Foto Markus Gårder
Foto Markus Gårder

”Eric inoculated in me the concept of ”sound”, says Thomas Jennefelt, referring to his twenty-five years as second bass in the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir. A search on the name Jennefelt gives thousands of hits: his music is performed the world over, new works are commissioned, earlier works are sung over and over again. He has been vice president of the Royal Academy of Music and chairman of the Swedish Society of Composers. His music has two distinct poles: lyrically meditative and dramatically challenging. At home he sings all the time.

Interview with Thomas Jennefelt, October 2019

How does your own voice sound?
Good, I hope…! Of course, you never really know how it sounds, that is what is horrid about it. In much the same way as we don´t really know how we look, no matter how often we see ourselves reflected in the mirror.

My voice is very important to me. Just now, for example, I have a cold and when I have a cold I get irritated. I have always sung, but also done radio programmes earlier and when I was young I was involved in theatre. When I was 22 years old I started as a second bass in the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir. At that time I had very low tones! I sang there for almost twenty-five years. Now that I have not sung professionally for so long I have lost my condition for singing. You have to exercise the voice to fit in there! Moreover, my voice has over the years become higher, so I would find it difficult to return to my old place among the second basses today.

My voice and my singing form the basis of my musicality. I often sing while composing and I sometimes do so when rehearsing my pieces. My singing experience has enabled me to exemplify breathing, phrasing and sound. When my first opera The Jesters´ Hamlet (Gycklarnas Hamlet) was to be staged in Gothenburg, for example, I got to sing through the whole work in front of the personnel and the directors. That was quite an experience!

How would you describe the tone language in your music for choir?
It seems there are two distinct sides. One that is lyrical and meditative, as in the Villarosa Suite and one that is more dramatic and demanding, as in Warning to the Rich or Dichterliebe. It is similar when it comes to the operas. I do have very clear poles in my music. It´s either or. I can´t do much about this – it is just there.

Some of your most frequently sung choral works have texts in a language that you made up. Why?
I take an enormous interest in texts. I have done my own librettos and written about all kinds of things. It is a substantial part of my creativity. When I wrote the Villarosa Suite I wanted to free myself from having to continually search for a text that I am keen to set to music. When I compose this kind of piece I do the music first and then sing it. How does this sound, is it a bright A-sound? I improvise and fill in what is to come. I decide if it is to sound like Italian or Finnish… I add the language in the manner of instrumentation. It is a little like putting in dynamics, slurs and phrasing when finalising an orchestral score.

But I usually set to music texts that are already written. I often use texts that are suitable for dramatisation. I have always had within me a yearning for music drama, even in choral music.

What in your life has influenced your choral music the most?
Personal events of various kinds – my life. I would not have been able to write the music I did if what has happened had not happened in my life. Perhaps this sounds grandiose and glamourous, but it is actually true.

What is your greatest choral-music experience?
The years in Eric Ericson´s proximity meant a great deal to me. He implanted in me the concept of ”sound”. It was always that almost physical feeling for sound that he sought and that he could visualise in his conducting. I can still feel it! When you are close to a person who is a powerful musical force you will be profoundly affected.

When Warning to the Rich was to be premiered in 1978 at a festival for young music in Bergen, Norway,  they had a dress rehearsal in a shopping centre before closing time. People put down their bags and just stood and listened. The beginning of the piece is so suggestive and I saw how it gripped them. It was the first time that I felt: Now I´ve got it right! I was only 23 years old then, and had not even begun in the composition class. This moment was of course pivotal for me. And now the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir will sing Warning to the Rich at their 75th anniversary celebration this coming spring. They have not sung it for 40 years, so this should be great fun!

Another utterly transforming experience was when the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir did Monteverdi´s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, in Vienna with Harnoncourt, also in 1978. Harnoncourt spoke about Monteverdi as if he were Monteverdi himself. The way he brought out the dramatic element of the text… This really taught me what music drama is all about.

What do the words ”Swedish choral music” mean to you?
When I first took up studies in composition, Ingvar Lidholm and Sven-Erik Bäck were the big names. The fact that the greatest composers in Sweden wrote so much choral music was unique, to my mind. There was, and still is, in Sweden a strong connection between composers and choirs, a connection of a kind that exists in almost no other country. And those composers weren´t considered specifically ”choral composers”, but just composers who wrote many different kinds of music. This is also true of Sven-David Sandström. That has meant a great deal for the status of Swedish choral music, also internationally.

I often spoke about Swedish choral music during the years when we were on tour with the Chamber Choir and Eric didn´t want to, or couldn´t, give lectures. We do indeed have a fantastic range! Everything from the soft, delicate, choral lyricism in Wikander´s Förvårskväll to the symphonic texture in Lidholm´s  …a riveder le stelle.

What kind of choral music would you like to compose in the future?
I actually don´t know, but I hope to be able to find texts and contexts that inspire me. As I said, I always find music drama alluring, so maybe it will be that. On a larger or smaller scale. Last winter I worked together with my daughter Siri and her electroacoustic music in a production at Norrlandsoperan. That whetted my appetite!


Three choral works by Thomas Jennefelt 
Bön, from Five Motets.
Heartfelt prayer dedicated to Jennefelt's mother. Lyrical and meditative and with Jennefelt's unmistakable sense of sound. SATB a cappella, medium level.  Listen to Bön with St Jacobs Chamberchoir (Spotify).
Warning to the rich. A modern classic, and the first of Jennefelt's many expressive and dramatic choral works. SATB double choir with baryton solo. Medium level. Listen to Warning to the Rich with Musikhögskolans Kammarkör in Piteå and Karl-Magnus Fredriksson (Spotify). 
Dichterliebe (I-X). Robert Schumanns setting of Heines poems inspired Jennefelt, who uses very different means of expression. Commissioned by the Swedish Radio choir. SATB divisi. Advanced level. Listen to the Radio choir singing Ween ich deine Augen seh'. 

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