Violinist, incessant chamber musician and prankster with a deeply religious vein – in 2019 composer Sven-Erik Bäck would have been 100 years old. He was a strong force in twentieth-century Swedish art music with a broad network of contacts, many collaborations and a considerable and original production as a composer. Together with legendary conductor Eric Ericson he researched and renewed choral music, above all in the sacred sphere.
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Sven-Erik Bäck grew up in a flat on Sankt Eriksgatan in Stockholm, in an upper-middle-class family with ties to the Free Church. He learned to play the piano on his own, but at an early age had a violin teacher and at nineteen he was accepted into the violin class at the music conservatory of the Royal Academy of Music, a.k.a. ”Ackis”. He was soon in demand as a chamber musician and became a permanent member of several different string quartets. And it was also as a chamber musician that he made a living in the first period after receiving his diploma.
During the period at ”Ackis” Bäck made contacts with colleagues of his own age who would become important both professionally and as lifelong close friends: the composers Ingvar Lidholm and Karl-Birger Blomdahl, the budding critic Bo Wallner, but perhaps above all the choral conductor Eric Ericson. Together with Ericson, Bäck researched especially early music, and the two friends often performed Bach cantatas with the small ensembles in the Free Church contexts that they had in common. Already during his time at upper secondary school Bäck had also started to compose and continued to do so throughout his years in higher education, but chose to study composition privately with Hilding Rosenberg. Rosenberg stood for a new ideal that in many cases was not condoned by the teachers at the conservatory.
Like others of their generation, Bäck and Ericson travelled during the 1950s to the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basle to immerse themselves in early music and historical styles of performance. Above all, his studies with the legendary musicologist Ina Lohr were of vital importance for Bäck. Bäck also sojourned on two occasions in Rome together with his wife Puck and their little son in order to study composition with Goffredo Petrassi, who was an important model for Bäck and who encouraged him to affirm his vocation as a composer.
Bäck belonged to the inner circle of the Monday Group, a society of composers, musicians and musicologists which was formed to discuss composition when the Second World War had cut off contact with the surrounding world. The group evolved in an increasingly modernistic direction and the discussions within the group had a considerable influence on Bäck´s development as a composer.
In his life Bäck wanted on the one hand to delve deeply into Christian spirituality in his hymn and choral compositions, and on the other hand to withdraw from the communion when he left the Swedish Missionary Society, according to him for theological reasons. He was known as something of a rogue and his humour bordered on the absurd when he uttered the most bizzare ironies with a stony face. He continued throughout his life to make music, preferably spontaneously, and in all kinds of contexts. When on his sickbed toward the end of his life, his friend Ericson had a piano brought in so that visitors could play music with Bäck if the spirit moved him.
Sven-Erik Bäck´s production as a composer is extensive and ranges broadly over the genres of art music: electronic music, chamber opera, sacred motets, solo works and orchestral pieces. He is represented in the Swedish Hymnal of 1986 with seven hymns. Bäck has often, voluntarily or involuntarily, with his music found himself in the eye of the storm in debates about art music and cultural development. ”He utilised a great many means of expression and stylistic forms; his inspiration fluctuates between historical models and the spirit of our time with the successive advances of the new music. The relationship between a clear, all-embracing feeling for form and energetic, impulsive features characterises his compositions”, writes Hans-Gunnar Peterson in Svensk Musik´s home page.
Sven-Erik Bäcks music is presented in #swedishchoralmusic, a celebratory project for the 125th anniversary of Gehrmans Music Publishing. See the film HERE!