Why Grundtvig’s songs make sense today
STORY Jacob Tybjerg, teacher at Uldum Folk High School and pianist, asks "Why Grundtvig’s songs make sense today" in this story from the book “Sing together” volume 5 in the book series 10 Lessons from the Folk High School.
By Jacob Tybjerg
All the students are sitting in the lecture hall. They hold the Folk High School Songbook in their hands and are waiting with bated breath to hear which song we are going to sing. I am sitting at the piano, ready to play. We will sing number 1 in the Folk High School Songbook. It is “The blessed day” by N.F.S. Grundtvig. For some students, it is their first encounter with Grundtvig. They may have come across him before without knowing it, but now they have come to the folk high school and will meet and be drawn into Grundtvig’s poetic universe, whether they like it or not. Of all the songwriters in the current edition of the songbook, Grundtvig is the one with the most songs, and he is represented in many of the various thematic sections – faith, spirit, life and so on. In that way he is hard to evade, let alone be without.
The evening’s lecturer has decided that we are to sing “The blessed day”. He tells us that this is his favourite song in the Songbook. Especially because of the final verse:
Så rejse vi til vort fædreland,
dér ligger ej dag i dvale,
dér stander en borg så prud og grand
med gammen i gyldne sale;
så frydelig dér til evig tid
med venner i lys vi tale.
(Let’s travel then to our fatherland
which never knows idle days.
There stands a castle so fine and grand
its halls all golden and gay,
where happy forever with friends we’ll talk
in eternity’s gentle rays.)
For him, the verse is about Grundtvig’s wish that we, as humans, in joy and for all eternity, will relax in the warmth of each other’s company, and, not least, keep talking to each other. What is true and important in life does not come to us only when we get to eternity – in other words when we are dead. Life is important all the time. The evening’s lecture is about communication and about talking to each other.
On a pew in West Jutland
I am sitting on a pew with my family. We are at a funeral. It is late summer, the weather is glorious and the harvest has just about all been brought home. In this context and given the person who is to be buried, we will, of course, sing Grundtvig’s hymn “The forests fade across the land”. The hymn is in every way a fitting reminder of the friend who has died, of his view of life, his faith and his working life. And, even though we probably understand them in our own ways, the words help to create a sense of togetherness among all of us assembled in the church. We take what we can use from the hymn (whether it be a single word, a line or a whole verse) and bring them into our own universe, so making of them something that makes sense to us. “The forests fade across the land” is both a hymn about resurrection and a song about the harvest and autumn and the transitions that life brings.
Ham takker alle vi med sang
for alt, hvad han har givet,
for hvad han vokse lod i vang,
for ordet og for livet.
Da over os det hele år
sin fred han lyser gerne,
og efter vinter kommer vår
med sommer, korn og kerne.
(Our thanks to him in song we show
for all His grace and giving,
for all he made in fields to grow,
for gifts of speech and living.
All through the year his peace he brings,
his light on us he showers,
and after winter comes the spring
with summer’s fruits and flowers.)
The multi-layered strength of Grundtvig’s poetry
When I ask the students at the folk high school where I work why they think we should sing Grundtvig’s songs and hymns, many of them reply that, as they get to know them, they discover that the way Grundtvig writes means that his songs can be understood and interpreted in a variety of ways – not least because the distinction between song and hymn is always being blurred. They also say that “that stuff about God” can be filtered out if people prefer that, but that his songs and hymns continue to make sense because they so often are about the big and important things in life: light, joy, and about understanding life better and nurturing love for it and for each other. As with other poets, Grundtvig’s texts help those who sing his songs to reflect on them. There is something to reflect our thoughts against. Many of the students say that, while he may be difficult to understand and get to the bottom of, Grundtvig also raises many clear themes that can develop in our own lives – for example, how to navigate in a loving relationship.
Det er, at vi vil være
hinanden som vi er,
det er, at vi kan bære
hinanden som vi er,
det er, at vore munde,
vi våge eller blunde,
dog mødes i et kys!
(It is to see and be
each other as we are,
it is to share and bear
each other as we are,
it is so mouths and lips
on waking or in sleep
still in a kiss can meet!)
History and poetry
History and poetry lie at the heart of Grundtvig’s writing. We cannot understand ourselves properly if we do not know the historical context we are a part of. Grundtvig is also well represented in the historical section of the Songbook. The poetic voice speaks of the dreams we humans have, and the historical voice tells us how far we have got in trying to turn them into a reality. Myths, poetry and literature give us the opportunity to hear about the struggles others have had in trying to solve what Grundtvig calls the “the riddle of life”, and in that sense they also help us come to a better understanding of our own lives.
The world is made up of myths, and myths are essential to our lives. Myths contain wisdom and give us a picture of how the world looks and how it once looked. We have to learn from myths. Through his songs, Grundtvig takes myths seriously but not necessarily literally. In his poems, Grundtvig expresses the wisdom concealed under the surface of the myth. As well as being able to put our own lives into perspective here and now, the poems can also help provide us with an understanding for the future that we have to create alongside others. Myths live in song and story, and in Grundtvig the language of myth is the language of poetry. This means that Grundtvig’s songs and hymns never become heavy, dogmatic or constricting. They shine with light and embrace narrative.
Jeg gik mig ud en sommerdag at høre
fuglesang, som hjertet kunne røre,
i de dybe dale
og de andre fugle små, som tale.
(I wandered out one summer’s day to hearken,
birdsong moved my heart to lift and quicken.
In deep-sided valleys
nightingale song carries
and the other birds with their small sallies.)
Why sing Grundtvig’s songs?
Once in a while it can be a joy to isolate some words or sentences from a song and look at them without considering their context. In Grundtvig’s hymn “Easter flower”, he asks in verse 3: “Easter flower! But is it true: Have we purpose or a reason?” This is a question that is anything but unusual, and one of the questions we probably all ask ourselves from time to time. This verse is so fine because there are so many questions. They express doubt, and Grundtvig addresses them to “the peasant flower from the country garden”, not to those with specialist knowledge.
For me, talking to each other and asking each other questions is an indication that a close and intimate connection has come about. It is when we share our doubts with others that something arises that we have in common. We have to relate to each other’s lives for better or for worse, while at the same time we also dare to ask and show trust and respect towards other people’s answers and questions. For what happens in this verse and in the next, when the daffodil answers, is a visualisation of the mutual dependence we humans have on each other.
Påskeblomst! men er det sandt:
Har vi noget at betyde?
Er vor prædiken ej tant?
Kan de døde graven bryde?
Stod han op, som ordet går?
Mon hans ord igen opstår?
Springer klart af gule lagen
livet frem med påskedagen?
Kan de døde ej opstå,
intet har vi at betyde,
visne må vi brat i vrå,
ingen have skal vi pryde;
glemmes skal vi under muld,
vil ej vokset underfuldsmelte, støbes i det dunkle
og som lys på graven funkle.
(Easter flower! Is it true?
Have we purpose or a reason?
Are our sermins just cuckoo?
Can the dead escape death’s region?
Did He rise, as it was said?
Will His words, or are they dead?
From daffodils in gold array
will life spring forth on Easter Day?
If the dead cannot take flight,
meaning has for us no place,
we must wither out of sight,
gardens never shall we grace;
deep, forgotten under loam
never wondrous beauty grown,
melted in the darkest cave
and as candles light the grave.)
Grundtvig’s strength is that he wrote such an enormous amount. There is something for every taste, something for every occasion – when school is being inaugurated, when comfort is needed, when life has to be seen in finer shades. When I sing Grundtvig’s songs and hymns, I feel that I become familiar with a host of different universes and messages. I get an insight into historical epochs, different ages, passionate love stories, political, ethical, religious, or moral reflections, views on school and education. Grundtvig’s massive poetical oeuvre can enrich us all with words capable of refining and challenging our view, our perception and our understanding of the life we live. Grundtvig is a poet who can unpack all feelings, and this is what makes him something truly special and significant.
Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig may himself be a mythical figure. Myths are not (necessarily) true, and some people regard myths as an opportunity to expose lies. But no. The Grundtvig myth involves so much more, dealing with life and of everything that makes us human. Grundtvig is a myth that shows how we humans are put together and how we can look at the world – Grundtvig’s hymns and songs contains an enormous wealth of wisdom about life which we can draw upon if we so wish. This might be as the introduction to a lecture, to a funeral or to a celebration. Grundtvig is forever relevant because he is a myth.
If we look at our own lives, we doubtless dream about becoming mythical. By mythical I mean that people will speak of us and value us. For example, I regard many of the teachers whom I have had during my life as being mythical. They managed to do some truly exceptional things that elevated them for me and because the way that they did it was so special they became inaccessible and mythical. Grundtvig worked with myth and passed it on to the reader and the singer who, by themselves working with the Grundtvig myth, create their own myth – which then contains new wisdom.
If we are to sing Grundtvig’s songs and hymns today, it is, simply, because they can contribute to our understanding of life. There is no answer to the question of life’s meaning, but Grundtvig presents us with lots of good suggestions. Do we have purpose and meaning? And do we understand the significance of what Grundtvig has written? It is not certain that we can understand it all at once, but maybe that is also partly the idea. Grundtvig was constantly moving and regularly changed his views and attitudes. So that is how it has to be. When you are in motion, things change around you. Grundtvig believes that we have a commitment to life. We have to find joy in life and be aware of the “deep longings” that transcend our everyday lives. We all need to live a worthy life. It could be said that it isn’t about what you are but who you are.
Et jævnt og muntert, virksomt liv på jord
som det, jeg ville ej med kongers bytte,
opklaret gang i ædle fædres spormed lige værdighed i borg og hytte,
med øjet, som det skabtes, himmelvendt,
lysvågent for alt skønt og stort herneden,
men med de dybe længsler velbekendt,
kun fyldestgjort af glans fra evigheden;
(A life on earth that’s joyful, active, plain,
I would not trade for any royal throne,
to walk aware of paths our fathers came –
with shared respect for high and humble homes,
with eyes, as they were made, turned to the skies,
alert to beauty’s bounty here below,
but knowing, too, where deeper longings lie,
fulfilled alone by heavens eternal glow.)