Halfdan Kjerulf was born in Oslo on September 17, 1815. He received his forst instruction in music from Lars Roverud and Otto Wetterstrand, both of whom were active as music teachers in the city at that time. He learned to play the piano, and he probably learned some elementary music theory from Roverud. Like his father, who held a high position in the Ministry of Finance, he planned to become a civil servant and began the study of law. His legal studies were interrupted by serious illness in 1839, however, and he never returned to them.
In the summer of 1840 he took a pleasure trip to Paris. This excursion proved to be of great importance to him, for in Paris he encountered a thriving music life with outstanding concert performances of both the Viennese Classicists and the early Romantic composers. He also heard the music of Berlioz, who at that time was a controversial figure in French music.
The winter and spring of 1840-41 were a difficult time for Kjerulf; his sister, father and brother died. Upon the death of his father, Halfdan, as the oldest of the children, was obliged to assist in supporting the family. To do so he took a position as foreign editor of Den Constitutionelle, one of the two leading newspapers in Oslo at that time.
He did not, however, forsake his interest in music; indeed, in the autumn of 1841 he published his first volume of compositions, consisting of six songs. Throughout the 1840s Kjerulf studied composition on his own. He conducted the Norwegian Students' Male Chorus and from 1845, when he left his position in the newspaper, he earned his living as a music teacher. He was dissatisfied with his theoretical knowledge, but he had no one to whom he could turn for guidance, till Carl Arnold came to Oslo in 1948. Kjerulf immediately began studying with him. Arnold also helped him procure a stipend that enabled him to study abroad in 1849-51. He first went to Copenhagen, where he studied with Niels W. Gade, then in 1850 to the Leipzig conservatory, where one of his teachers was Ernst Friedrich Richter. Here, at the age of 35, he finally acquired a solid conservatory education.
After returning to Oslo in 1851 her resumed his work as a music teacher. He lived quietly and unobtrusively and did not become deeply involved in public music life. It was only toward the end of his life the Kjerulf began to received some recognition for his compositions. In 1863 he was awarded the Littris et atribus medal, and in 1865 he was made a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. Kjerulf was a victim of serious illness during his later years. He died on August 11, 1868.
Of Kjerulf's production the songs with piano accompaniment and choral works are most well known today. He also had a considerable production of piano pieces. His compositions strongly reflect his admiration for German Romanticism. His musical style shows the influence of Schumann; in his piano music Chopin may also have been one of his models. Nonetheless, many of his works have a distinctly Norwegian sound that clearly shows the influence of the folk music of his native land.