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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Eric Ericson birthday tribute

Sorry it has been so long since I've posted. Lots I could say, but little time to say it!

I was asked by the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet to write a piece for their essay page (Under strecket) to be published on Eric's birthday (tomorrow--Sunday--he's 90!). They wanted a piece that evaluated Eric's contributions to choral music, both in Sweden and abroad, but from a strictly journalistic perspective . . . in other words, even though it is published on his birthday, they didn't want a piece that was only laudatory, but with a critical perspective. Given the length, it was difficult to do (my original draft was about a third longer and too personal), but here it is. They have translated into Swedish for the edition of the newspaper, of course.

Eric Ericson’s Impact on the World of Choral Music

The noted choral conductor, Eric Ericson, turns 90 today. What has been his impact on choral music in Sweden, the Nordic countries, Europe and the world? How has the choral world changed because of his work? How and why did this happen? Why Sweden?

These are questions I first asked myself some time ago—as a choral conductor, I learned of Ericson’s work through his recordings, then hearing the Swedish Radio Choir on tour in the United States in 1983.

My curiosity didn’t end with those early experiences.

This interest in Swedish music led me to write a doctoral dissertation on the topic: Swedish a cappella music since 1945. The question of “why” became a secondary focus of the dissertation and book which followed: The Swedish Choral Miracle: Swedish A Cappella Music Since 1945.

In many ways, it is a tale of the right person being in the right place at the right time.

One has to begin with an individual with enormous talent and skill, which Ericson has had in abundance. He grew up the son of a Free Church preacher, so became involved with music from an early age, studying piano and organ, and directing a choir from his early teens. When he reached the conservatory he excelled.

It isn’t enough, of course, to have talent—one must also have character, drive, ambition and (especially for a conductor) the ability to inspire others.

Even with those qualities, the impact one makes is dependent on outside circumstances, and in this Ericson was fortunate.

During his time at the Conservatory, he made friends with a talented and diverse group of people who gained the name The Monday Group, because beginning in 1944 and continuing until the end of the decade, they met on Monday afternoons in the apartment of composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl to discuss and study music. They were dissatisfied with what they perceived as too conservative training at the school. The group also included composers Sven-Erik Bäck, Sven-Eric Johanson, and Ingvar Lidholm, a number other musicians, and the musicologist Bo Wallner. Bäck and Lidholm would remain among Ericson’s closest friends.

The Monday Group became important, because as Lidholm would later say, “We sat on the floor at Karl-Birger’s Drottninggatan 106 and saw ourselves, in all simplicity, taking over all the institutions.”

They did just that. Sweden was a conservative country musically, but the members of the Monday Group ultimately took over and remade the main musical institutions: Blomdahl was Professor of Composition at the Conservatory from 1960-65 and head of music at Swedish Radio from 1965-68; Lidholm was head of chamber music at the Radio from 1956-65, edited the Radio’s Nutida Musik (literally, “New Music,” the title of a radio series and the journal that originally accompanied it) from its beginnings in 1954 to 1957, then Professor of Composition after Blomdahl in 1965; and Bo Wallner would become an influential musicologist at the Conservatory and edited Nutida Musik beginning in 1957.

And of course, Eric Ericson began teaching choral conducting at the Conservatory in 1951, became conductor of Orphei Drängar in the same year, and conductor of the Radio Choir (RK) in 1952.

Of course, when one person holds in his hand the major institutions in a country for so many years, one can expect that there are some negatives to go along with the positive. This was true in the following way: given Ericson’s dominance in Stockholm and the resources at his command, some very talented conductors had nowhere to go. The most prominent example of this is Karl-Eric Andersson, an immensely talented conductor, about five years younger than Ericson , who led the Bel Canto Choir. By all accounts both an extraordinarily talented conductor and teacher, his career could only go so far and this sadly affected his personal life.

Similarly, composers who were more conservative in style, such as members of the "Samtida Musik" circle ("samtida" is another word for "contemporary," so the name was chosen in opposition to "nutida musik")--Erland von Koch, Hans Eklund, Jan Carlstedt, and others--found it difficult to get performances. Von Koch later wrote about this in his memoirs with a chapter titled “The Monday Group—Mafia and Opinion Dictatorship,” and noted that RK never performed any of his works.

This is as much a function of Sweden’s relatively small size and centralization in Stockholm during this period, as of Ericson’s having those positions. At the Conservatory, for example, composition and choral conducting were a “one channel” system—one person was in charge of those programs and for much of that time, Stockholm was the only place one could study those subjects. Yet it made life more difficult for some.

Sweden’s neutrality in the Second World War was also a contributing factor. Since Sweden didn’t suffer the loss of a generation of talented people and the extraordinary damage of infrastructure that was seen in most of Europe, this allowed for the quick rebuilding of its economy.

Because of this, most of the The Monday Group traveled abroad after the war, Ericson making an important trip to Basel, spending a whole year there, studying early music and observing the Basel Kammerorchester, which commissioned important works by Honegger, Hindemith, and Stravinsky.

Eric Ericson began the Chamber Choir (or KK) in 1945 with a group of 16 friends (who included the composer Lars Edlund and the important conductor/teacher Bror Samuelsson) primarily to sing the madrigals and other music from the renaissance that they’d read about, but not heard. Ericson has always readily admitted his important predecessors and teachers, including David Åhlen with whom he’d studied and sung with at the Conservatory, Johannes Norrby (and his ensemble Voces Intimae), and Mogens Wöldike (who’d come from Denmark at the beginning of the war and was known as an early music expert—he did a number of productions with RK at this time and helped stimulate Ericson’s interest in early music).

It was, however, a new piece, written for KK by Ingvar Lidholm in 1946 and premiered in 1947—Laudi—that called for new resources and led Ericson and the choir in new directions. On the technical side, it demanded skill with new and difficult intervals—Ericson said, “I think we went on for six months to try to nail down that difficult sixth measure in the first movement. I remember how we sighed over the difficult intervals.” Laudi also called for a more dramatic style, Lidholm asking for extremes of dynamics not seen in the madrigal literature: “full voice, as loud as possible without forcing.”

There followed other new and difficult works by Bäck, Schoenberg, Bartók, Hindemith, Milhaud, Stravinsky, and then Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé (the performance also included prominent Swedish singers Nicolai Gedda, Elisabeth Söderstöm, Erik Saedén, and Kerstin Meyer), which took nearly a year of preparation.

In 1952 Ericson was asked to take over and reorganize RK, with most of the members replaced by members of KK, expanded to 32 singers, and began rehearsing three times a week (KK continued with one rehearsal a week).

As Ericson has said, “The music department of the Radio had many competent people who really jumped on impulses and picked up on all the big personalities of the 1950s. I sat there with my choirmaster position and was ordered, here comes Stravinsky, here comes Hindemith, and they want to guest conduct their pieces with the Radio Choir, etc.—and I had to be able to study all that. But of course it also meant incredibly inspiring contacts and demanding jobs—‘Here you go—study this Dallapiccola . . .’—that was horrendously difficult at that time! So we stood there with our assignments, and it was exciting for us to jump into all this modern music.”

Ericson has always maintained that the repertoire developed the choir: “You asked how technique and proficiency developed, and I can almost mention certain pieces which were ‘rungs on the ladder,’ because that’s how I feel so strongly when we’ve learned a difficult and very good piece. I’m thinking of KK with Laudi from 1947, then the big pieces of Stravinsky and Nono. Dallapiccola, perhaps most of all, is where we learned to read notes and rhythms. And then of course we have a Swedish piece, again by Lidholm [1956—Canto 81], that we struggled with for half a year. I have a certain sense that, when you ‘come out on the other side’ after having done a piece like Lidholm’s Canto, you are a better musician, a better conductor, a better chorister.” Additionally, Ericson’s emphasis on a cappella music (his stated desire was always to have his ensembles perform 80% a cappella music) has inherently demanded higher attention to the skills of intonation, blend, and ensemble.

The German recording company EMI recognized the extraordinary quality of Ericson’s choirs, and commissioned a four-LP set called Europäische Chormusik aus fünf Jahrhundert, first issued in 1971. This gave Ericson the reason to tour and then record, with both KK and RK, many of the great works for a cappella choir. This was an enormous success, winning several prizes, and led to a second four-LP set, Virtuose Chormusik, in 1978 (both are still available on CD). These recordings helped disseminate knowledge of Ericson’s work around the world, and the high standards set by these recordings had a major influence on other choral conductors and choirs.

Teaching has also been an important part of Ericson’s career, which spanned four decades at the Conservatory. In the ‘50s and ‘60s he taught both church musicians and choral conducting students—40-50 students each year. As Lennart Reimers notes, in 1933 Sveriges Körförbund (the Swedish Choral Society) had 503 members, 40 of whom had a degree from the Conservatory—and during his time there, Ericson taught more than 1500 choral conductors. Consequently, he had an enormous influence on conductors in Sweden.

As Ericson’s singers and students went on to lead their own choirs, they began performing much of the repertoire first done by KK or RK. This raised the level of many choirs, which is in part responsible for the high standards of choral singing in Sweden today. That influence has not only been in Sweden, since many conductors from other countries have also come to Sweden to work with Ericson, whether formally or informally. And since retiring from the Swedish Radio in 1983, he increasingly traveled abroad to teach master classes and guest conduct. Foreign choirs have also inspired by Ericson’s model, for example, the outstanding French choir, Accentus with its conductor Laurence Equilbey.

Ericson has long fought for new repertoire for the a cappella choir and this was an important part of his work. Certainly, the great works by Ingvar Lidholm would likely not have been written were it not for their friendship. There is a long list of works premiered by him or dedicated to him. This has been an important legacy. Many of Ericson’s students have also been active in commissioning new works—prime examples in the last fifteen years or so being Robert Sund, Erik Westberg and Gary Graden. In his travels, master classes, and guest conducting, he’s also been an ambassador for Swedish music and composers throughout the world.

Overall, Eric’s career has been extraordinary. He built ensembles (now nearly 65 years with the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir) with a technical quality unmatched by others in their era, made recordings that still hold up as models many years later, stimulated numerous composers to write for the a cappella idiom, taught four decades worth of choral conductors in Sweden and many abroad, and has inspired choral conductors throughout the world.