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 no 1”, 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.
In 1942 he married Birgit Larsen, called Dua. They were married for 70 years. They got three children, Veslemøy, Kari and Trond.
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, “Solsong” (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 inspired him many times to create works with texts from this book in the Bible, 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.
In 1964 Nystedt was appointed as lecturer in choir conducting at the institute of music at Oslo University. At the same time he started a choir with the students, Schola Cantorum. It was not long before the choir, which mostly consisted of music students, reached a level that meant they were able to perform contemporary music and the new and experimental choral works he himself was composing.
In 1968 Nystedt was a guest first at Berea College in Kentucky as an exchange teacher and later as “composer in residence” at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
Nystedt was now into a rich creative period and seemed to have found his musical standpoint. With a wide knowledge of his craft, he was able to move across a large stylistic spectrum and compose everything from simple tonal hymns and songs for children, to more complex works such as a requiem for nine brass instruments: “Pia Memoria” , and the orchestral works “Mirage” and “Ichthys” .
In the mid-60s, work began on producing a new hymnbook for the Norwegian church. Nystedt wrote more than 100 hymn-tunes in all and created through-composed masses for use in services on special Sundays.
“Spes Mundi” (The Hope of the World), op.63 (1970) is a through-composed mass for drama, organ, trumpet, Orff instruments, liturgist and congregation, that concerns mankind’s destruction of the earth, the affluent society and the unfair distribution of food.
Of the larger choral works “Dies Irae” for four mixed choirs and “Et norsk Te Deum” (A Norwegian Te Deum) for choir and orchestra should be mentioned. Several of the works for unaccompanied mixed choir have remained in the standard repertoire, and in many of them the combination of text and music has become compact and moving.
In the period from 1970 to 1985, Nystedt composed many large-scale organ works, four orchestral works: “Mirage”, “Ichthys”, “Exultate” , “Sinfonia del mare” , several pieces for brass and band: “Pia Memoria” (1971) , “Rhapsody in Green” (1978), “Music for 6 trombones” (1980) , “Mountain Scenes” for band (1981) , “Masquerade” (1982) for brass band and “The Greater Glory” (1985) for concert band . As well as the television opera “Med krone og stjerne” (With a crown and stars) and “Dies Irae” for four choirs, wind and percussion , and he composed a series of smaller works.
Commissions and awards seemed to stimulate him and there was nothing wrong with his capacity for work. At the same time, with the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir, he went on a long tour to Korea, Japan, Thailand and Hong Kong in 1978 and to China in 1982, and several tours to USA.
Torshov Church, where Nystedt was organist for 27 years, has an altar piece depicting Christ being taken down from the cross (Pieta) as a motive. On the long walls, the story of His suffering is depicted in a series of twelve stained glass paintings. As Nystedt composed the organ work “Pieta”, op.50 , and twice set music to “Jesu syv ord på korset” (Jesus’s seven words from the cross), op.47 , and op.171, we may believe that the church with its symbolism inspired his choice of theme and text.
Knut Nystedt was 70 years old on 3 September 1985 and, because of the age limit, retired as organist at Torshov Church after a total of 36 years in the parish. At the same time he retired as conductor of Schola Cantorum and lecturer in choral conducting at Oslo University.
“I am not a retiree!” he often said emphatically to those who thought he would rest on his laurels. His desire to create was just as strong as ever, and several of the works from this period are amongst the principal works in his output. That is true, for example, of “Gebete fur Mitgefangene” (Prayers for Fellow Prisoners) for soprano and organ to a text by the German priest Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 just before the end of the war. A “Messa per Percussione” shows how he could play with the colours of percussion instruments.
Nystedt composed several organ works and created a series of solo pieces for different instruments. In a concerto for horn and orchestra and the “Concerto Arctandriae” for strings, he fell back into his neo-classical style from the beginning of the 1950s. All this and a full-length church opera on a text from the Song of Solomon “Salomos høysang”clearly showed that the well was far from dry.
Nystedt’s political interest was not new. As early as 1970 he had composed the mass “Spes Mundi” (Hope of the World), which contains the church drama “Den omvendte skapelse” (The inverted creation), about how mankind, in the course of seven days, destroys the earth and himself.
Nystedt certainly felt that it was not his task to be at party-political meetings and shout as if he were a politician. He had to express himself in the craft he knew, and that was through art. “I want my message to move people. We must wake up before it is too late”, he would say.
In music history there are perhaps composers who write music after they have reached the age of 80, but the remarkable thing about Knut Nystedt is that he had the inspiration and strength to write a number of large-scale oratorios. Many of them are more than 30 minutes long, such as “Kristnikvede” (Canticles of Praise, 1994) , “Magnificat for a New Millenium” (1997), “Prayers of Kierkegaard” (1999) and “Ode til mennesket” (Ode to Mankind, 1999). Quite exceptional, however, is “Apocalypsis Joannis” (Apocalypse of St. John), op.155 (1998) , which Nystedt called a symphony with soloists and choir. The work lasts for 90 minutes and could be seen as a summation of his whole life’s work. It was commissioned by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra on the occasion of Nystedt’s 85th birthday.
In the 1980s Nystedt was very taken with texts by the Dutch pastor and writer Fred Kaan (1929-2009). The texts are influenced by the Christian peace movement and Kaan’s work for human rights. Nystedt used his texts in “A Hymn of Human Rights” (1982) , “For a Small Planet” (1983) , “The Wall is Down” (1985) , “One Mighty Flowering Tree” (1993) and “Magnificat for a New Millenium” (1997) .
In 2001 Nystedt wrote “Reach out for Peace” for soprano, mixed choir and orchestra to words by Fred Kaan. On 11 September he had just reached the words “while the world by war and hatred burns…“, when the world witnessed the terrorist attack on the USA. Nystedt suddenly felt that what he was working on was more current and meaningful than anything he could have dreamed of.
Ever since 1956 Nystedt had had a special relationship with the USA, but towards the end of his active period as a composer, his choral music was beginning to be known and performed in Germany. He therefore wrote several works to German texts, among them “Drei geistliche Lieder” (Three Sacred Songs) for mixed choir, op.120, “Die Sternseherin” (The Stargazer), op.165 for female choir , “Der Öhlbaum spricht” (The olive tree speaks), op.177 , and “Es sollen wohl Berge weichen” (And the mountains shall depart), op.180 .
With 181 opus numbers and several significant works without opus number, Nystedt has left a great musical bequest. From the first opus in 1938, right up to Mitt hjertes Herre (Lord of my heart) for three choirs a cappella in 2004, his joy in creation and his well of inspiration were inexhaustible. The problem was just that his sight began to fail more and more through the spring of 2004. Nystedt realised that he had written his last work, but was able to enjoy his 90th birthday being celebrated in many parts of the world.
Knut Nystedt passed away on 8 December 2014 at 99 years of age. With a musical style that was new, but at the same time anchored in tradition, he has given many people, even those who thought they did not understand or like new music, an experience that moved them and affected their lives. In this way he also opened the way for the understanding of contemporary music.
There is no doubt that for almost two generations he set a mark on Norwegian music both as a performer and composer.