The Swedish conductor, Sixten Ehrling, was the son of a banker, who had ambitions that his son might follow him into his profession. But the young Sixten showed such ability at the keyboard that his father soon gave in and bought him a Steinway grand. It became obvious that the young man was a musical polymath: he studied violin, piano, organ, composition and conducting at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm between 1936 (at age 18) and 1939; in the latter year he was awarded the prestigious Jenny Lind Scholarship. He began his career as a concert pianist - and he remained an enthusiastic pianist, also playing as an accompanist and in chamber music, throughout his life. It was as a répétiteur - a rehearsal pianist - that he joined the staff of the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1936, making his conducting début there in 1940. In 1941 he spent a year in Dresden, studying conducting with Karl Böhm at the State Opera (Sweden was neutral in World War II) and, after the hostilities had ended, went to Albert Wolff in Paris for another period of study.
Back in Sweden, his career on the podium had taken off: he was appointed conductor in Gothenburg in 1942. Sixten Ehrling remained at Gothenburg until 1944, when he was appointed as a conductor at the Stockholm Royal Opera. He made his public debut as a conductor with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra in 1950, conducting Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring from memory. This performance put Ehrling on the map; it was to become one of his visiting cards. In 1953 he was promoted to Chief Conductor (Music Director) at the Stockholm Royal Opera, and remained in this post until 1960. This period is remembered as a golden age, during which he worked closely with the acclaimed singers tenor Jussi Björling and soprano Birgit Nilsson. His collaborations with the producer Göran Gentele - in Carmen, Alban Berg's Wozzeck and Verdi's Un ballo in maschero - were especially admired, as was the premiere of Karl-Birger Blomdahl's opera Aniara in 1959. In 1959 he took this production to the Edinburgh International Festival. He so stamped his own authority on the orchestra that it acquired a popular nickname: the Sixtenska kapellet - "the Sixtenian Orchestra". In the early 1950’s Ehrling recorded the first complete set of Sibelius symphonies with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. During this period he also taught conducting at the Salzburg Mozarteum (1954) and the Stockholm Conservatory (from 1956). His reputation was now spreading; before long he was to become the best-known Swedish conductor on the international circuit.
Sixten Ehrling's tenure with the Swedish Royal Opera ended in bitterness. His perfectionism ruffled feathers, as he explained to the paper Aftonbladet in 1998: “At the Stockholm opera, they wanted me to apologise for the way I led the orchestra, which I refused. I moved to America instead.” He landed one of the prime orchestral posts in the USA, replacing the French conductor Paul Paray as Musical Director (Principal Conductor) of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1963, having first conducted them in 1961; he stayed there for a decade, conducting a total of 722 concerts, 24 of them containing world premieres. In 1964 he also took up the direction of the Meadow Brook Music Festival, the summer home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra located in the grounds of Oakland University. During his time in Detroit, the composer Luciano Berio had a brief residency.
After his departure from Detroit, New York City now became the focus of his activities, and Sixten Ehrling's home. He taught at the Juilliard School of Music between 1973 and 1987, and was in charge of the conducting class. At Juilliard, Ehrling nurtured a new wave of conductors, including Myung-Whun Chung, Kenneth Jean, Jo Ann Falletta, Christian Badea, Victoria Bond, and Gary Berkson. In 1973, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut, where he conducted 12 different operas, including Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1975. From 1974 to 1976 he was also Chief Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. Two years later he was appointed Musical Adviser to the Denver Symphony Orchestra, going on to be the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor between 1979 and 1985; he also acted as Music Adviser to the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra from 1985 to 1988, and at San Diego during 1985. Although he officially retired in 1987, from 1993 onwards he was Chief Conductor of the orchestras of the Manhattan School of Music and their Music Adviser. Ehrling remained active as a musician for many years, appearing as an accompanist at the piano as late as 1998, his eightieth year.
Sixten Ehrling was, perhaps, the perfect journeyman conductor. He could, and did, conduct everything well: opera, symphonic and choral music. He had perfect sympathy to style and period in whatever he conducted, focusing the attention on the music rather than himself. Unlike Leonard Bernstein or Leopold Stokowski, however, he was not much of an innovator on the podium. His concert repertoire was enormous, the favourites including works by Debussy, Ravel and Ottorino Respighi. He conducted nearly 700 works, including 24 world premieres. He led 55 orchestras and ensembles in North and South America, and countless orchestras around the world, during his celebrated five decade career. In 1987 Ehrling participated in the documentary “A Woman Is a Risky Bet: Six Orchestra Conductors” directed by Christina Olofson where he comments on the conservative attitudes towards women in the world of classical music.
Sixten Ehrling was renowned both for his encyclopaedic knowledge of music and for a temperament that gave short shrift to anyone falling below his own exacting standards. Orchestral musicians would encounter the sharp side of his tongue if he felt they were playing below their best - but he didn't let audiences off the hook, either. On one occasion in 1988 that became part of Sweden's music lore, he was about to start conducting Bizet's Carmen in Gothenburg, when he was annoyed to find the douce Gothenburgers still wandering in and looking for their seats. He decided to teach them a lesson and began immediately. His comment in the next day's paper was unrepentant: "I'll teach that damned audience that they should be in their seats on time when I conduct." It cost him his contract.
But he was merely expecting them to show the music the respect of his own approach. The musicologist Per Skans reports that Ehrling was legendary for his perfection, which assumed many different shapes, and in which he never spared himself, either. At the Stockholm Royal Opera, Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was among the works that he conducted a large number of times. Among the stage-manager's tasks was the exact timing - minutes and seconds - of every single performance of every opera. Once I was shown the book with these entries, a kind of logbook. I could see that the difference in total playing time between Ehrling's fastest and slowest performance of this opera was less than one minute. Die Meistersinger is four hours long.
For all that Sizten Ehrling could be blisteringly blunt in rehearsal, he was a thoughtful and generous mentor to younger conductors. He was greatly respected as a teacher of conducting and counted amongst his pupils many who went on to enjoy significant careers, the better known including Myung-Whun Chung, Andreas Delfs, JoAnn Falletta and Andrew Litton.
Sixten Ehrling was the foremost Swedish conductor of the 20th century, able to deliver performances both of Scandinavian music, with which he was closely identified, and of the more general repertoire with conviction, technical security and a high degree of musical integrity. He was happy to return to work in his native land, conducting his last concert there in August 2004.
Over the years Sixten Ehrling built up a substantial discography, including music by L.v. Beethoven, Berlioz, Sibelius, Igor Stravinsky and Verdi. He recorded the composers of his adoptive America, Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions among them. Of his recordings the most distinguished is the complete set of Sibelius symphonies, made for the Swedish label Metronome in the early 1950’s with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. This set has been praised for its uncompromising portrayal of all the different moods of Sibelius the symphonist. Also of interest are Ehrling’s accompaniments to David Oistrakh’s first recordings in the West after World War II: the violin concertos addressed were those by L.v. Beethoven and Sibelius, and the orchestra was once again the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. Nor did he neglect his compatriots, with a widely admired account of the four symphonies of Sweden's first, and most radical, Romantic, Franz Berwald. He recorded Berwald’s Symphony No. 3 Singulière and No. 4 Naïve with the London Symphony Orchestra for Decca, and from the 20th century, Blomdahl’s Chamber Concerto, also with the London Symphony Orchestra for Decca. He may also be heard live in performance, directing the Danish National Radio Orchestra in Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3 Espansiva, and the forces of the Royal Stockholm Opera in a 1959 performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto.
Sixten Ehrling died in New York, where he had lived since the 1970’s. He was married to a former Stockholm opera ballerina, Gunnel Lindgren. They had two daughters. Ehrling was one of the last conductors to know both I. Stravinsky and Sibelius, personally. When he discovered mistakes in their manuscripts, they were immediately informed.