Category Archives: Music

Im Dorfe. Happy Birthday, Schubert.

It is so fitting, isn’t it, that Schubert should have been born in January? As I’ve mentioned before I love Schubert’s music dearly all year round, but it seems to me especially appropriate for the month of January, and I have, in fact, set up a rule for myself that under no circumstances am I allowed to listen to Winterreise earlier than January 1. That way I have something to look forward to about this the bleakest, coldest month of the year.

Oh, Schubert. It really does make me so weepy every time I think about his much too early death, even more so than with Mozart. The Grim Reeper cheated us out on a lot of undoubtedly great music from both gentlemen, certainly, but at least Mozart got to have a wife and kids. What did Schubert get? Syphilis, that’s what. Or at least something similarly nasty and painful and isolating. To have lived through such misery and then to have maintained the ability to communicate feelings so well through his music, to have insisted on remaining so warm and human deep inside that coldness … It breaks the heart.

Happy 216th, old Franz.  You are missed.

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.

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:

Classical pieces make it to The Star’s 100 saddest songs list

Just saw The Star’s 100 saddest songs list via and was pleased to find that several pieces of classical music has made the list. Tomasino Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor and Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament”  were perhaps not terribly surprising additions to the list, but I was glad that Dido made it as far as to the top 20 of the list, and I was so pleased to see Dowland’s “In Darkness let me Dwell” take the list’s bronze medal for sadness. I was also impressed that Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” was included – I’m not even sure I would have thought of that one, but it’s really apt, I think. And it doesn’t get much sadder than “Der Leiermann”, so kudos to The Star for commemorating Schubert, too. Every lied from Winterreise might well have been included, but of course they would have taken up too much space, and I do think the ole’ hurdy-gurdy man is a good representative.

Not so sure about Chopin’s prelude no. 4 in E-minor, though. I’ve heard it described as “sad” before, but I really think it’s more sensual and/or languid than it is sad. Fact: when I was a teenager I once had a make-out session to this very piece and it worked just fine . Also, let’s not forget that this was the very piece to which Tori Spelling did a striptease in the movie Co-ed Call Girl.
(Come to think of it, do let’s forget about it. Let’s forget that scene ever happened.)

Anyway, I thought I’d make a few extra suggestions for classical contributions to the list of saddest songs:

“Ack! Istomilas ya gorem” from Tchaikovsky: Pique Dame
I’ve talked about this one before, but it remains one of the saddest arias ever to me:

“Se pietà di me non senti” from Händel: Giulio Cesare in Egitto
Such a rush of sadness in the strings in this one, and such an eloquent tristesse in the soprano voice:

“Ella giammai m’amo” from Verdi: Don Carlos
It’s starting to border on the ridiculous how many times I’ve written about this aria, but there it is: When it comes to sadness there is just no way around King Philip alone in his chamber, dreading death and mourning his loveless marriage:

“Flow my Tears” by John Dowland
Because we were not done with John Dowland just yet. And because Andreas Scholl rocks:

Funeral March from Wagner: Götterdämmerung
I’ll admit that this one isn’t just sad. It’s also grandiose. It’s also intimidating and frightening. It’s also hopeful in some places, stirring as it does with the memory of the fallen hero. But the sadness immanent in the piece is definitely sufficient to earn this piece a place on the list. Besides, it heralds the ending of an entire world, so as far as sadness goes it doesn’t get much more in-your-face-ish than this:

Coventry Carol
It’s a lullaby for a baby doomed to be murdered. ‘Nuff said.

Now let’s hear your favorite sad classical pieces! Or non-classical, I’m not picky.

“Critics have often commented on his ‘windmill arms'”

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a sucker for anyone who’s able to communicate classical music in a humorous way online. Which is why I’m completely enamored by baritone Robert Orths homepage biography, posted today by one a concert hall manager Facebook friend of mine.

From the bit about Orth having “clawed his way to the middle”, via the “toothy smile” and to the self irony when it comes to the listing of only moderately prominent stages on which he has appeared, it is pure genius and a great spin on the usual, pretty generic singers resumés.

Well played, Robert Orth. Well played.

The Ship Must Sail Tonight (1957)

I’m currently head over heels in love with this 1957 Danish contribution to the Eurovision Song Contest:

The title means “The ship must sail tonight”, and the song is a duet (obviously)  about a sailor who has to leave his beloved as his ship is taking off. They sing about their sadness to be parting, their vows to be faithful to each other and then go on to ponder on the random nature of our existence, complete with adorably cheesy ship metaphors: We make all sorts of plans in our lives, but our happiness is “only on shore leave”, as the song affirms. I won’t tire you with a direct translation of the song, which was never meant to be understood in the first place: It was unsubtitled, and this was the first time the Danish language was ever heard in the European Song Contest. Plus, the singers more than make up for what’s lost in translation it by way of their elaborate stage show. The picture! The engagement ring! And let’s not forget the final, very long, languid smooch which was actually never meant to be that long: Some stagehand was supposed to signal for the singers to break it up, but failed to do so, and I like to think Gustav Winkler, the male singer, made the best of this omission, laying it on Birthe Wilke big-time. (Is it me or is he really kind of dreamy, by the way, that Winckler? He’s so suave and manly, slipping that ring on her finger!). Also, I’ve heard a rumor that that prolonged kiss was the main reason why the song did not win the Song Contest that year, because it was considered scandalous, but I haven’t been able to find any validation of this. Let’s decide that it’s true, though, because otherwise it doesn’t make any sense that this little gem of a sailor duet wouldn’t have come in first.