With the death of Eric Ericson on February 16, the world lost a true giant of choral training and discipline. Ericson’s uncompromising and effectively ‘new’ view of choral sound had a huge impact on performance practice in Scandinavia and northern Europe, arguably paralleled only by the work of Barry Rose in the United Kingdom.
Ericson was born in Borás in south-eastern Sweden and studied at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm and at the Schola Cantorum of Basel; he also took lessons in Britain, Germany and the United States. He quickly discovered that his ideas would best be realised through ensembles formed by his own hand; while still a student in 1945 he established the Stockholm Chamber Choir which would eventually, from 1988, carry his own name as the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir.
Ericson was also strongly associated with the Swedish Radio Choir – for many years the doyenne of vocal ensembles attached to broadcasting organisations – which he re-founded in collaboration with Sveriges Radio in 1951. He served as its principal conductor until 1982. For 40 years, from 1951 to 1991, Ericson conducted the male-voice Orphei Drängar ensemble in Uppsala. As his international career flourished from the late 1970s he worked with numerous ensembles including the Netherlands Chamber Choir, BBC Singers, RIAS Chamber Choir, Vienna State Opera Chorus and Laurence Equilbey’s ensemble Accentus, with whom he made a rare guest-conducted recording of music from Finland on Naïve in 2001.
Had a profession been printed on Ericson’s passport, it would surely have read ‘choir trainer’ rather than ‘conductor’. His presence on stage always made itself felt, but his conducting technique was spare and focused in the extreme – increasingly so in old age. Directing his namesake choir with the dip of a finger or the shift of an eyebrow, his level of control, combined with physical stillness, could be staggering.
That only served to highlight the sonic qualities he strove to achieve – most notably a purity of sound gained through intense work on tonal blend and vowel control. He honed the Scandinavian tradition of choral lightness and cleanliness but combined it with the sort of reserved intensity characteristic of English choirs. In his ensembles, particularly the Swedish Radio Choir, he built a solid technique that brought with it dexterity and agility – allowing the devouring of repertoire from diverse periods.
Ericson soon became the chorus master of choice for a raft of high-level conductors including Claudio Abbado and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Many would come to Sweden to work with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, knowing they’d get to collaborate with Ericson’s radio choir by default in choral repertoire; often the choir would be invited to Berlin and Vienna to perform with the famous orchestras there, and it still is today.
Ericson was awarded the Nordic Council Music Prize in 1995 and the Polar Music Prize in 1997. His legacy – not least in community music – lives on in Sweden, where per-capita participation in choral singing is higher than in almost any other country on earth. And his name will live on, too: the principal conductorship of the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir passed to the late maestro’s former assistant, the Swede Fredrik Malmberg, in 2012.