Scandinavia has a rich history of choral music and music for the organ. In 1997, Choral Arts Northwest put together a program of Scandinavian Christmas music with David Dahl as guest organist. This recording consists of works from that popular program, drawn from traditional carols and texts as well as some of Scandinavia’s marvelous contemporary composers. The traditional Latin hymn Ave Maris Stella provided the basis for three selections, including the beautiful setting by Norway’s best-known composer, Edvard Grieg.
Listeners will recognize in Berith Ballard’s arrangement (“Swedish Christmas Medley”) some traditional Christmas tunes from Sweden, and Norwegians will be familiar with “O Jul med din glede” and “Jeg er så glad.” “O Jul” is traditionally sung with children while dancing in a ring around the Christmas tree. In fact, one of my nephews, Tore (then 4 years old), who is very aware of his Norwegian-American heritage, recognized the song during our first concert and wanted to get up and perform the dance! “Deilig er den himmel blaa” is listed as a Danish folk carol, but Norwegian and Swedish versions of the piece are similar, with some slight language differences.
In a similar vein, many of the organ pieces are based on familiar chorales used by Bach in cantatas for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany-tunes such as “Von Himmel hoch” (From Heav’n Above to Earth I Come); “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (How Brightly Shines the Morning Star); “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” (Savior of the Nations, Come); and “In dulci jubilo” (usually sung in English to the words “Good Christian Men, Rejoice!”).
Gustav Nordqvist, writing in the early 1900s in the late Romantic nationalist style, penned “Jul, jul, strålande jul,” which manages to be simultaneously dreamy yet intensely yearning. A similarly lovely setting of “O makalösa stjärna,” in a 1995 arrangement by Ola Ericson, is paired with “Den yndigste rose” of Henrik Ødegaard (born in 1955) to round out the offering of Romantic Nordic style.
When choosing repertoire for this program, I discovered that Scandinavians love slow, lush pieces so much that I had to dig hard to find faster, happier songs. Carolyn Jennings’s delightful arrangement of “O Jul med din glede” in English provided a spirited contrast, and I took the liberty of fitting the Norwegian text back into it. Even so, the program needed more liveliness, so our own Berith Sandquist Ballard arranged the lighthearted medley you hear at the end of this recording.
The Swedish music I wrote about in my book (The Swedish Choral Miracle-Swedish A Cappella Music Since 1945) leans towards complex harmonies and compound rhythms. Very little Christmas music, of course, is written in such a style. However, “Ave Maris Stella” and the other Latin texts are included here because, being Marian hymns, they could be sung at Christmas. The contemporary settings by Bror Samuelson (a member of Eric Ericson’s first Chamber Choir in 1945) and Trond Kverno (born in 1945) complement the more traditional Grieg rendition of this ancient text.
Other works based on Latin texts include the “Ave Maria” by Gottfrid Berg (1889-1970) and the “Gloria” by Jan Sandström (born in 1954). Berg was primarily a church musician, and became interested in the revival of early music, especially that of the Renaissance. He was one of the first to publish performing editions of Renaissance music in Sweden. Jan Sandström, Professor of Composition at the Conservatory in Piteå, is one of most successful young composers in Sweden today. This Gloria is one movement of what will be a complete a cappella setting of the Mass, commissioned by the Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble.