Composer of the Month #4 is Agneta Sköld
“Agneta Sköld’s music has a simple ingeniousness that settles close to the soul and evokes thoughts about the great mysteries or our existence: life, death and love”, states the jury of the 2019 Stockholm Music Association Composition Award. Agneta Sköld trained as a solo singer, worked for ten years in the Swedish Radio Choir and has been a respected church musician and choral conductor since the 1970s. But she is perhaps most famous for her beautiful, melodious sacred choral music. Her setting of the medieval text There Is No Rose from 2004 has been performed by choirs throughout the world.
“Now that I am retired I can start experimenting!”
(Interview from May 2019)
What is music to you?
My mother was a church musician and piano teacher. We kids used to wait in an adjoining room while she taught. I have perfect pitch, and when the lesson was finished, I went to the piano and played from memory the music they had worked with. I must have been around three years old when I started doing that.
When I was a teenager, my perfect pitch was a nuisance. I had a hard time keeping up with the choir when we were not in tune. But it’s a question of practice and it’s been very useful to me later in life. When I sang in the Swedish Radio Choir, I was always the one who gave the pitch – without a tuning fork, of course.
Music is the air I breathe – I don’t think anyone can live without music. It affects our whole emotional register, it goes deep and reaches to where words are not enough. It’s awfully important. I can’t imagine a life without music, that would be very strange.
What does your own voice sound like?
When I was young, I sang in a famous choir in the Swedish town of Västerås for the legendary chorus master Bror Samuelsson. That was a fantastic education. I’m a trained solo singer and I performed quite a lot after finishing studies at the Royal College of Music, and I sang in the Radio Choir and the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir – in the alto section, of course! But then I moved back to my home town with my family and chose to work full time as a church musician. There is a time for everything. Now my voice isn’t really fit for solo singing anymore, but I still sing alto in the choir.
Has your work as a church musician influenced you as a composer?
I have always composed music for my own choirs: children´s choir, female voices, mixed choirs. I am quite practical; I know what the choir needs. My inspiration has come from the musical world I am in as a church musician. I try to develop those musical impulses and make them my own. I don’t write atonal music. My music is harmonious, and I think a lot about timbre, chords and melodies.
What kind of choral music will you compose in the future?
In the beginning, writing music was something I did on the side. But then I started to get a lot of commissions. Now that I am retired from my job as a church musician I can spend all my time composing music, and now I want to experiment, broaden my horizons and find new means of expression!
I have never trained to be a composer. I guess I am too old to apply to a composition class, but it would be fun to have someone to discuss composing with! Most of my music is for choir a cappella or with the organ. I am curious and would like to learn more about different instruments and to try writing for choir and orchestra. That’s a completely new world of sounds! That would be fun.
At the moment I am working on two motets commissioned by Gary Graden for the internationally known St. Jacob´s Chamber Choir. And then, some music for children’s choir and some for female voices.
How do you choose your texts?
That’s tricky, I think! It takes a lot of time to find texts. Writing music for the church is always safe, because there are set texts to use. But there are exciting possibilities in combining sacred and profane poetry. It can open up new perspectives on well-known themes. Two poets that I like to use are the Swedes Harry Martinson and Pär Lagerkvist, both winners of the Nobel Prize. Their texts are existential, bordering on the sacred.
What are your thoughts when you hear the words “Swedish choral music”?
Fifty years ago, when I started studying at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, all choristers just stood up and sang. That has certainly changed! In the choral music composed today other means of expression are being created, and many choirs even work with choreography or scenic projects. But it still has that exquisite sould! Swedish choral music is very pleasant to listen to. Where does the famous Swedish sound come from? I think it has to do with intonation, purity and good vowel sounds. And not too much vibrato.
In Sweden all churches have musicians employed. You can live your whole life in church, through its choirs, from a very young age. I think that has created a very strong foundation for our Swedish choral music. But there is also a strong tradition of choral singing in organisations outside the church. Every company has its own choir. Having so many good choirs in Sweden makes ripples on the water!
Three choral pieces by Agneta Sköld:
There is no rose. Much loved setting of the medieval text. SATB (medium level) a cappella.
Requiem. Agneta Skölds 30 minutes long Requiem from 2015 is a deeply felt, beautiful and skilfully composed work in seven movements. For SATB (medium level), soprano solo and organ.
Sanctus. A lively and spiritual Sanctus for female voices, where every voice has its own melody and individuality. SSAA with piano accompaniment.