Biography

Knut Nystedt at his grand piano Knut 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