Herbert Blomstedt explains why Finns conduct better than Swedes

Herbert Blomstedt explains why Finns conduct better than Swedes


norman lebrecht

November 17, 2020

The veteran maestro, 93, is working this week in Stockholm.

Asked why the Finns are so successful at producing good conductors he said:

‘Finland is less of a spoiled nation than Sweden, there are fewer temptations. They’ve lived in a dangerous place, been skilled in diplomacy and managed to handle Russia. Therefore they are more introverted and work on their own. Sweden has succeeded in its economy and could afford to hire foreign conductors.

‘Here we have the ratpoison that Finland couldn’t afford.  Elias Canetti said: “Success is ratpoison for art.”‘

Blomstedt is conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony this week in Schubert’s Great C major Symphony. Last week he was in Bamberg with Bruckner 8.

Blomstedt, 93, with soloist Johan Dalene, 20



  • Peter says:

    “Blomstedt is conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony this week in Schubert’s Great C major Symphony.”

    But there is a picture of soloist Johan Dalene. Is he not playing anything, since it’s not mentioned?

  • Doc Martin says:

    I love having Swede boiled and mashed with butter and pepper with my roast lamb and runner beans, baked spud and roast onion, washed down with 1937 Chambertin.
    My wife Annie does a marvellous roast, with her magic Hennessey trifle.

  • Hal Sacks says:

    Saw his last concert in Philadelphia last fall. The players love him. We hope he keeps conducting longer than Stokowski.

    • G.M.Palmer says:

      I still have, and enjoy, the ” Stokie” Brahms 2 or 3 in lp recorded just before his death @ 94- or however old he was – it was always in question ha ha ! Greetings from the Motor City.

  • Le Křenek du jour says:

    As an abiding Blomstedt fan of old, I’m ever ready to grant the maestro the benefit of doubt and a presumption of wisdom.

    But on this count, “A hae ma doots”.
    First, I cannot imagine any living artist more remote from the mindset of Elias Canetti than Herbert Blomstedt. Indeed, I cannot imagine any writers more alien to Blomstedt than Paul Celan, Emil Cioran, Elias Canetti, and Imre Kertész; in that order.
    As Canetti wrote in “Die Provinz des Menschen”:
    “Ein Liebesbrief aus Schweden. Strindberg auf den Briefmarken.”
    (A love letter from Sweden. Strindberg on the stamps.)
    Canetti proffered to despise success — before he had it. In his own words: “Success is the space allocated to oneself in the newspaper.” He ended up getting column inches in spades.

    Second, it’s enough to compare the role of music and music education in Finland and in Sweden to know that Blomstedt’s hypothesis has no leg to stand on. The problem is not limited to conductors. They are, if anything, an epiphenomenon: the tip of the iceberg.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      I have a feeling that Blomstedt (speaking of having no leg to stand on) is pulling ours.
      – regards, Greg

    • John Borstlap says:

      It seems to me that the climate and nature of Finland invites inwardness, and a more concentrated inwardness than seems to burden much of the Swedish population. The perfect art to be exercised inward, is classical music, while Swedes may be more inclined to reach for the booz. A reason that Fins drink less, may be that they feel they have to keep a wakeful eye on the Russians, so there may indeed be a point in Blomstedt’s comments.

      • Bertil Myhr says:

        I agree with Finns being more introvert than Swedes, but in fact, they are firmly entrenched in the position as the #1 drinkers in the Nordic region. This is still an insignificant observation, as Maestro Blomstedt himself hinted in an interview with Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter – published this week. When asked to reflect on his longevity, he commented that “I often think about great collagues, like Jean Sibelius – he was an alcoholic, smoked 40 cigars dailya, and lived to be 92.”

        • John Borstlap says:

          There is a story that Sibelius’ drinking and smoking habits were actually a PR story created by his wife, and that he was a closet veganist and only drinking sparkling source water, all under the strict supervision of Aino.

  • guy says:

    Perhaps Darwin was wrong.

  • Axl says:

    We also have legendary pedagogue Jorma Panula who has developed a good teching system in 70’s and I think that it’s also reason why there is so many good Finnish conductors. So many his former pupils are now touring in world – Klaus Mäkelä in newest one. Plus also it’s easy to studying conducting in here because orchestras are giving lot of opportunities to students and in Sibelius academy there is own orchestra for conducting students.
    These are few things

  • There are seven reasons for the success of Finnish conductors. 1) An excellent conducting professor at the Sibelius Academy. 2) A large number of publicly funded, high quality orchestras in the Nordic countries to employ young conductors and give them valuable experience.
    3) A strong sense of Nordic cultural nationalism that motivates them to assert their identity through the arts. 4) A continuing belief in traditional, bourgeois forms of cultural expression that many other countries are leaving behind. 5) Excellent educational systems that create cultivated citizens who support the fine arts. 6) A practiced need of a small remote country to involve themselves with the international community. 7) The high levels of consensus and social conformity in the Nordic world which are overwhelmingly white and Lutheran.

    (Blomstedt’s comments are just ironic silliness.)

    • G.M.Palmer says:

      Wonderful, spot on comments. Thank you ! Having played under the great Sixten Ehrling ( who once gave an interview about a summons to Sibelius’s manor to find him and Robert Kajaunas , old men , playing a drinking game in a closet !) in an in-residence youth orchestra at the Detroit Symphony’s former Summer home, I was exposed a bit to that Nordic cultural ethos. What a terrific experience.

      • Max Raimi says:

        Ehrling conducted the orchestra at Juilliard while I was there; I regret that I cannot share your high regard for him. One thing I’ll never forget was how he would spin around 360 degrees on the podium when he was displeased in rehearsal, which seemed to be most of the time. After a while, the cellists in the orchestra took to spinning their cellos when he executed this maneuver, taking care to have their instruments back to playing position when the Maestro’s back was no longer turned.
        But one dark day, he outsmarted us. He started his spin, and then returned to facing us, just in time to see the cellos finish their pirouettes. He stomped off the podium in a rage; I can’t remember now how they got him to come back.
        My main recollection of his actual rehearsal technique was an obsession with bowing uniformity. It seemed like every time I inadvertently played the wrong bowing, he would call me out.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Bang! all entirely right observations – they are the requirements of civilisation and cultural awareness.

    • Alma Regina says:

      Unfortunately, your paragraph 5) is very wrong. Does absolutely not apply on the education of today. Sweden has long time been very oriented towards comercial, entertainment “Art” (everything american has been copied and admired unquestioned), the finnish people are (or shall I say, at least have been..) different because they have had more hardships to endure than the swedes, which made them less superficial and materialistic.

    • Tommy of Finland says:

      A sensible analysis, except for Finns are not Nordic.

  • Florian says:

    Most buoyant, songful, elevating Bruckner cycle of all — including Karajan’s and Skrowaczewski’s — using optimal editions throughout is the one from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (2005 to 2012, in good live sound) on the costly little label Querstand led by Herbert Blomstedt, and there’s a nice, later video too of the Third (first version of course) with him and the Berlin Philharmonic.

    • Peter Phillips says:

      Not forgetting his Bruckner 4 and 7 with the Dresden Staatskapelle from 1980/1.

      • Florian says:

        Indeed. That Fourth from Sept. 1981, which I’m afraid I still haven’t heard, is by the way oddly listed by Denon as the “Nowak” without saying which one (1953 or 1975, a vital difference) and by the usually infallible John Berky (abruckner.com) as the Haas!

    • Herr Doktor says:

      I don’t doubt Florian gets much out of Blomstedt’s cycle. I have it and enjoy it, but at least in my opinion, it’s very good but not great. Nothing comes close to Karajan’s magnificent Bruckner cycle. Skrow’s is very good, probably my 3rd favorite (after Jochum/DG). I do agree, however, that the performance of the 8th in Blomstedt’s cycle is a great performance. The 3rd and 6th likewise stand out.

  • Sheila Novitz says:

    I would’ve said Finns conduct better than Swedes because generally they are simply much nicer and more intelligent people than Swedes will ever be. This, at any rate, has been my experience both musically and socially.

    • mikhado-Swedish cellist says:

      Hi Sheila, Tell me, did your small minded bigotry develop all at once or over a period of time? Sincerely, MH Dahlbo

  • The fact is also that Sweden was historically very open to the music of Sibelius especially at Goteborg. Today we can see that with the finns conductors with Oramo at Stockholm and Rouvali at Goteborg. concerning Blomstedt he was more famous at the bining for its works in Denmark especially with Carl Nilssen

  • Nurhan Arman says:

    With great respect to maestro Blomstedt I must disagree with his generalization. Part of the logic behind his comments is that if Finns can handle the dangerous Russians, they can also handle the orchestra musicians. That’s not a good analogy.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Blomstedt’s remarks are knowing and amusing. He is after all Swedish himself from age two, though born in Springfield, Massachusetts.

    The Bruckner ground was well-prepared by Von Hausegger, Boehm, Furtwaengler, Wallter, Van Beinum, and Haitink. A notable complete cycles is Georg Tintner’s, using mostly theoriginal versions.

    Van Beinum’s 8th is one of the most powerful at the climax of the primo; Furtwaengler’s command and gravity absorbing in 4 through9 despite the age of his recordings, all live but the war-time 7th Adagio; Celibidahe too slow, particularly the 4th. I like Harnoncourt’s late 7th and 9th with he VPO inluding all known fragments of the unfinished 9th, dedicated “To my dar Go.,” with charming remarkss in German and English by Harnoncourt. Karajan was always special in the 7th; my wife saw him conduct it in Hamburg.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      100% agreed, Edgar.
      Sometimes you make it difficult for me to make comments of my own: you have already written them!
      – best wishes, Greg

      • Edgar Self says:

        Sapristi! It cuts both ways, Greg, depending on the ox being gored, but I know you don’t let it stop you. It may be karma, a mystery, or due to a mutual misunderstanding, as Hesse told a like-minder, but probably inclination, like experience and tastes, or just being old enough to remember things, like many here. Whatever it is, it’s agreeable and I’m glad for it.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    There are lots of young Finnish maestros around, none of them, however, even as good as THAT Swede…

  • Max Raimi says:

    The last concert I played before the pandemic was with Blomstedt at the Chicago Symphony. Mozart Piano Concerto K.488 and Brahms Second. He refused a chair for the rehearsals, explaining “Chairs are for old people!” Wonderful, unforced music making; among the best Brahms Seconds I can remember playing in 35+ years here.

  • Craig in LA says:

    I have no idea why Finland produces so many great conductors–air, water, culture, saunas?–but it’s probably the same reason they produce so many world champion racing drivers, especially in rallying and Formula 1.


    • John Borstlap says:

      It’s the saunas. The awful shock of jumping into ice cold water after being heated-up by disruptive passions, turns the energies into more productive directions. Saunas are physical sublimation exercises.

      Experiments at the Psychological Faculty of the Texas Institute of Technology have shown that testees went through profound personality changes after being saunatized, including divorces, Roman Catholic conversions and taking-up trombone playing. But none of the testees took-up conducting.

  • Gustavo says:

    The same could be said about Estonia and Latvia with Neeme, Paavo, Mariss, and Andris – to name the most prominent.

    It’s in their DNA, as one tends to say.

  • Edgar Self says:

    I think you’re onto something about saunas and saunitizing, John. Both William Terotter’s novel “Winter Fire” about Sibelius and Robert Ford’s “The Student Conductor” have intense sauna scene in with musicians, composers, a conductor rnamed Ziegler, and cameos of Furtwaengler. Pure coincidence, of course.

    I wonder, are there other Seventh Day Adventist conductors like Blomstedt who don’t work on the sabbath?

    • John Borstlap says:

      B may not work on the sabbath, but he will be doing very different things, in secret, which the 7th D A would not particularly approve of, like [redacted].

  • Geezer says:

    Blomstedt is a 7 day wonder.