The Danish tradition of communal singing is anchored in the song book “Højskolesangbogen”, a must-have in folk high schools, sports clubs, village halls and parish churches. Carl Nielsen played an important role in the creation of the songbook.
It is told that the Danish tradition of communal singing began one evening in 1838 at Borch's Student Residence Hall in Copenhagen. The Danish poet, priest and politician N.F.S. Grundtvig had just finished a speech, when the audience spontaneously stood up and started singing "Kommer hid, I piger små" ("Gather round, you little girls") - a popular song about the naval hero Willemoes, penned by Grundtvig and set to music by C.E.F. Weyse.
The story may be no more than a memorable anecdote. Never the less it is indisputable that Grundtvig played a crucial role in the remarkable rise of communal singing in Denmark in the late 19th Century. The phenomenon was closely linked to "folkehøjskolen", the adult folk high school, which were founded on Grundtvig's ideas about "folkelighed" and "oplysning" - two words that are equally impossible to translate into English.
Singing at the weekly staff meeting at the Danish Embassy in London.
Grundtvig was a formidable and influential figure in his time. Like his contemporary Søren Kierkegaard Grundtvig was impressively productive, writing thousands and thousands of pages in different genres - hymns, poetry, sermons, essays and history books - and his works are still being studied and discussed by scholars. Unlike Kierkegaard, Grundtvig is barely known outside Denmark, but his influence on Danish society is far stronger than Kierkegaard’s. Even today, almost 150 years after his death in 1872, his presence is felt strongly in the Danish approach to religion, education and politics.
Grundtvig and the Folk High Schools
“Folkelighed” means “popularity”, but in Grundtvig’s use the word refers to something that is genuine and belongs to the people. The word “oplysning” means “enlightenment”, but in a deeper and more spiritual sense than how the word is often used. “Oplysning” is more than just knowledge, it is wisdom and formation too. When Grundtvig, rather reluctantly, accepted that absolutism would have to give way to democracy in Denmark, he realised that the people (“folket”) needed enlightenment (“oplysning”) in order to manage their new responsibilities.
One of his ideas was to establish “folkehøjskoler”: Boarding schools where young adult men - and women - from the villages and farms could go to be taught history, literature and the Bible as well as modern farming techniques. The students would not sit any exams, they would not get a diploma, but when leaving after six months they would be “enlightened”. Grundtvig was never involved in putting these thoughts into practice - in fact he never visited any of the folk high schools that were established in his name - but his followers developed his ideas, and folk high schools started to appear all over Denmark: Rødding, Testrup, Askov, Vallekilde, Ryslinge and many more.
"Højskolesangbogen". The quote on the back is from one of the songs that Carl Nielsen wrote the music for: "Let Denmark sing! Make its heart outspoken."
Drawing on the tradition established at Borch’s Residence Hall that evening in 1838, communal singing played an increasingly important role at the folk high schools. Songs would be sung before and after lectures; often songs that reflected the subject of the lecture. The importance of the Danish language and history was accentuated through the songs. Pride in being Danish and consciousness about ones national heritage was another common theme, not least after Denmark was defeated in the Second Prussian War in 1864 and lost one third of the kingdom.
The folk high schools' first attempts at curating and publishing collections of songs suitable for communal singing were made in the 1870s and contained mainly hymns and songs written by Grundtvig. But when the first edition of "Højskolernes Sangbog", or just "Højskolesangbogen" (“The Folk High Schools' Song Book”) were published in 1894, it presented older hymns and traditional folksongs as well as contemporary songs alongside Grundtvig's works.
A great many of the songs that are still among the most popular in "Højskolesangbogen" were written around the turn of the century and adopted by "Højskolesangbogen" in the early 19th Century. Their authors were part of what came to be known as "det folkelige gennembrud", a movement within the arts, which wanted to describe how modernity and industrialism challenged the traditional way of living, and which aimed at telling the story from the common man's perspective. Many of these songs - by Johannes V. Jensen, Thøger Larsen, Johan Skjoldborg, Ludvig Holstein and Jeppe Aakjær - describe an agricultural society that was already vanishing.
Al fresco communal singing in the garden at the Danish Church in London.
Photo: The Danish Church in London
The vast production of new songs were followed by an equally industrious production of new melodies. "Fornyelsen af den folkelige sang", the “revival of the popular song” (again, not a very precise translation), were fronted by four different composers with a shared ambition to write tunes that were simple, yet beautiful and firmly rooted in tradition. Thomas Laub was an organist who mainly wrote melodies for hymns. Thorvald Aagaard and Oluf Ring were both teachers and wrote 500 melodies between them, but never ventured into other genres. None of these three composers are known outside Denmark.
The fourth composer however, was Carl Nielsen, whose 150th anniversary is celebrated worldwide in 2015. He was already an internationally renowned composer of symphonies, operas, concertos and quartets when he took on the job of writing melodies for communal singing. He wrote modest, plain and beautiful melodies as effortlessly as he composed modern and groundbreaking symphonies, and he saw no contradiction in doing both. Together with Laub, Aagaard and Ring he published the first official melody collection for "Højskolesangbogen" in 1922, setting a high benchmark for singable and durable tunes for communal singing. The four composers are still the most well-represented in the current edition of “Højskolesangbogen”. 36 of the melodies are by Nielsen, more than anyone else.
One of Carl Nielsen's melodies. Photo: Udenrigsministeriet
Abroad Carl Nielsen's popular songs are about as little known as Grundtvig's poetry, but their impact on Danish culture can hardly be overrated. Far more than Nielsen's symphonies it is songs like "Jeg ved en lærkerede", "Jens Vejmand" and "Den danske sang er en ung blond pige" that are loved by the Danes. All Nielsen's songs have recently been translated into English and can be downloaded from the Danish Royal Library's website, as can Nielsen's sheet music. Whether this translation will open the British Nielsen fans' eyes to his songs remains to be seen. After all the songs are closely connected to a tradition of communal singing, which is not easily shared with non-natives.
For the folk high school students the communal singing came to epitomise everything they learned and experienced at the folk high school, and when they went back to the farms they brought the songbook and the songs with them. From the folk high schools the tradition of communal singing spread to the rest of the Danish society. Sets of "Højskolesangbogen" soon became a must-have in sports clubs, village halls and vicarages. To this day "Højskolesangbogen", now in its 18th edition, remains the undisputed canon of communal songs in Denmark. There are currently 572 songs in "Højskolesangbogen" and it is the best selling book in Denmark, with the recent edition having sold more than 300.000 copies.
The lyrics to all Nielsen’s songs, many of which are among the songs in “Højskolesangbogen” have been translated into English. The translations can be downloaded from the Danish Royal Library’s website. An album with a number of the songs, sung in English, is due to be published in 2015.