No composer has made such an impression on contemporary Swedish musical life as Sven-David Sandström. His catalogue of works, which includes some 300 compositions, gives proof not only of an impressive productivity, but also contains an amazingly wide range: everything from magnificent operas and oratorios to intimate choral and chamber music. With his unlikely combination of creativity and diligence in the craft of composition, restless curiosity and firmly-rooted mastery of form, Sandström alternates, to all appearances unconcerned, between a sophisticated orchestral texture and musical melodies, film music and music for the church. In the 2000s he has focused especially on sacred choral music.
Photo: Mats Bäcker
Sven-David Sandström had his breakthrough in 1972 with Through and through, an orchestral work that was met with international response when two years later it was performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Sandström quickly established himself as a leading modernist in the younger generation of Scandinavian composers, not seldom with scores of a terrifying degree of difficulty. Pierre Boulez chose, for example, to conduct his piece Utmost with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Around 1980 a decisive turning point occurred in Sven-David Sandström’s tone language. Without abandoning the high demands on his executants his musical form of address became simpler, more emotional. The epoch-making Requiem De ur alla minnen fallna, a mighty fresco over the infanticide of the Holocaust, stands out today as one of the most prominent works in 20th-century Swedish music. A number of choral works began to pour from Sandström’s pen, all of them eagerly sought after by Sweden’s many elite choirs. At the same time his interest in the stage was aroused and resulted in, among other works, six original ballet scores.
High Mass (1994), a monumental work for five female vocal soloists, large choir and orchestra, modeled on J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor, was received with high acclaim. With the Mass text laid out in 25 movements, just like the model, the tone language is nonetheless Sandström’s own throughout. This powerful Mass was also performed ten years later in Bach’s city of Leipzig with the Gewandhaus Orchestra under the baton of Herbert Blomstedt, and a recording was issued on Deutsche Grammophon.
Already in the 1980s Sven-David Sandström had composed a couple motets for choir after baroque models: a kind of homage to Henry Purcell and Dietrich Buxtehude. After High Mass he started to feel an affinity with the old masters, especially Bach. Sandström has expressed the wish to link himself to the tradition. He has therefore given us Ordet (The Word) (2004), a large-scale “passion” with the evangelist part tailored for Anne Sofie von Otter. For the librettist he chose the poet Katarina Frostensson, with whom he had collaborated already in the successful opera Staden (The Town) (1996). Further, he composed a Christmas Oratorio (2004), the cantata Wachet auf (2008) and, commissioned by Helmuth Rilling’s Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, a Magnificat (2005) with an orchestral texture for baroque period instruments. Rilling and the Oregon Bach Festival are also behind the commission of the colossal Messiah (2009), set to the exact same text as Handel’s well-known version.
The series of six motets after Bach’s originals occupies a special position. The initiative was taken by choir professor Stefan Parkman and resulted in Lobet den Herrn. This inspired Ingemar Månsson, who was once the conductor of the Hägersten Motet Choir where Sandström had sung with the tenors for many years, to place an order for Singet dem Herrn, a work for double choir. In 2008 Sandström was able to conclude this unique collection of motets, each one dedicated to a capable Swedish choir leader.
Also in his occupational role Sven-David Sandström has been inspired by the great cantor of St. Thomas. In 2008, when his ten-year professorship in composition at the prestigious Bloomington University in Indiana came to an end, he was able to realize a long-cherished dream: to compose, like Bach, for all the feast days of the ecclesiastical year. He has gladly taken upon himself to deliver music on a regular basis: one work every other week. The compositional process evolves in close cooperation with the musical ensembles at Stockholm Cathedral and Gustaf Sjökvist. But also with choir leader Mona Ehntorp in the Stockholm suburb of Hässelby’s congregation, and its more modest resources.
This is a gift, as unique as it is generous, to the Swedish Church and its active musical life. Sven-David Sandström’s complete church-year cycle is scheduled to be finished by the spring of 2011, and with 65 works to cover all the Sundays. The major part of these works is music of varying complexity for a cappella choir, but there are also cantatas for soloist and organ, as well as purely instrumental works.