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 Eric Ericson
- 50 years
with the
Chamber Choir

An interview by
Hans-Gunnar Peterson
Karl-Erik Tallmo
 (Artikeln finns också på svenska)

  We meet Eric Ericson in his home one morning at the end of March 1997 for an interview. Of course, we talk about his career, about the Radio Choir, how he started the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, his work with the Orphei Drängar and with the Chamber Choir of the University College of Music in Stockholm. In the background is also the award he will receive in May, The Polar Music Prize. 

  How did it all start?

"I probably got this fascination for singing in parts, polyphonic composition, more or less with my mother's milk," Eric Ericson explains. "As is the case with many other choristers in Sweden, I grew up within the Free church. Especially when you are the son of a pastor, the ceremonial music becomes a natural part of the family's everyday life. On top of that I happened to have a music teacher at high school in Visby, who had a great dedication to choral singing. His name was Siedberg, and he worked within the Swedish Choir League. He was very talented, and had studied in Berlin as well as in Salzburg. Thanks to him I was driven into the boys' choir at the cathedral. Already as a boy I found the string music a little primitive, it was more fun to sing in parts  -  allegedly I led a choir of juniors at twelve ..."
  There are several possible ways to portray Eric Ericson. You could list his enormous repertoire, reaching from the golden era of polyphony during the renaissance through recently composed 20th century works. The number of works by Swedish composers that Ericson has premiered and introduced to an international audience, is huge. His work has also been important for world names like Penderecki or Henze. And the "Drei Chorphantasien" by Ligeti was directly dedicated to Ericson and his choir.
  Equally important is also the pedagogical aspect of Ericsons work. At the University College of Music in Stockholm he has taught generations of choir masters.
  Eric Ericson has always kept an open mind towards interesting and inspiring people around him. This is obvious when he talks about his years as a student in Stockholm at the end of the 30's and early 40's:
  "While I studied I also maintained a position as choir master at the St Paul Church. I had a feeling of how all pieces started to fit together. With me I had a genuine choral upbringing, so I was prepared for all of the veering of styles that came in the 40's: the modern music, the renaissance for early choral music. I had early caught hold of some exciting trends. I studied organ with Otto Olsson, who used a lot of voix céleste  and such things. Then Alf Linder returned from Germany after studying with Heitmann, and he started to set the registers for Bach works in a totally different way, harsher and with more trio play. Secretly I took lessons from Linder."
  Ericson also mentions how interest for madrigals and all of the renaissance masters of counterpoint grew both in Sweden and abroad. The work of the Dane Mogens Wøldike was important. His fellow countryman Knud Jeppesen published a manual of polyphonic composition, "Counterpoint", based entiely on extensive research in the works of Palestrina. Often, old and new music meet. Hilding Rosenberg used Jeppesen's book in his own teaching  -  and among his students were Ericson's friends of the same age, Karl-Birger Blomdahl, Sven-Erik Bäck, Ingvar Lidholm ... Many were also tempted to go to Basel, to Schola Cantorum, the research center for early music:
  "Everything that happened in Stockholm and influenced me and many others got its natural continuation through the Schola Cantorum," Ericsons says. "Many of us were there the very instant the war was over. Switzerland had been spared the violence of war, and one could say that Basel had become a musical capital at that time."
  "The large German publishing house Bärenreiter, which printed several volumes of renaissance and baroque music, had a branch office in Basel. And Paul Sacher was there, a very important and remarkably versatile man. Thanks to his marrying one of the richest ladies in Switzerland, he was financially independent and managed to run the Schola Cantorum at the same time as he led the Basler Kammerorchester, which was an important forum for new music. The contemporary radicals, like Hindemith or Honegger, wrote music for this ensemble ... The amazing thing with Basel was that it was not a small, self-absorbed, obsolete music city, but a sort of Mecca, a refugium  after the war, where we in the evening could go out and listen to all of the important works ..."
  Eric Ericson sketches a time and a climate that is interesting to study, as a background to the achievements of musicians and composers during the 30's and 40's and later. Among composers, suffice it to point out Igor Strawinsky, who certainly had began using new radical methods. But we can also see influences of older music: rythmic patterns from 14th century composer Machaut for instance, or the polychoral music of Venice.
  Among Swedish composers, Sven-Erik Bäck is a good example. One of his early piano works bares witness to this creative retrospective, and it does so already in its title, "Sonata alla ricercare". The name hints at the identification with the pioneers of keyboard music during the baroque, for instance Girolamo Frescobaldi. Bäck and Ingvar Lidholm were also early at writing innovative choral music, and they found a forum for their compositions in Eric Ericson's Chamber Choir. He formed it in 1945, and the choir gave its first performance the next year.

What was it that made you start the Chamber Choir?

"I think it was in the air," Ericson explains. "And an important reason was that we were a group of friends, where everybody knew each other well, Erik Saedén, Bror Samuelsson, Lars Edlund, for example, and in the choir we got even more opportunity to socialize. Maybe it is a rationalization, but I am sure we regarded ourselves as a sort of research team. We were captivated by the rythmic interplay in the madrigals. There were no records then, and this old music was hardly played on the radio. But there the editions were in front of us, a material to explore."

Was this revival of early music that took place in the 40's more powerful than the one that came in the 70's? Was the 70's wave maybe more conspicuous because more records were made?

"Possibly, the later endavours were more radical. The comparison is interesting. During the 70's one focused on performance practice, while I remember from the 40's what a totally new experience it was to sing Palestrina and Monteverdi from the booklets. Of course we studied the research results, especially what came to us through Nils Wallin and the Museum of Musical History as it was called then. He was the initiator of a series of portrait concerts: we had one Dufay evening, one evening dedicated to Deprez. The whole of Machaut's "Messe de Nostre Dame" was performed as well."

At first this was a rediscovery of that kind of part progression, was it not? And later there was the question of timbre, how harsh it should be etc.

"Sure, and some claim that at that time I would have changed the timbre of the choir, but I already had a very good timbre, which among other things was influenced by David Åhlén and his studies in Germany. He returned with this idea about Bach and the Passion according to St. Matthew, and this must have had an effect. And furthermore, the music itself asks for another way of singing. You cannot sit and sing Morley's 'Now is the Month of May' and burst out in a grand voice, you must keep it slim and transparent. When we came home from Basel, we had no real influences from singing, the influences were brought on by the instruments. By then harpsichord and recorder were new instruments with a totally different tone quality, and this was of course transferred to our singing practice. I am quite sure it came through the music, the music controled timbre, you cannot sing such things in any other way than with this lighter, rythmical ...

This interest for new music was obvious from the beginning. Did not the Chamber Choir even premiere an a cappella piece by Schönberg? Did you discover that piece?

" 'Dreimal Tausend Jahre', yes. No, Blomdahl was the one who found it, I think. He dwelled for some time in California and met Schönberg who had lived in Los Angeles for a long time."
  According to Mr. Ericson, travel and long visits abroad are definitely an important part of the picture of this era, characterized by a hunger for knowledge and a curiosity for what was happening beyond Swedish borders:
  "At an early stage Lidholm visited Darmstadt, which quickly became a center for new music," Mr. Ericson says. "Both he and I went to England to study. The years around 1950 were very important, since they were the basis for later expansion, not least during the 60's. Blomdahl got to know György Ligeti, who was professor in residence in composition at the University College of Music in Stockholm. The creative power among the composers, the regeneration within musical education, as well as the increasing activity at the music section of the Swedish Radio, all of this contributed to this exciting era. And everywhere there were guests from abroad that stimulated us. The choirs attracted more and more attention, and we went on tour after tour. I got to know several colleagues around Europe, Clytus Gottwald in Stuttgart, and Marcel Couraud in Paris."
  "In 1952 I was appointed choirmaster at the Swedish Radio and I brought the Chamber Choir with me. It ceased its activity for some time, but in 1956-57 we found arguments for maintaining a specialist ensemble for early music. I worked both with the Chamber Choir and with the Radio Choir, and with both early and contemporary music. The Swedish Radio was governed in a very progressive spirit during the 50's and 60's, and this was of great importance, the Radio had its own orchestra, eventually with Sergiu Celibidache as its main conductor. Furthermore, the Swedish Radio accepted my devotion to both the Chamber and the Radio Choir."

Was this the result of your putting on a hard fight?

"The opportunities given to me were, to a great extent, due to Celibidache. Of course, he was so amazed that the Swedish Radio did not have its own choir, and I can still hear him shouting "Why has not the Radio got a choir!?" Blomdahl was head of the music section of the Swedish Radio and did not oppose this. We presumed that the singers should gather three times each week  -  a stroke of genius was Blomdahl's idea that we also should meet for a couple of weeks in August each year for a residential choir seminar. The first took place already in 1962. One year we arranged a choir school, another year there was a composer's workshop and one year we worked with soloist ensembles. We invited guest teachers during the whole of the 60's, for instance John Alldis and Marcel Couraud, who had his own "Ensemble Vocale" at the French Radio. For some reason, this group was based upon twelve part singing, while we worked with sixteen parts  -  to be able to perform the really great a cappella pieces. Many times we had to explain our method, to foreign guests mostly  -  I must say that our working conditions  -  that a radio institution maintained two vocal ensembles simultaneously  -  were the most exclusive I have ever heard of. One explanation for this was that the successor as head of the music section, Magnus Enhörning, gradually became interested in staging oratories and such works with the orchestra. Then, it was natural to merge the Chamber Choir and the Radio Choir. This is being done today too. Not the least to be able to cooperate with orchestras in the rest of Europe, for instance the Berlin Philharmonics with conductors such as Claudio Abbado, James Levine, Riccardo Muti ..."

What is your standpoint when it comes to cooperation with an orchestra?

"I coined something like a golden rule," Eric Ericson explains, "that there must not be more that 20 percent work with orchestras, otherwise one loses that certain a cappella quality. Among many choirs abroad the situation is the other way around..Eighty or even ninety percent of their work is done together with an orchestra, and what's left is devoted to a cappella work. And it sounds accordingly!
  "There are two reasons for my fighting for the a cappella song. Firstly, the repertoire is big and very rich. Secondly, I am convinced that a cappella work is the only way to achieve substantial quality. Otherwise, regarding intonation, the singers will lean back in the secure embrace of the orchestra. It sounds awful when they are left alone and must control the balance by themsleves. I am very happy to see that the choir style we cultivate here in Stockholm, thanks to all sorts of good forces, works so naturally when the singers come to Berlin, Vienna and other big cities. The choirs have the technique, the harmony, and the musical experience to be able to just warm up for half an hour  -  and then go out and do a requiem. They know their stuff."
  Regarding the development of the two choirs, Eric Ericson stresses not only the work with pieces by the masters of the classic vocal polyphony and madrigal art or the production of established works by Bach, Brahms or Reger. He also emphasizes how much they have been forced to learn from recently composed pieces. The premiere of Ligeti's "Requiem" was a big challenge  -  the piece was commissioned by the Music radio for the tenth anniversary of the concert programme "Nutida musik" (Contemporary Music), the first performance was conducted by Michael Gielen. But there are several examples:
  "Dalapiccola, Nono and others gave us many difficult scores," Ericson says enthusiastically. "It is a blessing that the Music radio allowed us to work and struggle with such technically advanced pieces, without us having to feel the pressure to produce concerts for a profit. Otherwise we wouldn't have the choir life we have. We have been able to acquire a repertoire consisting of fifteen, twenty or even more really first-class works  -  partly thanks to commissions from the Radio and Rikskonserter (The Institute for National Concerts). Having said that, I might add that there are not many similar choirs in the rest of Europe, even though there are some colleagues in Germany for instance. I mentioned Clytus Gottwald and his ensemble in Stuttgart. And one of my students is presently trying to improve the a cappella status in Paris with his group Accentus."

Typical for your line of work has been to introduce new Swedish music, for instance the pieces in Ingvar Lidholms "A cappella book". This attitude towards new music was obviously completely natural from the start?

"Our work with, for instance, Bach's choral works and even earlier music, has been accomplished side by side with our learning the contemporary repertoire. I am glad, happy and impressed that Lidholm right in the middle of his production of chamber music, orchestral pieces and musical drama still has kept a continuous, loyal interest for the a cappella choir as a medium. We have "Laudi" and "4 körer" ("4 choral pieces") and later there was "Canto LXXXI", in the 70's came "... a riveder le stelle", the two pieces from the opera "Ett drömspel" ("A Dream Play"), that is "De profundis" and "Vindarnas klagan", which we could sing a long time before the premiere of the opera itself. And now "Libera me", first performed in the St. Clara Church at a concert which was broadcast over most of Europe."
  "Lidholm has challenged our expressive abilities many times. He did this, of course, already in "Laudi", which was published shortly after the birth of the Chamber Choir, its premiere was in 1946 and the first performance of "Laudi" took place the next year. But I must add, that I don't know of any other a cappella score, which is able to measure the skills of a chorister or conductor as "Canto LXXXI" (to a poem by Ezra Pound) does. It is all in there, technically, artistically  -  I can say, without hesitation, to students and singers that if you do the "Canto LXXXI", you will come out of this working process as a much better musician. One is confronted with an extended musical grammar, a complex use of rythmic patters, dynamic demands; its is much much more complicated than, for instance a Swedish national romantic composition.

Considering all of the technical demands that you and the choirs are facing  -  have you ever studied the voice techniques of foreign cultures?

"Well .... there are some examples. When Lidholm was explaining to us how he wanted the beginning of "... a riveder le stelle" to sound, he gave us a hint that he imagined a grand, Russian, Byzantine choral sound. And Anders Hillborg wrote a choral piece based on influences from Buddhist monk chants."

Using overtones? But you have not been experimenting with this on a more regular basis?

"No, we deal with it when a certain piece calls for it," Eric Ericson says. "I have not been deliberately searching; in our choral landscape we try to cultivate the patch we have been put on. Although I may have been browsing through a lot of styles, since I have been a teacher at the school, with a pedagogical perspective."

When you are interpreting works like Lidhom's "... a riveder le stelle" or Ligeti's Hölderlin poems in "Drei Chorphantasien"  -  is it your view that the composer already has done all the necessary work with the text and brought it all into the music, or do you have to interpret the text as well?

"Well," Eric Ericson says very thoughtfully, "I still believe that what I am forwarding is primarily what the composer composed ... speaking of which, I remember when Leif Segerstam was doing Ligeti's "Requiem" for the first time, we had intense rehearsals with the singers at Biskops-Arnö. He worked himself up into an ecstasy over a passage, until a small matter-of-fact alto pointed and said: "It says mezzopiano here, that's nothing to get excited about!" I mean, one may experience a composer's music as utterly staggering and inspiring. What one tries to do then, is merely to bring the score to life.

What is the difference between the role of an orchestral conductor and a choral conductor? A choirmaster seems much more to form and lead the articulation with the help of gestures and facial expressions.

"It is interesting to hear you say that. But I usually claim that both kinds of conductors mostly work with the same presumptions. What is different though is, of course, the contact with the instrument itself. An orchestra conductor mostly has to coordinate a much larger group of people into a homogenous sounding body. The choir conductor generally deals with fewer people in his ensemble, and he must have a continuous, living, organic contact with the singers, he must know how they breathe, how to get the attack right in a "Cruuuuucifixus"  -  here it is to a large extent a question of text. One must be able to inform, at all times, about ending consonants, syncronization etc. ... But the interaction between singers and instruments is important. Our meetings with Nikolaus Harnoncourt undoubtedly meant a lot. It is remarkable how much mutual benefit we got. His instrumentalists probably absorbed certain vocal impulses when it came to their way of playing. We adopted a great deal of their way to articulate. I change my opinion about Bach every ten years, not from one day to another, of course, but new ideas gradually emerge. And I notice how, for instance, Harnoncourt changes.

This must be both a question of personal development and of how scientific research develops?

"Harnoncourt argues to a large extent through research, but he is primarily a very special musician with a hell of a charisma. I know how I have changed through the different ensembles I have worked with, and this has always been the case. We are all products of influences. I still feel exactly what influenced me when I was young: Wøldike, Schola Cantorum ... you build on that all the time."
  When Eric Ericson says that we all are products of influences, one is tempted to turn the perspective by claiming that the music of today is also very much influenced by him. Choral timbre and vocal knowledge, both in Sweden and abroad, has certainly been enriched thanks to that boy, who at the age of twelve led a junior choir in Visby, and to the fact that he chose to develop his interest in music further.

Article text  © copyright Karl-Erik Tallmo and Hans-Gunnar Peterson 1997.
Photography © copyright Karl-Erik Tallmo 1997.
Translated from Swedish by Karl-Erik Tallmo.

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