Homage to Tomas Tranströmer
At some point in his life, Tomas Tranströmer supposedly faced a choice: music or poetry.
Indeed, it can certainly be said that he chose poetry, but that does not mean that he excluded music; on the contrary, it became an ever present force in his writings. As a source of inspiration and motif – particularly with regard to the magnificent portraits of composers Grieg, Balakirev, Schubert, Liszt – but also in his frequent references to music. And, maybe most importantly, through the influence on the poetical language, an influence that defies description. It is not conveyed by purely semantic means, but is sensed in the melodics, rhythmics and implied dynamics of the poems. Furthermore, acoustics in general play an extremely important role in Tranströmer’s poetry. This is characterized by an attentively listening attitude – a kind of acoustics that paradoxically seems to include what the poet has called “the mute half of music”. Ever since his first collection 17 Poems (17 dikter, 1954) you come across wordings that call forth a music inherent to all of nature/history/cosmos. “The bronzeage trumpet’s outlawed note” is heard, tree roots sound like copper lures, out of the wintry dusk rises “a tremolo from hidden instruments”. In a poem in The Wild Market-Square (Det vilda torget, 1983) the station hand’s sledgehammer against the wheels of the train creates an unimaginably sonorous tone: “peal of cathedral bells, a sailingroundtheworld peal”. In Transtömer, the immense, unconditional and universal tone seems to dwell inside silence. During an intermission in an organ concerto, it grows out of a silence where otherwise imperceptible sounds surface. A state ensues where a kind of acoustic chain reaction is being suggested, and finally everything is singing. With regard to the poem “Brief Pause in the Organ Recital” (”Kort paus i orgelkonserten”, Det vilda torget) Staffan Bergsten keenly writes: “He resides enveloped in the cosmic order, in the quiet rooms of lifegiving nature and the slumbering spirit. During the intermission, when all is silent, he hears the beating of a pulse that is his own, Society’s and the world’s.”
In Tranströmer’s poetry there are many references to his own playing. In an early poem he describes how he is seated at the piano “after a dark day”, and finds it a relief that “The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.” I have good reason to believe that Tomas Tranströmer, every day of his life, whenever possible, has spent time at the piano.
And in the last few years, he has often performed in public as a pianist, mainly playing music written expressly for him: piano pieces for the left hand – the illness that befell him in 1990 has not prevented him from playing; on the contrary, one gets the impression that playing the piano has become an even more important means of expression. And the music immanent in Tranströmer’s poetry has inspired several composers, of which this record is a euphonious proof.
Bengt Emil Johnson
English translation: Nicklas Källén
The Gustaf Sjökvist Chamber Choir celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2004. Apart from performing a series of jubilee concerts, choral pieces from a number of Nordic composers were commissioned for this occasion. The common denominator was to be poems by Tomas Tranströmer. Contributions from NOMUS and the Jacob Wallenberg Foundation helped to realize this project. On October 21, 2004, the majority of the commissioned pieces were performed for the first time, at a concert at Nybrokajen in Stockholm.
On the composers
Anna Cederberg-Orreteg (born: 1958), a composer and music teacher who for many years has composed music mainly for educational purposes, but she has increasingly come to devote her time to works on a grander scale, such as choral suites and masses. Here, she has selected two poems with seasonal characteristics: “Face to Face” from The Half-Finished Heaven (Den halvfärdiga himlen, 1962) and “Memories Look at Me” from The Wild Market-Square (Det vilda torget, 1983). The pieces are characterized by long melody lines and rich harmonics; there are also elements of free melodic declamation verging on a harmonic centring. The quiet declamation brings the word/tone relationship to the fore and enhances its significance.
Bo Holten (born: 1948), a Danish conductor and composer who has composed for most genres; his works list comprises more than a hundred titles, among them four operas and two symphonies. He has always entertained a great interest in vocal music. His vast knowledge of Renaissance vocal polyphony has resulted in some twenty CD recordings. Holten has decided to merge two of Tranströmer’s poems from The Half-Finished Heaven (Den halvfärdiga himlen, 1962) for his composition, “The Journey” and “C Major”, poems that move from underground with “a crowding among placards in a staring dead light” to the passersby who were all “smiling behind turnedup collars.” The piece is written for a double choir, where the slow progression of the first part imperceptibly fades into the euphoria of the second part. In one of the choirs one can discern a wellknown Swedish summer hymn.
Kaj-Erik Gustafsson (born: 1942), a Finnish composer, organist and choir master who has devoted a great deal of attention to choral music after holding a professorship in organplaying at the Sibelius Academy and having led several wellreputed choirs. The poems “The Stones” and “Context” are excerpts from the poet’s collection 17 Poems (17 dikter,1954). There is a restraint in the juxtapositioning of words and sounds that makes the poem’s inner world come alive through declamatory lucidity and sonorous expression.
Michael Waldenby (born: 1953), an organist at St. Jacob’s Church in Stockholm, the leader of the St. Clara Motet Choir, and a composer with a rich production of solo songs and choral works as well as organ symphonies and pieces for choir and orchestra. About the poem “Elegy” Karl Vennberg wrote: “Poetry in which no image fails, no word is superfluous”. Waldenby has always chosen lyrics with great care; here he has been inspired by the comparatively long poem from 1954 (from the collection 17 Poems (17 dikter)). The imagery is rich, historicized reminiscences are mixed with emotional ones, nature images mingle with philosophical meditations, quick passages are contrasted with slow ones. Waldenby creates a number of musical events that are held together by long lines; the centres of key are constantly changing. His careful analysis of the poem is evident in the good declamation he has created. The colour of the tone language is highly personal, at times leaning towards late Romanticism.
Georg Riedel (born: 1934), a jazz musician and composer with an opus list that comprises nearly every genre: ballet music, musicals, film scores, solo concerts, hymns, masses, etc. To many people in Scandinavia, he is best known for the pieces where he has set to music verses and poems by writers such as Astrid Lindgren, Barbro Lindgren, Lennart Hellsing and Gunilla Bergström. Riedel himself says: “The lyrics and the language are my most important sources of inspiration. To me, the lyrics are at least as important as the music, and I would like performances of my songs to border upon acting.” From The Sad Gondola (Sorgegondolen, 1996), Georg Riedel has put together five poems into a suite that bears the name of the collection. In “Two Cities”, narrative horizontal lines are put in contrast to rhythmically intense sections: “A journey across an existential line of demarcation”. “November in the Former DDR” is a surrealistic depiction of the former state, and with his musical language Riedel emphasizes the various courses of the poem. In “Silence”, the lyrics are declaimed in a homophonous movement that is concluded with a solo. “Like Being a Child” takes on something of the nature of a ballad, melodically, as well in its intense rhythmics, and in the final movement “Midwinter”, harmonic sonority is blended with melodic expression, while the lyrics are intoned with iciness.
Catharina Backman (born: 1961), a composer who plays miscellaneous instruments in various ensembles, was trained at the College of Music in Malmö. She has set Tomas Tranströmer poems to music before; her works list also contains a couple of children’s operas. With her interest in musical drama she has with “Below Zero”, from The Truth-Barrier (Sanningsbarriären, 1978) painted a scene with expectant people heading for a party, but it doesn’t turn out the way they hoped. The choral movement is very transparent, often accompanied by two glasses of water. The expressive palette is extensive, with long melody lines mixed with features such as whispering and hissing voices.
Gustaf Sjökvist (born: 1943) was trained at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, by instructors such as Eric Ericson and Sixten Ehrling. Since 1967, he has been responsible for the choral events and concerts at Storkyrkan in Stockholm, and has been an organist at the same church since 1980. From 1986 to 1994, he was the principal conductor of the Swedish Radio Choir, and since 1994 he is the main guest conductor with the Radio Choir at Bayerischer Rundfunk in Munich. He is frequently engaged as a guest conductor at a number of concert institutions across Europe. He has also appeared at the Royal Opera in Stockholm.
Gustaf Sjökvist is a member of the Royal Academy of Music and in 1991 he was awarded the title of Professor by the government. In 1998 he was awarded Litteris et artibus, and in 2000 he was appointed court organist.
The Gustaf Sjökvist Chamber Choir was formed in 1994, and is made up of 33 singers, many of whom are professional musicians. Since the very start, the choir’s repertoire has largely consisted of contemporary music. Many of the choir’s concerts take place at Storkyrkan, but they also perform at venues like Nordiska museet and Nybrokajen. They have completed several international tours over the years: France, Italy, Greece, Morocco, Tunisia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and twice they have visited the US.
The choir has collaborated with a number of artists, like Kiri Te Kanawa, Edita Gruberova, Barbara Hendricks, Anne Sofie von Otter, Lill Lindfors and Håkan Hagegård. Along with the Real Group, the choir has made some twenty concerts all over Sweden.
The Gustaf Sjökvist Chamber Choir has recorded several CD’s, among them a couple with composer and jazz pianist Nils Lindberg, one with Edita Gruberova, one with Håkan Hagegård, one with Barbara Hendricks and one that contains compositions by Lars Edlund.
English translation: Nicklas Källén