Thomas Jennefelt

”There is a voice in the melodic arches, you can see the footprint but not the foot that makes it.” With these words Thomas Jennefelt describes one of his orchestral works, Musik vid ett berg (Music by a Mountain) (1991-92). For it just so happens that this Swedish composer of choral music, operas, orchestral works and chamber music must always hear an inner voice – with or without intelligible words, in a poetical text of his own or others – to be able to create his music, be it vocal or instrumental.

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In a number of interviews he has, over the years, stressed the peculiar circumstance that his entrance to music has always been through a text. But the relationship is not simple. “I long for music with no text, I long for the perfect text to set to music. I write texts in order to be able to compose music. The text is the greatest impediment when I try to compose. I curse text. I need text. Without text there is no music. I let the dramaturgy of the text be that of the music. I can´t find the form of a piece if I don´t have a text. This has gone so far that I even write a text for the orchestra to “sing”, i.e. to play as if it sang. Then I take away the text. It becomes a tool for finding the form in a piece, in order to articulate.”

Thomas Jennefelt grew up in Stuvsta, south of Stockholm. He began to sing at an early age, took singing lessons, wrote poetry, attended the “cultural high school” Södra Latin, acted in plays, was editor of the school´s literary magazine and studied to become a music teacher at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. Here he also created electronic music under the guidance of Lars-Gunnar Bodin and attended the composition classes of the composers Gunnar Bucht, Arne Mellnäs and others. He wrote on musical topics in a number of newpapers, did musical radio programmes for the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation and sang in professional choirs. He was a member of Eric Ericson Chamber Choir for over 20 years, as well as its president. He had continual close contact here with newly written choral music and learned a great deal about what one can and cannot expect of both amateur choirs and professional choristers; about how one can go beyond limits and what purely physical demands one can make on a singer´s voice in the shaping of phrases, and vowels and consonants of individual words. 

Today Thomas Jennefelt is, in addition to everything else, Sweden´s most frequently performed composer of modern choral music, with around 30 sought-after works published by Gehrmans Musikförlag. These include commissions from a number of Swedish choirs as well as from Vokalconsort Berlin, Bayerische Rundfunkchor, The Swingle Singers, Kammerchor Saarbrücken, Ex Cathedra in Birmingham, Microkosmos (Vierzon) and Musikhochschule Basel. His debut with Warning to the Rich (1977) – set to a dramatic and provocative text from the Epistle of St. James in the Bible for a cappella choir and baritone solo – was given a very warm reception indeed by choirs both in Sweden and abroad. Warning to the Rich lashes out at our yearning to revel in wealth and warns of the frightful punishments that are in store for the greedy. In 1983 followed an equally popular but entirely different choral work, the Requiem movement O Domine, which starting out in a “discontinuous” collage technique depicts our relationship to death. Toward the end the music grows and diversifies, takes over the split-up parts and everything becomes intelligible and full of consolation. In 1987 came his Five Motets, set to texts by Swedish poets and from the Bible – a suite of five dialogues between God and man – popular choral movements included in the repertoires of many choirs. 

But Thomas Jennefelt did not want to get stuck in just the choral genre. During the 1980s he took a growing interest in instrumental music, in larger forms such as Desiderio for orchestra from 1983, and the large-scale chamber work Music to a Cathedral-builder (1984). He wrote both works during his period as composer in residence at Concerts Sweden, as well as chamber music on a smaller scale, with and without vocal features. He wrote solo songs such as The Fountain in Vaucluse – six songs for baritone and string quartet to texts by Petrarch (1982); the experimenting Albumblatt – for baritone, flute and clarinet (1984) to a meaningless text “to investigate how different ways of accenting and articulating yielded an intelligible meaning”; Far vidare färdmän (Fare forward, O Voyagers) – for mezzo-soprano, baritone, cello and piano to T. S. Eliot´s and his own texts (1984) and the large-scale work Längs radien (The Radius) – for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass and orchestra (1986) to a text by Tomas Tranströmer. 

He wrote his first music drama, the chamber opera Tanter (Old Ladies) for the Örebro College of Music in 1982. The radio opera Albert and Julia – based on a play by E. J. Stagnelius – was composed in 1987 and in the period 1987-89 came the full-length opera The Jesters’ Hamlet, set to a text by Bengt Nordfors after P.C. Jersild. The premiere took place at the Gothenburg Opera in 1990. Writing for the stage was a logical and long-desired development for the singer and author Jennefelt, but also something that he considers the greatest challenge for a composer. 

During the 1990´s he developed his operatic, instrumental and choral works. When in Dichterliebe I-X from 1990 he took up the first ten poems of Heinrich Heine, which Schumann also used in his cycle of sixteen solo songs, it was with an entirely different textual interpretation than that of the romanticist. Here a choir distorts the idyllic text with irony and blackness in violent outbursts of horror, powerlessness and hunger for love. And if you read the text with the experience of our time in mind, you can understand Thomas Jennefelt´s approach. For everything is there – already in Heine´s words. 

So what did the composer do after that veritable revelry in text? He created Music to a Big Church; for tranquility for the centenary celebration of Johannes Church in Stockholm (1990), an instrumental vocal work, entirely textless. He composed Black Tracks the same year for Uppsala Chamber Soloists and Music by a Mountain for symphony orchestra (1991-92). And he wrote his six revolutionary Villarosa Sequences (1993-96) to texts that he made up, influenced by Latin and Italian. These billow forth in a consummate fusion of vowel and consonant sounds of the a cappella choir and the soprano soloist with the music. Expressive and harmonious without the steerage of textual understanding. “Certain words can still suddenly become meaningful,” he says in an interview, “more from a musical, not from a semantic perspective. I want to find a musical way forward through the text. Despite this yearning my pieces, oddly enough, get more and more theatrical. Words, it seems, always breed drama.”

The chamber opera The Vessel, to Jennefelt´s own libretto, was premiered in 1994 in Copenhagen with an ensemble from the Danish Royal Opera; The Return for one voice and piano was composed the following year to a text by Jennefelt and In Hiding, commissioned by Music at Lake Siljan and premiered by baritone Mikael Samuelsson and the Dala Sinfonietta in 1997, also had a text by the composer: about hiding refugees - according to the theme of those commissioning the work: …”born free and equal…”. A miniopera The Meteorologist, to the composer´s own text for tenor and percussion, was premiered the same year at the Berwald Concert Hall. The music to Ylva Eggehorn´s text The Hidden Fountain, scored for mixed choir, string orchestra, piano and percussion (1997), is one of Thomas Jennefelt´s most frequently performed works. He was also president of the Swedish Composers´ Society 1994-2000, with all the administration and commitment involved in that position. 

During the years after 2000 Jennefelt has continued with his nonsense texts in the French-sounding choral work Tableaux vivantes from 2002, which had its premiere in Dublin. His trumpet concerto Stockholm in May for Håkan Hardenberger and the string orchestra Musica Vitae was finished in 2004, the operatic scene Å for Operastudio 67 came the same year, In rilievo for the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2005, music to the choreographer Margareta Åsberg´s production A Thousand Years with God (freely after Stig Dagerman) at the Electric Power Company/The Royal Dramatic Theatre in 2006 and a number of choral works with texts by Jacques Werup, among others. The work Seen by Someone, written to Niklas Rådström´s text, had its premiere in Stavanger 2008 and was also performed at the National Festival of the Sacred Choral Music Federation in Tallinn in 2009. “Help us to see one another. Help us to in one another see other persons than ourselves” is the motto for this choral suite in nine sections with piano accompaniment “for choirs of varying levels of proficiency”. In 2001 Thomas Jennefelt was awarded the King´s medal Litteris et artibus, and in 2004 he was appointed vice president of the Royal Academy of Music. 

Niklas Rådström has earlier written texts to solo songs by Thomas Jennefelt, such as The Lady (2002), and to the full-length opera Sport & Leisure, which was premiered at the Royal Opera in December 2004. It is an opera about life and death in two acts that is enacted in a sportive setting “as if the world were an athletic landscape”. Sport & Leisure is in many respects the synthesis of all Thomas Jennefelt´s years as a composer. We have here the expressive and the meditative, the minimalist simple, the sparse and the obvious. There are here the many nuances of the solo voice, the different possibilities of expression of the full orchestra and choir, as well as Jennefelt´s thread of yearning that runs through many of his earlier works. The yearning of waiting, of dreaming and of travelling on. And here there are sometimes nonsense texts in intense choral sections.

A number of Thomas Jennefelt´s works have been issued on CD´s, in Sweden on the labels BIS, Caprice, Phono Suecia, Proprius, Opus 3, SonoConsult, Infogram and others. Recordings have also been made in South Africa, Latvia, USA and Brazil. 

It is always exciting to experience Thomas Jennefelt´s music. For vocal soloists, instrumental musicians and choristers, his tone language is in some way securely rooted in what is possible. And then one wants both to perform it and listen to it.

For more information: http://www.thomasjennefelt.se/