Halfdan Kjerulf was a late bloomer; music education was primitive in his hometown of Christiania (now Oslo) when he was a child, so he prepared for a career in law.
In 1839, however, well into his twenties, he suffered a serious illness, went to Paris to recuperate the next year, and finally had access to an abundant musical culture. Shortly after Kjerulf's return to Norway late in 1840, his father and two siblings died, so he supported his family by abandoning his legal studies to take work as a journalist. But he was also composing during this period, and the autumn of 1841 saw the publication of his first works, a set of songs. He studied music theory in his spare time, and in 1845 began conducting a male students' choir and a male vocal quartet. Not until 1848 did he begin taking formal lessons in composition; his teacher, Carl Arnold, helped him win a travel grant to study in Copenhagen (with Niels Gade) and then in Leipzig. Back home in 1851 he set himself up as a full-time piano teacher, and began writing a great deal of music in small forms. His compositions earned him a medal from King Carl XV in 1863 and membership in the Swedish Royal Academy of Music two years later.
As a song composer, Kjerulf found inspiration in the works of Schubert and Schumann, but also, significantly, in Norwegian folk music, mainly in his settings of Norwegian texts. He also wrote about 40 works for male chorus (stemming from his conducting work with such groups), plus about 60 choral arrangments; the total still doesn't quite match his output of about 120 solo songs. His solo piano output includes character pieces and folk arrangements, both establishing a model for Edvard Grieg to follow and improve on. Kjerulf wrote a comic opera, but otherwise avoided music for large ensembles or in large forms (symphonies, quartets).