmistresses in Stockholm. Her earlier music education and her teacher training later constituted the basis for the development of her pedagogical skills and convictions, not least through her children’s songs for which she wrote both text and music. Emmy Köhler was convinced that children should be brought up through play and happiness rather than strictness.
A number of different routes led to her meeting Sven Köhler who was two years younger. His profession was not in education or the arts but as a civil servant. Eventually he became a high official in the Ministry of Finance. They were married in 1891 and had three children. The family socialised in court circles and were acquainted with King Gustav V. Lina Sandell-Berg was a close friend of the family, and from the musical field, the composers Hugo Alfvén and Tor Aulin took part in their social life.
During the years with small children, Emmy Köhler wrote her children’s songs, convinced that children needed play, movement and fantasy in the songs they sang. The titles of the songs illustrate her pedagogy, in which field she was counted a pioneer of her time: “Julklockorna” and “Fisken i badkaret” in 1893, “Den lille vedhuggaren” in 1894, “Gunnars visor” in 1897, “Svalebarnen” also in 1897, and “Marsch (Nu våras det i skog och mark)” published the same year. In 1898 (second edition in 1907) she published her children’s book Gunnars och Ingas roliga Bok: Sagor och visor. Apart from two of Emmy Köhler’s three children inspiring the book, it was a family project since their cousin Ellie Elmblad did the illustrations. In this book there are song titles like “Fåfänga Greta”, “Lata Pelle” and “Ingas morgonvisa”. The texts and melodies were intended to rear and teach in a playful way.
That same year, 1898, Emmy Köhler wrote the words and music of her hymn that has lived on since then: “Nu tändas tusen juleljus”. It was not published until 1899, in a calendar. It was thanks to her friend Lina Sandell-Berg, herself a writer, hymn-writer and editor of the Evangeliska Fosterlands-Stiftelsen (EFS) Christmas magazine Korsblomman: kristlig kalender that the hymn was published. It came to be her best loved and best known song. IT was published early on in Sunday school songbooks, evangelical church songbooks, and school songbooks. Despite being regularly sung and being a popular Christmas hymn, it was not included in the Swedish church’s hymn book in 1937. It was first included in 1986 in the Swedish church’s official Den svenska psalmboken as hymn number 116. The text is not a children’s song but is nonetheless simple both in poetry and musical composition. The range is only one octave and the melody does not require complex harmonies. Thus it can suit both children and adults. It communicates the Christmas gospel of Jesus’ birth in the second verse: ”född är Herren Jesus Krist, vår Frälsare och Gud”. One difference between Emmy Köhler’s hymn and other Christmas hymns and songs is that hers is not narrative but concentrates its message to Jesus’ birth and a prayer for hope and peace. Two years later, in 1901, she set the Christmas song "Raska fötter springa tripp, tripp, tripp" by Sigrid Sköldberg-Pettersson to music. This has also continued to be sung through the decades which may have to do with the game in both text and music.
After intensive years as an author and composer of children’s songs, a new phase in Emmy Köhler’s authorship began. She chose another kind of public arena focused on adults more than children, under the pseudonym Eyvor Stéen. She wrote articles in Ny illustrerad tidning, Svensk Damtidning and Idun. In the latter she published several short stories and participated in the discussion on contemporary issues in 1903–1910.
In 1920, she turned to children’s songs again and published Lill’ Berits visor: Gamla och nya sånger för barn. Her daughter Berit was then 22 years old and it may be that the collection was seen as the completion of the earlier family project. This book was also a family project since it was illustrated by her daughter Inga von Werdenhoff who was then 25 years of age. Many of Emmy Köhler’s children’s songs were otherwise illustrated by Elsa Beskow. The titles of the songs and their content were in tune with contemporary ideas on bringing up children, nationalism, nature romanticism and high ideals, as in for example “Hurra för Sverige!”, “Gökvisa” and “Hönan och gåsungarna, växelsång”.
Despite the fact that Emmy Köhler was well known as an author and composer, and had been translated to several languages, she has not been paid much attention by either literature or music scholars. One explanation may be that songs for children, which constitute the greater part of her production, are generally accorded low cultural value. Nor has “Nu tändas tusen juleljus” been given attention by scholars, which may be because Emmy Köhler did not establish herself as a composer of hymns with that one exception. Her hymn has nevertheless survive to this day and found new channels such as being the soundtrack for among others the films En underbar jävla jul in 2015, Nobels testamente in 2012, Spring för livet in 1997, Black Jack in 1990, and Ebberöds bank in 1935.
Five years after the publication of Lill’ Berits visor: Gamla och nya sånger för barn, Emmy Köhler died. The year was 1925 and she was 66 years of age. She was buried in Fresta Cemetery in Upplands Väsby, near the thirteenth-century church. On Sunday 20 January 2019, just before the hundredth anniversary of her death, the former archbishop Gunnar Weman opened the Emmy Köhler Music Museum for Children’s Songs, in the old sexton’s cottage at Fresta Church.