A Career of Note
World-renowned conductor draws from his Adventist upbringing.
Herbert Blomstedt, a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist, and one of the world’s most respected classical music conductors, turns 90 on July 11, 2017. Blomstedt, born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1927, moved with his family to Sweden, where his father served as a pastor and a church administrator. While on a recent tour in the United States to conduct the San Francisco Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic, Blomstedt spoke with longtime friend, Karnik Doukmetzian, General Counsel for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.—Editors
You’re turning 90 this year. Most individuals by this age are enjoying full retirement, yet you are keeping a schedule that would keep men half your age tired! What keeps you going?
Well, the main reason is for the love of music. The music I’ve been interested in since early childhood is classical music, like Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Brückner, and Mahler. That’s not highbrow music at all. The love of this music keeps me going. It makes me passionate just to see the score, to hear the sounds.
But there are also other reasons connected to it. When the world’s best orchestras invite, “Come and play with us,” it’s difficult to say “No” as long as I have the physical and mental strength to do it.
I’ve been conducting for more than 60 years, and my first orchestras were very small and not professional; gradually [they] became greater and greater orchestras, world-class. Now I receive so many invitations that I turn down the majority of the requests. It makes me happy to work with these world-class orchestras, and they seem to be very grateful that I’m coming. So I see no reason to stop.
There’s also an artistic reason that has to do with ethics. I think these are common to all artists of all different kinds, also painters and writers. When you create a piece of art, you are never really satisfied. You try to improve what you have done. Sometimes, at one point, you have to leave it to start another work. The same thing is true with a musician. We play pieces that we know very well, that we performed many times, and it’s never really perfect. We think with more experience and another chance, we can get it even better. That is part of the ethics of an artist.
Not only are you turning 90, you also have more than 90 performances scheduled this year. You’ve been keeping a heavy schedule for quite a number of years, you travel a fair amount, and while your beloved wife has now been dead about 14 years, you have some special remembrances of things you used to do while she was alive.
It’s not easy to be married to a conductor who travels around the world. But I fell in love with the right person.
First of all, she was a very devout person. She was born to Adventist parents in Hamburg, Germany. Her father was Danish, her mother was Swedish, so she was fully Scandinavian. She loved music. She played a little piano. She didn’t have any ambitions to become a pianist, but she loved classical music. That was one of the reasons she was interested in me. And she was a very romantic type of person who lived in her dreams a lot about music, about God, and also about love.
As my travel schedule increased, and since we had four young daughters at home, she took care of the children. I admired her for that. It was not easy. But I wrote a postcard to her every day. I have, I think, several shoeboxes full of postcards, maybe some 7,000 to 8,000 postcards, like a diary. Of course, I called her often, so we kept very close contact. When I was at home, I used to cook on Sabbath. She cooked for me during the week, and I liked to give her a day off.
When the children were small, Cecilia, our first born, loved to play, but with my schedule, the time available to play would be only on Sabbath. When I played with her, I would lie on the floor, she on my stomach. She enjoyed that very much. One Thursday I played with her when I was at home. She suddenly stopped and said, “Is it Sabbath today?” She was used to our time together on Sabbath, that was a special joy for Sabbath, and this was another day! She’s a Sabbath-keeper to this very day.
Sabbath is a special day for you. When Sabbath comes, you always find yourself in an Adventist church, no matter what part of the world you happen to be in.
Sabbath is a wonderful gift. Sabbath is not a must: it is a gift. Without the Sabbath I would not be the musician I am today. You have to have a rest from all obligations, all your trades, and your study. Close the books. Think of somebody else. Think of your friends, your family, your children, your spouse, your church, all your friends. That gives it quite another nuance. The Sabbath is a day of joy, not just for yourself. Give joy to others. Sabbath really is a great blessing.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Jewish rabbi and philosopher, said it beautifully. He compares the Sabbath to a temple of time. All religions have their sacred places, temples, churches, cathedrals, where they go, like in Rome, Washington, D.C., or whatever you imagine. There are special places. But the Sabbath is not a special place, not even your local church building. You carry it with you everywhere. It’s a temple of time, sacred time, and that, for me, is a wonderful blessing. I could not be without it.
Sometimes on Sabbath I have more than regular duties. On Sabbath I also have promised to preach, and if I have a concert on Sabbath evening, and I preach in the morning, I could never say, “No, I cannot preach because I have a concert. I have to save myself, warm up, or rest myself.” I belong to the church. I am always at church. If I do not preach, I am always at church. I belong there. My father taught me that. He impressed upon me, “You don’t go to church to get something. You go to church in order to give something.” A wonderful philosophy. It never would dawn upon me not to be in church on Sabbath morning. My place is in church at 10:00 or 9:30 in the morning, because I want to give something. Even if I don’t say a word, my presence can help somebody. And that’s enough for me to feel needed.
Your father was an Adventist pastor?
Yes, he was. But in my childhood years, he was also a teacher at the seminary in Sweden, so young pastors were his students. These pastors took an interest in me. When we went to church, I would sit on their laps, and they thought I was a nice little kid. I grew up with pastors and pastoral students. That was my circle of friends.
My closest friends in the church were always pastors. I could discuss theology with them. Pastors in Sweden who were students of my father were also students of my mother who was a piano teacher. [Adventist] churches in Sweden were small: there was a great chance that church members could not play the hymns in church, so pastors had to do it themselves. They came to study piano with my mother so they could play the hymns.
© Paul Yates
Your father was not very happy that you chose a career as a conductor.
Well, yes and no. It was not his first wish. He wanted me to be a pastor, like he was. I did not exclude that possibility. I was well read in the Bible. We read the Bible through every year; we read the whole Bible, and we always had morning worship before we went to school. We took turns reading a Bible text or a short 10-15 minutes at breakfast, and we finished with my father saying a prayer. Then we prayed the Lord’s Prayer in unison. That was the routine every day. In Sabbath school we studied Bible stories, and that was my world.
My father wanted me to become a preacher. He thought I had some gifts for it. I admired many preachers, as well as my father. He was a very good speaker. He loved music, and I think that was the reason he married my mother, because she wasa musician. He had a good tenor voice and may have thought, I need a good accompanist when I sing evangelistic songs. That was his dream, to become a singer. He really loved music.
When I played my etudes on the violin, and he was in the room preparing his sermons, he sometimes looked up from the books, and said, “Very good.” I thought, He likes what I am doing. I’ll try to play even more beautifully; perhaps he’ll like it even more!
My father died when he was 83. He never encouraged me to go into conducting; but he didn’t stop me either, and that was enough for me. I had encouragement from my mother, who was a wonderful classical musician.
I am grateful for my parents. My mother was a wonderful complement to my father; she was a very social person, very warm and friendly. My father was very strict, absolute duty-performing person, called by God, serving the church, a good model for me in that respect. But he needed a complement. My mother was much more social in her feelings, loved friends, and was a wonderful hostess and entertainer to complement my father.
You’ve been a Seventh-day Adventist all your life. Has it been difficult to live according to your faith as an Adventist and be a conductor?
It was not always easy, but it always paid off. I think my father was a great help for me there. His example as a believer was very important to me. He was an absolutely firm believer.
He told us boys, when we make choices, ask yourself, “Does it have eternal value or not?
“There are many things that are nice for young boys, and you cannot do everything. You have to make a choice. How does a young person without experience make decisions? He cannot always go and ask his father or mother. He has to make his own choice sometimes. So ask yourself, ‘Does it have eternal value, or does it have only temporal value?’ If it is temporal only, then skip it. Go more for the things that have eternal value.”
That sounded very highbrow for me; it sounded like a church sermon. I cannot [always] ask myself, Should I eat this? Does this have eternal value? My father put the mark very high.
During my high school years, I received a prize, which was a series of musical essays by the Danish composer, Rudolph Simonsen. The title was, Sub Specie Aeternitatis, which means, Under the Viewpoint of Eternity. So my father is not so stupid anyhow! I thought. He is a scholar who has some of the same ideals. My father is not alone. This makes sense!
Following my debut with the Stockholm Philharmonic, I got some opportunities for jobs as music director of professional orchestras, but they had rehearsals on Sabbath. They asked me, “Have we heard right that you don’t have rehearsals on Saturday?”
I knew if I said “Yes,” I would lose that opportunity, I had to think fast. I said, “Yes, that’s true.”
They said, “Sorry, thank you for the interest, but we cannot use you.”
There came another opportunity, a little bit better orchestra, and they asked the same question. That was a big disappointment and I should not repeat that, one could perhaps think. But I am a stubborn person. If it was right to say that first time, it was right to say that next time, too. “Yes, I don’t conduct rehearsals on Saturday.”
This time they answered differently. “Well, that’s not easy. That’s quite a problem. But let’s talk about it.” They ultimately offered me the position with Sabbaths free. So one learned by example. If I had said, “Well, perhaps under certain circumstances, it all depends . . .” But they changed, and agreed to always have rehearsals on Sunday morning at 11:00, which was not a problem.
You have a particular philosophy about practicing during the Sabbath, or conducting during those hours. How did you arrive at a solution?
It was also not an easy decision. It’s the most difficult decision I had to make. In the beginning, after my debut at the conservatory, there were concerts on Friday evenings. But since they were part of the curriculum, I would not do any schoolwork on Sabbath. I love music. I play music all the time on Sabbath, at church, and at home, because I love to play music, and also serve. But to do it as part of schoolwork was for me impossible.
So I told the music administrator when I was guest conducting, “Sabbath starts on Friday evening, and I have other priorities.” They accepted that and gave me concerts that were not on Friday evenings. That worked fine.
At one point, one of the best orchestras, the Stockholm Philharmonic, had a music director who was also a fine religious person. He said, “There’s something I don’t really understand with you. You say that you play and conduct to the glory of God. Don’t you want to give God glory on Sabbath?” I didn’t know how to answer. So I put him on hold and went back to study.
I couldn’t ask my father, because I know he would have said, “Under no circumstances.” I tried even to bring him to the symphony concert on, I think, Wednesday or Thursday, and he hesitated. He didn’t really want to because that, for him, was a waste of time; it did not have eternal value. For him, to go to a concert was more or less pleasure. He didn’t have time for that. But he reluctantly came with me to a concert when my teacher was conducting. He liked classical music.
When we sat down together, I picked up the program notes for the concert, to read about the music that would be played. My father brought the Review and Herald magazine with him, opened it and began reading, to read things of “eternal value.” I was reading about the symphony. But that was the way he was: extremely, absolutely, consecrated. So I knew what he would answer if I asked him.
I could not ask another pastor. I could not ask the General Conference president. It was something I had to decide myself, because it was a unique situation. So I read once again the Gospels. I knew them almost by heart, having grown up with them. It dawned on me very quickly that Jesus did many of His miracles on the Sabbath, intentionally, to show “This is how to keep the Sabbath, not as the Pharisees do.”
Pharisees kept the Sabbath to show how good they were. So they could gain favor with God they kept the Sabbath very strictly. They invented hundreds of rules to keep it even better—so many steps on Sabbath, which button not to push on the Sabbath, but that button is possible. Those kinds of rules make the Sabbath just perfect for Sabbath-keepers.
But Jesus hated that. He said to them, “You are vipers. You are white-washed sepulchers, full of dirt inside, but the outside you want to shine. You are hypocrites.”
The more I read, the more I realized that it is right to do good on the Sabbath. Jesus talked to people on Sabbath. He healed them on Sabbath. He preached for them on Sabbath. He did things for them on Sabbath.
I started to look again to my father, who was a great model for me. On Friday evening, or weekdays, I would see him sitting in his study, studying his books, preparing his sermon. But at sundown on Friday he closed his books. His sermon outline was written; he put the books back on the shelves; he was with the family as he listened to us playing music. He prepared the whole week, but on Sabbath he preached the sermon.
He could not say, “No, not today. I don’t work. Come back tomorrow, I’ll preach for you.” That is perhaps the right model for me. I do all the work during the week, rehearse intensively, do my score studies. On Friday evening I close the books, I play for those who come to listen, and I think it’s a blessing for them.
Once in Copenhagen when I was music director for the Danish National Orchestra, we had a concert on Friday evening with a Beethoven piano concerto and Sibelius’ Second Symphony. One of the guests, J. J. Aitken, a Adventist evangelist I had heard preach in London at a Youth Congress (he later became president of the South American Division), was a great music lover. He came to the concert. After the concert on Friday evening, he came to my room and took both my hands. “Brother, I have not been so close to God for 30 years as I have by listening to this symphony.” Music meant something to him. It brought him into the atmosphere of God, the courtyard of the temple, so to speak.
And hearts are touched!
Take the example of my friend, Cliff Goldstein. He had no idea about classical music until recently. Suddenly his ears were opened, and he thought, This music is so divine. It could not be possible without a divine connection. No human being could possibly invent something. There must a God behind this. For him it was a proof of God’s existence. He says in a recent column in Adventist Review, “From now on, all music that I had loved before is like trash for me, so banal and so trivial.” So he just had to open his ears, and a whole new world showed up. This is what I want people to hear.
Music has the quality of expressing something extremely rich, emotionally, and intellectually. Johann Sebastian Bach is the best example of that. Bach was a genius! At the same time, he was a firm believer.
I have a copy of his Bible at home. It was discovered in St. Louis, in the United States, in the 1840s. A German immigrant had bought it at an auction in Germany and brought it to America. It was forgotten and discovered by the man’s heirs. It was Bach’s own Bible, his comments in the margins, his underlining, showing what he thought and what he felt. You only have to listen to his pieces of music to see that he was interpreting the text in a most wonderful way.
For instance, in the B Minor Mass, his greatest religious work, it speaks of how mighty God is. This work uses the full musical octave, all eight tones of the scale, representing God, across the whole world. It speaks of a God who is almighty, omnipotent, and all powerful.
If you read that from the beginning and from the end, it’s the same. God is the same always, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. That’s a sort of hidden wordplay that is lovely to listen to. It’s extremely clever, how [Bach] was trying to get as close as possible to this great God that he worshipped.
You are truly a man on a mission.
I have a mission. Also for those who are perhaps not Christians, who could get the feeling that this is a sacred place, where God wants to speak to us. He wants our attention. He wants us to feel awe in His presence. I think that is possible.
Last week while playing in Philadelphia, I remember one concert—I think a Brahms symphony, the ending was very soft—and I worried that people would start applauding immediately upon the end of the symphony during this sort of sacred atmosphere. During the silence, after the music is finished, is the moment I feel a special blessing in the quiet when God can speak to us. It’s quiet, and the music is still ringing in our heads. I tried to keep the audience quiet, and that’s difficult in America.
In Leipzig where I often play, the public is trained. They are always quiet; they don’t applaud immediately. They’re quiet for half a minute, or even a whole minute, then they start to applaud. But in Philadelphia, this American public is much more spontaneous, perhaps more so than the European public.
But at this concert, the audience was quiet for 15 seconds, or something like that. It was wonderful!
They waited for a long time.
Perhaps only 10 percent of those people were Christians. Most are secular people, but they felt a sacred moment, a moment to reflect, meditate, and think, What is the rapport between the music we have heard and we like so much, and my own life? What can I do better? It changes people, some very dramatically. They are touched by the music, and I play but a small role in bringing that to them.
Earlier this year Pacific Press, in celebration of your upcoming birthday, published your biography. Originally published in German, and authored by Ursula Weigert, called A Great Song. One particular quote caught my attention, in the chapter entitled “Why I am a Christian” you state:
Why am I a Christian? That is an easy question to answer—it creates a perspective for one’s life. The Bible is clear: God is the Lord of creation. And this gives us a vision and hope: The same Jesus who died will also return. In this way, one receives a global perspective on life, which we often need when the hustle and bustle of our daily lives sometimes threatens to overwhelm us.”