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- 50 years
An interview by
|(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 ..."
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."
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!
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."
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."
Article text © copyright Karl-Erik Tallmo and Hans-Gunnar Peterson 1997.