Category Archives: Calendary music

Advent and Christmas Songs: Fairest Lord Jesus

It’s the 4th Sunday of Advent, the day before Christmas Eve, the snow is falling again outside my parents’ home in a suburb north of Copenhagen. All my presents are ready and wrapped, and I feel so content and happy. I thought I’d share some holiday cheer by posting one of my favorite Christmas carols, the German hymn “Schönster Lord Jesu“, also known in English as “Fairest Lord Jesus“.

Now, this may seem a strange choice for any potential German or English readers out there. In the German and English version, the song is not a carol at all, it is simply a hymn and may be sung all year round. I, however, am mostly familiar with the Danish version by poet B.S. Ingemann, “Dejlig er jorden”.

Ingemann was same poet who did the translation of “Silent Night” (which I mentioned here), and like with “Silent Night” Ingemann took some liberties with the material at hand, but in the case of “Schönster Herr Jesu” he did a much better job, I think. What he did was that he turned the hymn into a Christmas carol, albeit in a very simple, discreet manner. He maintains the essence of the German lyrics, which is to praise eartlhy loveliness and praising the heavenly splendor (the English version is mostly devoted to the praising of Jesus). However, in the last stanza Ingemann links it all to one glorious moment in time, that is, the hour when the lord was born and the shepherds learned of their salvation from heavenly angels. The Danish lyrics go, directly translated:

The earth is lovely, God’s heaven is glorious,
Beautiful is the pilgrimage of our souls!
Through the fair kingdoms on earth,
We walk towards Paradise, singing!

Times shall come, times shall roll over us
Generations shall follow the passing of generations
The tone from heaven shall never cease
In the happy pilgrimage of the soul.

The angels first sang it to the shepherds in the field
Beautifully from soul to soul it rang:
“Peace on earth! Man, rejoice!
An eternal savior is born onto us!”

Effective, yet simple. It is difficult to think of a more striking imagery of heavenly beauty on earth than that of the lowly shepherds being visited by angels, and I like how Ingemann doesn’t try to wrap things up in a conclusive fourth stanza. The words of the angels are allowed to stand alone, along with the image of the shepherds and the angels. “Dejlig er jorden” is a Danish Christmas classic, although the Swedes have embraced the carol as well, using it sometimes as a funeral hymn. It does seem appropriate for such a purpose: Whenever we are singing it, walking around the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, joined hands as per Danish custom, the second stanza marks a moment of quiet reflection for me, a reminder of loved ones who have passed away, but also of the life and joy that has yet to come. I am not a Christian, and I cannot truly believe that there is a heavenly note that will sound on earth till the end of time. But I love to be alive in a world that is able to conjure up an idea as beautiful as that – a note ringing from heaven! – and there are plenty earthly things to be happy about. This Christmas Eve, walking around my parents’ Christmas tree, I am sure the verse about the “passing of generations” will make me think affectionately of the baby that my brother’s wife is expecting, a little boy who is to be born early in the new year, making my parents grandparents and me an aunt for the first time. And maybe I will also be thinking a little bit about the little Christmas tree I have waiting for myself and  my boyfriend when we return from our respective families to celebrate our first Christmas together in his apartment, in which I moved in in October this year. The earth is indeed lovely.

My Christmas tree

Advent and Christmas Songs: Singing That Richt Balulalow

Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols has been an essential part of my Christmases for several years now. Annina Teatime first introduced me to it, and she did a lovely post about it back when we were Confidential Attachées here, and I don’t really have much to add. It’s simply a beautiful work, with a quiet, serene Christmas atmosphere to it that’s so much different from the one you find in crowded, loud department stores this time of year. And “Balulalow” is a jewel of a song.

Happy 3rd Sunday of Advent.

Advent and Christmas Songs: The Swedish Edition

Snow 2nd Sunday of Advent 2012

Yes, the snow is still falling. This is what the yard behind my building looked like this afternoon.

Last week I complained about the general sort of bland state of Danish Christmas carols, a blandness that, however, is not paralleled by the carol tradition of our Northern brother country, Sweden. The Swedes are excellent at keeping their traditional music alive, and while genres like ballads and folk songs and folk music are mostly thought of as things of an ancient past in Denmark, in Sweden the likes of Jan Johansson have managed to keep folk music alive and allowed it to evolve and adapt to more recent music. I think this shows in the Swedes Christmas carols as well. Swedish Christmas carols are wonderful, with a unique, old kind of sound to them, and below are a few of my favourites:

Jul, jul, strålande jul

Try listening to that one without getting goosebumps and misty eyes. I dare you! “Jul, jul, strålande jul” is simply breathtaking and ideal for being sung polyphonically by a choir as in the above video. It is at once warm and hearty and grandiose, and the lyrics are beautiful as well: they address Christmas like an apostrophe, asking it to shine over white forests, over the passing of old generations and over the lives of young people, over raging wars and the sighs of young children. I also like how the white forests are a recurring motif in the lyrics – connecting the Swedish wintry landscape with the Christian tradition of Christmas.

Gläns över sjö och strand

I love how this one goes back and forth between a minor and major key, one of the thing that Swedish folk music excels at, in my opinion. There’s an even more folk tone-y version of this carol for the thus inclined, composed by Widéen. I’m usually all about the folk music, but I actually prefer the above original version, by Alice Tegner, for its solemnity. That version was also featured in the excellent TV series based on Astrid Lindgren’s Madicken of June Hill books – sung by Madicken and her family on Christmas Eve (song starts up at 25:25).

Det strålar en stjärna 

This video version is from Lucia Day in Sweden which is appropriate since I first heard “Det strålar en stjärna” on Lucia Day five years ago. I was living  in a student hall that accommodate a lot of Swedish exchange students at the time, and while Lucia Day is also a thing in Denmark, the Swedes have a much more elaborate tradition when it comes to celebrating December 13, so the women among the Swedish students took it upon themselves to wake the rest of us up by way of a Lucia parade (as described by me here), and they sang this beautiful carol about the star of Christmas, shining brighter every day as the holidays approach.

Advent and Christmas songs: Coventry Carol

It’s the advent season and I am almost a little overwhelmed with Christmas spirit this year. The snow started falling two days ago, and when I woke up this morning, everything was white and pretty and festive outside. Just look at these lovely pictures I snapped in Fælledparken as I went for a walk in the afternoon:

grantræ i snefoto
I decided that blogging about some of my favorite advent and Christmas songs might provide me with an appropriate outlet for all this snow white festivity, and I’ll start today, on the first Sunday of Advent.

I’ve already blogged about “Coventry Carol” once before, but that was in a completely different context, and I thought it could stand another mention. As a Christmas song, it has a special place in my heart. The thing is, being Danish, I naturally grew up with Danish Christmas carols, and as lovely as some of them are, a lot of them are also kind of, well, toothless. They’re almost always in a major key, and they tend to tip-toe around any potential dangerous subject matter to a point where they manage to not really say anything. A good example is the Danish version of “Silent Night”. I love the original German and the English version of “Silent Night”. I feel like they succeed, lyric-wise, by carefully choosing their motif and focusing on this motif, making the most of it: The (virgin) mother and child in the quiet of night, the shepherds and their angelic visitation, the savior promising an eternal dawn to all of mankind. The Danish version, however, is an extremely free and fairly nonsensical translation. Directly translated, it goes: “Happy Christmas, lovely Christmas, angels descend into hiding. They fly here with paradise green [boughs or leaves, supposedly], seeing what God finds to be beautiful. They walk secretly among us.”

What is this thing about angels falling down in hiding? Did angels ever actually do that in the bible? Not in the story of Christmas, that’s for sure, they were pretty in yer face with those shepherds in the bible. Also, what is this greenery from paradise and what is its significance? And that last line sounds more like a tagline from Invasion of the Bodysnatchers than anything else.  This is all very symptomatic of Danish carols: Even the original Danish ones, especially the ones from the 19th century, will generally go to great lengths in terms of weird imagery in order to avoid mentioning the events surrounding the birth of Christ. Which is a shame because even I, atheist that I am, think that the story of the birth of Jesus is pretty neat.

This is exactly why I like “Coventry Carol” so much. The “Coventry Carol” is very upfront about the story of the birth of Christ, and it certainly does not try to sugarcoat it or tiptoe around anything. Written as a lullaby sung by a mother of a baby boy in Bethlehem (arguably the virgin Mary, but I suppose it could be ascribed to any Bethlehem mother), it deals with the massacre ordered by King Herod, claiming the life of every male child under the age of two.

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Is this Christmassy in the modern sense of the word? Is it nice and cosy? Not at all! But it lends some gravity to the story of Christmas. The massacre of the innocents was gruesome, but it’s a central part of the canonical Christmas story, and it makes the story of Christmas all the more significant. It’s a little like the advent song “O come, o come, Emmanuel”, and the carol “Maria durch ein Dornwald ging”, both of which describe hardships (of the people of Israel and of pregnant Mary, respectively) rather than merry-making.  And then the melody of the “Coventry Carol” is just so incredibly gorgeous. The lyrics and the music date back from a mystery play from the 17th century, and it does have that pentatonic, old-timey ring to it. But more importantly it is written in a sinister minor key that I think the holidays need as much as they do the major key melodies.I grew up with a recording of a chorus singing it, and I actually do prefer it in a choir version as I feel it easily turns into a little too much of a tearjerker when sung by a solo soprano. I also noticed that Andrea Arnold had the traveling brass band in the childhood Christmas scene play the carol in her fetching Wuthering Heights, and this also worked nicely. Here it is, sung by the Collegium Vocale Gent:

The Danish String Quartet: Wedding Tune from Sønderho

Summer has come to Denmark, it is sunny and warm, and I am happy, happier than I have been in a long time.
I thought I would celebrate by posting this wonderful piece uploaded recently by The Danish String Quartet. As the description on youtube says, it’s a piece of Danish folk music from a village, Sønderho, in Western Denmark – the second tune in a set of three wedding tunes, several centuries old.

It’s such a lovely piece, it almost brings tears to my eyes. Happy tears.  And I think the iPhone recording by the string quartet is a great, inventive variation of the usually rather dull steady-cam recording of string quartet performances. I hope that you will like it, dear readers, and that you, too, are enjoying a wonderful early summer.

Hélas Avril

Edited because I wrote “Matteo DE Perugia” the entire way through the first time around. I suck.

Just a little season-appropriate music for you all to enjoy: Matteo da Perugia’s “Helas, avril”.

I first heard this piece when I was working for a Copenhagen sinfonietta in the autumn of 2010. The ensemble toured Sweden with a programme that included a re-composed version of da Perugia’s song. I had the responsibility for all the practicalities of the concerts, I was fresh out of the university and nervous that I would screw up somehow, but this song stopped me in my tracks and made me forget everything around me for a moment. I have returned to the piece several time since. It conveys such a beautiful sadness, and with that ancient tonality that always induces in me a sense of something distant and otherwordly. I regret that I’m not able to link to my favourite recording of the piece, namely that by ensemble Mala Punica. There’s a kind of modern sound to their interpretation of the song, and I miss that in the above recording which seems to strive towards a medieval atmosphere. It’s a matter of taste of course, but I do think that the modern sound and ensemble Mala Punica’s focus on the soloist’s voice do a good job at bringing out the secularity of the song, which is indeed a love song.

The lyrics present a persona who is infnitely sad despite the loveliness of the month of April, because he misses his beloved. As an earlier blog post betrays I have studied French medieval poetry a bit, and I remember learning that spring was frequently referred to by medieval European troubadours in their love songs as the season of love. I like how in “Helas avril” the joys of Spring are so directly contrasted by the inner life of the lovelorn protagonist.

You can read lyrics are, translated by Michel Chasteau:

April, alas, your sweet return has brought me
greater pain than I can well express,
seeing you so fair, so fresh and merry
bedecked with flowers, happy and carefree,
filled with scents of joy, while all I have
is memories of love, regrets and tears.

How eagerly would I go to meet sweet death
in this your season, ending thus my life
in defiance of Fate
and its power,

Since in your span I cannot see my lady,
And there is nothing I desire to see
apart from her
And that’s the truth

Your sight brings me the greater grief because
I feed distress wit inner agitation.
So do I pine, and must for ever pine
Until I see her noble form once more
And May will find me still complaining
if Mercy does not come to my assistance.

April, alas…

Apropos of modern interpretations of this song, the phrase “Hélas, avril” also appears in “La Javanaise” by the wonderful Serge Gainsbourg:

I have no idea if the lyrics are a reference to the 15th century song, but I like to think that they are. A casual medieval poetry quote would add even more swag to Gainsbourg than he already had, if that’s even possible.

“An dich hab’ ich gedacht” – a few inadequate words about Schubert

I’m obsessed with Schubert at the moment. This isn’t all that surprising:  I tend to be all about Schubert in January, because Winterreise is just so perfect for this month: Bleak and cold, with no warm, prosperous spring waiting just around the corner. The excellent Jessica Duchen wrote a post about Schubert recently and makes some striking observations:

In Schubert, the major tonality is more tragic than the minor. It is the way he switches between them that rips at our innards. What is he doing? What is he saying? Recognition of darkness turns to acceptance of it, maybe. Or to seeing the beauty beyond it. Or to welcoming it. Or to extending compassion to everyone for it, with a wry smile through the tears. I believe that in the change from minor to major he is not only recognising the darkness and transforming it, but empathising with both sides of it, and with us all: in that switch, for Schubert, lies the essence of the human condition.

This is so accurate, I think. The major tonality has always been what moved me the most about Winterreise, exactly because it never signified to me something as banal as a glimpse of hope or optimisim or springtime. To me the switch to major tonality in the opening lied “Gute Nacht” has always been what solidified the sadness of it, and set the tone for the rest of the lied cycle which, I believe, is a cycle about an infitine, hopeless sadness. To me, the major tonality in this lied, and the rest of the lieder, signifies the recognition of the lost beauty, or love, or happiness without which the sadness would be bearable.


(from Ian Bostridge’s wonderful, staged Winterreise)

The change goes so well with the lyrics, too:

Will dich im Traum nicht stören,
Wär schad’ um deine Ruh’.
Sollst meinen Tritt nicht hören –
Sacht, sacht die Türe zu !
Schreib im Vorübergehen
Ans Tor dir: Gute Nacht,
Damit du mögest sehen,
An dich hab’ ich gedacht.

If there was nothing to the lied cycle but the bitter resolution expressed in the first three stanzas (“Was soll ich länger weilen…?”), surely there would be no lied cycle at all. The persona would have marched right out of the wintry little town with rapid steps, as indicated by the resolute walking pace of the lied (also noted by Duchen). Spring would have come. But the persona lingers because of course there is something other than the bitterness. There is a tenderness and a love that, tragically, seems to live on the frail constitution of the persona amid the frozen landscape, like the crow that is hoping to pick the persona’s bones after his death, and it creeps into every lied in the cycle, making the cycle the masterpiece that it is.

Am I reading too much into Schubert’s music, putting words in his mouth? Likely. But I feel like it’s more the other way around: Schubert puts notes into my mouth. Even in the pieces that are purely instrumental, I always feel like he is using music as a universal language and speaking to me directly and extremely eloquently through it. Like in the second movement of his piano trio in E flat, which Duchen also posts and which happens to be one of my favourite pieces of any classical music:

I feel like I understand exactly what Schubert is saying here, as plainly as if he had been speaking in my native tongue, except that his music makes him capable of expressing sentiments so complex and nuanced that words would never be able to cover it. There’s something in there about frustration, something about sorrow and longing, and something about an obstacle, but also something about determination. And something very basic about breathing, one’s chest rising and falling. But like I said, my words aren’t adequate. Sometimes words aren’t. To me, Schubert proved this better than any other composer.