As a Boy, He Found God at the Synagogue. Then He Discovered Classical Music

For star Swedish composer Jacob Mühlrad, 'making music is like practicing religion.' Indeed, his works are heavily informed by Jewish themes, Hebrew words and Holocaust trauma.

David Stavrou

STOCKHOLM – Jacob Mühlrad used to be a bad student. A very bad student. Because he suffered from dyslexia, he had difficulty reading and writing, and in school they thought he was unmotivated and lacked proper learning skills. Although he came from a middle class Jewish family living in an affluent neighborhood in west Stockholm, he was seen as a “problematic” child. A lonely child, he suffered from panic attacks and depression at the early age of 9, disturbed his teachers in the classroom and got into fights in the schoolyard. All that was accompanied by other, physical health problems.

Today Mühlrad is considered one of the most promising young classical composers in the world. At the age of 30, he is the youngest composer to have written for the Royal Swedish Opera. Beyond that, he has written for Sweden’s leading orchestras and choirs, his music has been performed in concert halls all around the world, including Carnegie Hall in New York, he has won scholarships and awards in Sweden – and this year an album containing four of his choral works was released by Deutsche Grammophon.

While he has been called a “wunderkind” on several occasions, as a young boy Mühlrad was not interested in music at all. That all changed when he was 15. The trigger for that may be familiar to anyone one who grew up in Israel (and other countries) in the last 40 years: an episode of the classic, animated French television series “Once Upon a Time,” created and produced by Albert Barillé, which was broadcast on educational channels in the late 1970s, 80s and 90s.

“The TV was on and suddenly I heard music. It was a work by Bach,” Mühlrad recalls in an interview with Haaretz. “I heard it as something spiritual and it affected me deeply. One day I heard my sister, Hannah, playing the piano. She was a good student, I wasn’t; she played the piano, and I didn’t. I was just looking at her and tried to imagine what it felt like to play like that. She played a Bach prelude. I remember wanting to feel that way too. That summer, my father had a broken electric piano that my sister once received for Hanukkah, repaired. At first, it didn’t interest me at all, but eventually I started playing around with it. It was easier for me to associate myself with a plastic electric instrument than with a shiny, polished piano. My mother suggested that I take a lesson with my sister’s teacher, Regina Steinboch. At first I resisted, but eventually I took a lesson and I was immediately hooked.”

At first, Mühlrad experimented with his new toy. “I pressed a button that started a pre-programmed piece,” he remembers. “It was a familiar work by Mozart, ‘Rondo Alla Turca’ (the final movement of the Piano Sonata No. 11). I tried to play it myself, to find the right keys, and I did it. It was easy, I just played it. Then I showed the piano teacher. She laughed at the weird way I played it. I almost felt like a clown. She talked to my mother and told her what every Jewish mother wants to hear – that her son is very talented. My mother was always very supportive of me. But I wanted to learn more, and I wanted to learn faster. When I watched ‘Once Upon a Time’ on TV again, I asked my teacher for the name of the piece that opens it. She said it was Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. When I asked if she could teach me how to play it, she explained that the piece was written for organ and that I could play it in perhaps five years. It needs to be done step by step, she explained. But I hate doing things step by step. I’ve never done anything step by step. She said that I couldn’t learn it without reading sheet music, I said I could mimic her fingers – and she claimed that in that way it would take forever. We finally agreed that we’d try to do it my way and if it didn’t work out, we’d do it hers.

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David Stavrou דיויד סטברו

עיתונאי ישראלי המתגורר בשוודיה Stockholm based Israeli journalist

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