SET SVANHOLM EN BIOGRAFI by Daniele D. Godor & Marie-Louise Rodén

ISBN 978-91-7353-722-3
Atlantis Bokforlaget 2015 ; 490 pp  

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This welcome biography was written by two university professors which should vouch for its accuracy and quality. And I’m happy to say they are. On the other hand the book is written in Swedish. Understandable as the subject of their research was a Swede yet which will limit its sales linguistically. While Swedish is a Germanic language with certain similarities to my mother tongue (Dutch) it nevertheless made difficult reading and several ‘(important) details may probably have gone lost.  On the other hand books on opera singers have become a rarity nowadays so every new book is worthy of our attention and our pocket-money.

Set Svanholm was born in 1904 in Vasteras (hence the title) and died at the early age of 60 in 1964 of a brain tumor whose onset was quite sudden. The reason for this late diagnosis was probably due to the tenor’s excellent physical condition.
Svanholm’s background was religious and poor. His father became a clergyman and the young Set had the task of playing the organ in services. Thus his upbringing was not only religious but also a very musical one even obtaining diplomas in church music, organ and teaching.

Click here to listen to his conducting

Svanholm was a voice student of baritone John Forsell (1886-1941) as were Jussi Bjoerling and his wife. He made his debut as a baritone in 1930 as Silvio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Later on he personally reworked his voice to the tenor range and he made his debut as a tenor in Beethoven’s ninth around 1936.  Before too long he began to sing Wagner roles. Bruno Walter brought him to Vienna (Lohengrin) and soon performances elsewhere in Europe followed. In 1942 he made his La Scala debut (1).  Svanholm was one of the several Swedes who would also prosper under Nazi Germany leaving the German stages only in 1944.
Yet his career did not suffer from his time in Germany and already in 1946 he  made his Met debut as Siegfried.  A year later he made his first records for RCA and a successful decade as a prime Wagnerian tenor but also as a recitalist followed. His last performances on stage were as Tristan in Dusseldorf in 1963 and he passed away a year later.

In ten chapters the authors retrace Svanholm’s career starting with “ A rare singer and much more” to “final words” .  No English is needed for the appendices. The first is an “afterword” on Svanholm’s singing technique which is followed by an article written by the tenor himself (in English!) on “ imitation – its use and abuse”.  An alphabetically (according to composer) detailed discography is included. Svanholm left only a handful of commercial recordings yet the vast amount of live recordings make up for that.

There is also a complete survey of his repertoire with first and last dates and the total of performances of the works he appeared in.  Siegmund is his most performed role with 109 appearances strangely enough followed by 94 incarnations of Bizet’s Don José. Bizarre is his appearance as Silvio (Pagliacci) as late as 8 May 1946  long after he switched to the tenor fach.
A  chronology is included regrettably without co-stars and conductors and no content of the concerts he gave.  For this the reader is referred to the publisher’s website. The online material will be available within short. It will be over 400 pages, including a chronology with casts and concert/programs, a full discography, a repertoire list and a list of songs that were part of his repertoire.

As expected a name index is included yet while Di Stefano is found under “Di Stefano “  Del Monaco is listed as “Monaco Del” .
Another asset to the book are the numerous decent quality photographs all inserted in the bulk of the text.

While the authors make  a strong and justified case for renewing  interest in Svanholm I wonder whether he would still be known were  it not for his close association with Flagstad.  When relistening to his recordings he clearly supersedes singers such as Oehmann, Windgassen, Seider or Suthaus.  But he still has to take a step back compared to Melchior, Volker or Lorenz. I’m not even sure that he was a better tenor than his compatriot Torsten Ralf though Svanholm had a much more rewarding career.

This new publication is certainly of value to those whose interest also lies in (Wagnerian) tenors, photographs, discographies and chronologies of singers’ careers. This book is quasi perfect in this sense.  Yet for reading about Svanholm’s fascinating life story the best option is to wait for a possible English translation.

Rudi van den Bulck

(1) Other Swedes who sang at La Scala were Aroldo Lindi in 1925 and Bjoerling in 1946