Gösta Oswald’s writing and BO NILSSONS’s Brief an Gösta Oswald

Published: 2001-09-24 by Stellan Sagvik

by Anders Nilsson (transl. Sven Borei) (Published in Nutida Musik no. 3 1986/87)

Letters there and back from beyond

On Gösta Oswald’s writing and
Bo Nilsson’s Brief an Gösta Oswald

“Some summers later, Gösta Oswald sits in the same boat-house writing his learned texts by hand on pale yellow paper. Is his head abnormally large or is it the nimbus of young genius that makes it seem so? His humour surprises me – if he’d only let it, if time had only allowed it to permeate the erudition. Had he never eaten spaghetti before? It doesn’t seem so, as he can’t get them into his mouth, sliding off his fork and back onto the plate while he laughs like Chaplin or perhaps like Mozart or may like a child. No swimmer I, but intensely aware of how others carry themselves in the water. I am surprised at his vigour, his swimming ability. And still it is just he who will disappear into the eddies.”
(Werner Aspenström, Sommar, 1968)

Gösta Oswald drowned tragically in 1950 but 24 years old, only a year after Werner Aspenström had watched him in the boat-house. Bo Nilsson was only 12 then, a school-boy in Malmberget in northern Sweden. Not quite a decade later, after an almost sensationally rapid international composing career, he was at twenty one of the most talked about composers on the international compositional scene. After his breakthrough at the world music days in Zurich and at the international summer seminars in Darmstadt, he received commissions for several, leading orchestras and ensembles at both the European and Swedish radio stations. This gave impetus to his precocious artistry leading to such works as Frequenzen and Quantitäten and reaching its full development in compositions like Szene I-III and the large orchestral tetralogy titled Brief an Gösta Oswald (Letter to Gösta Oswald) to texts by the same author.

Like Bo Nilsson, Gösta Oswald had made a much regarded debut as a writer when only nineteen, publishing the poetry collection titled den andaktsfulle visslaren (the pious whistler). Highly praised by the critics, this breakthrough was followed over the years by the novel En privatmans vedermödor, and the two lyrical prose works called Christinamödor and Christinalegender (The Hardships of a Private Man, Christina’s Labours and The Christina Legends). At the time of his early death, he was in the last stages of Rondo, a novel that has been called one of the most unusual in Swedish 20th century literature. Both it and Christinalegender were published posthumously in 1951.

Gösta Oswald was born in 1926 and grew up in Stockholm’s Vasastaden district in a home whose social character was as much working class as it was bourgeoisie. His parents encouraged his precocious literary and musical talents lovingly. In a BLM (Bonnier’s Literary Magazine) article published in 1957, Gösta’s wife Jörel Sahlgren Oswald describes the childhood home in these words: “Gösta’s parents were intelligent and hard-working people living in the borderland between the working and middle classes. For them, Gösta’s successes were an adventure. It wasn’t only that he represented a rung up on the social ladder, but also because he served as a retriever who returned home with valuable game in his mouth. Gösta brought music by Schubert and Mozart. He brought books by authors they’d never heard of and some were good, others not so, but it was Gösta’s taste. Expectations on him were high.”

At fourteen he began piano lessons and his first compositions date from the same year. The sedulous musical and literary studies from this period reveal ambitious goals. Already two years later he is studying composition and theory under Erland von Koch. And even though he completes a large symphony only three years later, his debut that year comes as a promising poet. Still, music would remain an important corner stone for the growing literary artistry; “His largest and most spontaneous interest was music.” (Jörel Sahlgren Oswald, BLM 1957:6)

During the upper secondary years at Stockholm’s Norra Latin School, he met soul mates of the same spiritual level and with as exalted literary ambitions as he held. Included in the circle were Vilgot Sjöman, Carl-Eric Nordberg and Lars Forssell, while the discussions analysed and debated both contemporary new literature and the venerable classics.

The notional content of this poetry collection is philosophically very close to the early impulses from Schopenhauer and to Edith Södergran’s poems, while the construction betrays influences from contemporary, international, modernistic poetry with T.S. Eliot in the forefront. The collection is divided into larger and smaller sections reminiscent in design of Eliot’s Four Quartets, in part derived from the Catholic liturgy as it is lyrically framed in Mozart’s Requiem and in part from the form principle called theme and variations.

The allusions to musical forms and to musical works can even be found in the lyrical prose called Christinalegender, begun and completed during the debut year 1946. Still, it is in the novel Rondo that the most allusion-rich language is found and where the greatest number of references to musical forms are discovered. Beyond the title itself, the A-B-C-B-A structure of the novel suggests a so-called ‘mirror’ rondo based on the famous triptych by Hieronymous Bosch titled “The Hay Waggon”. Section A corresponds to the back-side of the closed triptych labelled “the wandering fool”, sections B, C and D (B) reflect the left, centre and right panels, while the E (A) section returns to the first to the extent that it looks at the artist, his work and what happens to them beyond the closed screen.

Other allusions reach to Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, both for the structure of the novel and for more direct content references, such as the ties to the Bosch painting outlined above. This is expanded on by Oswald himself in a letter written during the writing on the novel and quoted in Birgitta Holm’s doctoral dissertation on the author published by Bonniers in 1969. He speaks of the song cycle’s ‘farewell (the Fall of Man), wandering, winter’s journey (the Waggon) and absence or distance (Hell) ...’ linked to the novel’s themes of missing, of alienation in the world, of longing for death and of seeking it.

Though there isn’t space here to offer a more ingoing presentation of Oswald’s allusionary technique, it is possible to conclude that it does form one of the corner stones of his authorship. At the same time as one can be fascinated by the kaleidoscopic profusion in the allusionary approach, its limited accessibility is obvious; the readers must own the ‘keys’ to the work, must come well equipped and closely acquainted with the cultural heritage that both his work and especially this allusionary method is based in. However, Gösta Oswald was well aware that he was writing for a chosen few, a reading audience well steeped in the wellspring of the literary correspondence. The novel titled En privatmans vedermödor (The Hardships of a Private Man) begins with a quote from Vilhelm Ekelund [1880-1949] which can stand as a motto for this correspondence technique, while simultaneously serving as the background for the title for Bo Nilsson’s Oswald tetralogy Brief an Gösta Oswald:

“Is that not what all of human education is: an exchange of letters? We sit and read each other’s missives, we respond that we have received them properly and then attempt to answer and thank according to our means and abilities.”

Bo Nilsson’s Brief an Gösta Oswald comprises not only an orchestral overture called Séance, but also the three cantatas En irrande son (1958), Mädchentotenlieder (1957-58) and Och visaren i hans ögon vreds långsamt tillbaka (1959)(A straying son, A maiden’s death songs, And his eyes’ hand travelled slowly backwards). However, the overture was not performed at the concert being discussed. In the discussion which follows, the cantatas will be described in the order they were composed.

Gunnar Larsson interviewed Bo Nilsson in connection with the creation of the Oswald Tetralogy. One of his questions was whether a composer facing a poem like the Mädchentotenlieder about a young girl’s songs about death is not drawn to trying to create some sort of musical landscape for the poem, interpreting the journey towards death with musical means. Bo Nilsson’s answer was basically no.

“The point of departure for composing the Mädchentotenlieder, which was the first of the cantatas I composed, was in no way text interpretative, nor was I trying to act as some sort of musical landscape painter. What is true is that I have come to see music as an autonomous world, in principle inaccessible to linguistic analysis, incomprehensible to the thought processes of the spoken word – in addition absurd in purpose or in any case exceedingly mysterious. In other words, the poem, sung by a soprano, is enclosed by a totally absurd sonoral world, one that cannot be linked to any conceptual images of death or the scenes of death – how would that be done in any case? (...)”

“I read the poem carefully and extensively and was deeply moved by it. Then I tried to find the ideal movement of its language melody, analysing the poem from a phonetic, vocalisation point of view – in this there is truly a relationship to the musical I feel is important to work with. Then I tried to set the sonoral body of the solo voice, to shape it in relation to its language melodic. In other words, the text is reformed from a declamatory point of view and translated to the melodic in what is basically a rather traditional manner.”

The melodic gestures remind of what we find in such pieces as Boulez’ La Marteau sans Maître, though differing from the organised tonal material in that work in that the vocal part in Bo Nilsson’s Oswald songs is emotionally conceived from the declamatory language melody of the poem, transferred ‘by ear’ to the tonal embodiment. The vocal part is even closely related rhythmically to the declamatory in that the rhythm is tied to the rhythmic construct of the various verses, as well as to their internal proportions one to the other.

The two initial cantatas use a chamber ensemble that is rather typical for the period when the Oswald songs were composed, even though it differs from traditional concepts – in addition to the vocalists, a soprano and an alto, there is a piccolo, celeste, xylorimba and vibraphone, plus a strongly varied percussion section, violins, viola, cello and string bass (the last two playing exclusively pizzicato), an electric mandolin and a guitar. The En irrande son also uses a piano and a harp. The ensemble also includes an alto flute, filling an important function as a sort of counterpoise to the vocal part in the two first cantatas. In part, it provides a commentary, much like the alto flute voice in La Marteau sans Maître, though through its constant presence in the vocal sections and its domination in the instrumental introductions to each cantata, here it serves as the vocalists ‘alter ego’ or spiritual mirror.

The unusual sound of the alto flute which is the result of the wide mensura and the concomitant slow curve inwards, lends a seemingly exotic sound to the instrument. This is especially true in the works by Bo Nilsson discussed here where the tonal character of the instrument in the virtuoso passages is reminiscent of the Japanese, edge-blown shakuhachi flute.

The alto flute is part of the instrumental introduction, taking a central role around which the other instruments move. After its opening solo in the Mädchentotenlieder, the other instruments group themselves in complementarily shaped rhythmic structures between the voices, using so-called broken method. The violin and cello are an exception to these complementary structures, playing short melodic fragments that form an extension of both the opening’s and the closing alto flute solos.

In En irrande son, however, these complementary or pointillistic structures are in part different. Here they comment directly on the alto flute voice, which in reality results in a two-voice since the listener will experience the pointillistic structures as an accompanying layer in a closer relationship with the alto flute voice than in the Mädchentotenlieder. Several of the varied articulation types appearing in the flute voice are laid out on the other voices – notes held for a longer time in the flute voice are mirrored by ringing notes in instruments like the glockenspiel, celeste, vibraphone, pipes, harp and guitar, as well as the cymbals and gongs of the percussion section. The rapid figures in the alto flute voice, often scored as a so-called appoggiatura or suggested scoring, can also be found in part graphically scored in a reaction score for percussion – a small drum, two tambourines, two bongos, two congas, castanets and a wooden block. In addition the shorter fragments for such instruments as the xylorimba, as well as the pervasive pizzicato play of the viola and string bass are part of the same type of articulation. In other words, the pointillistic accompaniment layer is here expanded to mirror and comment on the articulation types of the solo alto flute voice.

In part because of what has been shown here, the design flow of En irrande son is denser than the previously composed cantata. Instead of the fairly clear divisions of the Mädchentotenlieder with the instrumental opening, the subsequent vocal section and the closing where the song gradually becomes speech, the various parts of the En irrande son, are more intimately tied one to the other. In the Mädchentotenlieder the different musical constructs are constantly shifting – the alto flute solo, the pointillistic structures, the vocal parts. The 1958 cantata, however, can be seen as a composition where several different layers are running simultaneously.

The third and last section of the Oswald Tetralogy is titled Och visaren i hans ögon vreds långsamt tillbaka and like the others, is based on a texts from the novel Rondo. In addition to the two soloists, a soprano and an alto, this cantata is composed for symphony orchestra, female chorus and four groups of speakers placed around the concert hall. The highly varied percussion section, augmented here to 12 players, includes not only the conventional instruments, but also more unusual ones such as a petrol barrel, Javanese gongs and a ‘flaskophone’ – an arrangement of freely hanging bottles. The score also calls for microphone amplification for the woodwinds, the strings and in some cases, even the chorus.

In all its elegance the instrumentation in this cantata clearly illustrates the well known, intense and cool percussive sounds so characteristic for Bo Nilsson’s music from this period and over the years that follow, including in such pieces as Szene I-III. A not atypical quote from the score would illustrate this characteristic of Bo Nilsson’s instrumentation – from the chord which is built up in the strings, a nearly spherical chord whose outer limits comprise all of six octaves, the percussion voices become denser, accelerating until they at last figuratively shatter in a formidable shower of sound. Even if, as heard in the interview quoted above, the composer has denied himself the possibility of relating musically to the text, the first line of the vocal is unavoidably brought to mind – “then my death stood with cleft forehead and [my] life fell.”

The large format of this cantata develops in intimate connection to the text. Compared with the first two cantatas where the vocal parts are framed by instrumental ones in a chamber music style, here we encounter a symphonic greatness based on the poems various emotional mental moods and images. After the sonoral explosions and dramatic eruptions of the opening, as well as following the opening alto solo, we listeners are taken to a radically altered musical space. The lines of the poem can be heard recited from the corners of the hall, ringing from the loudspeakers in a sort of peripatetic turning point for the text material in the three cantatas. The more or less explicit ‘I’-subject in the poems describes meeting death and the moment of death in imperfect:

“min död var större än alla andras - djupare, slutligare
och meningslösare
hans pannas linje var utan virrande spår, utan
domares grubbel
och visarna i hans ögon vreds långsamt tillbaka

under träden låg kastade de vindar jag lämnat
och han förde mig genom den goda skuggans land–”

(my death was larger than everyone’s - deeper, more final
of his forehead lacked distracted tracks, was without
a judge’s worry
and his eyes’ hand travelled slowly backwards

the winds I had left lay thrown under the trees
and he brought me through the land of the pleasant shade –)

After this decisive moment in the third cantata, there is a longer orchestral section whose opening mirrors the characteristic structures from the beginning of the piece – shattering tonal cascades from the percussion section, mainly glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, marimba and the like, placed against a sonoral surround of strings. It can be characterised as a type of recovery of the first structural segment, but longer, with the percussive cascades approaching in character a series of cadenzas within the structure.

With the first entry of the chorus, the closing structural section presents a choral composition which in many facets is remarkable. Not only is the text split up among the different voices, but the purely phonetic treatment of the text, including such effects as the phonetically reversed syllables in measure 146, contributes in part to an instrumental idiom and in part to the early electro-acoustic music.

With the perspective granted by 30 years, the Oswald Tetralogy appears as one of the most amazing and unusual works composed during the 50s. Even when one considers the works created during this period by Bo Nilsson’s international composer colleagues for the same ensemble, that is for the combination of vocal soloist and orchestra or larger ensemble made interesting by the attention paid to works like Arnold Schönberg’s Erwartung, – even in that light Brief an Gösta Oswald seems a necessary and important work from this period, joined then by works like Pierre Boulez’ Pli Selon Pli and Luciano Berio’s Epifanie.

expression’s almost feverish intensity that makes it as vital to listen to this work today as it was thirty years ago. This very fact makes it all the more remarkable that the Oswald Tetralogy will be performed in its entirety for the first time, though without the overture Séance, at the Contemporary Music Concert that is part of the Swedish Musical Spring with Esa-Pekka Salonen [conducting] the Radio Symphony and with Rosemary Hardy and the Radio Chorus. Perhaps this is an expression for what Vilhelm Ekelund once formulated as follows: “The more a work of art has to offer, the more unpopular it becomes and the more select its audience.”


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