Knut Nystedt

Knut Nystedt


• 1915 2014


Knut Nystedt wasone of Norway's most enduring artistic figures and was instrumental to the creation and promotion of contemporary choral music internationally as well as in his home country. This left a lasting legacy along with his over 300 compositions for a variety of forces. His musical style, while always traditional and Romantic showed his understanding of developments in the avant-garde of his time and he showed a great interest and skill in appropriating these developments into his own coherent voice.

Knut Nystedt was born in Kristiania (now Oslo) in September 1915 and passed away in his sleep on the 8 December 2014, aged 99. His early life was defined by a devoutly religious upbringing. His parents and family were practicing Christians and Nystedt was, from a young age, exposed to sacred music such as hymns and chants. This is reflected in his output as a composer with most of his works being based on sacred themes form the Bible. He was an important figure in Norwegian culture in the 20th century and was honoured with a knighthood by the King of Norway in 1966. He made an impact abroad, receiving a Grammy award in 1978.

'I remember him as energetic and enterprising. One who got things done. Full of initiative and engaged... he loved his family'.The words of his grandson, Håkon Nystedt. 

Nystedt was from a musical family. His father, Faktor Robert Emil Madsen led an amateur string quartet. Originally studying piano from the age of 9, he changed to organ in 1917. He took organ lessons in Oslo with Arild Sandvold and obtained a post as organist at misjonskirken Betlehem in Oslo. He graduated from the Oslo Conservatory in 1936 There he had studied composition with Bjarne Brustad and conducting with Ølvin Fjelstad. He made his professional conducting debut with the Filharmonik Selskaps orkester in 1945. Between 1946 and 1982 Nystedt was the choirmaster and organist in the Torshov Church in Oslo.

The 1960s exposed him to the work of Ligeti and Penderecki in terms of timbre. His work 'Lucis Creator Optime' op58 (1968), a cantata, is considered one of his most important works and reflects this influence. It is his most effective combinations of his orchestral and choral experience.

In his later years his work continued this timbral exploration with a focus on traditional, tonal material, such as 'Shells' in 1973. Most of his work was published by Norsk Musickforlag.

Knut Nystedt wasone of Norway's most important composers and was responsible for the spreading of contemporary choral music in Norway and worldwide. His musical language showed his understanding of developments in the avant-garde of his time while remaining true to conventions of his forefathers.

The music of Nystedt is eclectic in the sense that he experimented with a broad range of styles across his entire output. They tend to be coherent in themselves, stylistically, but each work can differ profoundly, while still maintaining his personal, Nationalistic and Romantic voice. Nationalism is sensed in his use of Norwegian folk songs and tunes with modal harmonic and melodic material.  

His 'Symphony for Strings' op. 26 1950 shows his post-WWII tendency towards the Neo-Classical. This tendency was more than likely influenced by the work of Hindemith, Poulenc and Honegger. The first movements rhythmic energy brings to mind a comparison toBartók. The second movement shows a clear influence of his studies withAaron Copland and culminates in a lyrical climax.

In 1947 he travelled to New York to study with the organist Ernest White. During the summer of 1947 he took lessons in composition withAaron Copland. This period in America seems to have left a lasting impression on him which is reflected in his American motets and in music he wrote specifically for use in school and in the church in America, where he became a successful and sought-after choral composer. 

Nystedt founded 'Der Norske Solistkor' (The Norwegian soloists choir) in 1950 and with them toured around the world giving performances. They had a reputation for premiering and programming new works in the choral repertory and they accrued international fame. From 1964 to 1982 he was employed as a professor at the University of Oslo, teaching choral conducting.

He was one of the few Norwegian composers to achieve a regularity of international performances for his work. In 1966 the King of Norway knighted him into the Order of St. Olav for his contribution to the cultural life of Norway. This order is one of the highest honours the state of Norway can place on its citizens. Abroad he was honoured for his contribution to the music culture in the United States. The Augsburg College in Minneapolis gave him their Distinguished Service Citation in 1975. In 1980 he was honoured in Norway once more by the Arts Council of Norway, who awarded him their prize for music. And in 1984 the Society of Norwegian Composers decided his work, 'De Profundis' would be elected as 'Best work of the year'.

His The Meaning of Love Op. 164b was recorded by the Maulbronn Chamber Choir and the K&K Verlagsanstalt record label. His Variasjoner over Med Jesus vil eg fara, Op. 4 is a Norwegian folk tune with variations, for organ, which was impressively recorded by organist Ian Quinn at Coventry Cathedral. Only a couple of months after his death, his  Prayers of Kierkegaard were released by PENTATONE by South Dakota Chorale in a beautiful collection of Scandinavian and Baltic contemporary vocal works entitledSacred Songs of Life and Love.