Category Archives: Denmark

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: 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.

Festive Street Art: Santa-Hatting the River Nile

In central Copenhagen, at Søtorvet, there’s a bronze copy of the marble statue The River Nile from the 1st century, escavated in 16th century Rome. A bearded man is supposed to represent the river itself, and he is surrounded by 16 infants playing on his body,  symbolizing the number of feet (16) the Nile was believed to rise annually, fertilizing Lower Egypt. There’s a similar statue of The River Tiber situated across the street from the Nile sculpture.

Some street artist must have figured that just because one is tasked with representing the flow of a northeastern African river, one should not have to miss out on the festivity of the season. In any case he or she has carefully created Santa hats to fit the sculptural babies. I just spotted this today and was so charmed that I pulled my bicycle out of very heavy traffic in order to snap a few pictures:
Nilen1

Look!

Nilen2

Adorable!

Nilen3

Thanks for warming my heart as well as the heads of several bronze infants, unknown street artist.

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:

My 16-year-old self: Here to tell you all about the gender roles in Rosemary’s Baby

IMG_0674

I was going through some stuff in my flat the other day, and I found a folder of assignments from my high school English class. One of them was an essay that we had been assigned to do on the novel Rosemary’s Baby which we had read in class. We were free to pick our own angle on the novel, and I had decided to go with the subject of the gender roles displayed in the novel. 

Pop culture, gender roles and all, it reads sort of like a blog entry from a time when I had no idea what a blog was and had only just discovered the internet (which I mainly used to surf fan sites about David Duchovny. They were almost exclusively set in Times New Roman or Comic Sans and they had lots of clip art and pixelled animation and glitter. Oh, the nineties!).  So I thought it would be fun to publish it here on the blog for you guys to see.

I should warn you, however, that it is in no way a groundbreaking, let alone good, piece of writing. It’s a perfectly average high school essay. English is not my first language and was even less so at the time, and I use the word “very” about 1.003 times, being the eloquent, versatile, sexy 16-year-old that I was.

 I actually got an A, though, if anyone’s interested. I also remember that my teacher also told me to read it aloud to the rest of the class, which I willingly, proudly did. Unrelated: I had very few dates in high school. This was a cause of much distress to me at the time, although it did leave me with much more time to go through David Duchovny fan sites online.

My English teacher was really awesome though, and in addition to my essay I will include a note she wrote in comment to some very naïve statements I made in the essay about the equalization of the sexes, setting me straight.

Here we go:

Rosemary’s Baby

by Marie [Mylastname], grade 2.c

As I read Rosemary’s Baby, I found that apart from being a horror story about Satanism and witchcraft, Rosemary’s Baby deals with gender roles and the liberation of women. This aspect of the story is very important, I think. It creates an image of the time in which it was written and takes place. It is of course up to the individual reader how much he [or she, gender-aware Marie of 1999! OR SHE!] wants to focuse [SIC] on this, but I do think that the gender roles play a crucial part in the story.

The gender roles in Rosemary’s Baby are terribly traditional. Rosemary is the sweet and sensitive hausfrau while Guy is the strong, rational man who goes to work in order to provide for his wife and family. Rosemary is also a very emotional person in comparison to the more cynical Guy. This is made clear by the fact that Rosemary – in her heart – is a Catholic and that Guy is an agnostic. But the traditional gender roles also have their effect on Guy and Rosemary’s every-day life. An example of this is the scene in which Rosemary and Guy are introduced to the Bramford:

‘It’s a marvelous apartment!’ Rosemary said back in the living-room. She spun about with opened arms as if to embrace it. ‘I love it!’
‘What’s she’s trying to do,’ Guy said ‘is to get you to lower the rent’.

Apart from acting in this little girl like manner, Rosemary also lives up to the old-fashioned ideal of a woman by being remarkably dependent on Guy, both financially, because she needs Guy’s income,  and emotionally. She does get angry with Guy, but she never really stands up to him and tells him what she wants. During Guy’s preoccupied phases, Rosemary has to wait for Guy to apologize. Even when Guy claims to have taken advantage of Rosemary’s unconscious body, she does not manage to tell him how she feels about it.

Rosemary tends to use her vulnerability and femininity when wanting to get her way. This is very obvious as Guy declines the Castevets’ dinner invitation:

‘You don’t have to sulk about it, he said.
‘I’m not sulking’, Rosemary said. ‘I see exactly what you mean. (…).’
‘Oh hell.’ Guy said. ‘We’ll go.’
‘No, no, what for? We don’t have to. I shopped for dinner before she came so *that*’s no problem.’
‘We’ll go.’ Guy said.

If these traditional gender roles had continued all through the story, I would have been on the verge of stating that Levin was simply an old-fashioned sexist, but when reading the last chapters of the book I found that the roles changed. Rosemary appears to be strong and independent while Guy is weak and insecure. Actuallay the last chapters make you understand that Guy was never the strong one in the relationship. Guy is willing to sell his own wife for a good acting career, and after having done this, he is not even able to stand up for himself. This is particularly clear as Rosemary enters the Castevets’ apartment in search of her baby:

He stood looking down at her, his hands rubbing his sides. ‘They promised me you wouldn’t be hurt’, he said. ‘And you haven’t been, really. I mean, suppose you’d had a baby and lost it, wouldn’t it be the same? And we’re getting so much in return, Ro.’
She put her handkerchief on the table and looked at him. As hard as she could she spat at him. He flushed and turned away, wiping at the front of his jacket.”

I think that it is very important for us to consider this apparent change, because I believe that this indicates that Levin has an idea with letting the gender roles of his character appear to be as traditional as they do.

The fact that Rosemary develops during the story supports this theory  Rosemary seems from the beginning and right up to the point where she figures out that Guy is somehow involved with the Satantists’ cult to be very much in love with Guy. It is actually her love for an loyalty to her husband which leads to the disaster – the fact that she is impregnated with Satan’s child. The one time we sense that Rosemary actually wants to be come an individual person is when she is by herself in Hutch’s cabin. Here she seems to allow herself to get a little angry with Guy:

On the third day she thought about him. He was vain, self-centered, shallow, and deceitful. He had married her to have an audience, not a mate. (Little Miss Just-out-of-Omaha, what a *goop* she had been!)

Shortly after, however, she gives up all thoughts of rebellion and elides to go home to Guy. By going home to go on as if nothing has happened, she accepts Guy’s alleged abuse of her body and by this, one might argue, she resigns to Guy and gives up her independence. As a result of such a resignation something awful is bound to happen.

The fact that something awful does happen, and how awful it actually is, is another side of the story, which I will not try to define nor explain here. However, it is remarkable that Rosemary, as soon as she learns that Guy is involved in the conspiracy, leaves him. At this point in the story, one experiences for the first time, that Rosemary is a strong person. She realizes that she needs to take care of herself in order to save herself and her baby. Eventually, however, Rosemary is forced to acknowledge the fact that she is too late – she is trapped, because she cannot leave her own son in the lurch.

I think that the liberation of women is one of Levin’s points with Rosemary’s Baby. That it is a main point is arguable, but I do believe that Levin has meant to discuss the old-fashioned woman’s situation with this story. How dependent should she allow herself to become in her marriage? What might the consequences be? These questions were indeed relevant in the sixties when this story was written and takes place, because the liberation of women was just about to begin at the time (1). Is it still relevant, one might ask, today, when the equalization of the sexes is almost total (2). I think it is. The gender roles in Rosemary’s Baby are probably a little too antiquated for us to identity with, but I do think that we an still learn from this  thriller story. I think that as long as we live in a society with even the slightest possibility of discrimination, we need to be reminded of the consequences of resignation, however bizarre they may be.”

TEACHER’S NOTE:
(1) The struggle of the sexes and the process had been going on for a hundred years then – but the sixties saw the birth of the feminist movement.

(2) I wish you were right [about the equalization of the sexes being almost total] – but I’m afraid there is still a long way to go – I remember a heated discussion in a Scottish youth hostel with my best friend in 1962: She said that men and women were equal now, I said they were not. She learned her lesson later!

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.

Classical special train – enjoy the music

Adorable flash mob in the Copenhagen Metro, featuring the Copenhagen Phil.