More hymns for the Swedish people!
A conversation with Ove Gotting
As part of the filming for the documentary, ”God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good,” we interviewed Ove Gotting, teacher of music and choir director for the Music Line at Södra Vätterbygdens Folkhögskola (SVF) in Jönköping, Sweden, to ask him about the school’s musical heritage. Recorded by Tim Frakes, translated and edited by Mark Safstrom. May 21, 2015.
MS: Can you tell us about yourself and your work?
OG: My name is Ove Gotting, and I work at the folkhögskola in Jönköping, SVF, and I am a teacher here among other responsibilities. I have worked here in roughly the same capacity since 1985 when I graduated from the University of Gothenburg. I had begun teaching part time two years prior to that, at the same time as I had a position as a congregational musician at Immanuel Church down in the city. That was between 1979 and 1981.
MS: What was it that drew you to SVF?
OG: I came here from gymnasium first as a student, about the same time that Gunnar Hallingberg began his position here as rektor. I attended here for two years. I had imagined a completely different educational path, but then I became completely engaged with music. I served my military service one year, and then I was offered the position as congregational musician in combination with working here, both part time positions. So, I continued my studies in music, completed what is known as a kantors examen, or the pedagogical exam for church musicians. This was a distance learning course, with studying in the summers. So, I took the kantors examen in Gothenburg and the kyrkokantors examen in Stockholm. At the same time, I applied to the Music College, and began there in the fall of 1981.
MS: What is the Music Line? How would you describe that program?
OG: The Music Line [Musiklinjen] has looked different over the years. It began as a vision for Carl-Elow Nordström, who was involved in among other things the school’s board. Carl-Elow was a leading figure within the Swedish Mission Covenant, was the leader of the Singers’ Society and a composer and arranger. He had the vision and saw the need for congregations to be able to receive more musical competence for their leaders. So, it was in this light that the Music Line saw the light of day, one might say. There was an ambition that those who were working non-profit and amateurs would have the opportunity to develop their talents, too. That was the idea, that young people would have the opportunity to advance. And that’s what it became.
MS: Who are the students today? Who comes to the Music Line and where are they headed afterward?
OG: Students are still coming to improve their talents. They have maybe already been to a local music program or have had musical training at the gymnasium level, and they are looking for one year at “folkis,” as they refer to it. Some of them have ambitions to go on to pursue professional tracks as instrumentalists or as singers, and perhaps most often as music teachers. And maybe they don’t immediately pursue music afterward, but focus on other things first. And there are still a number who go into service in a congregational context. Or maybe they have already been in a congregation in one way or another and are looking to improve. So, those are the categories: people with professional ambitions, those who are headed into other careers but wish to indulge themselves in cultivating what is for them an area of great personal interest, and those who are wanting to serve in congregations.
MS: For our readers who are unfamiliar with a folkhögskola as a school form, how would you describe the experience that students receive here?
OG: The first thing I would say is that the folkhögskola was a Danish phenomenon from the beginning. What Grundtvig and others envisioned was folkbildning [general education and cultural enrichment of the nation]. The idea was not necessarily that students were going to continue on professionally, but rather that one was to get a general education and become a better member of society, and understand one’s situation in life a little bit better. It has always been about cultural and personal development at the folkhögskola. If you put the Music Line, which I represent, into that context, we would refer to this as a special track. Allmänlinjen [General Studies] is another, and the students in this track are gaining a complement to their education, perhaps to get a second chance, maybe in that their grades are okay, but perhaps not good enough. So students are trying to enhance their education in order to advance to a higher level. But it could be the case that a student has not thrived at all, or could not pass for a variety of reasons, at the gymnasium level. And maybe folkhögskola is their second chance. And then we also have a tradition of continuing studies for adults. But the Music Line as a specialized track has the advantage of allowing students to devote themselves to music, with a few specific complementary subjects, but mostly music.
MS: What I remember from my time here was also the social side and the spiritual side of life at this folkhögskola. Can you tell us about the life on campus?
OG: Formerly it was the Swedish Mission Covenant who owned the school, now it is Equmenia, the newly formed merger of free churches. And this of course gives the community a certain character in certain ways, such as worship life, and not least on the special tracks, the Music Line and the Bible Line, and in our recruiting. People come from the folk-movement-free-churchly part of Sweden, as well as from the Church of Sweden and other denominations that are not necessarily tied to our awakening tradition.
Most of all, I believe, it is the people who are here who contribute to the content. We the faculty have a way of being together that places importance on these values. This is important to us. It is a view of humanity that is grounded in a Christian worldview, I would say. And yet it is not the case that one needs to be a Christian to attend here. We have many people coming from other faith confessions, not least in the General Line, as well as the many new Swedes who are coming our way. And we hope that the school community can be an environment where people feel embraced in a warm fellowship, and be taken care of, quite simply. And that we take care of one another.
MS: What are the musical traditions, composers, and songs that you are most drawn to?
OG: I grew up in a little congregation, we were no more than 13 people on paper; it has been closed now. We were out in the country in a country village. There were three congregations who shared a pastor, yet we had a rather active music life. We had a history of pastors who had invested in this. We had choirs for youth and for adults. So, I have been anchored in this vocal tradition, of singing together, and have been a choir person my whole life. My motivation in studying music was to be a better choir director. This has been my passion, you could say; that people could do something together. I also like singing solos, that is another side of it. But what has been the guiding light for me was that people could gather around something. People can be quite different, and nevertheless have a common interest. Our treasury of hymns from the awakening was the foundation of this interest, and then I continued on to study in the classical tradition. Then from there, life has stretched me to expand out to popular music also – so I have a broad musical interest.
MS: Among the great names that have connection to the free churches’ common musical heritage, one can think of Lina Sandell, Grundtvig, Hans Adolph Brorson, Carl Boberg, Erik Nyström, Oscar Ahnfelt, Rosenius. When I say these names, what do you think of?
OG: These are names that I first and foremost associate with good lyrical composition [psalmdiktning], not least Lina Sandell, naturally, who was from Småland – my grandmother was from Småland, so I am a bit of Smålänning, too. And these are songs that we still sing, the church has taken care of these and allowed this tradition to live on, as well as it can. Some of the other names only church musicians would know, or people who have sung some of the choral anthems by these authors.
MS: Good lyrical composition – what do you mean by that? How do we know this when we hear it or read it?
OG: There are many contemporary hymn writers, many good hymn texts, and song texts – it does not need to be a four-part structure, but can be a wider concept than that. A good hymn text is anchored in some way in a word of Scripture. And it transfers the word of the Bible over into a more understandable text. It explains, it simplifies, and clarifies a theological truth.
Not too bad – hey? [Det var inte så dumt, va?]
[laughing out loud]
MS: Who are some of the contemporary hymn writers that are continuing in this tradition of good hymn writing?
OG: This was a question that I wasn’t prepared to answer. Some names, in no particular order, are coming to mind. One name among many is Per Harling. There are many others. Britt G. Hallqvist. Ylva Eggehorn has several beautiful contributions in the current hymnal and supplements. Her texts explain things often from a totally different starting point. Her poems have been set to music by many good composers, who approach her work with a special style. There is even a tango melody set to one of her texts; “When life doesn’t turn out the way we thought” is the message of that one, as I recall. She has another completely wonderful text in “Children and stars” [Barn och stjärnor], a song for Candlemas, but with general relevance; “The light bears us” … “God is near” … “in a little child who sees us.”
MS: What are some of the challenges and opportunities for today’s church musicians? How can the past be used as a source of inspiration and a way to move ahead?
OG: There is always a risk that, even as one has a well-intentioned need for renewal, one might forget everything that has to do with tradition and inheritance. Especially in that we are always seeming to want to keep up with that great country in the west. And there are many people who talk about this tradition of church music and hymns and songs and ballads on the one hand, and set it in opposition to what they rather carelessly refer to as the new “praise song” tradition. Yet there is much that is beautiful that should be affirmed. But sometimes there is a tendency to water down the message in some of those texts; there can be a one-dimensionality in how we describe how God is and how we relate to God. This has to do with how society looks today, the march of individualism, and there are many factors. I am not critical of all the new stuff, or don’t want to be, at any rate. I just see that there are more congregations who are “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” in the interest of being on the cutting edge and modern. I see a risk in this.
I have also been a church musician in the Church of Sweden for many years in a small community where I live and where I was also born. I have been in people’s homes when someone has died and have had people say, “Well, my mom wasn’t at all religious, but here is her hymnal,” and then they proceed to show me a book that they received, perhaps when they were confirmed – and it has been completely read to pieces! And this says to me that it is important what texts we are singing, what texts we are communicating to people, because it is forming our image of God. Some of these hymnals have been useful in putting together the funeral service in a more personal and dignified way.
There are some people who have made the claim that the hymnals in various periods in Christianity, perhaps especially in Swedish Christianity, have been a more important book than the Bible. And to claim this is not to just puff up one’s chest, but simply to say that the hymn texts were supposed to explain and simplify and clarify a theological message. I think a good reason for this is that there is a lot of good lyrical composition in the hymnal. And this is an inheritance to take care of.
All this has its historical explanation in how Sweden has functioned in the past. In the 1600s and 1700s the church’s and the state’s power were one. So, for intellectuals, one’s career was either as a priest or as a civil servant or as a teacher. And this gave birth to hymn writing. I shouldn’t neglect to mention that Scandinavians have been historically fascinated by words and poets [skalder], originating in Iceland. This tradition is quite strong, and part of all of us. And then there is also the fact that my parents’ generation had to learn hymns by heart. It was part of the education that they had in school. And when I went to school, we still sang hymns as part of our morning assemblies. If you sing good poetry, this helps with your development of language. You find rhyming words, you find ways of describing things, and so on. So, it is clear that this is good to receive this.
More hymns for the Swedish people! [Mera psalm åt svenska folket!]
MS: That’s a perfect note to end on!