The scene is early one Sunday morning in February in the mid-1970s in Torshov, north-east Oslo. Outside the church stand a group of young choristers, waiting for the organist who is to lead them through the service.
Organist Knut Nystedt lets the singers into the church and hauls out a newly-written motet, which they immediately begin to practice. The service is due to begin in about an hour and there's only just time to learn it. But Nystedt is experienced and knows how to get the young singers to understand the piece immediately. It is not at all easy. There are advanced harmonic problems to be solved.
After a short, efficient choir practice, he sits down at the organ to play through the postlude, also written by himself. A mad cacophony roars from the instrument as Nystedt fixes the keys in position with match sticks, and while the tonal clusters fill the little church, he sits ready, like a tiger, to throw himself into the next chord, where he tears them away again.
This is how he finishes the service later that morning, sending the congregation home with such a mass of sound in their heads that they must have wondered what was actually going on in that little church where, on yet another Sunday, they had heard the juxtaposition of preaching and music in a quite new way.
That is how one of many experiences has been branded into me by one of the leading personalities of contemporary Norwegian church music, for that is how I experienced him at close quarters, time and time again, through three intense, educational years.
It wasn't exactly a cathedral he was offered at Torshov. It was a small, modem, functional church whose congregation was probably unaware that Norwegian musical history was being created there, every Sunday. For
Nystedt's choral music was to reach out far beyond that little church in a working-class district of Oslo; some of the motets were to sell almost half a million copies in sheet music and become part of the permanent repertoire of choirs from Kirkenes to Los Angeles. Pretty amazing figures for choral music, which is used again and again and is part of a fixed repertoire.
There are many fascinating aspects to a meeting with Knut Nystedt's vocal music. We discover the most pragmatic man in recent Norwegian music, while at the same time hearing imaginative fantasy in action, in a composer with an exceptional ear. And finally, Nystedt is also a composer who has managed to link his music to a clear liturgical function without this affecting the artistic quality. However, Knut Nystedt is a far more artistically radical composer than he often appears to be.
Nystedt's choral music can be viewed in the context of his work as conductor of the Norwegian Soloists Choir, the best choir in Norway for almost 40 years, which he founded and led to a brilliant international career. The Norwegian Soloists Choir was not only the foremost vocal ensemble in the country, it also distinguished itself from other contemporary Norwegian choirs in its choice of repertoire, which was extremely challenging, influenced by the conductor's own taste, ideals and, not least, his own compositions. All his most important vocal works were also written for this choir, and it recorded most of them.
However, Nystedt primarily used this ensemble to acquaint Norwegian audiences with the most important names in this century's choral repertoire. He introduced the public to music by Charles Ives, György I.igeti and Arnold Schönberg, plus many Norwegian composers. I might mention Eivind Groven's Margjit Hjukse and Draumkvedet, David Monrad Johansen's Voluspå or Arne Nordheim's Eco. Nystedt introduced all of these art works as conductor of the choir.
Perhaps this was also his best training for composition; the knowledge and insight he gained into other people's work was incorporated with his own experiments and experience. You can find strong influences from these composers in Nystedt's music, particularly in the more moderate pieces, so they must have done something for him - he did enough for them!
As an organist, it was also Nystedt's job to provide the vocal music for church services. In this connection, he has written approximately 300 motets, which are used daily in the Norwegian church, and where many of the parts are real treasures in their moderate use of sometimes crass effects. Balance is a key concept in Nystedt's church music compositions; he is always trying to characterise the text, often using untraditional means, but they must also be related to their context so that the individual effect does not overshadow the work itself. That is why he always weaves the use of dissonance, free polyphony or free tempi within a dear framework and almost always returns to the point of tonal departure, which he may often leave for a short period.
You might characterise Nystedt’s choral music as a kind of “applied modernism”, where he uses the effects to describe a relationship, not really for purely abstract purposes or to conform to a particular style. This may seem conservative in comparison with today's young composers, but if we consider the reality that faced Nystedt and his contemporaries in the 1950s, we see a generation of composers who went as far as was practically possible without losing touch with their audiences, the congregations. For Nystedt was concerned to renew the liturgical-music reality he saw around him and he wanted to do it by creating a new tradition, as organist, conductor and composer.
Nystedt the organist sat at the organ in Torshov Church every Sunday for forty years, constantly presenting new compositions. These works were not reviewed by the critics, but for Nystedt it was a wonderful way of studying, for he learned how to build up a structure and retain the intensity. In many of his pieces you can hear how the tension is built up to a climax which is released just as a cascade of sound can be released over an organ. Nystedt has detached this effect from the instrument it was originally created for, but in all his composition the organist with an ear for the theatrical shines through, concerned with how the climax will affect the listener and how to dismantle the music from this point.
It is probably as a composer that Nystedt will be best remembered because of the magnificent work he has done, with Egil Hovland, in renewing Norwegian choral music. Music of high artistic merit came into everyday use through the Musica Sacra movement and gave church music composers a unique position in Norwegian musical life. They had the sole right to experiment at a time when this term was almost an anathema to the rest of the musical community.
Many of Nystedt's major works were written in the choral tradition, and particularly works from the end of the 1960s are in many ways adaptations of avant-garde expression and style to the choral medium. I believe it is the expression which is vital, for Nystedt borrows techniques from central European music and uses them in conjunction with religious texts in order to produce a modern word painting that will clarify the message. That is why we so often find cluster techniques, simple graphic notation and free rhythmic notation in his choral music. He is probably the Norwegian composer of the 60s who shows most musicians what it means to be experimental.
This aspect, that he uses modern techniques in conjunction with evangelical texts and biblical material as his basic motif, is further strengthened by Nystedt's great tonal ability as a composer and his intuitive sense of the function of language in choral music. Many of the notation systems he uses are aimed precisely at giving the text greater clarity, while at the same time he emphasises using as broad a range of language as possible. This is clearly seen in the following examples from the motet “All the ways of a man”.
A: “The Lord has made everything…”
B: “Man's heart devises his way”
C: “It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor”
Nystedt uses free metric notation in many places in these motets (A and B), both to give an illusion of Gregorian recitative and to make the music declamatory, with a hint of Sprechgesang.
In C we also find many examples of how Nystedt changes the emphasis from part to part by stressing the text in new ways from one phrase to the next.
What we might miss is the ability to stratify, to make several events happen simultaneously. In Nystedt's music, everything is organised vertically and there is little challenging polyphony. On the other hand, there are often cascades of sound which are clearly organised and used extremely effectively.
You could hear all this early on Sunday mornings in a church in north-eastern Oslo over a period of almost 40 years. Perhaps music history is still created in this way. I am not sure, but it certainly seems to be in the case of Knut Nystedt.