When Anna von Hausswolff, a renowned Swedish songwriter and organist, first heard a conservative Roman Catholic website calling her a Satanist and demanding a concert boycott, she and her team laughed at it.
“We thought it was fun,” von Hausswolff, 35, recalled in a recent interview. “All day we laughed”
The Riposte Catholique site fired up its readers before a concert of von Hausswolff’s epic organ music in a church in Nantes, a city in western France. The site reported that some of her fans were Goths and her songs were “more of a black mass than church music”. One music blogger called her the “high priestess” of “satanic harmonies,” the site noted, and conservative Catholic groups noticed her singing, “I made love to the devil,” on the track “Pills.”
“We said, ‘This is a great PR campaign,'” von Hausswolff said. “I mean The High Priestess of Satanic Art.” Wow!”
But as soon as she arrived at the church in Nantes, the jokes stopped. There were about 30 young people outside, most wearing black jackets and sweatshirts, protesting the show, von Hausswolff said. The promoter of the concert told her that some men had just broken into the hall trying to find her.
Soon the entrance to the church was blocked by 100 people. Von Hausswolff sat in the richly painted church, looking up at the organ she hoped to play and listening to protesters sing and knock on doors outside as her fans yell back at them.
“There was a primal part of me that told me I wasn’t safe,” she said. – I wanted to get out. She canceled the show.
In recent years, divisions between conservatives and liberals have escalated in parts of Europe over issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. Von Hausswolff’s experience exemplifies another tense point in the culture wars on the Continent: in some countries, a small minority of Roman Catholics regularly protest art they consider blasphemous.
Céline Beraud, an academic who studies the sociology of Catholicism in France, said in a phone interview that extremists have staged protests against art and performances in the country for the past 20 years. “It comes from a well-organized minority that gets media attention very well,” Bero said.
One of their regular targets is Hellfest, a rock music festival that takes place every year near Nantes. In 2015, a group of protesters broke into the venue and set fire to some of the festival’s scenery. Since then, protesters have regularly doused the fields around the festival with holy water. Hellfest public relations manager Eric Perrin said in an email that staff recently found 50 gold pendants depicting the Virgin Mary strewn throughout the venue.
Since playing a real organ in concert almost always means playing in a church, von Hausswolff’s touring problems did not end when she left Nantes, even though some French bishops issued statements of support. In Paris, she was supposed to play the grand organ at St. Eustathius, considered the jewel of the French Renaissance, but after her priest was inundated with complaints, she gave a secret performance at a Protestant church near the Arc instead. de Triumph.
Later in Brussels, about 100 people protested outside her speech at a Dominican church, adopting a more peaceful approach than their French counterparts, and walked away from her door when asked to do so by the police. In Nijmegen, the Netherlands, just two protesters showed up, standing quietly outside holding signs reading “Satan is not welcome.”
Von Hausswolff is not the one you might expect to cause such a stir. She grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden and said her childhood was “very creative”. (Her father, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, composer and performer.)
As a teenager, she sang in the church choir and dreamed of becoming a musician, but eventually trained as an architect. Her musical career only started in 2009 when, at the age of 23, she released a demo of piano songs called “Singing from the Grave”, which quickly gained a following in Sweden thanks to her vocals. She has often been compared to English pop star Kate Bush.
After an organ maker told her that she could make beautiful organ music, she gave it a try, she recalls, by trying out the organ at the huge Annedal Church in Gothenburg. “When I hit the lowest note, I couldn’t believe my ears,” said von Hausswolff. “I felt it with my whole body.
Since then, she has explored the possibilities of this instrument on five albums, sometimes pairing it with a rock band and sometimes performing solo. Her latest live album, released this month, was recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.
Hans Davidsson, an organist who helps von Hausswolff explore the possibilities of the instrument, said she “explores the organ with open ears, eyes and senses” and has developed her “own musical language”. He added that her music inspired many classical organists such as himself. “We’re lucky she chose the organ,” he said.
In an interview, von Hausswolff, who was wearing Christmas leggings covered in cartoon deer and wearing Santa hats, denied she was a Satanist. Von Hausswolff declined to reveal what her 2009 track “Pills”, in which she sings about satanic lovemaking, was about, as she said the songs should be left open to interpretation. But she added: “If you’re asking me if I literally had sex with the devil, the answer is, ‘No.’
As much as she liked to joke about the allegations, the incidents of the past month had left a mark. She was still afraid of the French and Belgian protests, she said, and was also worried that the churches might think twice before letting her play their organs to avoid complaints.
“I am not a good Christian and never will be,” von Hausswolff said, adding that she considers herself an agnostic. “But I’m here to present my organ art so that hopefully it can give people deeper thoughts.”
According to her, she was already planning more church tours. She added that if she was welcome, “I’ll go there and play my music.”