Tuesday, 24 May 2011

An unofficial national anthem - "The Danes' True Song" by Kai Hoffmann


On 8 June 1940, Aksel Schiøtz recorded ‘Den danske sang’ (The Danes’ True Song), a setting of Kai Hoffmann’s poem (1924) by the composer Carl Nielsen (1926). At the piano was Herman D. Koppel. The recording is slow, majestic, almost pompous in tone. For a snippet, go to here.

On 25 July 2007, an article in the Danish newspaper Information by Kristian Villesen has the title ‘Carl Nielsen’s songs are not Danish’. He argues that if Carl Nielsen’s music is perceived as being ‘genuinely Danish’, it must be for non-musical reasons, for there is no such thing. Karen Vestergård, the co-author of their dissertation ‘Den danske sang’, is also quoted: ‘The concept of the national [in CN’s songs] is a later addition. It is not the work in itself but the use of it and the cultural context of which it is a part that create the feeling of Danishness.’

Possible cultural contexts here are the reunification with Denmark of Southern Jutland of 1922, which made Danish hearts beat proudly, and the outbreak of World War II, which set many a Danish heart racing for other reasons.

It is very difficult to listen to Schiøtz’s recording over 70 years later without feeling he is going ‘over the top’. But what of the poem – what does it actually say?

It has all the staple ingredients of Danish songs: a blond girl, blue sea everywhere, beech trees, waves breaking on shores, and a proud past rich in sagas. That is only the first verse. After a contrast between the various regions – Denmark is a country of great variety – the emphasis is then on customs having become milder over the centuries. Now, however, there is a call to arms – art and battle still call for steel. The best way of tempering the soul is to return to the source – Bjarkemål.

I doubt if many Danes have the faintest idea of what Bjarkemål is. Den Danske Ordbog and Ordbog over det danske Sprog (the two largest Internet sources) both draw a blank. It takes Wikipedia to uncover that it is a modern Danish/Norwegian spelling of Bjarkamál, an Old Norse poem from around the year 1000. The main reason it is referred to is perhaps that King Olav had the poem recited to rouse his outnumbered army the morning before an important battle. In this song there is, then, a call to mental battle reminiscent of the call made in Denmark after their great territorial losses of 1864 to the Prussians. The famous quotation ‘For every loss a replacement is to be found, what is outwardly lost must be inwardly won’ made in that context comes from the Danish writer J.P. Holst. The British equivalent is when people sing ‘I shall not cease from mental strife’ at the last night of the Proms.

The last stanza adds the dimension of the heart. The language of the heart is verse and song, so that the true Danish song is when the heart speaks freely. After invoking the nightingale and the lark, two birds Danes feel close emotional ties with, the song takes in both town and countryside, present and past in a final triumphant assertion that Denmark will thrive for generations to come.

A brilliant musical setting by Nielsen, as by Elgar in the British example. But the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of Hoffmann’s poem is somewhat overpowering. The strange thing is, even as a non-Dane, that when I sing this song with Danes, it makes a very strong emotional impact on me. I forget the actual words for the overall optimism of Denmark past, present and future. Mere propaganda – or genuine Danishness?

(For a side-by-side dual language version go to here)

The Danes’ True Song

The Danes’ true song is a young blond maiden
who hums contented in Denmark’s land,
a child is she of the sea-blue kingdom
where beech trees listen as waves meet strand.
The Danes’ true song, when it’s deepest ringing,
with sounds of bells, sword and shield will soar;
the strains of sagas towards us winging
that tell of Denmark in days of yore.

All Zealand’s charm, Jutland’s strong dominion,
the mild and hard in the same refrain,
must both be sung should our real opinion
of us and ours be made clear and plain.
And customs mellow with time’s rephrasing,
but art and battle for steel still call:
the altar fire where our soul’s set blazing
burns at its brightest in Bjarkemål.

So Denmark, sing, let the heart speak freely!
for heart’s true language is verse and song,
from nightingales we can learn this clearly,
from larks o’er meadows with call so strong.
And wind’s wild ballad breaks loose its tether,
the mighty lay of the waves is sung;
from city pavement and moorland heather
the song shall rise up, both glad and young.

Kai Hoffmann (text 1924), Carl Nielsen (music 1926)

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