Sven-David Sandström

1942 2019

Sven-David Sandström

Composer

Biography

Sven-David Sandström is one of the finest living composers in Sweden. An extremely well-rounded and eclectic musician, he has at various points in his career focused on writing micro-tonal orchestral pieces, film soundtracks and most recently sacred choral music.

Born in Borensberg in the south of Sweden, Sandström studied art history and musicology at the nearby University of Stockholm, graduating in 1967, before devoting another five years to study composition specifically at the Stockholm Musikhögskolan. While he was there he studied principally with Ingvar Lidholm, also taking external lessons with renowned composersGyörgy Ligeti and Per Norgard.

Early in his career, Sandström’s primary focus was orchestral music which was largely rooted in the 20th century traditions of modernism and minimalism, with additional influences from jazz and popular music. Several of these pieces employed both micro-tonal and serial techniques. His breakthrough composition from this period wasThrough and Through (1972), which was premiered in Amsterdam by theRoyal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The piece is noted for the technical demands it places on members of the orchestra, but it still manages to maintain a strong melodic character throughout.  

The early 1980s began to witness a decisive turning-point in Sandström’s career, as his musical style morphed to become more accessible and at times even neo-Romantic, while still containing the same rigid technical demands. He also began to write more and more overtly religious vocal works, aided by his decades of experience singing in a motet choir. Sandström’s first vocal piece to really catch on was his Requiem entitledDe ur alla minnen fallna (1982), which means “The Totally Forgotten.” The piece, which deals directly with the events of the Holocaust in a highly controversial text written by Swedish poet Tobias Berggren, is one of the most intense and important pieces of Swedish music from the past century.

Although his main accomplishments lie within the field of sacred music, Sandström also has been very successful in largely unrelated fields. Amongst his over 90 published works are several film scores, operas and six ballet scores. His concertos are little known and were mostly composed in a neo-Romantic style, such as with his Cello Concerto (1989) and Piano Concerto (1990). Sandström has also enjoyed an active and enduring teaching career, having held positions at both the Royal College of Music in Stockholm and for ten years at the Indiana University School of Music. Sandström is still an active composer, with one of his more recent projects being to compose one piece for each of the feast days in the ecclesiastical calendar. This involves working, as Bach had done, to produce several large-scale works for a cappella choir per month, totaling 65 in all.

Images courtesy of Sven-David Sandström 

Following the success of De ur alla minnen fallna, Sandström continued for many years to develop and perfect his vocal style of writing. He received multiple commissions from vocal ensembles all over Sweden, but his next big hit would not come until his 1994High Mass. Sandström’s Mass was actually modelled after Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor, with the same 25-movement form. However, Sandström’s rendition is both distinctly modern and uniquely his own.

Much more accessible than his early work, Sandström’s stated goal with the Mass was “to move people … not necessarily by conveying only pleasant feelings, but also by challenging the audience.” Although he did just that, he still received a significant amount of criticism for pandering to the audience with the work. Nevertheless, theMass proved incredibly successful, with multiple performances all over Europe including in Bach’s adopted home of Leipzig, where it was recorded on the Deutsche Grammophon label by the Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Herbert Blomstedt.

Like many composers, by a certain point in his career Sandström had expressed some form of dissatisfaction with the “modern” music he and his contemporaries were making and wished to root himself more firmly in the pre-1900 tradition, particularly Bach and the other masters of baroque sacred music. In the 1980s he began composing choral motets based explicitly on the baroque style. Later he began working on large scale works includingOrdet (2004), Magnificat (2005), which was written for period baroque instruments, andMessiah (2009), in which Sandström borrowed the text verbatim fromHandel’s Messiah, and wrote new music to it.

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