Herbert Blomstedt, internationally acclaimed orchestra conductor, has enjoyed an illustrious career conducting many of the world's premiere orchestras. While most of his conducting posts have been in Europe, he distinguished himself in the U.S. as guest conductor of its five most famous orchestras and as conductor of the San Francisco Orchestra from 1985 to 1995. He continues as Conductor Laureate with the SFSO and as Honorary Conductor of four major European orchestras.
Herbert Thorson Blomstedt was born on July 11, 1927, in Springfield, Massachusetts, one of three children and the youngest son of Adolf H. and Alida Thorson Blomstedt. His father, a Seventh-day Adventist minister, returned to his native country, Sweden, when Blomstedt was two to oversee Bible studies at the Swedish Seminary at Nyhyttan. He would eventually serve as president of the South Swedish Conference for eight years, establish the Swedish Voice of Prophecy, and serve as principal of the Swedish Junior College in Ekebyholm.
His mother, a native of Colorado whose parents had both been born in Sweden, was a gifted pianist with a degree from the Chicago Conservatory of Music. She also attended and then taught music at Broadview College, home of the Swedish Seminary, later an SDA academy in Illinois, before marrying Adolf, a student at the seminary, in 1922.
Herbert began piano study at age six and violin at ten. After completing Abitur, the Swedish equivalent of a U.S. high school, he was undecided about whether to pursue theology, medicine, or music.
His father was initially concerned about his son's passion for music and urged him to go into the ministry. When Herbert responded that he had decided to dedicate his life and music to the glory of God, his father responded, "If you hold to that, I will be satisfied."
He entered the Stockholm Conservatory and after five years there affirmed that earlier commitment to music. While studying conducting for the next two years, he also took musicology at the University of Uppsala from Carl-Allan Moberg, founding father of Swedish musicology and a former student of Alban Berg. Blomstedt then traveled to Stockholm, where he continued his studies in conducting at the Royal College of Music.
Additional study in Salzburg, Vienna, and the Schola Cantorum in Basel followed. During this time he spent five summers in workshops with Igor Markevitch in Salzburg, a challenging experience regarded by Blomstedt as pivotal in his development as a conductor.
In the fall of 1952, he attended the New England Conservatory in Boston briefly, funded by a fellowship from the Swedish-American Foundation, before transferring to the Juilliard School in New York. He had opportunity during his year in the U.S. to observe noted conductors Charles Munch, Bruno Walter, and Arturo Toscanini in rehearsal and became acquainted with Leonard Bernstein, who arranged for him to attend the Berkshire Festival at Tanglewood on scholarship.
Blomstedt's work at Tanglewood in the summer of 1953, where he ended up conducting the student orchestra by default, earned him the Koussevitzky Prize. His success at Tanglewood was noted in Sweden, and as he returned home, he was invited to conduct the Stockholm Philharmonic in a program in February of 1954, at age 27.
E.L. Minchin in an article written at that time in the Australasian Record, described the reaction to the concert:
"Brilliant! Sensational! Inspiring!" So said the musical critics in fourteen Swedish newspapers recently, concerning the conductor, Herbert Blomstedt, a Seventh-day Adventist youth of Stockhlom, Sweden.
He then continued by quoting an article that had been written in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet:
Herbert Blomstedt was the thrill of the evening, yes, why not the sensation . . . . The packed house greeted the conductor and the soloist with a storm of applause. Herbert Blomstedt is already among our foremost Swedish conductors, if not the foremost. [It is] a red-letter day in the history of the symphony. Besides the everywhere highly praised musical knowledge and artistic merit which Herbert Blomstedt has shown himself to possess, he has a marked ability not only to inspire the musicians but actually to hypnotize the audience, who sat as if in a trance.
His success with that concert opened doors, and by 1962 he was conducting the Oslo Philharmonic. The Danish Radio Symphony followed in 1968, and in 1977 he became conductor of the Swedish Radio Orchestra.
Blomstedt's frequent guest conducting in Europe led to an offer for him to conduct the Staatskapelle in Dresden in 1982. Following his acceptance of an invitation to conduct the San Francisco Orchestra in 1985, he continued to conduct in Dresden on a limited basis.
At the time of his first concert, Minchin also talked about another paper, the Svenska Morgonbladet and its headline and interview in which Blomstedt stated his stance on the Sabbath:
Sabbath Commandment Hinders Artist from Signing Advantageous Contracts
"I am a Seventh-day Adventist and cannot work on the Saturdays with rehearsals and the like, and cannot give concerts on Friday nights. I cannot be untrue to my convictions. I do not covet success, but I am nevertheless happy over the success I have had. My Christian faith has buoyed me up in many difficult experiences and, of course, I cannot compromise in such things which to me are a matter of conscience.
Blomstedt moderated his stance through the years and by the time he became conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, that change was described in an announcement on his appointment to the post in the Review and Herald for September 19, 1985:
Blomstedt, who conducts but will not rehearse on the Sabbath, sees a major distinction between a concert and a rehearsal. Discussing the distinction with a reporter from the Examiner, Blomstedt said, "Rehearsal is intense, draining work, but a concert is a celebration, a spiritual experience, a spiritual communication. And music communicates some of the most wonderful things that I can imagine. The seventh day has a very special significance for Seventh-day Adventists.
"God created the Sabbath for the rest of man, for spiritual refreshment, and music is a wonderful spiritual refresher. So I couldn't hesitate giving this to those who want to share this experience on the day I rest."
The SFS in his decade of leadership earned renown as a world-class orchestra. They toured to Europe, performing in noted venues and at festivals in Scotland, Austria, Germany, and France to critical acclaim. Their recordings earned two Grammys, plus France's Grand Prix du disque and Britain's Gramophone awards. When he left in 1995, he was honored with the position of Conductor Laureate. He returns often as conductor of the SFSO and is a frequent guest conductor with other leading orchestras in the U.S. and Europe.
Noted for his musicianship and unusual rapport with orchestra members, Blomstedt has received a number of honorary doctorates and awards as well as a knighthood in Denmark and Sweden. He was awarded Columbia University's Ditson Award for distinguished service to American music in 1992, Austria's Anton Bruckner Award in 2001, and Denmark's Carl Nielsen Prize in 2002. In 2012 he was awarded the Weniger Award for Excellence at Loma Linda University in January and the Seraphim Medal, one of Swedens highest civilian honors, in June.
Sources: E.L. Minchin, "Advent youth acclaimed one of Sweden's greatest conductors, The Australasian Record, July 26, 1954, pgs. 8, 9; "During Concerts I Sense God's Presence," reprinted from an interview with Blomstedt that was published in a special edition of the Sunday magazine of the Stockholm Expressen about relgious life in Sweden, The Australasian Record, September 27, 1971, pgs. 10, 11; "My faith means everything to me," adapted from an interview with Erik Lundberg that was originally published in Liv I Nutid (Life in Our Time), translated by Bernhard T. Anderson, plus biographical sidebar by Editors, Adventist Review, July 19, 1979, pgs. 4-6; 1985 Musical America; Michael Steinberg, "Making Music with Herbert Blomstedt," and "A Conversation with Herbert Blomstedt, American Symphony Orchestra League, 1985; James Coffin, "San Francisco Symphony hires SDA conductor," Advent Review, September 19, 1985, 23; Obituary for Alida Blomstedt, Northern Light, March 1958, pg. 7; Obituary for Adolph Blomstedt, The Atlantic Union Gleaner, January 26, 1982, pg. 18; Nicolas Slonimsky, Baker's Biographical Dictionary, Schirmer Books, eighth edition, 1992, pg. 198; Rainer Refsback/TED News, Herbert Blomstedt, Adventist Conductor, Honored by Swedens Monarch, Adventist World NAD, September 2012, 3, 4; Malinda Smith, "Standing with the Giants," Pacific Union College alumni magazine, Viewpoint, Summer 1997 (See following copy, reprinted with permission).
Standing with the Giants
In March 1997, Malinda Smith, a senior English major at Pacific Union College interviewed Herbert Blomstedt for an article she wrote for Viewpoint, PUC's Alumni Magazine. The following observations by Blomstedt, excerpted from that article, which was subsequently published in Notes, provide insight about the maestro's thinking in a number of areas. It was printed in this form in Notes, IAMA's magazine, in 2008.
Artistic expression is very important for society. The monuments, the artistic products that remain from past eras are limited. Gothic cathedrals, Gregorian chant, Renaissance music - that is what is left of these epochs. They are the business cards the epoch left of itself before it vanished, and so these products are extremely important to us for an understanding of the past.
Contemporary art must express something of the situation we live in today. And music is a very splendid form of art, combining both the creative art, which is what composers do, and the performing arts. Both of them need to be expressed in a contemporary setting.
We have to have music composed that reveals our situation today. All the things that impress us and frighten us - the scare of the atomic bomb, the knowledge of two world wars, pollution, AIDS, as well as the positive things that have developed in our century, the equality of men - all this has to be expressed in art. And if there will be another century, or two or three centuries, it might be that these art works will be the only thing left from our time from which future people can learn.
The performers of today must also play their music in a way that demonstrates our situation. They must have a message' and technique of their own. The public wants to see a reflection of what they are experiencing.
We can try to play Bach the way we think he was played during his time, and we can do it fairly accurately, but then we don't play for Bach's ears. The people in those times had other experiences. They had different joys and different sufferings, and so they heard music with other ears. We have to play for the ears of today, the hearts and the minds of today - a terrific challenge.
Christianity has so permeated our culture that it is part of common sense. Those who don't think of themselves as Christians at all are in reality enjoying the nice by-products of two thousand years of Christian civilization.
Until 1700, practically all art in Western culture was religiously oriented. Its development is completely unthinkable without the role of the church. We can thank the church for something as simple as polyphony. You don't live a day or an hour - not a minute - without being aware that you are in God's hands and that you have a special responsibility because you are a being created by God. And of course that applies to music. How could it not? It colors and decides the personality.
It is impossible to be precise and say, "If you are a Christian you will play this note longer." Or, "You will play faster if you are a non-Christian and slower if you are a Christian." But I think that any Christian who is really living in a personal relationship with God can be recognized. I certainly think that I can recognize it.
Christians are not necessarily holier or better or more thoughtful than others, but I can see their Christianity in the dedication that they put into their efforts, and in the absence of the trivial and the vulgar that permeates our society and so often clings to our feet like mud. In the performing arts it is evident in the way a musician interprets a piece. Listeners who go to concerts notice this. They comment upon it.
I cannot imagine myself not being a Christian. I am happy with it. I am not as good a Christian as I would like to be, but I try to live my religion through every day. It helps me both in difficulties and when I have success. It's a wonderful moderator.
Artists are lonely people because they must interpret and create on their own. Otherwise they are not artists; they are art students. You can run and ask your teacher, "How should I play this? How should I paint this?" But sooner or later, you have to decide on your own. An artist must develop a language of his own, and this makes him a very lonely person. Artists try to compensate for their loneliness in many ways. Some turn to wild lifestyles just to get out of this feeling of separation.
As a Christian, you are never really lonely. A personal relationship with God is like a shadow that follows you everywhere, a companion that is always there.
It is hard to draw the line between secular and sacred art. They are so intertwined. But it is easy to distinguish between the low and the elevated. My father was a pastor, and my mother was a pianist, trained with the best teachers in America. So I grew up in an atmosphere of reverence, not only for God, but also for music.
I was greatly annoyed by the discrepancy between what was expressed through the Bible stories that were the background of my spiritual world and the music that was performed in church. It didn't make sense. The words were elevated; yet the music was trivial. It was like attending a wedding dressed in jeans, or perhaps putting on your best clothes to swim at the beach.
It is important to know that all who sing and play, or at least most of them, are really honest people. When they sing that they love Jesus, they mean it, even if the music is trivial. They just don't know that they have on the wrong tie for their shirt.
We all need time to grow, but I think that the problem today is that nobody tells anybody that anything is wrong. The message is that everything is all right, but we all have the need to develop, to be elevated.
Don't be comfortable with anything less than the very best. Why would you devote yourself to second rate music, when Bach and Beethoven are around, when there is Mahler? I don't think it is wrong to play trivial music sometimes. Music has so many functions. Music can be fun. You can play around with a ditty and make something joyful out of it. But to restrict yourself to ditties, to trivialities, is to push down your personality.
So many of us are content to hide behind the giants. We have such reverence for the leaders of the past that we don't build on their efforts. But we shouldn't hide behind these authorities.
We do have the responsibility to study the indisputable giants of art, to learn from them. But this doesn't mean that we should remain conservative all our lives and simply copy the classics. They must be our base, because those who do not revere the old are not worthy of the new. But we must appreciate the view they have given us and then look beyond. We must stand on the shoulders of giants and then go farther.
Music and Spirituality
Excerpts from a talk given at Andrews University in November 2007, when Blomstedt was honored by the university in a series of events on the occasion of his 80th birthday.
Music is a genuinely spiritual phenomenon, the most spiritual of all the arts. You cannot lay hands on it. You cannot see it, except when it is performed. It exists in the material world only as mysterious dots and lines on paper, symbols charged with meaning for the insiders, but utterly meaningless for all others. It springs up in the mind of the composer, transmits to the performer and reaches the listener as a ray of light from outer space.
All good music is thus in a way spiritual music. For me, at least, there is no other music than spiritual music. It is a matter of definition: In the narrow sense, only spiritual music is worth the name of "music".
The realm of the spiritual is the eternal dimension of human life, as opposed to the temporal joys and woes of every day life. It looks for the eternal values, the view sub speciae aeternitatis. I remember my father, who was an Adventist pastor, always had this advice for his sons when making decisions: "Ask yourself: Does it have any eternal value?"
But it is here and now that we have to make those decisions. We live in time. And there is tension between the two, between time and eternity. What seems good now may loose value in eternity. And what seems ideal for eternity may feel irrelevant today.
Aldous Huxley, the great English novelist who came to Los Angeles in 1937, and who was neither a musician nor a Christian, remarked that the music coming out of the radios in Southern California was like sewage. What would he have said today? The abyss between sacred and secular has never been greater than today. Those who do not smell the stench of the rotten pop culture, already have it in their own nostrils. Todays rock music is the very opposite of spiritual music. It is music that kills the spirit.
(A partial listing of the more than 100 recordings Blomstedt and his groups have made)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphonies Nos. 1-9 Leipzig Radio Choir, Dresden Opera Chorus, Staatskapelle Dresden, Herbert Blomstedt, Brilliant Classics 99793 CD
Peer Gynt (selections); Piano Concerto; Haugtussa; Songs, Taru Valjakka (soprano); Siv Wennberg (soprano); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone); John Ogden (piano), Staatskapelle Dresden, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt, Paavo Berglund EMI 5 86058 2 CD
Concert Music for Strings & Brass; Der Schwanendreher; Nobilissima Visione, Geraldine Walther (viola) San Francisco Symphony, Herbert Blomstedt, Musical Heritage Society 5161917 CD
Mathis der Maler; Trauermusik for viola & strings; Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber; Konzertmusik for strings & brass; Der Schwanendreher; Nobilissima Visione-Suite; Symphonia Serena; Die Harmonie der Welt, Geraldine Walther (viola), San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt, Decca 475 264 CD
Symphonia Serena; Die Harmonie der Welt, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt, Decca 458 899-2 CD
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; Variations Sérieuses; Andante & Rondo Capriccioso, Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt, Decca 468 600-2 CD
Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 "The Four Temperaments", 3 "Sinfonia espansiva", & 4 "The Inextinguishable"; Bohmisk-Dansk folketone; Andante lamentoso, Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt, EMI 5 74188 2 CD
Symphonies Nos. 1-3; Maskarade Overture; Alladin Suite, Nancy Wait Kromm (soprano); Kevin McMillan (baritone), San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Herbert Blomstedt, Decca 460985 CD
Symphonies Nos. 4-6; Little Suite for Strings; Hymnus Amoris; Barbara Bonney (soprano); John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Lars Pedersen (tenor); Michael W. Hansen (baritone); Bo Anker Hansen (bass), San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Radio Choir, Copenhagen Boys Choir, Herbert Blomstedt, Ulf Schirmer, Decca 460988 CD
Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6; Hymnus Amoris; Sleep; Wind Quintet, Various soloists, Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Melos Ensemble (Wind Quintet), Herbert Blomstedt (Symphonies), Mogens Wöldike (Choral Works), EMI 74299 2 CD
Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished"; Rosamunde Overture; Overture in the Italian Style, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt, Eloquence 458 179-2 CD
Symphonies No. 1-7; Tapiola; Valse triste, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt, Decca 475 7677 CD