What is the secret behind the “Swedish choral miracle”? The phenomenon of choral singing in Sweden has as great an importance as sport. In fact, 600,000 Swedes are estimated to have an active involvement in choirs. Out of a population of just nine million, that’s a pretty impressive statistic! Even though singing was always big in the country that produced an extraordinary number of vocal talents, including Jenny Lind and Birgit Nilsson, one person is generally credited with the popularity of this pastime: Eric Ericson, the choral director. He passed away a year ago, aged 94, and pretty much conducted a post World War II revolution using no other weapon than his own hands.

I have a vivid memory of my first concert as a choir member. I was 13 years old when my choir performed Fauré’s Requiem in a 13th century church nearby Stockholm. I was in heaven. The experience of uniting my voice with those of others changed my life, and indicated the direction my professional interests were to take.

I wasn’t alone, of course. Before me, mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter had sung in the same choir, moving on to sing with Eric Ericson in the Swedish Radio Choir before she launched her dazzling solo career. Among the ranks of amateur singers, many are members of several ensembles at once. Even though Sweden is a secularized nation, churches around the country are filled with music around the major Christian feasts. In addition, the popularity of choral singing has inspired pioneering research at Swedish universities which testifies to the medical gains of this pastime. Results of several ongoing studies prove that unison singing has similar calming influences as yoga exercises, reducing stress and rehabilitating the body through increased production of testosterone. In fact, in a choir, many hearts beat to the same rhythm.  

The heritage of Eric Ericson looms over all of these Swedish professional and amateur musicians and researchers. Ericson’s vocal ideals, his musical preferences and interpretative strengths and weaknesses have coloured those of generations of Swedes. But he also influenced a number of directors on an international level. When the Swedish musical elite gathered at the Eric Ericson Choral Centre for the memorial service last Spring, a steady flow of messages from afar was read out aloud. The service itself, orchestrated in the minutest detail by the maestro himself before he passed away, was a musical feast, topped with drinking songs by Carl Michael Bellman and a cappella favorites such as Kung Liljekonvalje (King of the Lilies of the Valley), which also was Ericson’s nickname.

Ericson was one of those influential Swedes who reconstructed the nation with his artistic vision following the ceasefire after the Second World War. Of course, Sweden never fought a war; because of this, funds were not depleted and the country flourished culturally during the years when the rest of the world was painstakingly reconstructing their past and present, as Richard Sparks points out in his dissertation Swedish A Cappella Music since 1945 / The Swedish Choral Miracle (University of Cincinnati, 1997). Ericson went to the Basel Schola Cantorum for a year to study medieval music, and came back with a vision. He wanted to bring back not only the music of the middle ages, but also the same vocal ideals. The pure, nearly vibratoless sound allows voices to blend perfectly, nearly erasing individual personalities and allowing the conductor to mould the body of sound as though it were an instrument.

The conductor started out singing madrigals with a group of friends within his own Eric Ericson Chamber Choir in 1945, and then went on a mission to build a new repertoire of choral music whilst building up the Swedish Radio Choir in 1951. The skills of this increasingly professionalized group grew for each new commission by the major composers of the day: Stravinsky, Luigi Nono, Dallapiccola, György Ligeti and, most significantly, the influence of Swedes such as Ingvar Lidholm.

A composer such as Sven-David Sandström, who has written a number of works emulating  J.S. Bach, most recently a St Matthew Passion (premièred this February in Berlin), relies entirely on the skills of the choirs built up by Ericson. For the late Claudio Abbado, no other ensemble in the world could rival the Swedish Radio Choir when it came to interpreting the major choral works of the Western tradition.

Eric Ericson’s work with choral singing is emblematic of the strength of a democratic society: pluralism of expression and submission under the vision of unanimity. It has certainly provided the hotbed for the stars of one of our major exports – music – and continues to provide a source for rejuvenation and creativity.