Herbert Blomstedt at 90: The Sabbath Gives His Life Rhythm

Herbert Blomstedt at 90: The Sabbath Gives His Life Rhythm

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July 12, 2017

Nobody would think badly of Maestro Herbert Blomstedt, now in the evening of life, if he decided to slow down his pace a little. On Tuesday, July 11, he celebrated his 90th birthday, yet his plans include conducting 90 concerts this year in venues all around the world. That means a lot of traveling, rehearsal days, and interviews – activities that go hand-in-hand with such an intense program.

When I reach Blomstedt by phone he is in a hotel room in Hamburg, Germany. A couple of days earlier he had conducted a première concert of Bruckner’s fifth symphony in the large, newly built concert hall, Elbphilharmonie, in Hamburg’s harbor. Two future concerts, scheduled for January 2018 in the same hall, are already sold out. The day before our conversation, Herbert had received the Brahms award for his “deep respect for the classical legacy and for his humane attitude towards musicians.” The eulogy in his honor was given by music critic Julia Spinola whose book of interviews with him, Herbert Blomstedt Mission Music, was published in April (Henschel Verlag / Bärenreiter Verlag, 2017).

I ask how he copes with his heavy schedule of concerts and rehearsals with the world’s best symphony orchestras in Tokyo, Philadelphia, Dresden, London, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Hamburg, Vienna, Stockholm, Leipzig, Oslo, Boston, and other prestigious locations.

“When I stand before these amazing orchestras, it’s like coming home to my family, my musical family,” he says. “I work with them every year and they are wonderful musicians who give their very best.”

He does not worry about travel arrangements. Everything is taken care of by his manager with the help of a secretary, paid for and arranged by the orchestras who yearn to perform with him. He also shuns mobile phones. This allows him to rest on his travels and prepare for rehearsals undisturbed.

But the real oasis in his life is the Sabbath. Then the scores are set aside, and all his orchestra colleagues know that he wants to be in peace. He will be looking forward to visiting the nearest Adventist church wherever he is conducting, and where he is often given the privilege of preaching.

More sought after than ever

Another oasis is when he can visit his beloved Bengtstorp in Bergslagen. The farm was inherited through his late wife, Waltraud’s, family. It is beautifully situated by a lake near Gyttorp, in the forest and mining district of central Sweden. Blomstedt’s youngest daughter, Kristina and her family live in the house so he is well taken care of when he gets there. He is often able to spend three or four weeks there each summer, enjoying picking berries and mushrooms in the woods. But in this ninetieth year of his life, it may only be ten or twelve days because his work schedule is so full.

“The orchestras have been competing to get in as many concerts as possible during this anniversary year. They make a big deal out of the fact that I’m 90 years old, since it is a sales attraction. To some I may be a draw, but for most, my name means nothing,” says Blomstedt, a little flattered yet humble.

Journalists wait in line to get as little as ten minutes by phone, or travel over half the globe for half an hour’s interview. During this year there will be at least one hundred interviews. But in every interview, journalists bring up the fact that Herbert is a professed Christian, Adventist and Sabbath-keeper. The topic of his healthy lifestyle without alcohol or tobacco is frequently emphasized.

“Unfortunately, today, unlike when I was young, people do not have an appreciation of classical music,” says Blomstedt. “Music journalists enjoy music a lot, but they do not understand the subtleties any longer. So there will always be a focus on these questions that people are interested in, why I am so healthy at this age. They hope to get the answer they already know, that I do not drink or smoke. But that’s just part of the secret.”

Herbert wishes to emphasize that health is a gift. He mentions his older brother Norman who followed exactly the same healthy lifestyle and was also a medical doctor, but unfortunately did not have the gift of health to the same extent.

“There are many good conductors in the world, but what distinguishes me from everyone else is that I celebrate the Sabbath. But I would like to hear them point out that when I am conducting, it sounds different than when my colleagues do it,” he states. Nevertheless, Blomstedt is happy to answer questions about his lifestyle and faith. He is a committed ambassador for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

“It’s part of the bargain so to speak, and of course I’m very happy that I can do something for our Church so that people will understand that we are quite normal people. Because there are still a lot of prejudices.”

The Sabbath flows like a vibrant rhythm of life through Herbert’s career as one of the world’s leading conductors. It could at times, not least in his early life, have been perceived as an obstacle to his career. Yet the Sabbath has been a blessing and a reminder of God’s care and power to intervene. Blomstedt states that he has experienced many miracles as a result of what, in the eyes of many, is seen as stubborn faithfulness to his principles and values.

The most significant experiences

I ask about Blomstedt’s most significant experiences professionally, spiritually, and also with his family. He says that his first visit to East Germany in 1969 and the début concert with the Saxon Staatskapelle Dresden (where he later served as chief conductor 1975-1985) molded him as a musician. He depicts how the orchestra members’ skills and knowledge broadened his experience of what was musically possible.

“I do not produce any tones myself, it is the musicians in the orchestra that show what is possible and they were truly amazing musicians,” he says. “They not only gave me inspiration, but a revelation of new possibilities. Musically it meant an enormous lot.”

“The most important event in my personal life was when I finally married Traute,” noting that they had known each other since he graduated high school in Gothenburg in 1945. But they could not get married until they could earn their living.

As a conductor student at the Royal University College of Music in Stockholm and Uppsala University, he was seen as, “a young stripling who had the reputation of having some talent, but was a little eccentric about the Sabbath.” It was not easy getting a conducting assignment. After nearly ten years of music studies with leading maestros like Igor Markevitch, Jean Morel, and Leonard Bernstein, Blomstedt was finally offered the opportunity to conduct his début concert with the Stockholm Philharmonic on February 3, 1954. At last financially secure, this gave him the opportunity to become engaged to Traute and for them to marry the following year.

The début concert was a major breakthrough. The newspapers wrote brilliant reviews. Just days later he was offered the position of conductor for Gävle Symphony Orchestra, but the Sabbath became an obstacle. A few weeks later, Norrköping Symphony Orchestra showed interest, but of course had heard about the Sabbath. However, the orchestra decided unexpectedly to make an exception for Blomstedt and his Sabbath keeping. Since then, he has encountered fewer difficulties on account of his Sabbath-keeping. Not even in Communist East Germany was Sabbath a problem, despite the fact that his fellow Adventist believers there, were oppressed for the sake of the Sabbath.

“Seeing God’s leading has of course strengthened me in my determination,” Blomstedt says about his decision not to hold rehearsals on the Sabbath. Also his most significant spiritual experience was in regard to the Sabbath. It occurred early in his career when Herbert not only did not take part in rehearsals during the Sabbath, but also did not give concerts on a Sabbath either.

New insight

Johannes Norrby, managing director of the Stockholm Philharmonic, was a professed Christian himself. While planning the concert program one year, he said to Blomstedt: “I respect your standpoint not to rehearse on the Sabbath. But there is one thing I do not understand. You say you play music to glorify God. Why don’t you want to glorify God on the Sabbath?”

Herbert was nonplussed by the question. Of course he wanted to glorify God on the Sabbath! Herbert found himself facing a minor crisis, not because he doubted his conviction to keep the Sabbath but in regards to the logic behind his decision on how to keep it. He knew that he could not go to his father, Pastor Adolf Blomstedt, or write to the General Conference president to get an answer.

“This was something I had to solve myself, on my knees,” he says. “I felt I had to read the Gospels again and the more I read the closer I came to a new understanding. It is often stated in the context of Jesus’ miracles: ‘but it was Sabbath that day ...’ Jesus had done them deliberately on the Sabbath to show how the Sabbath should be celebrated.” What Jesus did on the Sabbath was considered work by the Pharisees.

Blomstedt’s father, Pastor Blomstedt, was an important role model for him. He worked hard during the week, studying and preparing his sermon for the Sabbath. But when the sun set on Friday evening, he left his books and notes to be with his family, who played music all Friday evening. But on Sabbath morning he delivered his sermon which he had prepared during the week.

“‘There is the solution to my problem!’ I thought,” says Blomstedt. “I study my scores and rehearse with the orchestra all week, but when the sun goes down on Friday, I do not study more scores. But I give my sermon standing on the conductor’s desk in front of the orchestra. I cannot deny anyone hearing the music just because it’s Sabbath, it’s not logical to me.” To Herbert, music is a gift from God. Just like a sermon, it brings people close to Him.

Back to the Bible

“We must learn to study the Bible for ourselves and come to decisions on our own,” Blomstedt says about his most important spiritual experience. A principle which he believes to hold true even today. His thoughts stray to how he experiences the developments in the Adventist Church today. Through his worldwide network of friends in churches, universities, and Church leadership, he has a deep insight into the Church’s challenges and opportunities. As one of Adventism’s most prominent and long-standing ambassadors, it’s no wonder he’s engaged, concerned, and optimistic.

When Blomstedt celebrates his 90th anniversary at Ekebyholm Castle, the Adventist academy about a 45 minute drive from Stockholm, he looks forward to merging the two most important spheres in his life: the world of classical music and the world of the Church. Many distinguished music colleagues and friends from within fine arts and culture will meet friends from the church, and prominent Adventist theologians from around the world. Of course, his four daughters, seven grandchildren, his sister and the children of his late brother and their families will also be there. But when the party is over, it will be back to continuing his extensive world tour.


This story was written by Rainer Refsbäck and originally published by the TED News Network.

Image Credit: www.staatskapelle-dresden.de


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