Sunday, June 19, 2011
Set Svanholm: The Many Sides of a Great Musician
No one living in Sweden can have failed to notice that 2011 marks the centenary of the popular Swedish tenor Johan Jonatan “Jussi” Björling (1911-1960). Jussi fan clubs across the country have had a field day. Radio programs, television documentaries and biographical works have literally rained on his compatriots this past spring. I thought it might be time to redress the balance by introducing readers to another renowned Swedish tenor, Set Svanholm (1904-64.)
Set Svanholm was born in Västerås as the second of three sons to Viktor Svanholm and his wife Beda. Viktor Svanholm came from a poor family in Västergötland and signed on as kitchen boy on a cargo boat at the age of 13. An accident with firearms cost him his sight, and two years later he was enrolled at the Manilla school for the blind in Stockholm. When he returned home after completing his education, a sermon by a visiting preacher made such a deep impression on him that he decided to become a clergyman himself. Viktor Svanholm thus became a preacher in a free-church movement, the “Evangelical Foundation for the Fatherland (EFS)”. In an essay about his father from 1963, Set Svanholm recalled that it was his task, even as a schoolboy, to play the organ in religious services. The hymns sung at these services, “with tones from Zion” made an indelible impression on him and shaped his musical sensibilities.
Set Svanholm graduated from gymnasium in 1922 and almost immediately obtained his first position as organist and choir director in Tillberga. In the following years, he completed both elementary and advanced degrees in organ and church music, as well as a general teacher’s certificate and one in music education. In 1929 he obtained the prestigious post of cantor in St. Jakob’s Church in Stockholm, which he retained until 1950. Here is his earliest known recording, (1934) where he is featured as conductor, leading the St. Jakob's choir in the Bach chorale “Jesu, nådens källa (Jesus, Font of Grace.)” It is a brief selection, but provides a good introduction to his musical sophistication and mastery of classical form. He was, from the beginning, a formidable musician:
St. Jakob’s Church was conveniently located right opposite the Royal Opera, and during his first years as conductor Svanholm had a promising tenor among his choristers – Jussi Björling. As Björling’s operatic career prospered, he started skipping rehearsals or just “marking” notes instead of singing with full voice. When Svanholm reprimanded him, Björling quit abruptly by stomping out of the church, slamming the door behind him, only to open it again. He stuck his head in to say: “Get yourself a better tenor – if you can!”
From Church Musician to Opera Singer
Both Svanholm and Björling were voice students of the well-known baritone John Forsell (1868-1941), as was the soprano Nini Högstedt (1909-98) who became Svanholm’s wife in 1934 and gave up her singing career. She then bore him six children, as Anna Russell would have put it.
Svanholm made his debut in 1930 as a baritone, as Silvio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, and became a member of the Royal Opera’s ensemble in 1932. All on his own, he began reworking his vocal technique to make the transition from baritone to tenor roles. He was a lyrical Italian baritone, known as “Kavalierbariton” in German, and had always had an easy high register. One day he telephoned his old teacher and announced that he had a promising new tenor that he would like to present – and surprised Forsell by coming to the appointed meeting all on his own!
Svanholm made his debut as a tenor in February of 1936, as soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. His operatic debut followed on September 22 of the same year with Radames in Verdi’s Aida. In the fall of 1937 he began to sing Wagner, with Lohengrin as his first role. In a short time he added Siegmund in Die Walküre, Tannhäuser, Stolzing in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and both Siegfrieds to his Wagnerian repertoire. Here is Svanholm as Siegmund, in an exceptionally good live recording from 1954:
Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962), the greatest Wagnerian soprano of the age, remarked in her memoirs: “For me there was only one Siegmund . . . that was Set.” It is hard to disagree with her. The baritonal, metallic quality of Svanholm’s voice was a perfect match for this role. A commercial recording from 1957 (Decca) of Die Walküre, Act I, also presents Svanholm at his very best and Flagstad as a surprisingly youthful and convincing Sieglinde – at the age of 62!
Swedish Heldentenor in the Third Reich
Svanholm’s career outside Sweden began in 1938, on the eve of World War II. Bruno Walter had heard him in Stockholm, and invited him to Vienna where he made his debut in Lohengrin. Performances in Germany, Austria, Zürich, Budapest and Prague soon followed. In 1942 he became the first Swede ever to sing at La Scala in Milan (Tannhäuser) and, in the same year, became the only Swede to appear in a major role at the Kriegsfestspiele in Bayreuth. Many vocal artists from politically “neutral” Sweden sang in Germany during the war years: Jussi Björling, Sigurd Björling, Torsten Ralf, Sven Olof Sandberg, and Zarah Leander are names that come to mind. But apart from Leander, who was criticized severely after the war for her activities, Svanholm was probably the Swedish artist most active in the Third Reich during these years. He was a member of the ensemble of the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin and did not leave the German stages until 1944.
There is no real indication that Svanholm was sympathetic to the political policies of the Nazi regime. One plausible explanation for his desire to remain in Germany was the opportunity of developing his interpretations of the great Wagnerian roles in collaboration with Heinz Tietjen (1881-1967), artistic director of the Bayreuther Festspiele from 1931 to 1944.
But Svanholm also had firm invitations from the Metropolitan, Chicago Lyric and San Francisco operas and in 1946 finally crossed the Atlantic for a glorious decade as the foremost Wagnerian tenor of the post-war era.
Svanholm’s trans-Atlantic career began in South America, where he sang Siegmund and Tristan in Rio de Janeiro. His debut at the Met was on November 15, 1946 in the title role in Wagner’s Siegfried. Svanholm was to remain under contract to the Met until 1956.
The American critics and audiences saw Svanholm as the self-evident successor to Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973), who was nearing the end of his career. Svanholm was unanimously appreciated for his athletic physique (he was only 5 feet 8 inches tall and quite trim at around 136 lbs), but above all for his intelligence, sophisticated musicianship and scrupulous adherence to the score: all of which stood in sharp contrast to the interpretations of “the Great Dane!"
To an international public, Svanholm is primarily recognized as a great Wagnerian, but in fact, his repertoire, both in terms of art song and opera, was broad and diversified. As a last excerpt, here is his interpretation of Schubert’s Der Erlkönig. This recording comes from a Liederabend in 1949 at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Svanholm is accompanied by the fantastic Arne Sunnergårdh:
During his decade in the Americas Svanholm continued to sing at home and performed many roles from Italian and French repertoire, as well as Swedish rarities such as De Frumerie’s Singoalla and Atterberg’s Fanal. By 1956 he was weary of traveling, wanted to spend more time with his family, and thus accepted the position as General Manager of the Royal Opera in Stockholm. Svanholm’s years as manager, too large a subject to discuss here, can be summarized as follows: New music, Swedish music, Niche music. Many works from the modern (Britten, Berg) and older operatic repertoire (Lully, Händel, Mozart’s Idomeneo) were performed in Stockholm for the first time and the most significant premiere of a new Swedish opera was Karl Birger Blomdahl’s Aniara.
There are several reasons why “Set Svanholm” is not a household word, even in Sweden, in the sense that “Jussi Björling” is. Björling’s repertoire was more accessible to a large number of casual opera listeners than the more specialized and demanding roles that Svanholm performed. Above all, Björling made over 240 commercial recordings while Svanholm only made 15. In the aftermath of World War II Svanholm’s main repertoire was, with a few exceptions, ignored by the major record companies. A Wagner “Renaissance” eventually occurred partly thanks to the commercial success of the Solti Ring, where Svanholm only participated as Loge in Das Rheingold. However, many live recordings of this important musician have been preserved, and a number of them are available on labels such as Music & Arts, Gebhardt, Golden Melodram, Bluebell, Preiser, and Caprice.
With thanks to Edmund for inviting me to “blog” and in the hope that some of his readers will either discover or re-visit this glorious voice.
at 1:57 PM