The death of Aretha Franklin on August 16 got me thinking about singers in the gospel tradition, or who began their singing careers that way. I shared my thoughts with my wife and a friend. Naturally, I prefer some singers (meaning those who began as gospel singers) and some styles to others.
In a message to my friend, I noted that I had never really developed a taste for opera, but that — along with admiring many popular singers (meaning those who did not perform opera or classical music) — I have, over the years, developed a taste for the lied or art song.
A Wikipedia entry notes that a favorite composer of mine, Carl Nielsen (Danish, 1865-1931), wrote over 290 songs and hymns. What I like most about his songs is their simplicity and directness, along with their beauty. They convey a certain emotional state so clearly.
Nielsen’s songs do not seem to be well known.
Below is a selection of my favorites.
— Roger W. Smith
Æbleblomst (Apple Blossom)
Den danske sang er en ung, blond pige (The Danish song is a young blonde girl)
Den milde dag er lys og lang (The mild day is light and long)
Der er et yndigt land (A fair and lovely land) – tenor
Der er et yndigt land (A fair and lovely land) – choir
Fatimas sang (Fatima’s song) – from Incidental Music to Aladdin
Forderligt at sige (Strange to say)
Hvor sódt i Sommeraftenstunden (How sweet is the summer evening)
Jeg bærer med Smil min Byrde (I take with a smile my burden) – baritone
Jeg bærer med Smil min Byrde (I take with a smile my burden) – choir
Jeg lægger mig saa trygt til ro (I am so comfortable at rest) – baritone
Jeg lægger mig saa trygt til ro (I am so comfortable at rest) – soprano
Jeg lægger mig saa trygt til ro (I am so comfortable at rest) – tenor
Min Jesus, lad mit Hjerte faa (My Jesus, let my heart obtain)
Min pige er saa lys som Rav (Like golden amber is my girl) – baritone
Min pige er saa lys som Rav (Like golden amber is my girl) – tenor
Nu er da Vaaren kommen (At last spring has come)
Sænk kun dit Hoved du Blomst (Lay down, sweet flower, your head)
Solen er saa rød, Mor (The sun is so red, Mother)
Tidt er jeg glad, og vil dog gerne græde (Oft am I glad, still may I weep from sadness)
Ud gaar du nu paa Livets Vej (Now you must find your path in life)
Posted here are two versions of the anthem “Der er et yndigt land” (A fair and lovely land) by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. The text is by the Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger.
As noted in a Wikipedia entry:
“Der er et yndigt land,” commonly translated into English as “There is a lovely country,” is one of the national anthems of Denmark.
The lyrics were written in 1819 by Adam Oehlenschläger and bore the motto in Latin: Ille terrarum mihi praeter omnes angulus ridet (Horace: “This corner of the earth smiles for me more than any other”). The music was composed in 1835 by Hans Ernst Krøyer. Later, Thomas Laub and Carl Nielsen each composed alternative melodies, but neither of them has gained widespread adoption, and today they are mostly unknown to the general population.
Posted are three renditions — one by a tenor, one by a soprano, and one by a mixed choir — of a beautiful song by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. Nielsen composed over 290 songs and hymns, most of them based upon verses and poems by well-known Danish authors.
The song “Hjemvee (Underlige Aftenlufte!)” (translated as Homesickness; Odd and unknown evening breezes!) is a setting of a text by the Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger. The poem was written in 1805 and was occasioned by homesickness Oehlenschläger suffered during a four-year trip to Germany, France, and Italy.
The lyrics (see below) express the following impressions and thoughts: The homesick poet is watching the sun set behind mountains in a foreign land. The evening breeze makes him think of similar evenings among beech trees in the woods in Denmark, his native land. He wonders, will he ever see them again?
The composer’s tempo instructions are “Sincerely, warmly (not too slowly).”
The Danish lyrics are as follows, followed by an English translation.
Hvorhen vinker I min Hu?
Milde, lune blomsterdufte!
sig, hvor hen I bølger nu.
Går I over hviden strand
til mit elskte fødeland?
Vil I der med eders bølger
tolke, hvad mit hjerte dølger?
Matte sol! bag bjergets stene
luerød du daler ned,
og nu sidder jeg alene
i min dunkle ensomhed.
Hjemme var der intet fjeld,
ak! så er jeg ude vel,
skal i nat ej barnligt blunde
i min Herthas grønne Lunde.
Norges søn! jeg vel kan mindes,
du har sagt med smeltet bryst,
at i hjemmet ene findes
rolighedens sande lyst.
Schweizer! som paa klippen bor,
du har talt de samme ord.
Hellig længsel drev med vælde
begge til de vante fjelde.
Tror I da, kun klipper ene
præger sig i hjertet ind?
Ak! fra disse nøgne stene
vender sig mit mørke sind.
Synger granens, fyrrens lov!
hvor er Danmarks bøgeskov?
Gustne flod, som her sig krummer,
dysser ej min sjæl i slummer.
Hjemme rinder ingen floder
i en sid og leret grav,
livets kilde, glædens moder
breder sig, det sølvblå hav,
slynger sig med venlig arm
om sin datters fulde barm,
og ved blomsten sig forlyster
på Sjølundas unge bryster.
Stille! stille! hisset gynger
båden mellem siv og krat,
sødt en mø ved cithren synger
i den tavse, lune nat.
Hvilke toner! milde lyst!
hvor du strømmer i mit bryst!
Men hvad savner jeg, og græder,
mens hun dog så venligt kvæder?
Det er ej den danske tunge,
det er ej de vante ord,
ikke dem, jeg hørte sjunge,
hvor ved hytten træet gror.
Bedre er de vel måske,
ak, men det er ikke de!
bedre, tror jeg vist, hun kvæder,
men tilgiver, at jeg græder!
Tager ej min sang for andet
end et ufrivilligt suk!
Længselsfuldt heniler vandet,
aftnen er så blid og smuk.
Mangen sådan aftenstund
sad jeg i min kære lund,
mindet vender nu tilbage,
det var årsag i min klage.
Tidlig misted jeg min moder,
ak! det gjorde mig så ve!
Danmark er min anden moder,
skal jeg mer min moder se?
Livet er så svagt og kort,
skæbnen vinker længer bort,
skal jeg med den sidste varme
slutte mig i hendes arme?
Wond’rous fragrance in the evening!
Something beckons in my mind!
Scent of flowers warmly wafting,
Tell me what your currents find.
Will you drift o’er plain and strand
To my distant motherland?
Will your odours there reveal
What my aching heart conceals?
Feeble sun! behind the mountains
Furnace-red you slowly sink.
Lone I sit by craggy fountains.
Lovely memory I drink.
Mountains are not in my home.
Ah, too long I must have roamed
And shan’t tonight sleep like a child
In my native arbour mild.
Listen! listen! over where
The boat is rocked twixt wood and reed,’
There a maiden plays her zither
In the gloaming mild and sweet.
Melodies with rapture blest!
Gently streaming in my breast!
But there’s something lost and missing
In the pleasant words she’s singing.
Please don’t take my song for other
Than a soft, unwilling sigh.
With a fervent rush the water
Foams beneath the evening sky,
Oftentimes at such an hour
Sat I in my shady bower.
Memory wells up, returning.
Causing all my hurt and yearning.
Early did I lose my mother.
Oh, it caused me woe and pain.
Demark is s my second mother.
Shall I see her once again?
Life, it is so short and weak.
Fortune calls, but does not speak.
Will I at the final gloaming
In her arms find rest from roaming?
Note: Different sites and booklets give varying lyrics and translations. I am not sure if I have transcribed the lyrics as sung with complete accuracy. But, at least the English translation coveys the meaning of the lyrics.
Posted here is a song by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen: “Tidt er jeg glad, og vil dog gerne græde” (Often I am glad, still may I weep from sadness). The text is by the Danish novelist and poet Bernhard Severin Ingemann (1789-1862).
“Tidt er jeg glad” was included in a collection of songs: En Snes danske Viser (a Score of Danish Songs), published in 1915, which included songs composed by Nielsen and Thomas Laub, a Danish organist and composer who was a friend of Nielsen’s.
Nielsen’s output of songs was prodigious. They are well known in Denmark and show Nielsen’s indebtedness to Danish literature.
“Tidt er jeg glad” (Often I am Happy) provides an example of how Nielsen establishes musical expectations and then, as the melody follows its natural course, smoothly undermines the fulfillment harmonically. And yet, at first hearing there is nothing particularly remarkable about this song: its rhythms are regular, the melody mostly stepwise, the harmonic progressions are normative, and the text-setting is syllabic. Indeed, the song is simple almost to the point of sounding amateurish. Yet closer attention reveals that these ordinary features result in a creation more ingenious than immature, and that the momentary lapses between expectation and fulfillment contribute to the expression of both the structure and the meaning of the poetry.
The point of the poem is to suggest that things are not what they seem, that the protagonist’s inner reality is exactly the opposite of his outward appearance. The poem’s veneer of well-being masking dark truths is a feature of much Scandinavian literature and film—no wonder, in a region of the world where “decorum” is a veritable maxim to live by. In his aphoristic presentation of contrasting emotions and images, Ingemann conveys the turmoil suffered and energy expended in hiding one’s deepest feelings. Surely it was this tension between extremes of emotion that attracted Nielsen to his poem.
In the song, the general sadness of the poem is conveyed through the minor-mode context, consistently serious tone, and plaintive melody. Even though phrase after phrase presents opposing adjectives—happy/sad, sorrowful/laughing, warm/freezing, loud/soft—the music maintains a single somber mood throughout. In the following analysis it will become apparent that Nielsen chose more subtle musical means than the simple vacillation between major and minor modes, or slow and lively rhythms to underscore these polarities.
Each of the short phrases of text is supported by just two measures of music. Even though these small units are equal in length, the song does not come apart at the seams because Nielsen has arranged the harmony so that the end of one phrase is at the same time the beginning of the next. Each phrase ends on the dominant of one key or another that progresses into the next phrase; this musical dependency matches the poetry’s string of dependent clauses. …
Thus, in as concentrated a fashion as Ingemann himself, Nielsen has matched the poem’s balanced presentation of polarized emotions with the perfect musical counterpart: a pattern of alternating harmonic poles – dominant and tonic – the circle-of-fifths harmonic sequence. Further, as an analogue for the protagonist’s emotional deception, he interrupts this sequence with deceptive motions, translating into musical terms the dichotomy between what the person appears to feel and is actually experiencing inside. The continual fluctuation between anticipation and retrospective reinterpretation in the harmonic domain, then, serves to intensify the poem’s emotional zigzaggery. … By underscoring the contrasting emotions with opposing harmonic functions, … Nielsen succeeded in fusing the musical and poetic syntax.
— Annie-Marie Reynolds, Carl Nielsen’s Voice: His Songs in Context
The Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) “is one of the most playful, life-affirming and awkward voices in twentieth-century music. His work resists easy stylistic categorization or containment, yet its melodic richness and harmonic vitality are immediately appealing and engaging. Nielsen’s symphonies, concertos and operas are an increasingly prominent feature of the international repertoire, and his songs remain perennially popular in Denmark. But his work has only rarely attracted sustained critical attention within the scholarly community; he remains arguably the most underrated composer of his international generation.”
Nielsen’s childhood home (now a museum), near the city of Odense on the island of Funen. (Photograph by Roger W. Smith.)
Carl Nielsen statue in Copenhagen, done by his wife Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen. The statue was completed in 1939. The inscription, “REIST FOR CARL NIELSEN,” is translated as erected for Carl Nielsen. It depicts The Young Man playing Pan-pipes on a Wingless Pegasus. Nielsen’s wife said: “What I wanted to show in my figure is the forward movement, the sense of life, the fact that nothing stands still.” (Photograph by Roger W. Smith.)
Nielsen’s autobiographical memoir of his childhood on the island of Funen. It was published in Danish in 1927 as Min Fynske Barndom (My Childhood on Funen).
This pioneering study was first published in 1952.
This LP contained a premier recording of Nielsen’s cantata Fynsk Foraar (Springtime on Funen), conducted by the Danish conductor Mogens Wöldike.
Nielsen’s songs represent a major part of his oeuvre and are well known in Denmark. Most of them are unknown elsewhere.
— Portfolio assembled by Roger W. Smith from his collection of Nielsen materials.
1. Den milde dag er lys og lang
og fuld af sol og fuglesang,
og alt er såmænd ganske godt,
når blot, når blot, når blot,
når blot vor nabos Ilsebil
vil det, som jeg så gerne vil
vil lægge kinden mod min kind
med samme varme sind,
2. vil række mig sin lille hånd
med samme redebonne ånd,
vil lukke øjet som til blund
og give mig sin mund!
Ja, dagen den er lys og lang,
og der er nok af fuglesang,
men jeg er bange, Ilsebil
vil ikke det, jeg vil!
3. Bag hækken kommer Ilsebil –
mon det er mig, hun smiler til?
Hun bærer mælk i klinket fad
og giver katten mad.
Å se, nu smiler hun igen,
min Ilsebil, min egen ven –
det er, som selve solens skin
faldt i mit hjerte ind.
The Mild Day Is Light and Long (1921)
words by Aage Berntsen (from “Springtime in Funen”)
1. The mild day is light and long
and full of sun and birdsong,
and everything is quite good,
just when, just when
just reach our neighbor’s Ilsebil
want what I would like to do
will put the cheek on my cheek
with the same warm mind,
2. will reach me his little hand
with the same red-minded spirit,
will close the eye like to nap
and give me his mouth!
Yes, the day it is light and long,
and there are plenty of birdsong,
but I’m afraid, Ilsebil
do not want what I want!
3. Behind the hedge comes Ilsebil –
Mon, it’s me she’s smiling for?
She carries milk in a grated dish
and gives the cat food.
To see, now she smiles again,
my Ilsebil, my own friend –
It’s like the sun’s skin
fell into my heart.
(The English translation is from Google Translate and is no doubt imperfect.)
It should be noted that this lovely and charming choral work is autobiographical. The composer, Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), was born and raised on the island of Funen (Danish: Fyn). “Fynsk foraar” means “springtime in Funen.”
I finally got to Funen on a trip this April.
The recording posted here is of a landmark LP featuring the Danish conductor Mogens Wöldike, who studied under Nielsen and knew him personally. I bought this rare recording in New York City in the mid-1970’s for $10. It was a sort of big expense for me then.
I find enchanting the melodies and also the underling rhythms. Listen, for instance, to the soprano solo “Å se, nu kommer våren” (O see, spring is coming); and the baritone solo which follows immediately, “Den milde dag er lys og lang” (The mild day is bright and long), which brings tears to my eyes.
Fynsk Foraar (Springtime on Funen), for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Opus 42, is Carl Nielsen’s last major choral work. Written to accompany a prize-winning text by Aage Berntsen, it was first performed in Odense’s Kvæghal (Cattle Hall) on July 8, 1922 where it was conducted by Georg Høeberg.
Auage Berntsen, a medical doctor and a writer, was the winner of a competition arranged around 1917 by the Dansk Korforening (Danish Choral Society) for a text on Danish history or landscape which would subsequently be set to music by Carl Nielsen. Several years went by before the composer could find the time or inclination to work on the piece, especially as he was in the middle of composing his Fifth Symphony. Indeed, on August 19, 1921, he wrote: “For some time I have not felt very comfortable because I could not get started on the choral work which I must have done by 1 September, and every day I considered throwing it away and informing the board of all these combined societies that I had to beg off… But then one day I found the tone and the style, which will be a light mixture of lyricism and humor, and now it is well in hand and will soon be finished.
Only with the help of his pupil Nancy Dalberg, who had helped with fair-copying the large score for Aladdin was he able to meet his deadline. On September 3, 1921, he wrote to his wife: “My new choral piece has turned out to be a really big piece of work (42 pages in the piano arrangement) and has now actually been delivered on time. But I have also worked a lot and with a certain lightness. The poet has called it Springtime on Funen but I also give it a subtitle, Lyrical Humoresque, which suggests that the style is light and lively. … Now I will continue with my interrupted symphony.”
The first performance of Fynsk Foraar was at the opening concert of Third National Choral Festival which took place on July 8, 1922 in the huge Odense Kvæghal (Cattle Hall), specially renamed Markedshallen (Market Hall) for the occasion. The circumstances were not ideal. While Nielsen had envisaged the work for a fairly small orchestra and choir, there were 80 in the orchestra and several hundred in the choirs from Funen and Copenhagen. The hall itself could accommodate up to 10,000 people.
The day after the concert, Politiken commented: “Enthusiastic applause rewarded the choral work. The composer and poet were called for in vain. Neither was present.” Nielsen had in fact explained a few days earlier that he was not feeling up to travelling to Odense. Most reviewers agreed that the work had not been performed in the right venue. N.O. Raasted, writing for a local newspaper Fyns Tidende was frank: “So light and graceful, so witty and veiled is the language spoken here that several of the work’s beautiful passages could only be lost in a performance under such circumstances! We look forward to hearing it all again in the not too distant future if the work can be presented in circumstances that are more favorable to its appreciation.”
Another local newspaper Fyens Stiftstidende commented on the work’s regional tone: “There was the greatest interest in the next item in the concert, Aage Berntsen’s and Carl Nielsen’s never-before-performed work for soloists, choir and orchestra, Springtime on Funen. Rarely have a poet and composer been so fortunate in finding the fullest expression of the distinctive atmosphere and emotional life of a Danish region. The Funen islanders totally lack the capacity to take themselves too seriously. As true sons of the Funen soil, Berntsen and Carl Nielsen have therefore made Springtime on Funen a humoresque; but no less distinctively, the humoresque bears the stamp of the lyrical, for among the Danes the people of Funen remain those who abandon themselves most easily to the play of the emotions.”
In the meantime, Nielsen was planning his own performance of the work at the Music Society (Musikforeningen) in Copenhagen. In a letter dated June 29, 1922 to the composer Rudolf Simonsen, he describes how he would like it performed under his own baton: “III myself: Springtime on Funen small orchestra: light and gay and graceful as my humble talents can manage.” The work was indeed presented by the Music Society at the first concert of the season on November 21, 1922.
Axel Kjærulf, writing in Politiken, was full of praise for the work: “It is enchantingly formed, so light and bright, so full and fertile, so simple and inward. In each strophe one recognizes Carl Nielsen’s Danish tone, but here sweeter and truer than before. He is intimate with everything — and the rest of us get as close as possible to this often so inaccessible man — and grow fond of him.”
Fynsk Foraar is often considered Nielsen’s most popular choral work, especially in Denmark. Nielsen gave it the subtitle “lyric humoresque”, aptly describing its simple, folk-like idiom and its compact form. Scored for a four-part chorus, soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists, a children’s chorus and a small chamber orchestra, the 18-minute cantata consists of several independent sections tied together with orchestral transitions. The choral writing is largely diatonic and homophonic. The solo melodies contain frequent alternations between major and minor tonalities.
This work is often cited as the most Danish of all Nielsen’s compositions; this seems borne out as the chorus and soloists extol a countryside replete with grass, water lilies, and gnarled apple trees blooming.
“Interrupting his work on the Fifth Symphony in 1921 Nielsen turned (fulfilling a promise he had given) to lighter things in Springtime on Fyn (Fynsk Foraar); this he called a ‘Lyric Humoresque.’ One could not imagine him, like Benjamin Britten, calling such a work a ‘Spring Symphony’; he took the symphony too seriously and mastered it too powerfully to use its name pretentiously: the sub-title ‘Lyric Humoresque’ is in this case a precise description of the work, as it would be of Britten’s. This is one of the most Danish of all Nielsen’s works, and it recaptures all the charm and fascination of that sunny childhood he described so perfectly in My Childhood on Fyn …: the musical idiom is the simplest imaginable, folk-like and gay, picturing his own native environment with the kind of truthfulness and subtlety that come only from real vitality, however modest the aims. Danish as this work is it would, with a simple translation of the rustic and touching words by Aage Berntsen, easily find its way into English hearts. It is scored for moderate resources, four-part chorus, soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists, children’s chorus, and a small orchestra without trombones—ideal, in fact, for the reasonably well-developed amateur musical society; at the same time, its gaiety and poetry are such that a first-class professional performance must inevitably reveal it as an exquisite work of art.”
— Robert Simpson, Carl Nielsen: Symphonist (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1979)
One day we were in the garden. Father stood looking in at the pig. Mother was hanging clothes out, and I was weeding. Two travelling journeymen came past. They were dusty, carried knapsacks on their backs, and looked rather wretched. Seeing the pump near the cottage, they asked for a drink. Mother asked if they would rather not have beer, in which case they could come in. I heard Father say she was not to invite such ruffians in, but Mother answered, “Niels, dear, just think if they were two of our own boys.” Father said nothing, but I could clearly see that he was struck by the reply.
— Carl Nielsen, My Childhood (translated from the Danish by Reginald Spink; Copenhagen, Hansen, 1952, pg. 91; originally published in Danish in 1927 as Min Fynske Barndom)