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Sven-David Sandström interviewed by Göran Forsling – on his opera Batseba soon to be premièred in Stockholm (GF)

L-R Michael Weinius (David in Batseba) and Sven-David Sandström

‘On the most basic level, music is the expression of feelings. As a composer I want to convey a vision of the artistic life through emotions. I want to move people, not necessarily by conveying only pleasant feelings, but also by challenging the audience. Today, as well as throughout most of my career, I work with a wide variety of modes of expression to achieve this goal: excessive beauty, naïve music, modernist techniques, and most lately, techniques that draw upon all my previous experiences as a composer. In my music, stylistic diversity serves a higher end. I can be naïve as well as complex, if the mood of expression or the dramatic unfolding of a piece so demands.

The text above is the opening paragraph from Statement of Artistic and Pedagogical Vision, written in August 2001 by Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström. Now in his mid-sixties he has been a central figure in Swedish music life for more than four decades. He studied with Ingvar Lidholm, once member of the famous modernist ‘Monday Group’ after WW2. At the outset of his career Sandström wrote in a complex modernist, technically demanding style. Internationally his breakthrough came at the 1972 ISCM Festival in Amsterdam with the orchestral work Through and Through, which led to a commission from the BBC, Utmost, premiered by members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez.

A turning point came in the early 1980s, when he started composing in a more accessible, neo-romantic style. His controversial Requiem (1982) was a seminal work, twelve years later he composed High Mass, a Catholic Mass with Bach’s B-minor as starting-point. When it was performed in Minneapolis 2003 under Philip Brunelle my colleague Bruce Hodges wrote in his review ‘this might possibly be one of the greatest choral works of the last twenty years or so.’

Sven-David is hardworking and prolific. Composing in practically all genres within Western Art Music tradition his oeuvre encompasses about 200 works. He held a professorship in composition at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm 1985 – 1995 and from 1999 a corresponding chair at Indiana University, Bloomington, USA. At present he is in the limelight due to the imminent premiere (13 December) of his new opera Batseba at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. To get some aspects on the work I called him a couple of weeks before the premiere. He was then spending a lot of his time at the rehearsals and he was full of confidence but admitted that with the premiere approaching the tension also increased.

Every syllable of the quoted introduction above – his musical Credo – breezes communication and his verbal expressivity is just as striking as his musical.

‘Why Batseba?

‘It is a biblical theme and it is a subject I grasp. A lot of people know the story which can be read in the Books of Samuel and the Books of Chronicles in the Old Testament. It is multifarious, cruel – and topical. There are certain things we in our culture can’t identify with any longer. The natural male perspective is one: when King David sees Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of his soldiers, he sends for her, lies with her and she becomes pregnant. Cruelty and calculation is nothing unknown today but when David orders Uriah to be placed at the forefront in the battle and consequently killed so he can marry Bathsheba, he seems to be going too far beyond the morals of today – and it displeases the Lord! But the eternal fights are just as topical: the battle between good and bad, the battle between man and woman. The struggle for power between David and Bathsheba is central and in the end David dies, Bathsheba takes over, gets her will and her son with David, Solomon becomes king.  It is a cruel opera: war, murder, mutilation; it is dramatic and thrilling – and beautiful!’

‘The libretto is based on Torgny Lindgren’s novel Batseba and written by Leif Janzon. How much influence did you have on the growth of the opera?’

‘The idea was mine in the first place and it was aroused when I read the novel when it was new, back in 1984. After that it was a long process before everything was settled. Leif and I have discussed all the time but I have not directed anything. I have had views about what I wanted – should we have choruses, maybe a children’s chorus – but I have in no way interfered with his writing.’

‘What about Torgny Lindgren? Has he been involved?’

‘I know Torgny and we talked about it but he had no specific views so we could feel free to design it according to our own ideas.’

‘The libretto is in English, which is a novelty for a Swedish opera. Why?’

‘Swedish is not exactly a language for a possible international market. I tried to translate a Swedish libretto into English and it was tremendously difficult. Something that works well musically when you set a Swedish text may turn out awkward in translation and so we settled for English. But the original intention was to write it in Swedish. However, Leif had problems getting started and so we contemplated making it in English. We were given the green light from the management of the opera and off we went. Lindgren’s novel has been translated into English but I don’t believe Leif used it. There will of course be Swedish surtitles, written by Lasse Zilliacus, who is a masterly linguist.’

[The new Director of the Royal Swedish Opera, Birgitta Svendén, due to take office next autumn, has on her agenda exchange of productions with other stages, so this concept fits perfectly well with her ambitions. Read the interview with her here.]

‘This is a grand opera, playing for 2½ hours, including interval. When you start working on a project like this, what is it that triggers your inspiration?’

‘I actually imagine the drama in cinematic terms. I know perfectly well that a lot of this will not be possible to realize on the stage, but I don’t bother. The filmic images are my inspiration and then it’s up to stage director and set designer to transform it into something practicable. Batseba plays in 20 different rooms with different lighting and the sets are rather abstract.’


‘The production is directed by David Radok, former Music Director of the Royal Opera Leif Segerstam will conduct and the cast comprises several of the leading soloists of the house with Hillevi Martinpelto, playing the old Batseba, presumably the internationally best known name. How long has it been in the making – since you started working on the score?’

‘There is so much that has to be sorted out before composition can begin. You have to present the libretto, have it accepted as playable, then you need a commission, and all of this takes time in an organisation of this size. It has to be fitted into the schedule. I started writing the music in 2007. The management are satisfied with the length of the opera. We can’t expect people to sit through performances of modern works lasting for four to five hours as some of the Wagner operas do.’

‘What about life after Batseba? You have a unique project running for the Cathedral Parish. (The Cathedral – Storkyrkan – is the church just behind the Royal Castle in Old Town and the parish encompasses also St Jacob (the red church just beside the Royal Opera) and St Clara (the church close to the Central Station)’

‘It is a three-year-project which implies that I am going to compose music for every Sunday of the ecclesiastical year. It is in a way a task similar to Bach’s when he was in Leipzig. Hopefully people will see that there are connections between the present and the past. What is also unique is that the whole project is financed by private sponsors. Another project, commissioned by the Bach Festival in Stuttgart is a new Messiah. I’m setting Jennens’ text, as Handel also did, and both works will be performed during the festival. That is also a way of building bridges between the centuries. People will be able to hear the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s 18th century idiom and then my version of today. It is fascinating…’

says Sven-David Sandström and apologizes for having to run to an appointment. He seems to be always on his way somewhere, whether it be musically, philosophically or plainly moving physically through the bustling traffic in the Capital.

Göran Forsling

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