Melodies of Life
By ERIK S. HANSEN
(Hyperlinks to videos and other websites in red text.)
There are many mysteries in the world: Why does November make us so morose? Or why do Christmas lights nurture us? And what is it about the month of May that revives us after a long winter? Through it all we follow the variable up- or downward trajectory of managing our daily tasks.
Life often seems like an extended opera with a hard-to-follow plot line, though complete with its own soundtrack. Sometimes the soundtrack is just background noise. Sometimes it’s a sweet melody from childhood that repeats itself, much to our delight. Sometimes the voice of the out-sized soprano lady sings way too soon for the opera to be over.
We do have a built-in sound system, after all. The rhythm section plays all the time, whether we notice it or not. Our hearts beat out a rhythmic pulse that sustains us. And each heart has its own personal signature lasting the duration of our individual, tiny-timeline slice of eternity. It plays in syncopation for each of us. Slower at rest. Racing at play. Or bouncing around, erratic from a rush of adrenalin or the wear and tear of age.
This fall I heard variations of the heart-beat rhythm come back while listening to the old harvest hymn “The leaves are falling everywhere” (Nu falmer skoven). The original melody, remembered from the old blue church hymnal of the AELC and earlier versions of the Danish Folk High School Songbook, played itself in my mind a dozen times or more during the course of the season of change, the transition from summer to winter. It’s a tune that gave me my first case of goosebumps, way back in my pre-teen years. I didn’t know what was happening to me. My skin tingled. The hair on my neck stood on end. A rush of dopamine, which, science says, is the pleasure drug produced by the inner alchemy of the body, flushed my skin with a physical manifestation of emotion. The relaxing feeling that followed convinced me that something extremely enjoyable had just happened. The background opera to reality had just delivered its first pleasing aria to a ten-year-old boy.
Now the words of the song come back again this year, as they often do in the fall season. What changed over the years is that I now prefer a newer melody to the song, rather than the old melody we used to sing. The words have stayed the same. The English version by S. D. Rodholm translates nine of the original ten Danish stanzas. But the newer tune seems to alter the message delivered in song. It makes me wonder if the entire plot line of the opera of life can be modified by changing the music.
The original melody is a German folk tune—the one used in the blue hymnal, where it’s cited as being a Danish folk melody. Perhaps it came from that part of Germany held by Denmark before the Schleswig Holstein wars. The lines of verse are by Grundtvig, who wrote the hymn in 1844, before the border wars. A useful online version of the Danish Folk High School Song Book tells a short history for every text in the current edition of the songbook. It notes that this hymn was solicited from Grundtvig by a neighboring pastor to honor an upcoming harvest festival. Grundtvig tried a draft and sent it off, but it was deemed too heavy, too solemn. Disappointed, he went back to rewriting and turned the song into the ten stanza version we know today, still a popular favorite in Denmark.
When Grundtvig wrote the song, it was agreed to sing it to the German folk tune from 1640. That melody is somewhat somber too. As with the passing of the seasons, the falling of leaves, the notes start high on the scale and tumble downward, as leaves do, and end by matching the low note of the tune. The melody captures that melancholy march toward winter, though the text stays the same, portending not an end in winter but a transition to the rejuvenation of spring.
The newer melody is by J. H. Nebelong, though still seemingly old, from 1889. It’s the melody also used in A World of Song (even the original blue ring-binder version from 1941). Interestingly, the Nebelong melody, while far more popular in Denmark than the older German tune, did not get adopted into the Danish folk school songbook until 1993. A World of Song was ahead of its time by fifty years!
Yet, how can we ever really be denied the heart tug of memory from childhood? The old melody starts high and ends each verse of the song on the low note. I still hear it when seeing leaves rustling on the ground. Or in the flight of migratory birds in autumn as the seasons change. Perhaps it was my first glimpse into the transitory nature of life.
The alternative melody, the more modern one, goes in an opposite direction. It starts low, moving up the musical scale, and ends high, in an ascension of sound. Perhaps some of the appeal of the newer melody lies in exactly this paradox. The woods are fading, yes. Leaves are falling and withering on the ground. But this melody makes for a reversal of emotion. As the notes go up, rising in a groundswell until finishing at the height of the musical scale, it seems to rejuvenate the meaning of Grundtvig’s words. Winter is not an end but a transition to a new beginning. The possibility of resurrection occurs just as things are ending.
Musical versions of this stirring melody are available in various online links. One favorite of mine is sung by the Danish Girls’ Choir. But many versions can be found on the internet playing this newer, lighter melody, yet with the same words. And the same groundswell of emotion. The same plot, maybe. But with a twist. We move into new mysteries out ahead.
Soundtrack of Life
An even more dramatic example of the varied soundtracks of life can be found in two versions of another old Danish hymn on the same theme. “Teach me, o woods, to wither happily” (Laer mig, o skov, at visne glad) are the words of another of Denmark’s notable romantic poets, Adam Oehlenschlager, and have many similarities to Grundtvig’s hymn “The leaves are falling.” The opening lines, translated here with some poetic license, are reminiscent also of the popular favorite “Evening star up yonder;” the first verse, literally and loosely translated, reads:
Teach me, oh woods! to fade like you
to autumn’s shifting, yellow hue,
awaiting springtime flowers.
Then green again my tree will stand,
as deep its roots reach in the land
of endless summer bowers.
A traditional version of “Teach me, oh woods” can be heard here, looking and sounding somewhat somber, similar to Grundtvig’s falling leaves. But now, by contrast, a modern rap-style version has been written from the original hymn, performed by the Danish hip-hop artist Per Vers (Per the Poet—his name a not so hidden play on the word perverse!) His version demonstrates the difference between the plot of life’s story and the style in which it is told. It can be played on your computer at this link. The artist Per Vers has also written his own English translation of the text in order to appeal to the multilingual younger generation that likes its music in English. In rap style, his song begins:
Teach me, teach me, o forest, how to wither happy
Beautiful like you, yellow leaves, yellow leaves
It will be green again, come home
A better spring will come home
Let my roots grow in a land with eternal sun
Teach me, o forest, how to wither - just to get by with
Then I'd whisper "Thank God”
Even though I really don't know if there's a God out there
The doubt is pulsating nonstop under my skin
But one thing is the same for poets, politicians and cops
We'll lose all of our senses
Until we only can sing the hymn of truth
About how everything in existence must fade
And everything which fades must fall
And the fall will give a rush in the soul of the all of us
Teach me, o sun,
Who dives into flame juice every night
That you can't teach new dogs old moves
'Cause the wise man's last full stop
Looks like a black hole for the young and dumb
But it's a new initial letter
Of a grass-straw-naut in a lush fruit garden
Where we cultivate* poems and quinces to fall down
'Cause the best of them start and end the same place, they . . .
Bless me with sun and rain
Bless me with sun and rain
So I sing come home, come home, come home.
*The word dyrker in the original can also mean worship.
(The full version of his rap version can be found here.)
Things of the Heart
“What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking.
There is no end of things in the heart.”
So says the poet Ezra Pound in his poem “Exile’s Letter,” translating from the Chinese poet Li Po of the seventh century Tang Dynasty. Perhaps they both anticipate the word stream of the modern world of rap—or the chatter of our daily lives, as it is with us centuries later. The talking is transitory—like life. But things of the heart stay with us. And music helps put them there.
Words speak to the mind; music, to the body and soul. And the rhythms of the heart connect these varied aspects of who we are, both literally and figuratively. In music, the physical is made spiritual. Again, now in the Christmas season, we will listen to holiday songs and the stories they tell. The words reverberate in memory each year, but how much more meaningful they are when sung to the melodies we recall from childhood. After all, we remember them by heart. And what we hear through song evokes the true emotion of renewal each time we sing along.
By ED MADSEN
Compared with COVID and war in Ukraine, it may not seem like much, but as Christmas was approaching forty-nine years ago, things in the world were not going very well. Arab states waged war on Israel. Here in the US, while trying to fend off impeachment, our president precipitated the so-called Saturday Night Massacre. That was a string of Justice Department resignations, including the Attorney General, and the firing of the Watergate special prosecutor. Days later, a bribery scandal forced the Vice President to resign. Our republic was in peril!
Then came the Arab oil embargo. Soon we lined up for hours approaching gas pumps, restricted to cars with even numbered license plates one day, odd the next. Wall Street took notice. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost nearly half its value during the ensuing twelve months. Mortgage rates climbed to 8 percent on their way to 9 percent the following year. Our economy was on the ropes!
Aching for respite from the troubles of this world, we booked our family of four into the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, VT, home to the Sound of Music heroine. At age sixty-eight, Baroness Maria von Trapp was one of the ten most respected women in America. When her husband decided to flee privilege and leave everything behind in Austria, she said:
We have now the precious opportunity to find out for ourselves whether the words we have heard and read so often can be taken literally: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.”
Two months later, in September of 1938, Maria von Trapp and her family came to America on a tourist visa with bookings to perform as “The Trapp Family Singers.” Denied visa extension beyond six months, the family left America for a hastily arranged concert appearance in Copenhagen. In October of 1939, the SS Bergenfjord brought them back to America, this time as immigrants, later to be fingerprinted as enemy aliens! For two decades the family delighted audiences nationwide. They became American citizens while the older boys served with U.S. Army ski troops during World War II, after which the family spearheaded postwar Austrian Relief.
Our reservation at Maria’s home in 1973 culminated on December 24. In the afternoon we gathered with other guests to meet Maria in St. George’s Hall at one end of the Lodge. As late afternoon sun slipped behind the mountains, Maria held us spellbound while explaining Christmas traditions in Austria. She said Christmas carols were not sung until celebration of the Christ child on Christmas Eve. Darkness settled outside. Then Maria invited guests to sing one last Advent carol, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” as she led us through a long hallway to the hushed living room at the other end of the Lodge.
There, live candles adorned a freshly cut Christmas tree. Then, wishing us not a “Merry” but a “Blessed” Christmas, Maria led all in softly singing “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” First in German, then in English, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” There was not a dry eye in the house!
N.F.S. Grundtvig: The Hymnwriter
Excerpt from Hymns and Hymnwriters of Denmark by J.C. Aaberg, (Committee on Publication of the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Des Moines, IA, 1945), 123-124.
Grundtvig was in the habit of remaining up all night when he had to. speak the following day. The Christmas of 1825 [sic] was particularly trying to him. He had apparently forfeited his last vestige of honor by publishing his Reply of the Church; the suit started against him by Professor Clausen still dragged its. laborious way through the court; and his anxiety over the present state of the church was greatly increased by the weight of his personal troubles. He felt very. much like the shepherd watching their flocks at night, except that no angels appeared to help him with the message his people would expect him to deliver in the morning. Perhaps he was unworthy of such a favor. He rose, as was his custom, and made a round into the bedrooms to watch his children. How innocently they slept! If the angels could not come to him, they ought at least to visit the children. If they heard the message, their elders might perchance catch it through them.
Some such thought must have passed through the mind of the lonely pastor as he sat musing upon his sermon throughout the night, for he appeared unusually cheerful as he ascended his pulpit Christmas morning, preached a joyful sermon, and said, at its conclusion, that he had that night begotten a song which he wished to read to them. That song has since become one of the most beloved Christmas songs in the Danish language. To give an adequate reproduction of its simple, childlike spirit in another language is perhaps impossible, but it is hoped that the translation given below will convey at least an impression of its cheerful welcome to the Christmas angels.
Be welcome again, God’s angels bright
From mansions of light and glory
to publish anew this wintry night
The wonderful Christmas story.
Ye herald to all that yearn for light
New year after winter hoary.
With gladness we hear your sweet refrain
In praise of God’s glory solely;
Ye will not this wintry night disdain
To enter our dwellings lowly.
And bring to each yearning heart again
The joy that is pure and holy.
In humble homes as in mansions rare
With light in the windows glowing,
We harbor the babes as sweet and fair
As flowers in meadows growing.
Oh, deign with these little ones to share
The joy from your message flowing.
Reveal the child in the manger still
With angels around Him singing
The song of God’s glory, peace, good-will
That joy to all hearts is bringing,
While far over mountain, field and hill,
The bells are with gladness ringing.
God’s angels with joy to earth descend
When hymns to His praise are chanted;
His comfort peace our Lord will lend
To all who for peace have panted;
The portals of heaven open stand;
The Kingdom to us is granted.
Bridget Lois Jensen