Category Archives: Sweden

Swedish Fika

It turns out October 4 is Cinnamon Bun Day. We learn something new every day!

Swedes love to have Fika and it must always include a cinnamon bun. Last November, little Puffles and Honey had fika every day while in Stockholm 🙂 Vete-Katten was their favourite place!

Cinnamon buns, apple & custard and blueberry & custard buns from Vette-Katten
Princess Cake and Budapest Log at Vette-Katten

The cinnamon bun was created around 1920 and will soon turn one hundred years old. Food that had been rationed during the wartime period was starting to come back – sugar, butter, flour and spices. The cinnamon bun was being sold at cafés, but in the kitchen at home people baked different kinds of buns that were shaped as wreaths or long, flat bread. The baking of cinnamon buns at home started at the beginning of the 1950s. Better economy, cheaper raw materials and better ovens changed the bun from being a luxury to being everyone’s all time favourite.

Cinnamon added flavor to pastries for special occasions as early as during the 16th century in Sweden. For king Gustav Vasa’s wedding, large amounts of sweets, cinnamon and other valuable spices were imported.

Coffee is closely associated with cinnamon buns. Coffee travelled a long way before it came to Sweden. From the coffee houses in Mecca in the 15th century via Persia, Constantinople, Venice in the 17th century and then further north in Europe. Karl XII brought coffee from Turkey. In Stockholm, coffee houses were established in the early 18th century, where the men drank coffee while discussing politics and literature.

Compressed yeast, which appeared mid-19th century, made it possible to bake porous, sweet bread to accompany coffee. Wheat became cheaper and more common. When the iron stove replaced the open fireplace, it became easier to bake smaller cakes such as buns and biscuits. And so the Swedish pastry culture started to develop.

Instead of large dinner parties, coffee parties became the modern way to socialise during the 20th century. Coffee parties reached their peak during the 1950s and were subsequently replaced with the simpler fika. Fika refers to a way of socialising with coffee and cake 🙂

Today little bears are socialising with cake only 🙂

And since someone forgot about Princess Cake Week in September, we had to get some today 🙂

Vette-Katten was a bit far to get cinnamon buns today, so a local bakery made some. They smell like the real thing and they look like the real thing…

And the beary verdict? Not Vette-Katten, but pretty good 🙂

Dig in bearyone!

The Wit and the Voice of Birgit Nilsson

The legendary soprano Birgit Nilsson would have been 100 today.

“You are the greatest Brünnhilde I have heard in 40 years.”

“And who did you hear 40 years ago?” inquired Birgit Nilsson of what must have been a momentarily flummoxed Karl Böhm.

The wit and the voice seem utterly inseparable to us now – disarming, unflagging and totally at the legendary soprano’s beck and call. It could lash, or it could draw you in closer: it could certainly do both at the same time. With the advent of the centenary of her birth, the image of the laughing Valkyrie burns brighter than ever. There she jokes about Rudolf Bing being a dependent. Here she accuses a competitive Franco Corelli of giving her rabies. There she identifies her imitation pearls as bought with the meagre fees of the Vienna Opera.

We hear the same stories over and again, some undoubtedly apocryphal. But the spark of a quick mind and the brilliance of a steely attitude makes them evergreen. Akin to putting on one of her records, it makes you wonder, how could this woman, with such outsized, positively Wagnerian qualities, ever possibly exist?

Born on a farm in Västra Karup, Sweden, Nilsson was a bit of a disappointment to her father. Like some of the tales that emerge from those northern climes, young Marta Birgit Nilsson was the only child of a man who desired a son. Nils Svensson, a sixth generation farmer, wanted there to be a seventh – what he got instead was a girl with a preternaturally loud voice, who could play the piano from the age of three and had little ambition of settling down as a farmer’s wife. “At my christening I allegedly drowned out both the pastor and the organ,” was how Nilsson put it in her own memoir.

Though Birgit attended agricultural school, where she learnt how to cook and milk cows, her mother Justina Svensson quietly but firmly nurtured her gifts. Not overfond of being a farmer’s wife herself, Justina had long harboured ambitions of being a singer – it was she that first bought Birgit a toy piano, and she that saved the equivalent of $500 from her inheritance in order to send Birgit to the Royal School of Music in Stockholm. Sadly, her mother heard her sing only once before being killed in a car crash.

Her father, who had little truck with any of these ambitions, never contributed a cent to Nilsson’s education. But despite being disappointed in his hopes for her, he maintained a genial, joking relationship with his child, delighting in his insistence that the great diva was not so good. His party trick, as it were, was to apprehend bemused audience members during the interval, inquiring as to whether they thought Ms Nilsson had been too loud in the first or second act. Invariably he would seize on the one person who gave him any concession on this ground, and present it to his daughter as an overwhelming consensus: she had been much too loud.

At the time, nearly all graduates of the Royal School sang at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, and so it was for Nilsson. In time honoured tradition, her debut came about in 1946 when another singer fell ill, leaving her to jump into the role of Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz at rather short notice. While familiar with Agathe’s arias, the spoken dialogue and recitatives proved difficult to master within three days. Her less than perfect performance resulted in the conductor, a cantankerous Leo Blech, temporarily banning her from the house. “I thought I was finished,” said Nilsson, who later revealed that she had contemplated throwing herself into a river close to the theatre.

On stage at Royal Swedish Opera 🙂
Under the stage at Royal Swedish Opera (Prompter cubby hole) 🙂

It was rather the more benevolent Fritz Busch who saved her from being finished at the ripe old age of 28. Recognizing her potential, Busch engaged her for the role of Lady Macbeth in 1947, a part whose difficulties are not so far removed from the big voice-killers that populated her career. One of the most important litmus tests for a successful Lady M is her final high D Flat, which on top of being cruelly exposed is required to be sung piano and held for a respectable length of time. Busch suggested that Nilsson merely mime the note, leaving the task to another singer standing in the wings. In fact, the singer cracked the note multiple times in rehearsal, leading Nilsson to point out that “I will be blamed if that note is cracked anyhow. Why not let me crack my own D Flat?” Suffice it to say, she essayed her own D Flat night after night, with nary a crack to be heard. It was from there that her career took wing, with Nilsson re-engaged at the Royal Opera by Blech a mere 12 months after she had been dumped by him. That house was to become an invaluable training ground, bearing witness to her first Leonores, Marschallins, Sieglindes, Donna Annas, Sentas and Toscas, all sung in Swedish.

Nilsson soon plunged headfirst into the world of Wagner, finding her powerful instrument uniquely suited to his demands. Her timbre, as the critic John Ardoin put it, “was sunlight reflected off a copper surface” – it could slice through a large orchestra “like a marble column from its lowest notes to the high C of its top register”. Allied with reserves of breath, superhuman stamina and a questioning intelligence, Nilsson was a rare creature indeed, her instrument of fire and ice also finding her a home in the works of Strauss and Puccini.

Her Vienna State Opera debut in the spring of 1954 proved a significant turning point. The word “demanding” does it little justice – Nilsson was made to guest four different roles within a period of nine days. “And that was not the worst,” she related in her memoir. “I was singing each role for the first time in its original language. In German, I was performing Elsa in Lohengrin, Leonore in Fidelio and Sieglinde in Walküre; in Italian, Aida. I was granted a musical run-through with piano with the various conductors, but the staging rehearsals were conspicuous by their absence.” (NB. That is still often the case at Vienna State Opera.)

Nilsson rose to the occasion, winning over both critics and audience alike. “I even received applause after Dich, teure Halle (unusual for this opera),” she noted. Fidelio had been dropped for Tannhäuser a few days after she touched down in Vienna, throwing yet another spanner in the works.

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung at Bayreuth (1960)

An Elsa at Bayreuth soon followed, and her first Brünnhilde in a complete Ring at the Bavarian State Opera in 1955. She impressed enough to be invited by Karajan himself, now artistic director of the Vienna State Opera, to sing Brünnhilde in Walküre. His methods she found disconcerting – he wouldn’t hear of having vocal coaches in rehearsals, and would play recordings (not even his own) to save the singers’ voices while preparing the orchestra. “Karajan was not a one-on-one instructor, and he never discussed the interpretation of a role,” Nilsson later reported. “It was enough for him if you found the spotlight and reined in your acting.”

Once, when Karajan had sent Nilsson a detailed offer of all the roles, repertoire and periods of work for which he would need her, he received a two-word reply: “Busy. Birgit.” Nilsson had some respect for Karajan the conductor, less for him as theatre chief and fee payer, and absolutely none for his role as stage director and lighting designer. Hence the famous episode of her joke appearing on stage for a technical rehearsal of the Met’s Die Walküre wearing a miner’s hat with a built-in lamp.

While she was more or less an established star by the mid-1950s, Rudolf Bing, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, remained unimpressed. He had ample opportunity to see her in action – her American debut had taken place in 1956 with San Francisco Opera; she had auditioned for him in Berlin; and he had seen her Salome in Munich. It was not until he heard her Isolde at the Vienna Opera in 1958 that a contract was forthcoming. “I was not mad,” Nilsson told the New Yorker in 1966. “I develop slowly. I was glad to come to the Metropolitan opera when my voice was better. But, if Mr Bing had hired me then, I might not have been so expensive.” 🙂

Birgit Nilsson in her Met debut as Isolde in Tristan und Isolde, 1959

Isolde was the role with which she made her Met debut, and it was confirmed: Ms Nilsson, Swedish farm girl, was the real deal, the natural successor to the great Kirsten Flagstad, a star amongst stars at that illustrious house. The New York Times ran its review of the performance on the front page, with the headline “Birgit Nilsson as Isolde Flashes Like New Star in ‘Met’ Heavens”. It was to be the first of 233 appearances by Nilsson at the Met spanning 16 roles. After winning an ovation that lasted 15 minutes, she proclaimed she still had enough breath of sing Turandot “right this minute”.

Birgit Nilsson as Turandot at The Met (1966)

“The Swedish soprano assumed one of the most demanding roles in the repertory and charged it with power and exaltation,” wrote Howard Taubman in the Times. “With a voice of extraordinary size, suppleness and brilliance, she dominated the stage and the performance. Isolde’s fury and Isolde’s passion were as consuming as cataclysms of nature.”

The year 1959 was a bumper one for Nilsson, which saw her enter the studio for the first time under Decca’s wing to record excerpts from Tristan und Isolde with Hans Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic. Coming into her prime as a dramatic soprano, the thrill of hearing a 41-year old Nilsson remains undimmed. Its majesty, molten power and innate authority is something to behold. Critic David Blum describes her voice in the Liebestod as seeming “to glide on waves and, in its ease and repose, to be transformed into liquid matter. Whether floating full-bodied at piano or riding the breakers with majesty and passion, it has the resplendence of an unblemished pearl, illuminated by a deep lustre at its core.”

No discussion of Nilsson’s career is quite complete without touching on the legendary Solti Ring. Nilsson’s name has become synonymous with the world’s first officially recorded studio Ring (for Decca with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Sir Georg Solti). The autobiography is always warm in her appreciation of Solti – who continued to be regular live colleague both at the Royal Opera House and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – and her fellow singers. But she is critical of producer John Culshaw and the technical results of the Ring and Salome recordings.

But, the efforts of all involved notwithstanding, I have to admit I am not wholly satisfied with the Decca recordings. I have to agree with the music lovers and critics who say “the balance between the orchestra and the singers finds the singers at a great disadvantage.”

We were often covered by the enormous volume of the orchestra, far, far too often. Throughout, the orchestra was too loud. Of course, one should hear every instrument and the special effects—but not at the cost of hearing the singers! Perhaps the motto for the recordings was the comment attributed to Richard Strauss during an Elektra rehearsal: “Play louder, please. I can still hear the singers.” (Maybe the singers on that occasion were very bad?)

During the period of the loud orchestra and special effects, Salome was also recorded by Decca. On the album cover the producer, John Culshaw, is quoted as saying, “Never before has one been able to hear the triangle in a performance. Here for the first time you can hear this instrument.” I have nothing against the public’s hearing the triangle, but I ask myself whether the voice of Salome is not at least as important. It is always lovely to hear one’s voice praised but it is a bit disappointing to hear that the sound is better live than on the recording. Or worse: that the voice sounds better on some pirated recordings than on takes from the studio.

I had many discussions with John Culshaw and the sound engineer, Gordon Parry, about this. Mr. Parry explained that in the orchestra sat a hundred prima donnas who wished to be heard. I looked at him as sweetly as possible and said it was unlikely that Decca had told any orchestra member what they had told me, namely, that a Ring recording without Nilsson was unthinkable.

Possibly the Decca Boys were so taken with the idea of getting in all of the effects previously unheard that they temporarily forgot that opera is actually singing with orchestral accompaniment.

Later, in transferring the recording to CD, the balance was changed. Despite the hundred prima donnas, the opera was restored to its original form. I was very happy with the result, even though it took twenty-five years for my criticism to be validated.

Solti was responsible for many of her outstanding recordings – her wonderfully nuanced Brünnhilde sits alongside a single-minded Salome, a deranged Elektra and a magnificent Turandot. Nilsson found a way, as did the hundred prima donnas, of getting the best out of, and being lifted by, Solti’s sometimes manic vitality. To spend a few hours in their company is to encounter something profound.

By the late 50s and 60s, Nilsson’s success was such that even her father’s gruff, unimpressed exterior began to slip. At a performance of Tosca, he turned to the unsuspecting gentleman next to him, remarking, “don’t applaud her. She’s only my daughter.”

A heady time that would send many into a tailspin, her sense of humour held her in good stead. In preparation for her Met debut as Elektra, she worked closely with one of the house’s vocal coaches, Walter Taussig. Although she had made her debut as Elektra in Sweden in 1965 and had brought it to Vienna, as was her general practice with new roles, she remained nervous about bringing the part to the Met, never wanting to deliver less than her best. “If you make a big success in New York, it goes all over; if you make a big flop, it goes all over, too,” she explained.

Such anxieties seem to be overcome, as is demonstrated in a delightfully mischievous letter she sent to Taussig’s wife: “Dear Mrs Taussig, I have a confession to make. I have had a child with your husband. Her name is Elektra. I am quite sure she is his because nobody else could have given me this child.”

Nilsson never relinquished this so-called child until the very end of her career – her final ever performance was as Elektra in Frankfurt, 1982. “It was a great performance and I felt I was in my best form, as though it was the high point of my career,” she later said. Though to some her once penetrating voice had lost some of its lustre and earth-shattering power, the burning intensity and sheer presence of Nilsson was never in doubt.

In 1973, Birgit Nilsson made her first (and only) appearance in Australia for the first official public concert at the Sydney Opera House, accompanied by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Mackerras. Nilsson sang the celebrated aria Dich, teure Halle from act two of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. Nilsson, 55 at the time, was at the height of her powers and her superlative performance remains one of the most spine-tingling moments in Australian music.

A decade after her retirement, she shared a line with a reporter from The New York Times that for her must have been something of a credo. “I’ve always tried to remember what my mother used to tell me: stay close to the earth. Then when you fall down, it won’t hurt so much.”

Birgit Nilsson died in Västra Karup in 2005, the place where she was born.

Nilsson’s centennial is being celebrated on a suitably Wagnerian scale.

There is a new coffee-table book recounting her career. Not one but two lavish boxed sets of her recordings. A new documentary. And two days ago, the foundation she set up near the end of her life awarded the $1 million Birgit Nilsson Prize — the richest in classical music — to the singer many consider her heir: Nina Stemme. The Birgit Nilsson Prize has been dubbed the Nobel Prize of music, and it is similarly given in recognition of achievements of the highest possible level. The prize can go to any orchestra, conductor or singer for ‘outstanding achievement in opera, concert, Lieder, or oratorio’.

Nina Stemme is the fourth recipient of the prize, following Plácido Domingo, Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic. Nilsson herself decreed that the first prize, awarded in 2009, four years after her death, should go to Plácido Domingo. The choices of the previous prize-winners have come in for some criticism, but the prize is apparently resolutely apolitical, with any activities beyond the musical sphere discounted from the selection process. Hence Vienna Philharmonic’s shocking record in gender equality and cultural diversity didn’t disqualify the orchestra from winning the prize.

A decision was made early on that the prize should have no strings attached, and so far prize-winners have all used the money for their own worthwhile music related projects. Plácido Domingo funds a Birgit Nilsson prize in his Operalia competition with it, given to singers interpreting arias within the German Repertoire of Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner. Vienna Philharmonic has used the prize money to digitise their archive, while Riccardo Muti has apparently used the prize money for youth orchestra projects.

One of today’s most sought-after dramatic sopranos and long recognised as this generation’s Nilsson, Nina Stemme said she was deeply honoured to be receiving the Prize. “It is a great honour to be recognized for my work, but it is even greater to be recognized in my home country by a world-renowned organization that bears the name and carries the legacy of a legend… my idol Birgit Nilsson. As this is her centenary, receiving this award becomes a most humbling and extraordinary honour. I am very grateful to be connected with this great lady and to be in the company of Maestro Domingo, Maestro Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic, all of whom have previously received this extraordinary award.”

Brigit Nilsson also helped Nina Stemme early in her career, awarding her a scholarship in 1996. The Board of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation for young singers continue to manage and award the Birgit Nilsson Scholarship.

Birgit Nilsson and Nina Stemme, 1996

Stemme will be formally presented with the Prize by King Carl XVI Gustaf this October at a ceremony held at the Royal Opera House in Sweden.

We saw Nina Stemme in the Ring at Vienna State Opera in 2009. She sang the role of Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Brünnhilde in Siegfried.

Brünnhilde, which Nina Stemme first sang in 2008, is the ultimate test for the dramatic soprano – or, rather, the ultimate three tests, because Wagner presents a different Brünnhilde in each of the operas in which she appears – Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.

The Siegfried Brünnhilde is the most lyrical of the three Brünnhildes, the end of Siegfried is Tristan-like in the passion of the love duet. Eva Johannsen sang the other two Brünnhildes but she was well and truly upstaged by Nina Stemme, whose luscious-voiced Brünnhilde followed an exquisitely melting Sieglinde.

Based on the article in the May issue of Limelight Magazine.

Nobel Museum

The Noble Museum is a small museum on the ground floor of the beautiful 18th century former stock exchange building in the heart of Stockholm old town. The rest of the building is used by the Swedish Academy that awards the Nobel Prize in Literature. A Nobel Centre will be built on the Blasieholmen peninsula, at Nybroviken, an inlet of the Baltic Sea in the heart of Stockholm, next to the National Museum. The Nobel Centre is still a few years away. The Nobel Museum will probably have room to expand in the new location.

The Exchange (Börsen) currently housing the Nobel Museum

The museum has a section dedicated to the life of Alfred Nobel, a section for the growing collection of artefacts donated by various Nobel laureates and a section for the Nobel Prize ceremony at Stockholm Town Hall. Then there is a display area for information on all Nobel Prize Laureates and an area for exhibitions.

Nobel Museum
Nobel Museum – 2017 Nobel Laureates in Physics, Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine
Nobel Museum – 2017 Nobel Laureates in Literature, Peace and Economics Science

When little Puffles and Honey visited, the exhibition was Literary Rebellion – Images of Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature by Kim Manresa and Xavi Ayén.

Nobel Museum

In Literary Rebellion, twelve Nobel Laureates in Literature are depicted in the Spanish photographer Kim Manresa’s gripping and beautiful images. The authors have in different ways used their writing as a way to question, create change and make resistance. Through their literature, they have in different ways worked to create and maintain spaces for the free word.

The Nobel Laureates in Literature whose authorships were highlighted in the exhibition are: Svetlana Alexievich (2015), Dario Fo (1997), Nadine Gordimer (1991), Imre Kertész (2002), Doris Lessing (2007), Toni Morrison (1993), Herta Müller (2009), Orhan Pamuk (2006), Kenzaburo Oe (1994), José Saramago (1998), Wole Soyinka (1986) and Wisława Szymborska (1996).

Toni Morrison (b. 1931)
Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993
José Saramago (1922-2010)
Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998
Doris Lessing (1919-2013)
Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007
Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012)
Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996

Winning a Nobel Prize is considered one of the world’s greatest honours. The laureates for Literature have caused quite a stir at times.

The Swedish Academy’s selection of British writer Kazuo Ishiguro as its 2017 literature laureate was well-received, but this has not always been the case.

The Academy’s decision to bestow its distinguished literary award — and the accompanying $1.1 million (€937,000) prize — to Bob Dylan in 2016 unleashed a storm of criticism, with many arguing the American musician and songwriter did not deserve an award that was typically bestowed on novelists, dramatists, and writers of non-fiction. Dylan’s reluctant acknowledgement of the award and his decision to be absent at the official award ceremony only added fuel to the fire.

Other individual recipients have led to outcry and insults, such as Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 literature laureate who was said to focus more on politics than prose. And Russian dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s decision not to attend his 1970 Stockholm prize ceremony due to fear of Soviet repression escalated to the point that he said the Swedes’ conditions for acceptance were “an insult to the Nobel Prize itself”.

In addition, the Academy itself has been accused of Eurocentrism and gender biases. Critics of the literature award, in particular, argue it is highly subjective.

Based on the will of philanthropist and dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel, the award should go to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Yet there is no unanimous consensus on what constitutes this “ideal”.

Giant of American letters John Steinbeck beat the British authors Robert Graves and Lawrence Durrell to win the Nobel prize for literature in 1962, but he was not a popular choice. The names of 66 authors were put forward for the prize that year, with the shortlist consisting of Steinbeck, Graves, Durrell, French dramatist Jean Anouilh and Danish author Karen Blixen (author of Out of Africa, rendered herself ineligible by dying that September).

Although Steinbeck was praised by the committee “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception” when his win was announced, the declassified documents show he was actually chosen as the best of a bad lot. “There aren’t any obvious candidates for the Nobel prize and the prize committee is in an unenviable situation,” wrote committee member Henry Olsson. How about not awarding a prize then?!?

The choice was heavily criticised, and described as “one of the Academy’s biggest mistakes” in one Swedish newspaper. The New York Times asked why the Nobel committee gave the award to an author whose “limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophising”, adding; “we think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer … whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age”. Steinbeck himself, when asked if he deserved the Nobel, replied: “Frankly, no.”

Moving on… to the display on Alfred Nobel.

Nobel Museum

Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm on October 21, 1833. His father Immanuel Nobel was an engineer and inventor who built bridges and buildings in Stockholm. In connection with his construction work Immanuel Nobel also experimented with different techniques for blasting rocks.

Alfred’s mother, born Andriette Ahlsell, came from a wealthy family. Due to misfortunes in his construction work caused by the loss of some barges of building material, Immanuel Nobel was forced into bankruptcy the same year Alfred Nobel was born. In 1837 Immanuel Nobel left Stockholm and his family to start a new career in Finland and in Russia. To support the family, Andriette Nobel started a grocery store which provided a modest income. Meanwhile Immanuel Nobel was successful in his new enterprise in St. Petersburg. He started a mechanical workshop which provided equipment for the Russian army and he also convinced the Tsar and his generals that naval mines could be used to block enemy naval ships from threatening the city.

The naval mines designed by Immanuel Nobel were simple devices consisting of submerged wooden casks filled with gunpowder. Anchored below the surface of the Gulf of Finland, they effectively deterred the British Royal Navy from moving into firing range of St. Petersburg during the Crimean war (1853-1856). Immanuel Nobel was also a pioneer in arms manufacture and in designing steam engines.

Successful in his industrial and business ventures, Immanuel Nobel was able, in 1842, to bring his family to St. Petersburg. There, his sons were given a first class education by private teachers. The training included natural sciences, languages and literature. By the age of 17, Alfred Nobel was fluent in Swedish, Russian, French, English and German. His primary interests were in English literature and poetry as well as in chemistry and physics. Alfred’s father, who wanted his sons to join his enterprise as engineers, disliked Alfred’s interest in poetry and found his son rather introverted. In order to widen Alfred’s horizons his father sent him abroad for further training in chemical engineering. During a two-year period, Alfred Nobel visited Sweden, Germany, France and the United States.

In Paris, the city he came to like best, he worked in the private laboratory of Professor T. J. Pelouze, a famous chemist. There he met the young Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero who, three years earlier, had invented nitroglycerine, a highly explosive liquid. Nitroglycerine was produced by mixing glycerine with sulphuric and nitric acid. It was considered too dangerous to be of any practical use. Although its explosive power greatly exceeded that of gunpowder, the liquid would explode in a very unpredictable manner if subjected to heat and pressure. Alfred Nobel became very interested in nitroglycerine and how it could be put to practical use in construction work. He also realized that the safety problems had to be solved and a method had to be developed for the controlled detonation of nitroglycerine. In the United States he visited John Ericsson, the Swedish-American engineer who had developed the screw propeller for ships.

In 1852 Alfred Nobel was asked to come back and work in the family enterprise which was booming because of its deliveries to the Russian army. Together with his father he performed experiments to develop nitroglycerine as a commercially and technically useful explosive. As the war ended and conditions changed, Immanuel Nobel was again forced into bankruptcy. Immanuel and two of his sons, Alfred and Emil, left St. Petersburg together and returned to Stockholm. His other two sons, Robert and Ludvig, remained in St. Petersburg. With some difficulties they managed to salvage the family enterprise and then went on to develop the oil industry in the southern part of the Russian empire. They were very successful and became some of the wealthiest persons of their time.

Alfred Nobel (1833-1896)

After his return to Sweden in 1863, Alfred Nobel concentrated on developing nitroglycerine as an explosive. Several explosions, including one (1864) in which his brother Emil and several other persons were killed, convinced the authorities that nitroglycerine production was exceedingly dangerous. They forbade further experimentation with nitroglycerine within the Stockholm city limits and Alfred Nobel had to move his experimentation to a barge anchored on Lake Mälaren. Alfred was not discouraged and in 1864 he was able to start mass production of nitroglycerine. To make the handling of nitroglycerine safer Alfred Nobel experimented with different additives. He soon found that mixing nitroglycerine with kieselguhr would turn the liquid into a paste which could be shaped into rods of a size and form suitable for insertion into drilling holes. In 1867 he patented this material under the name of dynamite. To be able to detonate the dynamite rods he also invented a detonator (blasting cap) which could be ignited by lighting a fuse. These inventions were made at the same time as the diamond drilling crown and the pneumatic drill came into general use. Together these inventions drastically reduced the cost of blasting rock, drilling tunnels, building canals and many other forms of construction work.

The market for dynamite and detonating caps grew very rapidly and Alfred Nobel also proved himself to be a very skilful entrepreneur and businessman. By 1865 his factory in Krümmel near Hamburg, Germany, was exporting nitroglycerine explosives to other countries in Europe, America and Australia. Over the years he founded factories and laboratories in some 90 different places in more than 20 countries.

Nobel Museum – map showing location of Alfred Nobel’s factories

Although he lived in Paris much of his life, he was constantly traveling. Victor Hugo at one time described him as “Europe’s richest vagabond”. When he was not traveling or engaging in business activities Nobel himself worked intensively in his various laboratories, first in Stockholm and later in Hamburg (Germany), Ardeer (Scotland), Paris and Sevran (France), Karlskoga (Sweden) and San Remo (Italy). He focused on the development of explosives technology as well as other chemical inventions, including such materials as synthetic rubber and leather, artificial silk, etc. By the time of his death in 1896 he had 355 patents.

Alfred Nobel’s laboratory in Bofors, Sweden

Intensive work and travel did not leave much time for a private life. At the age of 43 he was feeling like an old man. At this time he advertised in a newspaper “Wealthy, highly-educated elderly gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages, as secretary and supervisor of household.” The most qualified applicant turned out to be an Austrian woman, Countess Bertha Kinsky. After working a very short time for Nobel she decided to return to Austria to marry Count Arthur von Suttner. In spite of this, Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner remained friends and kept writing letters to each other for decades. Over the years Bertha von Suttner became increasingly critical of the arms race. She wrote a famous book, Lay Down Your Arms and became a prominent figure in the peace movement. No doubt this influenced Alfred Nobel when he wrote his final will which was to include a Prize for persons or organizations who promoted peace. Several years after the death of Alfred Nobel, the Norwegian Storting (Parliament) decided to award the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize to Bertha von Suttner.

Bertha von Suttner

When Alfred Nobel died in 1896, he bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to create five annual prizes honouring ingenuity. He wrote his will in Swedish a year before his death while he lived in Paris, and the portion dealing with the prizes was one long paragraph. It named the groups to make the awards: the Karolinska Institute (medicine), the Swedish Academy of Sciences (chemistry and physics), the Swedish Academy (literature) and the Norwegian Parliament (peace). Nobel named these institutions without consulting them first! And the prize money was to come from a non-existent foundation that his executors had to create posthumously! He bequeathed his fortune to this foundation, that would then provide the funds to the various institutions.

Nobel said in his will that he wanted to reward those “who during the preceding year shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” in five categories. The economics prize was created later, after an endowment from the Swedish central bank (Sveriges Riksbank) in 1968 “in memory of Alfred Nobel”. The Economic Sciences prize has been awarded every year since 1969.

The Nobel prizes almost never came to be, largely because of the unsophisticated way Nobel drew up his will. It was flawed and legally deficient because he lived in many places and never established a legal residence. Nobel resided for many years in France, made intermittent visits to a home in Sweden and amassed assets in many countries before dying of a stroke at his villa in Italy.

To secret Nobel’s French assets to the Swedish consulate in Paris before claims might be made on them there, the will’s principal executor literally sat on Nobel’s millions as he rode a horse-drawn cab through Paris. “I sat with a revolver at the ready in case of a direct attack or a prearranged collision with another vehicle, a trick not unusual among thieves in Paris at the time,” the executor, Ragnar Sohlman, wrote in The Legacy of Alfred Nobel, which was published in English in 1983.

Ragnar Sohlman

Large philanthropic gifts to science were rare in Nobel’s day. Moreover, establishing annual international prizes in any field was novel. And controversial. News of Nobel’s plan sent shock waves through Sweden with the intensity of a dynamite blast.

Bitter members of Nobel’s largely disinherited family fought the will in court. Scorn was heaped on Nobel’s gift, the equivalent of $9.5 million and one of the largest fortunes of his time, by the king of Sweden, Oscar II, newspapers, political leaders and other Swedes.

Nobel’s earnings came from his 355 patents and factories in many countries. Swedish leaders vehemently opposed dispersing a Swedish fortune to the rest of the world. Among their reasons: it was immoral, particularly at a time when many Swedes were impoverished.

King Oscar II changed his mind after the Nobel Foundation was established in 1900, in part because he thought publicity about the prizes might benefit Sweden. He was too ill to attend the first ceremony in 1901. Starting in 1902, Oscar II and his royal successors have handed the prizes to the laureates on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death.

Alfred Nobel never explained his choice of prize categories. Chemistry and physics seem obvious choices because he was a trained chemical engineer.

The medical prize appears to reflect his heritage and interests. A 17th century ancestor, Olof Rudbeck the Elder, a professor of medicine at Uppsala University, was a discoverer of the human lymphatic system. With other researchers, Nobel discussed experiments in blood transfusions. While alive, he gave generously for research at the Karolinska Institute and at Ivan Pavlov’s laboratory in Russia.

Nobel often relieved his depression by writing fiction, drama and poetry, which probably explains his interest in the literature prize.

The reason for the peace prize is less clear. Many say it was to compensate for developing destructive forces. But his explosives, except for ballistite, were not used in any war during his lifetime.

Swedes were astonished that Nobel prepared his will unaided and without consulting the executors of his estate and the institutions that he entrusted to make the awards.

Ragnar Sohlman had to persuade the Swedish institutions to overcome many objections before agreeing to administer the prizes. The new demand was costly and added to the workload of academicians whose salaries were meagre. No blueprint existed to guide the prize juries. Those “who during the preceding year shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” was a rather non-specific and subjective directive. Sweden had produced leading scientists, but insecurity existed about whether a small group of scientists in a small country could effectively judge claims for the discoveries made worldwide.

If any institution that Nobel named in his will rejected his charge, there probably would be no prizes. But by 1900, Mr. Sohlman had gained their cooperation.

The Karolinska Institute decided to primarily reward fundamental biomedical research, not clinical research. That action is credited for linking medicine to the emerging wave of laboratory science illustrated, for example, by Louis Pasteur, a chemist and bacteriologist. Pasteur, who died the year Nobel wrote his will, was ineligible for a prize because the Nobels are not awarded posthumously.

There were many competitors for the first awards, which went to well-recognized scientists: a German, Emil von Behring, for developing a diphtheria immunization; a German, Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen, in physics for the discovery of X-rays; and a Dutchman, Jacobus H. van’t Hoff, for discovering the laws of chemical dynamics and osmotic pressure in solutions.

No more than three individuals can win in any science category. The system to choose Nobel medical prize laureates is costly. About $700,000 is spent for the research into the medical prize, now worth about $1.4 million.

The winners are announced in October, over consecutive days. But the nomination process for the next year’s prizes begins a month earlier. The Karolinska Institute asks 3,000 scientists and administrators to nominate by January 31 researchers who they believe have made the most prize-worthy discovery for consideration in that year’s competition.

The first prizes were awarded in 1901, five years after the death of Alfred Nobel. One hundred years later, the Nobel Museum was opened, as a fascinating homage to geniuses and their pathways to their Nobel Prize.

That took a while to read about… 🙂

Nobel Museum

And it’s time for lunch! At Bistro Nobel, located in the same building. We want this table!

Nobel Museum Café

Being on the short side 🙂 little bears easily found the chair signed by Barry Marshall.

Nobel Museum Café

In 2005, Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren were named joint winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of “the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease”. Professor Marshall is based at UWA and The Marshall Centre was founded in 2007 to celebrate the award of the Nobel Prize.

Love this photo from the Marshall Centre!

Merry Christmas from the Marshall Centre!
15 December 2017

In the artefacts collection, we found the item donated by Professor Marshall, the sample jar that he used to drink the bacterium Helicobacter pylori in a broth solution. He contracted an infection, thereby proving that the bacterium causes gastric ulcers.

Nobel Museum

Next time you stop for a coffee or a meal at Bistro Nobel don’t forget to turn your chair upside down and see if it has been signed by one of the Nobel Laureates.

Nobel Museum Café

There is a more formal guest book for the laureates 🙂

Nobel Prize guest book for 2017, signed by all Laureates

Suitably fed, little Puffles and Honey went to explore Stockholm City Hall where great Nobel banquet is held.

Nobel Museum

Stockholm City Hall, with its spire featuring the golden Three Crowns, is one of the most famous silhouettes in Stockholm. It is one of the country’s leading examples of national romanticism in architecture. Designed by the architect Ragnar Östberg, the City Hall is built from eight million bricks. The 106-meter tall tower has the three crowns, which is the Swedish national coat of arms, at its apex. Behind the magnificent facades are offices and session halls for politicians and officials, as well as splendid assembly rooms and unique works of art. Stockholm’s municipal council meets in Rådssalen, the Council Chamber.

Stockholm City Hall

After dinner in Blå Hallen, the Blue Hall, Nobel Prize laureates, royalty and guests dance in Gyllene Salen, the Golden Hall, with its 18 million gold mosaic tiles.

The Blue Room (Blå Hallen)
Stockholm City Hall
The Blue Room (Blå Hallen)
Stockholm City Hall
The staircase to the Blue Room (Blå Hallen)
Stockholm City Hall

Nobel laureates walk down the stairs to join the great Nobel banquet held in their honour. If they have stage fright 🙂 a star has been provided on the wall to help them focus!

The Blue Room (Blå Hallen)
Stockholm City Hall

The Blue Hall, with its straight walls and arcades, incorporates elements of a representative courtyard. But, not so blue! For a long time the architect, Ragnar Östberg, wanted to paint the brick walls in the Blue Hall blue, but he changed his mind when he saw how beautiful the red brick was. Although the hall remained red, he kept the name “Blå Hallen” (Blue Hall) because it was already in general use among Stockholmers. The Nobel Banquet takes place here in the City Hall’s largest ceremonial hall on 10 December every year. The actual prize award ceremony takes place at the Stockholm Concert Hall. The Blue Hall also houses one of the largest pipe organs in Scandinavia, with 10,000 pipes and 135 stops.

Organ keyboard
The Blue Room (Blå Hallen)
Stockholm City Hall
The Golden Room (Gyllene Salen)
Stockholm City Hall

The walls of the Golden Hall are decorated with mosaics created by Einar Forseth, depicting the history of Sweden from the 9th century to the 1920s. The images consist of more than 18 million mosaic pieces made of glass and gold. The Queen of Lake Mälaren, that is, Stockholm in human form, sits on a throne and beside her there are figures and buildings from the rest of the world. The balls after the Nobel Banquet always take place in the Golden Hall.

The Queen of Lake Mälaren mosaic
The Golden Room
Stockholm City Hall
The Golden Room
Stockholm City Hall
The Golden Room
Stockholm City Hall

The City Hall of Stockholm can only be visited with a guided tour. Little bears went walkabout 🙂

The Council Chamber is where the 101 members of Stockholm Municipal Council meet. The meetings are open to visitors, who are welcome to sit on one side of the gallery. On the opposite side there is a gallery for journalists. The painted opening in the beamed ceiling is designed to resemble a Viking longhouse.

Council Chamber
Stockholm City Hall
Council Chamber
Stockholm City Hall
Beamed ceiling in the Council Chamber
Stockholm City Hall

The walls in the Oval Room are covered in tapestries which were woven at the end of the 17th century in Beauvais, France. On Saturdays civil weddings take place here.

The Oval Room
Stockholm City Hall
The Oval Room
Stockholm City Hall
The Oval Room
Stockholm City Hall

From the Prince’s Gallery you can see the view over Lake Mälaren and Stockholm’s shores. On the other side of the room you can see the same motif in a painting by Prince Eugen. The black pillars are made of diabase rock. By the windows facing the water there are reliefs featuring male and female characters from Norse and classical mythology.

The Prince’s Gallery
Stockholm City Hall
Mural in the Prince’s Gallery
Stockholm City Hall

That was fun!

The Three Crown (Tre Kronor) Symbol

Vasa Museum

“Between four and five o’clock, the great new warship Vasa keeled over and sank.” A few short lines about a major disaster were written in a book on August 10, 1628. For a magnificent ship that sank on her very first voyage, this could have been the end. Instead, it was the beginning of an adventure that is still in progress. The Vasa was found almost intact, standing on the seabed, after three centuries. The ship was salvaged and it is on display at Stockholm’s Vasa Museum, one of Sweden’s most popular tourist destinations.

Bow of the Vasa
Stern of the Vasa

The Disaster

Stockholm, summer 1628. For three years, carpenters, pit-sawyers, smiths, ropemakers, glaziers, sailmakers, painters, boxmakers, woodcarvers and other specialists had worked on building the Navy’s new warship – the Vasa. She was a “royal ship”, the 17th century designation for the largest type of naval vessel. The Vasa was designed to be the foremost of Sweden’s war-ships, with a hull constructed from one thousand oaks, 64 large guns, masts more than fifty meters high and many hundred gilded and painted sculptures. The shipyard where the Vasa was built, Skeppsgården, was located on the island of Blasieholmen in the middle of Stockholm. In 1628, the Vasa was moored immediately below the Royal Castle. There, ballast was loaded, as well as the ammunition and guns required for the maiden voyage.

The new ship aroused the admiration and pride of Stockholmers, but intimidated the country’s enemies. We know that her construction was followed with interest abroad. One good source of information on the Vasa’s guns, for example, is a letter written by Erik Krabbe, the Danish Ambassador in Stockholm. Impressed, he reported that Vasa had 48 big guns for 24-pound ammunition, eight 3-pounders, two 1-pounders and six mortars.

By Sunday August 10, everything was ready for the maiden voyage. The weather was fine and the wind light. On board were around a hundred crew members, but also women and children. This was to be a great ceremonial occasion, with pomp and circumstance, so the crew had been given permission to take their first families on the first voyage out through the archipelago.

Countless curious spectators gathered in the harbor. They had plenty of time to follow the ship’s departure. The wind was from the south-west and, for the first few hundred meters, Vasa had to be pulled along using anchors. At Tranbodarma, the present-day Slussen, Captain Söfring Hansson issued the order: “Set the foresail, foretop, maintop and mizzen!”

The sailors climbed the rig and set four of the Vasa’s ten sails. The guns fired a salute and slowly, serenely, Vasa set off on her first voyage.

In a letter to the King, the Council of the Realm described the subsequent course of events: “When the ship left the shelter of Tegelvikden, a stronger wind entered the sails and she immediately began to heel over hard to the left side; she righted herself slightly again until she approached Beckholmen, where she heeled right over and water gushed in through the gun ports until she slowly went to the bottom under sail, pennants and all.”

Struck by a powerful gust of wind, Vasa capsized and sank after a voyage of only 1,300 meters.

Admiral Erik Jönsson witnessed the terrifying seconds on board when water poured in through the gun ports and the ship began to sink. Jönsson was inside the ship, checking the guns: “By the time I came up from the lower deck, the water had risen so high that the staircase had come loose and it was only with great difficulty that I climbed out.”

The Admiral became so “waterlogged and badly knocked about by the hatches” that he was near death for several days. Some fifty people are said to have followed Vasa into the deep.

Before continuing with the Vasa’s story, let us for a moment imagine what would have happened had the ship never sunk. As a warship, she was built for the purpose of warfare – the fact that she was the most heavily armed warship in the Baltic and perhaps of the day, with a total of 64 guns on board (including forty-eight large guns for 24-pounder ammunition, eight 3-pounders, two 1-pounders and six mortars) attests to this. Had she managed to leave the harbour, had she arrived in Prussia, had she recuperated the King, and had she gone off to war, one of two things would have happened. Either she would have had a successful career spanning between 20 and 30 years, after which she would have been dismantled as was customary for warships of the day, or she would have been so heavily damaged during combat that she would have met a watery grave following a bloody battle, lost to the world forever. In either case, the Vasa would not have been here today, and the contemporary world would have been all the poorer for it. By sinking, the Vasa did modern times a favour, and as such her sinking can be seen as a (very) fortunate tragedy.

News of the disaster did not reach the Swedish King, who was then in Prussia, until two weeks later. He wrote to the Council of the Realm in Stockholm that “imprudence and negligence” must have been the cause, and that the guilty parties must be punished.

King Gustavus II Adolphus

Why did Vasa sink?

Where you intoxicated? Had you failed to secure the guns properly? Questions and accusations echoed in the hall at the Royal Castle. Just twelve hours after the loss of Vasa, her Danish-born captain Söfring Hansson, stood before the Council of the Realm. He had been taken prisoner immediately afterwards and the report on his interrogation has survived to this day.

“You can cut me in a thousand pieces if all the guns were not secured,” he answered. “And before God Almighty I swear that no one on board was intoxicated.”

Söfring Hansson thus swore that he was innocent.

“It was just a small gust of wind, a mere breeze, that overturned the ship,” Söfring Hansson went on to relate. “The ship was too unsteady, although all the ballast was on board.”

Thus, Söfring Hansson placed the blame on the ship’s design – and, by the same token, the shipbuilder.

When the crew were later questioned, they said the same thing. No mistake was made on board. It was impossible to load more ballast. The guns were properly lashed down. It was a Sunday, many people had been to Communion and no member of the crew was drunk. Instead, the fault lay in the unstable construction of the ship: the keel was too small in relation to the hull, the rig and the artillery.

“The ship is top-heavy with her masts and yards, sails and guns,” they declared.

Shipmaster Jöran Matsson also revealed that Vasa’s stability had been tested before sailing. Thirty men had run back and forth across Vasa’s deck when she was moored at the quay. After three runs, they had to stop – otherwise, Vasa would have capsized. Present during the test was Admiral Klas Fleming, one of the most influential men in the Navy. The Admiral’s only comment, according to Jöran Matsson, was: “If only his Majesty were at home!”

Vasa was a vast, beautifully decorated ship, covered in wooden carvings that told stories about the Swedish royal family, and most importantly the king, Gustav II Adolf
The statues on the ship are attributed to master German sculptor of the 17th century, Mårten Redtmer. He was aided by the Dutch sculptor Johan Thesson and German sculptor Hans Clausink
Vasa was not just decorated with almost 500 figure sculptures and many carved ornaments, but also painted. About 20 different pigments have been characterized and it has been possible to reconstruct the appearance of many of the sculptures and to extend this knowledge to the ship’s original appearance.

Those responsible for Skeppsgården, where Vasa was built, were then questioned. These were shipbuilder Hein Jakobsson and Arent de Groot, the lessee of Skeppsgården. One complication was that the actual builder of Vasa, the Dutchman Henrik Hybertsson, had died the year before. However, Jakobsson and de Groot also swore their innocence. Vasa conformed to the dimensions approved by the King himself, they said. On board were a number of guns, as specified in the contract.

Model of Skeppsgården

“Whose fault is it, then?” asked the interrogator.

“God only knows,” answered de Groot.

God and King, both equally infallible, were thus drawn into the case. The subsequent deliberations of the Council of the Realm on the issue of guilt are unknown to us. No guilty party was ever identified, and no one was punished for the disaster.

Can we today, 390 years later, identify the guilty party and explain why Vasa sank?

The accusation that the guns were not properly secured can be dismissed. When Vasa was salvaged in 1961, the gun carriages were still arrayed in neat rows, and the ropes were in place around the carriages’ wheel axles. Present-day technical calculations have also shown that Vasa is extremely top-heavy and requires only a moderate wind to overturn her. Thus, “a small gust of wind”, as the captain said during the interrogation, was enough.

Who, then, was at fault?

Admiral Fleming? He failed to prevent the ship’s departure after the stability test, although it was within his power to do so. Not enough backbone to do so since Vasa had already been completed and the King was waiting impatiently in Prussia.

King Gustavus II Adolphus? He was anxious to acquire a ship with as many guns as possible on board. He had also approved the ship’s dimensions and was keen to have it completed rapidly.

The shipbuilder? Henrik Hybertsson was a very experienced Dutch shipbuilder. He had previously built many good ships. Vasa was extremely well constructed and the shape did not differ from other naval vessels that sailed in the 17th century. All ships carrying many guns were tall and highly unstable. It was impossible to see that Vasa was top heavy.

The theoretical know-how of the period? 17th century shipbuilders did not have the capability to make construction drawings or mathematical calculations of stability. The only recourse of the shipbuilder was to a table of figures, the ship’s reckoning, which recorded certain ship measurements. The reckoning was often a well-kept secret – something a father passed on to his son. Thus, a new ship was often modelled on its predecessor.

Fred Hocker, an archaeologist at the Vasa Museum, has been trying to find some definitive answers. Hocker and his team spent three years measuring every single piece of the wood in the ship. “If we want to understand how the ship was built, that’s what it takes,” says Hocker.

Hocker’s meticulous measurements paid off. They gave him fresh insight into what made the Vasa unstable. For one thing, the ship was asymmetrical, more so than most ships of the day. There is more ship structure on the port side of the hull than on the starboard side, Unballasted, the ship would probably heel to port.

No wonder the ship tipped to the port side when the winds hit. But why was the ship so lopsided? While examining the ship, Hocker discovered four rulers the workmen had used. Those rulers were based on different standards of measurement at the time. Two were in Swedish feet, which were divided into twelve inches. The other two were in Amsterdam feet, which had eleven inches in a foot. So each carpenter had used his own system of measurement.

“When somebody tells him, make that thing four inches thick, his four inches is not going to be the same as the next guy’s four inches,” says Hocker. “And you can see those variations in the timbers, as well.”

But that wasn’t the only reason the ship sank. Hocker says the Vasa was also top-heavy. “The part of the ship that was above the water is too heavy compared to the part of the ship that’s in the water. [It] makes it too easy for it to heel over.”

People in the 17th century were aware of that fact, but they didn’t understand what made the ship top-heavy, or whom to blame for the poor design. Some historians and military architects have blamed the King.

They thought that he had interfered with the ship’s dimensions after the construction had begun. But Hocker’s measurements offered no evidence to support that theory. He uncovered a simpler cause.

“The deck structure is simply too heavy,” he says. “It’s heavier than it needs to be to carry the guns that Vasa was armed with.”

Why were the decks so heavy? Hocker studied historical documents and found that the shipbuilder, Henrik Hybertsson, had never built a ship with two gun decks or with so many guns. He thinks Hybertsson erred on the side of caution and made the decks heavier than they needed to be. In other words, as Hocker puts it, “the design was simply flawed from the beginning.”

The inside of the lower gun deck looking toward the bow

The management world has a name for human problems of communication and management that cause projects to founder and fail – Vasa syndrome. The events of August 10, 1628 had such a big impact that the sinking is a case study business experts still read about.

“An organization’s goals must be appropriately matched to its capabilities,” write Kessler, Bierly and Gopalakrishnan. In the case of the Vasa, “there was an overemphasis on the ship’s elegance and firepower and reduced importance on its seaworthiness and stability,” they write, “which are more critical issues.” Although it was originally designed to carry 36 guns, it was sent to sea with twice that number. At the same time, the beautiful ornamentation contributed to its heaviness and instability, they write. These and a host of other factors contributed to Vasa’s sinking and provide a cautionary tale for those designing and testing new technologies.

Salvage attempts in the 17th century

After sinking, the masts (the only parts of the ship that were still visible above water) were removed in order not to interrupt ship traffic in the busy harbour, but no attempts were made to bring the ship to the surface as technology was not yet far enough advanced to undertake a project of this magnitude.

While Captain Söfring Hansson was still in captivity, the first wreck salvagers arrived at the site of the shipwreck. The Englishman Ian Bulmer was the first to arrive; only three days after the disaster, he was given the sole right of salvaging Vasa. But the Council of the Realm stipulated that no money would be paid until Bulmer had fulfilled his promises.

Bulmer failed, and Admiral Klas Fleming – the same man who interrupted the stability test – took over attempts to salvage the ship and save the many valuable guns. To assist him, he engaged Hans Olofsson from Karelia, who “could walk under water”. But Olofsson failed as well, and after a year of fruitless attempts Fleming wrote to the King: “This is a more onerous test than I could ever have foreseen.”

Fleming gave up, but many others were attracted by the valuable Vasa guns. In the decades after the shipwreck, numerous adventurers, treasure-seekers and inventors arrived in Stockholm. Hooks and anchors were fastened to the hull; they pulled and tugged, but all to no avail. The treasures of Vasa remained inaccessible right up to the 1660s, when Albrecht von Treileben, the Swede from Värmland, and the German Andreas Peckell began to take an interest in the 64 guns. Both men had extensive experience of salvaging wrecks, and their primary tool was a diving bell. The first diver to be lowered to Vasa was called Anders Amundsson. He reported that the previous salvagers had caused considerable damage to the ship: “It looks like a make-shift fence down there,” he said.

Under the leadership of von Treileben and Peckell, the salvage work commenced. In pitch-darkness, at a depth of thirty meters, the divers were to:
– loosen the guns, weighing one ton each, from their carriages;
– remove the guns through the gun ports;
– bring the guns up to the surface.
The succeeded, over fifty guns were lifted during the years 1664 and 1665.

An eyewitness account of the salvage operations has survived. Francesco Negri, an Italian priest who was on a short visit to Stockholm, observed the diving operations of 1663. He wrote in his diary: “The diver was entirely clad in leather and had double leather boots. He stood on a platform of lead hanging under the diving bell.

“I asked him how long he would stay down there on the seabed. He answered ‘Half an hour’. But this was at the end of October and after quarter of an hour the bell was hoisted up, and the man was then shivering with cold although he was a strong, native Swede.

“I myself wanted to try the diving bell, but was advised to refrain since the water was so cold and there was a danger of falling ill in consequence.”

The achievement of the “men who could walk under water” was a remarkable one. These men included Abraham Eriksson, Anders Dykare, Johan Printz, Johan Bertilsson, Johan Wik and Lars Andersson, all from Goetheburg. By way of comparison, in the 1950s, it took a whole day for a deep sea diver with modern equipment to salvage one of Vasa’s remaining guns.

Discovery and salvage

On September 13, 1956, a notice in Expressen, the evening paper, announced: “An old ship has been found off Beckholmen in the middle of Stockholm. It is probably the warship Vasa, which sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. For five years, a private person has been engaged in a search for the ship.”

It was a short notice about a major sensation. The “private person” was the 38-year-old engineer Anders Franzén. He was one of Sweden’s foremost experts on naval warfare in the 16th and 17th centuries and a specialist on wrecked naval vessels. He was also one of the few who both researched in archives and then went out on a boat to find the site of the wreck.

Anders Franzén

Franzén knew that the Baltic is unique. Here there is no shipworm, the tiny Teredo that destroys all wood in saltier seas. Wooden vessels that sink in the Baltic are therefore preserved for centuries, even millenia.

Historians know of twelve sunken warships from the 16th and 17th centuries, six of them not yet located. Between the cold brackish water protecting them from shipworm and the Swedish laws protecting them as national antiquities, chances look good of finding and benefiting from yet another treasure trove of history.

It was professor Nils Ahnlund, an authority on 17th century Sweden, who first aroused Franzén’s interest in Vasa. Professor Ahnlund did not know exactly where Vasa had sunk, since the data in the 17th century archives pointed to several different locations. Franzén set out to search the seabed of Stockholm harbour with a grapnel, a sounding line, maps and information from the archives.

Anders Franzén and Per Edvin Fälting

After searching for several years, Franzén succeeded on August 25, 1956. His home-made core sampler, with its hollow punch at the tip, got stuck and came up containing a plug of blackened oak. A few days later, the diver Per Edvin Fälting went down and was able to confirm Franzén’s find. Over a crackling diver’s telephone, he reported: “I can’t see anything, since it’s pitch-dark here, but I can feel something big – the side of a ship. Here’s one gun port and here’s nother. There are two rows. It must be Vasa.”

A large, nationwide “Save the Vasa” campaign was launched, and money and materials were donated by foundations, individuals and companies. The Navy made staff and boats available and in autumn 1957 the divers began to dig, or rather flush out, tunnels beneath the ship. Their tool was a hosepipe with a special mouthpiece. Mud and gravel were washed away – a task requiring immense technical skills and even greater courage. The work was carried out at a depth of more than 30 meters and in total darkness. The tunnels were so narrow that the divers had to squirm through.

Work on the tunnels went on for two years without serious accidents. At the end of August 1959, it was time for the first lift. The Neptun Salvaging Company’s salvaging pontoons were placed above Vasa, cables were pulled through the six tunnels and the old ship was raised from the seabed without any problems. The hull did not give way, and Vasa was then lifted into shallower water in 16 stages. It was still too early to bring the ship up to the surface. The hull had to be made watertight and reinforced for the final lift. Again, it was the divers who performed this task. For two years, they were busy filling in the thousands of holes formed where iron bots had rusted away. The partially broken stern had to be reconstructed and all the gun ports fitted with new, watertight hatches.

On April 24, 1961, everything was ready for the lift. After 333 years on the seabed, Vasa broke the surface and a piece of untouched 17th century history came to light. When the railing was above the surface, powerful bilge pumps were started. By May 4 the ship was so free of water and mud that she was able to float and be towed into a dock at Beckholmen. The first people to board Vasa were Anders Franzén and Per Edvin Fälting.

Since 1961, Vasa has been gradually restored in its entirety. The destroyed portions of the ship, the main deck, the sterncastle, the bow of the ship and the fitments inside the ship had to be rebuilt. This work was undertaken by ship technicians, shipwrights, and museum staff, using the original timbers and parts of the structure. 98 per cent of the ship and 60 per cent of the sails are made up of original parts.

Vasa offers a window onto the past, illuminating the life of a 17th century sailor and the horrible scenes of a desperate, drowning crew. Teams of archaeologists have explored every nook and cranny of the veritable time-capsule, complete with 500 sculptures and such ordinary objects, as watches, games, forks, shoes, a bible, carpenter’s tools and Sweden’s oldest clay pipes. They have also uncovered remains from 25 of the 50 men and women who went down with the ship, including the skeleton of a sailor still carrying his leather money pouch.

The brackish water in the Stockholm archipelago didn’t provide perfect conditions just for the preservation of the shipwreck but also for everything – as well as everyone – inside. About 50 people perished in the sinking, and the remains of about 15 of those who died during the accident were so well preserved that some were found with their hair (and even their brains) still intact and with their shoes still on their feet. Tests done on these remains have been able to determine the kinds of diets that they had, which grants significant insight into the daily life of early 17th century Stockholm. Along with these remains, many personal belongings such as clothes, shoes, combs, sewing thread and smoking pipes were found, along with eating utensils, over 4000 coins, medical equipment and even a board game that one sailor brought on as an off-duty pastime. By studying these items, it is possible for archaeologists and anthropologists to piece together the lives that surrounded them, which helps us to better understand the conditions during this time and ultimately leads to better understand life as it is today.

Up until 1990, the Vasa Museum was housed in a basic aluminium building which slowly rusted with the 98% humidity need for the ship’s restoration. But in 1990, a new museum awaited: a modern building crowned by three masts, complete with cinemas, computer rooms, replicated captain’s quarters, sailors’ cabins and a cannon deck.

Opened in 1990, the Vasa Museum is reportedly Scandinavia’s most visited museum, with over 1.3 million visitors in 2016

The Vasa was the centre of all activity at Skeppsgården, the Stockholm shipyard, for two years. Skeppsgården was not only a shipyard but also the main station for the naval forces in a country that was constantly armed for war. 400 people worked there.

The shipyard model shows the intensive activity in the spring of 1627. Raised on her bed of supports the Vasa is almost ready to be launched. Woodworkers of all sorts dominate the work. Visitors can make out sawyers, turners, platform makers and mast makers, carpenters, painters, sculptors, sail makers, rope makers, anchor smiths, blacksmiths, nail smiths, and a fine smith. The shipyard also employs a master glassworker, a tar-spreader and a nail bearer.

The construction of the Vasa required thousands of oak trees. Her rig used almost twelve kilometres of rope.

Model of Skeppsgården, the ship building yard
Model of Skeppsgården, the ship building yard

The model shows the construction of the Vasa at different stages.

Model of Skeppsgården, the ship building yard
Model of Skeppsgården, the ship building yard
Model of Skeppsgården, the ship building yard
Guide at the museum in front of the life-on-board model
Life on board the Vasa – model
Life on board the Vasa – model

A painted model of the Vasa (1:10) gives visitors an idea of how the ship might have looked as she sailed out in 1628.

The model was built by four model builders at the Maritime Museum in Stockholm. The work took 12,000 hours and the model is adorned with over 500 sculptures.

Scale model of Vasa

Scale model of Vasa

Scale model of Vasa

On the Concert Hall Trail in Northern Europe

The in-depth stories about each concert hall will come later, but little Puffles and Honey want to give a preview of their beary exciting musical adventures now 🙂

Northern Europe is the location of no less than four cultural venues with crystal-clear acoustics and breathtaking architecture. Little bears, of course, checked out all the locations for themselves 🙂

First Harpa in Reykjavik. The venue is unusually defined by its facade. It’s a powerful statement created by fusing the creative visions of Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects and internationally acclaimed artist, Olafur Eliasson. The sparkling glazed fenestrations transform the public areas, which are now often seen as being almost as important as the performing spaces themselves.


It is probably no coincidence that although Eliasson is Danish, his parents are Icelandic, allowing the citizens of Iceland to have at least part ownership in this world-class success at a difficult time in their history.


Seen from the foyer, the halls form a mountain-like massif that similar to basalt rock on the coast forms a stark contrast to the expressive and open facade. At the core of the rock, the largest hall of the building, the main concert hall, reveals its interior as a red-hot centre of force.

Harpa main auditorium

Little bears attended Kristján Jóhannsson’s annual Christmas concert, a festive program also including Dísella Lárusdóttir, Ólafur Kjartan Sigurðarson and Margrét Eiríksdóttir performing opera favorites and classic christmas songs with the Reykjavík Opera Choir and Kópavogur Men’s Choir, accompanied by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason.


Little bears attended another two shows at Harpa, Arvo Pärt and Mozart and How to Become Icelandic in 60 minutes, a hilarious comedy that taught them how to say Eyjafjallajökull!

Elevenses at Harpa

Next on the list was Musiikkitalo in Helsinki.


Musiikkitalo deliberately reveals its treasures only after one actually enters the building. In the lobby huge panoramic windows look into the dark stained concert hall. Not only does the rather understated building have an auditorium with 1700 seats and five smaller halls – there are also three saunas!

Elevenses at Musiikkitalo – the cakes were very good, the salmon quiche is best never mentioned again!

Musiikkitalo was the least fun place to visit.

Musiikkitalo main auditorium

The stairs and stand of the auditorium are dazzling; the asymmetrical seats remind one of jammed rafts. The big hall resonates richly, but at the same time transparently; acoustics guru Yasuhisa Toyota was involved in the planning process from the start and did a great job here, where it is all about communication and not worship.

Musiikkitalo – Sibelius concert as part of the Finland 100 celebrations

Wozzeck at Oslo Opera House was also not fun. Not the most cheerful of operas! Just between us, we can say we were present at Wozzeck but not that we have really seen Wozzeck.

Oslo Opera House

The location, Oslo’s Bjørvika neighbourhood, was chosen because it was in need of urban renewal. The building had a subsidiary role in spearheading dockland redevelopment. Snøhetta opted for a roofline that rose from up from the waterline and the structure has been likened both to an iceberg and a stealth bomber that crashed into Oslofjord. The edges of the building can be used as a diving platform where they meet the water, and visitors can also walk up its sloping walls to the very top to admire the view. Passers-by often find themselves wandering into this fun structure without realising they have entered a concert hall.

In common with Harpa at present, the Oslo Opera House is surrounded by construction sites as the area continues to be renewed.

Oslo Opera House

Wondering around the opera house was a bit more fun 🙂

Oslo Opera House
Oslo Opera House

The Oslo Opera House has proved a remarkably successful building, although the general view remains that there is a lot of bloom to the sound and that the overall building is more visually stunning than its auditorium.

Oslo Opera House
Oslo Opera House
Oslo Opera House
Oslo Opera House

Little bears found Stage 2 where Jingle Horse! was playing, a Christmas collage of well-known stories with a new twist, sometimes funny, sometimes less so. The show was in English, none of the stories escaped parody and not much was off-limits! Not even Mary Mother of God or the refugee crisis.

One of the reviews said the ensemble acting was so strong that it could carry any kind of text you could imagine. That was certainly true!

Jingle Horse!
Jingle Horse!

But the main character was very cute indeed! And an excellent actor 🙂

Jingle Horse!
Jingle Horse

And yet at the end, everybody left the stage and left him all alone…

Jingle Horse!

Little Puffles and Honey went to the rescue… 🙂

Oslo Opera House – Stage 2
Big hug from Jingle Horse

Danish Broadcasting’s new concert hall in Copenhagen, DR Koncerthuset, is sultry, curvaceous and clothed in aromatic reds and oranges. It is also spatially deceptive.

DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset

The performance of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Fabio Luisi was outstanding. It received a standing ovation and rightly so.

DR Koncerthuset

The Verdict on the Northern Lights Locations

Many moons ago, we selected a number of locations for the best chance of seeing the northern lights.

We have now visited all the locations and we have selected our favourite location for the northern lights: Tromsø. And not just because we were very lucky indeed to see the northern lights three nights in a row. As we have now discovered, there is a fundamental difference between the northern lights tours in Tromsø and the ones in Iceland, Sweden and Finland.

Given a clear and dark sky, suitable solar activity and a bit of luck, you can see the northern lights in each of these locations. You can choose to sit there and wait for the lights to come to you (it does happen!), or you can go find them! You might need a bit of help from the locals to find them.

The lights came to us both in Tromsø and in Abisko. It was playtime with little bears 🙂

Aurora display at Lyngen Lodge west of Tromsø
Aurora display at STF Abisko Touriststation

The tours from Tromsø essentially come under the category of chasing the northern lights, which means that the tour operators have a single focus, finding a location to see the lights. They will drive 150-200km if that is what it takes to find a spot with a clear sky and aurora activity. I did find it odd that in the small print of the tour from Tromsø with AuroraPhotoGuide it said to bring my passport, but now I know that they will go all the way to Finland if that is what it takes!

By comparison, the tours from Abisko, Sweden, and Rovaniemi and Levi, Finland, have a set location, and seeing the northern lights would be a nice experience while they are filling in the time with other activities. At least in Abisko we had a photography focus and took some interesting photos.

During the first “northern lights tour” in Rovaniemi I got quite cranky. I could imagine Geir (the aurora guide from Tromsø) saying, “did you come here to see the aurora or did you come here to cook sausages?” And worse, there were children everywhere! Needless to say, we didn’t see the northern lights. The cloud cover was thick and covered the sky as far as the eye could see. At the end of the night, the tour guide made so many cheesy comments about the failure of the tour that if I rolled my eyes any harder, they would have got stuck permanently backwards!

All the tours were pre-booked and paid for, so sausages or not, I went on a second tour in Rovaniemi the following night. There was an improvement, no children in sight! I mean, late nights, cold nights and children. What could possibly go wrong? The sky was perfectly clear but the aurora did not show up at that location. And we had to survive -25C while waiting for it! It took so long to cook the sausage that I gave up and ate it half cold!

I also scheduled two “northern lights night tours” in Levi, but cancelled the tour on the first night. It was cloudy with no chance of a clear sky, -25C was the maximum temperature that day!!! so I abandoned the tour, which was essentially snowshoeing. I went out on the second night for the experience of driving the snow mobile. I didn’t think we had any chance of seeing the lights, but I took my camera and tripod just in case. The snow mobile experience was a lot of fun, but we didn’t see any lights.

As for Iceland, we joined a tour called Northern Lights Escape. Yeah, right! Zero effort was made towards the northern lights aspect. Adding the ‘northern lights’ to the names of the tours has become a nifty marketing ploy. And if you get really lucky and see the lights, they will happily take the credit.

There are plenty of fun activities in all these places, but if you want to maximise your chances of seeing the northern lights, and getting some good photographs of them, you need to look for a tour like the ones in Tromsø where the focus is only the northern lights and nothing else. And stay off boats. They are not suitable for photographing the northern lights. If the ‘northern lights’ tour includes snow shoes, snow mobiles, huskies, reindeer or some other similar thing, then the focus is on the snow shoes, snow mobiles, etc. etc., and not on the northern lights. But a warning, a real northern lights night tour can take 6-7 hours to 2am. With no toilet break! Remember, you are not at an established location. Like Geir would say, did you come to see the northern lights or did you come to sleep?

Aurora display near Tromsø

Good luck!