Photo: Reijo Rüster

Gösta Nystroem

A salt-stained composer with the sea in his blood

Gösta Nystroem is usually reckoned among the first generation of Swedish modernists, i.e. the group of composers who made their début around the time of the First World War and who felt a strong need once the war was over to open the gates to Europe and the rest of the world. Nystroem, Hilding Rosenberg, Moses Pergament and the others wanted to get rid of stale romanticism and be a part of the new movements. They travelled abroad and eagerly absorbed the peacetime optimism on the continent and the belief in the future, the new spirit of the machine age and the audacious freshness of the glamorous twenties.

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Nystroem was born in the province of Dalecarlia and grew up in Södermanland. His musical talent matured early and at the age of twelve he began playing the organ in church and he followed in his father's footsteps, training to be a schoolteacher and organist. His father was also an amateur composer (who later went to visit his son in Paris's art world) and Gösta's brothers were talented amateur musicians, but Gösta wasn't content to be an amateur. When he was in his twenties he received a thorough grounding in the rules of composition at the Music Conservatory in Stockholm with the conservative old Wagnerian Andreas Hallén. No wonder he wanted to travel abroad as soon as he could and he nearly gave up the idea of a musical career altogether.

Nystroem the Painter - In 1915 he set off for Copenhagen to study painting. He became a successful portrait painter with a few exhibitions of his own and was able to make a reasonable living. For the rest of his life painting remained his main interest apart from music, and his cubistic oil paintings compare favourably with the best of their kind by Swedish painters. By way of a change he went to football matches with Carl Nielsen, whose music he admired. Nielsen "has hoisted the sails on the old Scandinavian music ship which, leaky and unseaworthy, has been bobbing up and down in a backwater for decades". He also played a certain amount of music in Copenhagen; among other things he accompanied Grieg's wife, the singer Nina Hagerup, at a concert.

Years in France - While in Germany sampling Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique (which he considered to be a "dead-end"), Nystroem received the much quoted telegram from his composer colleague Moses Pergament in Paris: "What the hell are you doing in Germany stop here is where everything is happening stop come at once stop Moses". Nystroem immediately left for Paris, little realising that he would stay there for twelve years - years spent studying with Vincent D'Indy (who recommended him to begin every day with a prelude and fugue from Bach's Wohltemperierte Klavier, advice which he followed for most of his life) and the exile Russian Leonid Sabaneyev, who introduced him to the music of Stravinsky and Honegger. His house gods also included Prokofiev and Ravel and the Impressionists taught Nystroem to listen, yet his own music grew more austere - maybe it was his Nordic melancholy that was making itself known. In actual fact he didn't spend all that much time in Paris itself, even if he used the capital as his base. He often travelled abroad, mostly to the Mediterranean countries - to the Greek islands or Spain. He himself said that he spent 75% of his time at sea with Breton fishermen. However he did have a studio on the left bank of the Seine and he also mixed with the Swedish artist colony. He also studied painting with Léger and met Braque and Picasso. In the little town of Savary-sur Mer on the Mediterranean he completed his first symphony, Sinfonia breve, in the early thirties.

The Sea - His interest in the sea was aroused early. While in Copenhagen he made the acquaintance of the Greenland expert Knud Rasmussen and the arctic explorer Roald Amundsen, and as early as 1916 he was given the opportunity of accompanying them on an adventurous expedition to the Arctic Ocean. In 1928 he travelled by boat right round the coast of Africa and up through the Suez Canal. The sea has also played an extremely important part in Nystroem's compositions. It began in 1925 with the symphonic poem Ishavet (The Arctic Ocean) - with ice-cold memories of the expedition, of course. It was intended to be a ballet for the Swedish Ballet in Paris, but it was impossible to dance in the cubistic costumes so the project was "put on ice". Instead the music was sent to the Stockholm Orchestral Society, where it lay on a shelf until the Czech conductor Vaclav Talich discovered it and gave the first performance of the work a few years later. It was a huge success, and the review in the Musical Times was full of superlatives, saying that the music showed "the characteristic Scandinavian spirit". Later on the sea became more firmly established in Nystroem's writing than in any other composer's, both in piano pieces such as Valse marine, part-songs like Tre Havsvisioner (Three Sea Visions), song cycles such as Sånger vid havet (Songs by the Sea) from 1942 (which like so many of his songs exists in two versions: one with piano and one with orchestral accompaniment), På reveln (On the Sandbank), Tre sånger från Stormen (Three Songs from The Tempest) and Nystroem's third symphony, which is called Sinfonia del mare (1947-48) - it is "dedicated to all sailors on the seven seas" and includes a setting for solo soprano of Ebba Lindqvist's sea poem Det enda (The Only Thing). This symphony is undoubtedly one of the great masterpieces of the Swedish symphonic repertoire. Nystroem's only opera is based on Selma Lagerlöf's novel "Herr Arnes Penningar” and the action takes place among the skerries of Bohuslän off the west coast of Sweden.

The beautifully crafted, intimate solo songs and the majestic orchestral works present two completely different sides of Nystroem's composing skills. Few Swedish composers have shown such logical force and such rhythmic drive and determination in their symphonies. In Sinfonia espressiva (1937) the orchestration gradually grows from chamber music-like delicacy to symphonic bravura. The absolute opposite of the majestic orchestral works is found in the intimate solo songs. Most of Nystroem's songs are settings of poems by Ebba Lindkvist and Pär Lagerkvist. The song cycle Ångest (Anguish) has recently been recorded in its entirety in the Musica Sveciae Modern Classics series, featuring the baritone Gabriel Suovanen. Själ och landskap (Soul and Landscape) and Tre kärleksvisor (Three Love Songs) are other notable song cycles.

Nystroem did not return home to Sweden until 1932 when he was forty-two years old. He settled down for good in Marstrand on the west coast of Sweden and on the island of Särö. Between 1932 and 1946 he mainly earned his living writing music reviews for the local newspaper, Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning, and after that he devoted all his time to composing. With the Sinfonia concertante (1944) Nystroem made his definite breakthrough in his native country. As the title implies, the cello part does not call for brilliant virtuoso playing but is more an integral part of a whole. But even if this work comes under the heading of "absolute music", the sea nevertheless makes its presence felt in the billowing waves that catch hold of the listener early on in the first movement. And in the baroque pastiche of the finale the sea rocks calmly, like a siciliano, until the maelstrom grips hold of the listener and buffets him on the stormy rollers. 

Nystroem was by nature one of the last true gentlemen, a man of honour and an aristocrat, and he was very taciturn about his own music. When he wrote his memoirs, "All I remember is joy and light" (published posthumously in 1968) he did not devote his glowing prose to descriptions of his own music or his career, he used it to tell us about the sea, about good food and the joy of living. 

Stig Jacobson

Selected works:

  • Sinfonia del mare
  • Sånger vid havet (Songs by the Sea)
  • Tre havsvisioner