My Great Need for Expression

Interview with Swedish composer Ingvar Lidholm

By Anders Beyer

Anders Beyer: I was born so late in the century that I am only able to read about the time when the composers of your generation were young. For that reason it is interesting to hear from you about your experience of Swedish music in the first decades of the century. and more exciting to hear from one who was there than to read about it in books. In his book on contemporary Nordic music (Vår tids musik i Norden: från 20-tal til 60-tal, 1968), Bo Wallner quotes the indefatigable supporter of the ISCM, Sten Broman, who, from his home in Lund, called the capital city ‘Stock-conservative-holm’. You were born in 1921 and experienced a period of music that was called ‘Stock-conservative’. Do you agree with that label?

Ingvar Lidholm: Sten Broman spoke from his point of view, from Skåne (across the channel from Denmark, ed.), and from the contacts he had in Denmark. I suppose at that time Copenhagen was much more advanced. In spite of everything that happened during World War I, people in Copenhagen were much more familiar with the new repertoire. And yes, it is true that musical life in Stockholm was very static. In the 1930s national romanticism was still very much in the air and neo-classicism was, well, truly dominant—we actually knew very little about what was happening in the world of new music on the continent and in America. There wasn’t much new music performed even though there were performances of both Schoenberg and Bartók. Remember, I grew up in the countryside and had no real contact with Stockholm before 1940 when I moved to the city.

AB: But then you had another source of inspiration, the radio. You listened to it in the 1930s, and later, to night-time broadcasts from Germany . . .

IL: My chief source of information was the radio—even in the 1930s. That was the way that I heard Sibelius and Stravinsky—Symphony of Psalms and such things—and I began to orientate myself a bit towards new music—Stravinsky, Bartók and Hindemith.

AB: And you also studied their works?

IL: Yes. Very early I got hold of scores and became familiar with them. So when I went to secondary school, four miles south of Stockholm, I travelled occasionally to Stockholm for concerts and the opera. Then I began to study instrumentation with Nathanael Berg, one of the real nationalists whose strength was his treatment of the orchestra. He knew the orchestra like Richard Strauss knew the orchestra. That was the school I was familiar with even during my secondary school years.

AB: Did national romanticism dominate music at that time?

IL: Yes, you could say that. Of course, personally I did not know much about new music before the 1940s.

AB: The work usually referred to as your debut composition, Toccata E Canto from 1944, has been described as inspired by Hindemith and Nielsen. Does that mean that you wrote in that style? It is also said that Hindemith’s text, Unterweisung im Tonsatz, was used. Were you influenced by it?

IL: It is obvious that I was influenced by the music I heard and Hindemith was clearly a source of inspiration, and Nielsen, naturally. But quite simply it is something that was in the air. One collects, it is available material, and of course one uses it.

AB: In the 1940s it seems that much of your time was taken up with issues of ‘workmanship’, such as studying Palestrinan counterpoint which was written about by Jeppesen, and also in studying Stravinsky’s compositional technique.

IL: Yes, naturally. For me, the first five years of the 1940s were taken up with education and study. I studied Palestrinan counterpoint and common practice counterpoint with Hilding Rosenberg. And we had a study group—we were called the ‘Monday Group’.

AB: Was the ‘Monday Group’ outside the regime of the Music High School?

IL: Yes, it had nothing to do with the Music High School even though several of us were students there. I began at the conservatory—as it was called at that time—in 1940, in all the studies you could think of, for example, violin, viola and conducting. At the same time Karl Birger Blomdahl and Sven Erik Bäck were students of conducting and violin, respectively. We all got that kind of basic instruction.

AB: With Blomdahl, Bäck and yourself in the Monday Group, it must have been significant. Did you take over the scene, so to speak?

IL: Actually we were simply unusually good friends who met regularly. We had an intensive communication, exchanging thoughts and ideas. We debated what we were doing and brought out our scores for discussion and critique. These discussions were often challenging, we were quite critically hard on one another and often there were some very ‘sharp’ exchanges, but all in all it was done in a friendly spirit. It just so happened that we ended up cooperating in different ways. There was so much we wanted to change in Swedish music. We wanted to renew it, to bring in new repertoire and to shake up the institutions.

AB: And you succeeded very well, for you moved in and took over the key positions.

IL: Yes, because it is true that if you want to accomplish something you have to go out and make it happen. You can’t just sit around and complain. You have to take the bull by the horns. We had a chance to accomplish a great deal working within the institutions; later there was some discussion about that. Many felt that they were excluded and the Monday Group was criticized for being dictatorial—that sort of thing. If you have no power, you can do nothing. But when you want to accomplish and renew, you have to create a platform. Otherwise it will just turn into empty rhetoric. The criticism directed toward the Monday Group concerned our work and our positions, among other things. I think that was very unfair. For us it wasn’t about having ‘power’. We wanted to achieve something; we were motivated by a cause and wished to improve things. In that respect the criticism was very unjust. I would venture to say that without the contribution made by my generation we would not have the richly developed musical life that we have now. We played our part in the development, to quite a significant degree I think.

AB: You became Professor of Composition at the Music High School and you were also involved in radio. You could play and experiment with your music. To what extent then did you leave room for the younger composers to participate?

IL: I think there was a really intense interaction between the generations. We were young ourselves. I believe that we had a clear sense of mission as educators of the public. We wanted above all to spread musical culture everywhere so that it would continually renew itself.

AB: But there were different viewpoints within the Monday Group on that issue. While Blomdahl thought that the composer should follow his personal quest for truth, Bäck pleaded more for the need for contact with the public. Where did you stand on this?

IL: Yes, I was quite in the middle (laughs). It seemed to me like something theoretical that had nothing to do with reality. In the real world you find both viewpoints fused together, without which fusion you would be working in a vacuum. One or the other? No, I think that both the truthfulness and the contact should be there. And that was actually the way it was. In discussion the viewpoints were exaggerated in an effort to clarify such concepts.

AB: You lived outside of Stockholm and viewed the scene from a distance and yet you placed yourself in that environment. You were the first Swedish composer to go to Darmstadt . . . that was in 1949.

IL: I knew nothing at all about Darmstadt at that time, but I got an invitation to participate in the summer courses. Wolfgang Fortner saw the score for my work, Toccata E Canto, and said that there was this Swedish chap who should be invited to Darmstadt. It was an experience that made a deep impression on me, artistically and in other ways. When we arrived in Darmstadt, it was still in ruins, a completely bombed-out city. But in spite of it, in the middle of everything there was an international milieu. The contacts I made there had a strong impact on me.

AB: Did both the philosophers and the composers affect your way of thinking about music?

IL: Mostly it was the composers who did—Messiaen, Fortner, Henze, and so on. I met many who gave me impetus, but obviously I shouldn’t exaggerate that. In any case I got a hefty shove forward at Darmstadt.

AB: You were also inspired by the Italian avantgarde; Nono and Berio came a bit later, in the mid-1950s . . .

IL: I was hired by Swedish Radio in 1955 so I could travel a lot and meet many people. That was how I happened to be in Italy.

AB: Was it Nono’s humanist outlook as much as his way of thinking about music that inspired you? I ask because the human character and voice and religion has been important for you.

IL: Yes, it is clear that his personality was truly fascinating. But I experienced his music before I met him. I was actually present at the premiere of Il Canto Sospeso in Cologne and that was very special. Later I met him. It was an extraordinarily complex experience to be with Nono. There was much in his thinking that I didn’t agree with and I always tried to keep a distance from the extremely rigorous speculations and constructivism of the time.

AB: You were able to travel in the 1950s and experience the new works of the central European avantgarde. But did you feel in tune with the works of Stockhausen and Boulez?

IL: No, although for some years I consistently adopted a rather strict twelve-tone technique, I didn’t preach it. I didn’t want it to be dominant and to be the only thing. I felt completely free to use it—or to do something entirely different.

AB: The Monday Group introduced a new kind of work, possibly inspired by modernism. This brings to mind Blomdahl’s Faccetter, Nystroem’s Sinfonia Del Mare, Bäck’s Chamber Symphony and your Ritornel. How would you characterize Ritornel?

IL: In the 1950s I wanted to gain fresh ideas and so I travelled and listened to new music. Among other places, I went to London and continued my studies with Mátyás Seiber—I was there, actually, for six months. That was a formative experience because I heard things there that I had never heard before, among them, Dallapiccola’s work. There was a lot of new music played in London at that time. My studies with Seiber and contact with his friends and English composers were important. Messiaen, Stravinsky and Dallapiccola were the greatest exponents of that period. Where did I get Ritornel from? It could really have been that I wanted to try a bigger form after I had worked with relatively small ones. I wanted to see if I was ready to hold a large form together, and also if I could master a large orchestra, which I hadn’t tried. Ritornel was actually the first time I tried to think about a piece from conception to realization.

AB: Were you taking stock?

IL: Exactly. I wanted to sum up what I could express at that time.

AB: Now you say ‘sum up’. I remember a place where you write, ‘Music in its essential form is the spirit doing research’. You go on to say, ‘Given this point of departure I decided to search for the sources of the pure beauty of the tone. We have to try to give tones an exact musical content. Emotionally, dynamically and incidentally, to give the rests the same specific weight’.

IL: Yes, that is from an article that I wrote on Ritornel. This is the concept behind Ritornel, for it is a sonorous and dynamic piece with many rests.

AB: You continue, ‘New music does not reject concern for proportion, but I am more and more convinced that neoclassicism has fulfilled its role. Let’s turn away from the cult of the traditional and try to formulate a music that speaks directly and strongly to the listener. A music for the people of our time’. What kind of music is that?

IL: That was what I tried to do in Ritornel. The new music that streamed forth at that time was completely simple, one could say. This music distanced itself from neo-classicism—the superficial kind. That was my way of thinking at precisely that point in time. It expressed the feeling that we were in a very important phase of development. These were things that had to be carried through, had to be thought through and realized, and simply had to be tried.

AB: Works from that time like Mutanza, and Motus-colores, not forgetting Poesis, are modern classics today. Are these the works in which you investigated these possibilities?

IL: Exactly. I tend to believe that one should not become fixated on techniques of writing and style. It is more important to focus on forms of expression. Quite another question is that of borrowing or trying out different possibilities. For me, the real issue has to do with expression.

AB: So you have, roughly speaking, worked in two main genres, orchestral music and choral music. What do you want to express in music for orchestra? Is there something more to it than the attempt to explore stylistic possibilities?

IL: Now you raise some really big questions. What is it to be a human being? To me, composing is something eminently human. The main thing is to express oneself, one’s problems. Next there is, of course, the problem of finding structures—sound structures—that can be used for building large constructions. This issue is inherently complex. One can’t just describe it with a few words. As I said, I believe that this really has a lot to do with the basic need to express oneself and that remains the most important part of everything I do.

AB: Why is choral music such an important area for you? Words and choirs seem to give you a particular opportunity to express something quite special. Why?

IL: That’s an interesting issue. The voice, and song is such an intimate, or, distinct, part of human beings. It is exciting to work with the unique counterpoint between the various sounds: the voice, the song, and the text. There is an enormous power evoked there. The principal point of composing choral music is to exhaust the text and that is what is engaging about it. Just think of the ingenious structure in a movement by Palestrina, with its vocal counterpoint and the counterpoint between the vowels and consonants in the text, the colours of the vowels as they show up all the time in different combinations. This is purely objective, but added to this are the fantastic emotional powers that emanate from the texts.

AB: Can you describe more precisely what kind of texts arouse your interest?

IL: Preferably those that deal with the big existential issues. Sometimes these texts fascinate me for several years before I tackle them. They should be texts that are both rich human expressions and useful as elements of musical structures. The texts must have their own functional semantic content, and at the same time, they must have a pure abstract sound that allows for decomposition in the process of musical adaptation.

AB: Let us take a concrete example, a choral work like Laudi. What inspires you to compose such a piece?

IL: These are extraordinarily complex texts. What makes a person of twenty-six years sit down and write a work like that? You are in the middle of turbulent events and you somehow have to express this and give meaning and order to it. That was probably the case with Laudi and the reason that I chose biblical texts. They provided a form. But there was something else: my training. In terms of vocal music, my training was largely by way of Palestrina and was reinforced by the performances of the Eric Ericsson Chamber Choir which projected the incredible beauty crucial to understanding Palestrina’s style. This was an impressive balance that we Northerners could benefit from greatly.

However the establishment of the choir and the purification of themes notwithstanding, I had the feeling that it wasn’t enough. We needed a stronger mode of expression. I simply had a compelling desire to make something other than the radiant pure beauty that we had learned. Modern man had to be represented and I felt myself to be a modern person. I wanted to express myself and I wanted to articulate much more challenging questions than could be answered by the antiquarian musical ideology.

AB: What was the response to works like Four Choruses from 1953 and subsequently, in the 1960s, Nausikaa ensam?

IL: I have to say that I have been blessed with a favourable response. Laudi got a lot of attention and if I understand correctly what Eric Ericsson and others have said, this work has been important for the development of a modern Swedish choral tradition.

AB: That is to say that a composer like Sven-David Sandström and others interested in choral music have grown up in a tradition that you have helped to make?

IL: Yes, that is probably true in the sense that they are my students and it is not impossible that they have got something out of my instruction. But then all of my students are very independent composers. There are no imitators and that is my standpoint as a teacher: not to mould them in my image. On the contrary, I encourage them to find their own personalities.

AB: Nordic composers who are or have been professors of composition, for example, Per Nørgård, Olav Anton Thommessen and Erik Bergman, warn against cloning composers or being epigones. That is contrary to the norm in southern Europe—or what has been—both in Italy and Germany. I have in mind the Donatoni school, Ferneyhough and so on. Each generation has to go against the previous one, we could call it a revolt against the father figure. Did the generation that followed you and your students say, ‘Now we want something completely different’?

IL: I tried to influence them to find their own way, absolutely. That thing with schools, Ferneyhough, and so on, is necessary in one way. Technical discipline, technical ideas and technical systems are very important. One may try to follow a model, but one still has to work constantly against the system. One takes advantage of technical possibilities, but that is not what counts.

AB: Some people think that it is. They think that the structure is the content.

IL: Yes, but I don’t agree. Of course, it depends on what we mean by structure, but take something as ‘simple’ as the twelve-tone technique. That is a structure, but what one can express with it is endlessly varied, purely in terms of expression.

AB: In the development of Nordic choral music, the older composers have contributed new forms. Erik Bergman, for instance, introduced Sprechgesang to it. Have you made some such contribution?

IL: I don’t know whether I have contributed to any renewal or not. I was never very interested in new techniques in choral music, such as working with new sounds and distortions and so on. Rather I have stayed within the traditional use of the voice.

AB: But still in a new way?

IL: Yes, but I have guarded myself from what could be perceived as external effects. I am very worried about that, and may even add that such things don’t constitute a true renewal of vocal music. Possibly if one takes Ligeti and people like that, it has had some importance, but I can’t say that development has gone specifically in that direction.

AB: I see the problem: to be expressive, but to avoid superficial effects. Anyway I can trace a development if we move ahead to Ett Drömspel (A Dream Play) where melody reassumes its predominant role.

IL: Yes, absolutely. For some reason there was a lot of talk about comprehensibility. I have always thought and said that to write an opera is to make a very direct statement. It is an attempt to reach people in the simplest possible way, but with unlimited nuances. Now, this simplicity has nothing to do with simplemindedness, and it can just as easily be found in large forms. There must be powerful counterpoint and great complexity in the relationship between the parts. I increasingly feel the need for concrete and direct expression, for reaching people with optimal immediacy and without intellectual entanglement. Complexity, yes, but with an over-arching simplicity—disentanglement.

AB: In your work you have been through many phases.

IL: Yes, that’s correct. I have always wanted each piece to be a new venture. I have never wanted to repeat myself. And yet, it is obvious that now I do repeat myself for I feel completely free to take up the old ways as well as the new ones. I do what I feel like doing without any restrictions and that opens my work to criticism. One can accuse me of being conservative, of having lost the sharpness of the avantgarde, but that type of reasoning doesn’t interest me any longer.

AB: Have you outgrown your interest in being complex?

IL: What is complexity? A good monophonic melodic structure can be just as complicated as a structure by Ferneyhough, only in another way. Of course I am speaking of real complexity of expression, not about clever technicalities. But it’s a difficult issue and it is also a treacherous one because it is so unbelievably hard to get to the core of the matter.

AB: Why did you compose so few works in the 1970s? Most composers experience a crisis at one point or another. Did you come to a point in the 1970s where it was hard to find the way ahead?

IL: Crisis is perhaps the right word for it. Circumstantial problems play a role too: complications in connection with one’s job and that kind of thing have an impact. One also writes a lot that isn’t published and is merely put to one side. It is true that I have often had major problems, but it’s hard to say why. I haven’t felt forced to produce something either. I have composed when I have felt the need.

AB: You grew up in a religious environment. This feeling for humanity, communication and religion belong together.

IL: Yes, the big questions are important for me.

AB: Do you have a message?

IL: Yes, it may be hard to formulate the message, but it is there. And it is clear that much of what I have to say is expressed in the texts that I have chosen for my choral music—at least I imagine so.

AB: The Strindberg text is not religious . . .

IL: Strindberg . . . If you take Drömspelet, the human being is in focus. Man in all his complexity and his despair, the grotesque disposition and everything, is there. Drömspelet focuses on the human condition.

AB: I remember the work as being full of poetry and resonances of life lived, the sustained tradition where the human voice is at the centre. It’s been important for you to work with contrasts: intoxicated love and bitter resignation; the personable and the ordinary.

IL: This work is like life itself: the individual sees the isolated details, but from a wider perspective we recognize a search, a yearning for great complexity as you yourself said. I agree with your assessment, so I’ll end with taking your words for mine.

© Anders Beyer 1998.

The interview took place in Stockholm March 5 1998. It was published in Anders Beyer, The Voice of Music. Conversations with composers of our time, Ashgate Publishing, London 2000. The interview was also published in Danish in Danish Music Review vol. 72, no. 8 (1997/98): page 258-264.


Ingvar Lidholm (1921-2017) studied composition in his native Sweden with Hilding Rosenberg, although he also made short study trips abroad. An influential organizer of music at the Swedish Broadcasting Company, Lidholm spent several years as editor of Nutida Musik and in 1960 became a Member of the Royal Academy of Music where he served as Vice President. He also chaired the Swedish ISCM section. Lidholm’s varied musical interests include early vocal polyphony as traced in his Laudi, pre- and post-war modernism as found in his Music for Strings 1952 and Ritornell, and post-modern exploration of musical sound-scapes as heard in his Poesis. The character of his musical thought is marked by his abiding concern for human values. Lidholm’s scores are published by Nordiska Musikförlaget, and recordings can be found on the Chandos, Caprice, Consonance and BIS labels.