Mattias Lundberg: With an ear for music and an eye for the historical


In “Swedish Music History”, a radio programme with 106 episodes, Professor of Musicology Mattias Lundberg has brought to life Swedish music history, from the first recordings until 2018, for a general audience.

Mattias Lundberg teaches and conducts research in musicology in the Department of Musicology. He also participates in various musical projects to transform historical musical sources into music for all to hear. In 2014 he began outlining what would become “Swedish Music History”, which then also led to his appearance on the programme “Ask the Music Professor” on Swedish Broadcasting Corporation’s P2 radio channel, where he answered questions about music from listeners.

One hundred six radio programmes – that’s quite a lot. It must have taken a lot of time to prepare?
“I could do ‘Swedish Music History’ because I received a scholarship that allowed me to spend a year writing the script for the first and second season,” Lundberg says.

Doing the radio programme required him to delve into various archives to find previously undiscovered sources that since have become part of the research.

“Some of the things we brought up in the programme became research publications afterwards, so the radio programme was a bit of special communication straight from the research frontlines.”

Lundberg’s research aims to understand how music from older times sounded when it was performed. Beginning around the year 1000, there have been fully developed ways to write down melodies, notation, even though it was not the same musical notation that we use today.

“So we can know quite a lot about the structure, such as how long the notes were. Notation is a kind of recording. But the question is, what did it sound like? Who sang, where did they sing and with what type of voice?”

To find out more about this, Lundberg goes to sources that musicologists have not searched in the past, such as journals and written sources about singers. One example is when the former cathedral school in Västerås described one of its most talented singers around 1620. The notes from the audition state that “he did not sing in the usual way, but from his beautiful mouth came a vibrating sound instead”. Then comes an analysis of what was different, which refers to a steady stream of air.

“Is this then the pitch or the intensity that is vibrating? In other words, what we call tremolo or vibrato? This represents a very small piece of the puzzle, but if you have a lot of pieces you can produce a picture of how the music sounded.”

Lundberg explains that there is a complexity in some of the late mediaeval music that almost no modern music approaches.

“Many people think that music evolves, that music proceeds towards an increasingly advanced form. But music history is full of artistic paradigm shifts in which the music makes a turn that no one could have imagined, and some styles of music are forgotten.”

One paradigm shift Lundberg is researching involves what happened in the 1520s in Stockholm during the Protestant reformation under King Gustav Vasa.

“We know a great deal about music around 1490–1500, and around 1540 we have clear sources again. But we don’t know what happened in between because this was a turbulent period with many sources destroyed.”

The reformation meant that church music changed fundamentally, the lyrics began to be in Swedish instead of Latin and the entire congregation eventually began to join in and sing.

Many might suppose that this must have been well received, but there was strong popular opposition. For example, the people of Dalarna wrote Gustav Vasa and practically threatened an uprising if they did not stop singing the mass in Swedish in Stockholm.

“It is no exaggeration to say that church music was one of Gustav Vasa’s main domestic political issues because of the major protests against changes in it.”

When Mattias Lundberg grew up in the country in a mill town, he had no idea it was possible to work full time trying to find out why music has evolved as it has.

“Unless you are raised in a classic Uppsala professorial family, it is probably fairly common to not know such a possibility exists.”

When he was young and heard, sang or played something, he wanted to know why it was like that. For example, why do so many people perceive a passage as a strong part of the song?

“It is a kind of musical analysis, which everyone does but most do not put into words. Many fiddled with mopeds and radio sets when they were young, and I have probably always thought about music that way.”

16 April 2019


Title: Professor of Musicology, Department of Musicology.

Place of residence: In the country, with chickens and dogs.

On the bedside table: Mostly children’s books since the children usually fall asleep there. But also some “mindless fiction”, which I never have time to read.

When I relax: When I’m with my family.

Current musical projects: Most recently I have transcribed the oldest known surviving polyphonic mass in Sweden, dating back to 1598 by the composer Bartholomeus Kellner. It has been recorded by Peter Pontvik and Ensemble Villancico.

Favourite project: Would love to start a research project to collect folk variations of famous songs.

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Last modified: 2022-12-22