Knut Nystedt biography

Knut Nystedt died on 8 December 2014 at 99 years of age. With him one of the foremost Norwegian musicians and composers of the postwar generation has gone.

From 1938 and until his sight failed in 2004, Nystedt composed songs, piano pieces, choral, organ and chamber music works, operas, oratorios and Symphonic music. In addition to 181 opus numbers, he also left several large and small works without opus numbers. All his works bear witness to his originality and remarkable creative powers.

The compositions he left behind alone represent more than a life-time’s work, but in addition Nystedt was an outstanding organist and choirmaster. He lived at a time of conflict, where it was important that highly qualified artists took time to fight for the rights of musicians and composers. Thanks to his innate organisational abilities, he was able to undertake a number of honorary positions in organisations and on professional committees that were working for artists’ living conditions.

Nystedt worked as organist in various churches in Oslo from 1932 to 1985, including 36 years in Torshov church, which in his time became a center for the renewal of church music, both liturgical, service oriented music and the more experimental and church concert music, with an element of sacred drama and dance.

As choir conductor, Nystedt gave his farewell concert with Det Norske Solistkor (the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir) in 1990 after having directed it for 40 years and setting the standard for choral singing in Norway. With the choir Nystedt gave the first performances of almost 200 works and expanded the knowledge of Norwegian music during innumerable concert tours in Europe, Asia and the USA.

For Nystedt, the main object with Schola Cantorum, the university’s chamber choir was to perform new music by Norwegian and international composers. Nystedt had a clear and decisive opinion about how he wished his works to be performed, but at the same time could be open and sympathetic to performances that could contribute to strengthening the musical message.

The start of Knut Nystedt’s Career

Nystedt was born on 3. September 1915. He grew up in a Christian home, where singing and music played an important role. His father, Robert Madsen, played the violin, took part in an amateur quartet and conducted the choir in the Bethlehem mission church.

The twelve-year-old Knut Nystedt Madsen attended the Norwegian boys’ choir, “Olavsguttene” (Olav’s Boys) and was soon appearing a Soprano soloist.

Knut began to play the piano and organ with Arild Sandvold at the Music Conservatory in Oslo. In the family circle he gradually received good training in ensemble playing and a knowledge of classical chamber music. After his training, he became accompanist on the Olavsguttene’s tours and sang tenor or bass in several of the oratorio choirs for Arild Sandvold.

Nystedt himself identified some experiences that were of significance to his development as musician and composer. In his memoirs he claimed that his greatest experience was taking part in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion under Sandvold’s direction in 1937. He was also part of the Philharmonic choir, not least in order to study the conductor and composer Olav Kielland’s work as choir and orchestra leader.

Knut Nystedt made his debut as pianist and organist in 1938. In the folk-dance-like piano pieces and in the violin Sonata, his national-romantic style, making use of folkloristic and modal scales, is quite prominent.

Alongside his piano and organ studies, Nystedt also had lessons in composition and orchestration with the composer Bjarne Brustad, who was so impressed by what his student delivered that he ensured that the String Quartet, op.1 and Høgfjell-suite (High Mountain Suite), op.8 for orchestra were performed.

On 9. April 1940 Norway was invaded by Nazi Germany. This led to Norwegian composers’ interest in choosing national themes to become, if possible, even more important.

In the difficult war years, many writers became a source of introspection and renewal for the composers. Nystedt chose new-Norwegian texts by Matias Orheim and Ola Setrom for his songs. Then he spent three years composing his oratorio Nådevegen (The Path of Mercy). The work lasts 75 minutes and is constructed on Old Norse Christian songs. Stylistically it is related to the series of monumental oratorios that were created in 1930 in the wake of the 900th anniversary of the introduction of Christianity into Norway.

Nystedt made a living as organist and private piano teacher, and by conducting a number of choirs and amateur orchestras. The last gave him good orchestral experience while he was studying orchestral conducting with the conductor Øivin Fjeldstad, so that in 1945 he was able to make his debut as orchestral Conductor with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra.

The early division between the music he composed for church use and what he planned to perform at concerts was for a long time rather obvious.

After WW2, with a grant from the Norwegian Composers’ Guild, he studied in the USA. In spring 1947 he went to New York and studied organ with Ernest White and in Tanglewood composition with Aaron Copland.

Nystedt had by request formed the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir in 1950. With this semi-professional choir he could perform contemporary music that no other Norwegian choir had been able to perform. It was just as important that he had at his disposal “an instrument” that could be used for trying out his own compositional ideas. In the first half of 1950 Nystedt wrote four large-scale choral works: Hymnus, op.30, the choral suite Troens triumf (The Triumph of Faith), op.32, Solsang (Awakening of Spring) and Brennofferet (The Burnt Sacrifice), op.36.

The choice of texts from the Bible was not accidental. In 1932 Nystedt had become organist in the Bethlehem mission church and had played at revival meetings, which later had to be moved to the mission house in Calmeyergate to make room for the thousands of people who streamed there evening after evening. Nystedt himself was converted at one of the meetings and was even more strengthened in his faith when, in 1955, the American revival preacher Billy Graham spoke to a crowd of 35,000 at Ullevål stadium. On that occasion he conducted a choir of 1000 singers from all the Christian Congregations in Oslo.

The Book of Revelations concerns the last days and the end of the world, but also tells that Jesus is victorious, and about a new heaven and a new earth. These visions Nystedt carried with him for the rest of his life. They inspired him many times to create works with texts from Revelations and thereby there is a thread leading from Troens triumf in 1953 to the monumental oratorio Apocalypsis Joannis in 1998 which is a symphony with choir and song soloists in the last part. That was commissioned by Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. That was also performed as a part of the concerts marking 100 years since his birth by the Norwegian Broadcasting Company Orchestra and four choirs conducted by his grandson, Håkon Daniel Nystedt.

In 1952 his childhood friend and neighbor Rolf Karlsen founded the Society Musica Sacra, which had as its aim to revive the tradition of canonical prayers, and with it also Gregorian chant. This came to mean a great deal to Nystedt, who over the years used Gregorian melodies in his works.

“Cry out and shout”, a choral piece which, in its 59 seconds was composed in 1955. The motet was to prove to have undreamed of consequences for Nystedt’s further career.

Frank Pooler arranged for the motet to be printed in the USA by the publishers Summy-Birchard and sent round to 200 conductors. The motet, which never received its own opus number, was a tremendous success and opened up the American market to Nystedt. In only a few years, 20-30,000 copies of the motet were being sold every year. After 40 years over half a million copies had been sold. The motet is still part of the standard repertoire for many choirs in the USA.

 Kåre Hanken and Harald Herresthal Oslo, Excerpt from the book “Cry out and Shout”,

Norsk Musikforlag 2015

He was a teacher in choir conducting at the Oslo University.

Primarily, he was a composer, with works for all sorts of instrumentations, choir, symphony orchestras, string quartets, organ, church opera, tv-opera, and smaller works, songs with organ or piano accompaniment and psalms in different languages.

He has had a lot of commissions, for choir and orchestras.

Just in 2003 he had commissions for anniversaries in Norway, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Finland

And others, like for the opening at the new state Hospital (Rikshospitalet),  the Norwegian pavilion at the World Fair in Hannover year 2000, 50-aniversary for peace in Norway, Millennium for christening of Norway, a big symphony for the Oslo Symphony Orchestra and for Harmonien Symphony orchestra in Bergen and many more.

He has been 13 times in USA, guest at king Olav’s visit to Minnesota, concert for vice president Humphrey and lunch in The White House with president John F. Kennedy.