Confessions - KARL-ERIK WELIN between two trains – conversations centring on L’Aveu

Published: 2001-10-10 by Stellan Sagvik

Keeping minutes: Per-Anders Hellqvist (trans. Sven Borei) (Published in Nutida Musik no. 2 1984/85)

On the train to Copenhagen, I commit a characteristically journalistic mortal sin one grey and depressing autumn day. On my way to a between-trains conversation with Karl-Erik Welin, I wait until only a few hours before my meeting to open the work folder with his name on. As I work my laborious way through Mats Gellerfelt’s libretto for L’aveu, I discover in my search for connections to the Welin I once knew, a text that is at once crystal clear and difficult to interpret, filled with innuendoes, abbreviated sentence structures and reversed word orders.

It is remarkable that all the time it is another face than just Karl-Erik Welin’s that presents itself: that of the ageing Eyvind Johnson: a thin, serious, perhaps already somewhat bitter one. For it is just this painful story interweaving violence, love and religious ecstasy that so many have retold – Johnson in Drömmar om rosor och eld (Dreams of Roses and Flames) and Krzysztof Penderecki in Djävlarna i London (The Devils in London) -– that Gellerfelt and Welin do a variation of here.

On yet another, equally grey autumn day in 1953, Eyvind Johnson talked with a group of bibliophiles in Göteborg. I was there. It was the only time I saw and heard this my youth’s literary idol bar none. And I remember how mysteriously suggestive it seemed that he chose not to use one of his own literary figures as point of departure, but picked one of the tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm: perhaps the oddest and most symbolic of them all with the name The town musicians in Bremen. The characters are all fleeing from their lives: the rooster facing slaughter, the old cat that can’t catch mice any more, the toothless dog, the worn-out donkey. All are threatened by the butcher’s knife, but the rooster has a motto: “Follow me to Bremen. There is something better than death everywhere.” They do and the miracle happens: in the dark the rooster’s cry and the cat’s claws and the dog’s bite and the donkey’s hooves join to form a wild creature that leads a robber gang to believe that they are attacked by witches. They flee, leaving their den as a sanctuary for the sorry group.

Eyvind Johnson must have used the story as the apotheosis of departure, a celebratory song to a change of life, one which only has the appearance of flight. It was a suggestively optimistic, affirmative message in a period when the hangover from the war threatened to segue without a break into the anxieties of the cold war and the nuclear balance of terror. Johnson could not himself keep bitterness from the door during the remainder of his life, but for those of us who listened that day the therapeutic effect was most palpable.

Karl-Erik Welin meets me at the Hovedbangården.

“Welcome to Copenhagen,” he begins. “But I haven’t fled Sweden in order to…”

“Have you fled from Sweden?”

“Yes, I have fled from Sweden. I have been chased away by people who have misunderstood me. Misunderstanding is harder to bear than malice, for malice is a criticism, a slap. You take it and rebound. But being constantly misunderstood, minute after minute, 24 hours a day, year after year – be attributed opinions one doesn’t subscribe to. It is unendurable. And then it becomes necessary to choose to live in a place one can tolerate.”

“What is there in Copenhagen you didn’t have in Stockholm or Örebro?”

“I can find every identification here. And with them the danger that it becomes impossible to create contrasts since everything is here. If you are down at heel, there is always someone more worn out and nobility is always surpassed. Whatever the street, I am sure to meet the worst Welin and the best. I don’t know if I can handle it, but I must try.”

A moment earlier:

“What makes me so difficult for the world around me is my drive to make contrasts. I function opposite a chameleon: in green surroundings I take on the most awful contrasting colours. Am I with a drinking group, I order mineral water and the reverse. At the organ, I rumble and crash, which makes me the most considerate of lyricists as a composer. At the same time, contrasts are a condition of life and an axiom of history: Leonardo da Vinci was born a score years before Michelangelo and Bach was despised by his sons…”

A moment later:

L’aveu, your new work, is it a contrast, a turning point?”

“A turning point of course, but is towards the light or a step further down into hell?”

“Isn’t it true that you regularly undertake things interpreted as a period, a finality, but which turns out to be a only semi-colon – the infamous ‘last piano evening’, which instead turned out to be an opening towards something new, and the requiem affirming death?”

L’aveu is no period, but a colon, an opening towards the light. In my life, the road towards light and the road towards darkness lie close together.”

“Krister Stendahl once said to me that he had learned something very important, namely the verb to endure.”

“I hope that after L’aveu there will be a greater capacity to endure everything: joy and sorrow, hell and light… Enduring joy is actually just as difficult as enduring hell.”

“In L’aveu or The Confession I sense that you talk about yourself with greater openness than before.”

“You’re wrong. All my works, starting with Opus 1, deal with me. That’s what some critics have a hard time accepting. But L’aveu is more open than ever. Just the fact that Madeleine, Urbain Grandier’s woman, is sung by a tenor is as clear an identification as any.”
L’aveu is the most exact score I have written, with much smaller tone values and more details than in Ett svenskt rekviem (A Swedish Requiem) for example, a work it otherwise is very similar to. But in L’aveu everything is wholly my own. The requiem contains many quotes, but here there are none.”

“But pastiches?”

“Yes, my well loved friend Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) is included and in one place where there is a similarity to his D Major canon, there is a dedication ‘To my dear friend Johann’, though people can think what they want about that.”

“Do you see pictures when you write?”

“No, never. Well, of course I see what can be done on the scene from a purely scenographic point of view, what luscious scenes it could become! But not in other ways.”

“You said that Madeleine is sung by a ‘boy’. Are you consciously playing on an ambiguity, an androgynous character, like with Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier or in Tintomara?”

“Certainly not! My purpose is to show myself with complete honesty, unambiguously, just as I am. I’ve always wanted to do just that!”

“And I want to emphasise that it is for that honesty that I have been persecuted. Perhaps I have really benefited from it. But honesty, one that many in the audience are drawn to but have not dared to emulate, creates a tension that is dramatically enriching, without for that reason having to represent the deeper meanings of the drama.”

“Is L’aveu an opera or a dramatic cantata?”

“Certainly not a dramatic cantata. It would have worked as a radio opera for musical drama group of the Swedish Radio, but hasn’t become that either. It was Ingvar Lidholm who came with the commission and, as is his custom, made it clear that they understood that it wouldn’t be an opera, but that they naturally would make sure that there would be a concert performance which would be broadcast.”

“And then it is part of it all that the tensions in L’aveu are far more dramatic than in much of what is presented on stage. But it would almost certainly have been very, very expensive to present L’aveu on stage. All these tensions and insinuations would call for a complicated and advanced scenography. I’ve saved Swedish Radio a lot of money…”

“The last I saw of my old friend by whose side I had stood loyally through all the terrible things that had happened to him and to our suffering city, was how his body bent forwards into the surging flames and how he was enveloped by the smoke. I remember my tears on my lips. I seem to have lifted my face and pressed my chin and my lower lip forwards.” (Eyvind Johnson, Dreams of Roses and Flames, the last lines)


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