Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art. — Charlie “Bird” Parker (Wikiquote).
This Christmas season I’ve been playing a Danish carol, Et barn er født i Betlehem (a child is born in Bethlehem), at night by the fireside. I’ve been trying to make a spiritual practice of it, with some degree of success, and so far I’m encouraged enough to keep playing. Some of the carol’s lyrics tell the story of the Three Wise Men, in fact, so I can keep on playing it into Epiphany.
Or later. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced incarnation isn’t something that happened just once on Dec. 25 in Bethlehem. It happens every day, and in many different ways. Something like it may even happen when we play music. Especially when I play a song like Et barn er født i Betlehem. It’s a Danish translation of a medieval Christmas carol. Known in Latin as Puer natus in Bethlehem or German as Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem, the carol has been sung n different languages to different melodies across Germany and northern Europe since the 13th century. It was translated by N.F.S. Grundtvig, variously described as a pastor, author, poet, philosopher, historian, teacher, politician and “one of the most influential people in Danish history,”
Grundvig’s translation runs to 10 stanzas in the Danske Salmbog (Danish psalmbook or hymnal). The Hymns and Carols of Christmas website has a minimally useful English translation, minus any reference to Epiphany and the three kings — more of a paraphrase of Grundtvig’s text than a translation, in my opinion — that manages to tell the basic story in three verses:
1. A Child is Born in Bethlehem,
And gladness fills Jerusalem,
2. A lowly manger shelters Him,
This Holy Boy.
God’s angels sing above with joy.
3. We now give thanks eternally,
To God, the Holy Trinity,
I can’t find much about the Danish melody online. The Danske Salmbog credits it to Danish composer A.P. Berggreen, and says it derives from a German folksong dated about 1600; Berggreen was a church organist and educator who published a collection of folk songs in the Salmebog and an 11-volume collection of Folk Sange og Melodier (folk songs and melodies) from Denmark, Norway, Danish, Sweden, Germany and other countries throughout Europe.
In one form or another, Et barn er født i Betlehem has been sung at Christmas in Latin, German, Danish or any of the other Scandinavian languages since at least the 14th century. Known by its German title as Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem, it comes down to us as a chorale melody most commonly heard in a setting by early baroque composer Michael Praetorius.
So even when I play it to a variant tune by the fireside at home in Springfield, Illinois, I feel like I’m lifting up my voice — or the dulcimer’s — in a chorus that goes back 600 years.
The video at the top of this post shows the Danish National Girls’ Choir, directed by Phillip Faber. Their performance shows me how much feeling can be packed into a 10-verse religious ballad, and its musicality gives me something to strive for when I’m noodling around on my dulcimer. Other versions, at least a sing-along called Syng med Sigurd (sing with Sigurd) by Sigurd Barrett on YouTube, are geared more for the kiddos.
But with the Girls’ Choir, I can get into the music — as music — even though my Danish is worse than rudimentary. Obviously, I’m not going to sound like a girls’ choir, but I can listen with mindful attention to their phrasing and dynamics, even without understanding much of the poetry.
And in a way that’s hard to explain, I feel like I’m connecting with something I experienced 10 years ago in Copenhagen and lost sight of. Without meaning to, I put it aside when I got home and got busy with other things. But I want to reconnect with it, and playing Et barn er født by the fireplace may just enable me to do that.
You see, I didn’t know about the Danish version of the carol until I discovered it later in a book I bought at a church rummage sale in downtown Copenhagen. And I’ve learned to trust coincidences — they may be trying to tell me something.
The book was a hardback with the utilitarian title Dansk Skolesangbog (Danish school songbook), and it looked like a practically unused elementary school (børneskole) textbook. They’re serious about teaching music in the Nordic countries, and it had a comprehensive selection ranging from Lutheran hymns, folk songs and historical ballads to children’s songs (including a translation of the American folk classic “I Bought Me a Cat,” (Jeg har en kat in Danish). According to a Post-It note inside the back cover, it cost 85 kroner, which would be $12.99 at today’s exchange rates. So I snapped it up.
It wasn’t till later, probably along toward Christmas, that I discovered Et barn er født i Betlehem. It wasn’t the same old German melody I was used to from listening to Praetorius, but it was a catchy tune. I liked it, and it reminds me of the day I bought the book at the Church of the Holy Spirit (Helligaandskirken) on the Strøget, downtown Copenhagen’s iconic pedestrian shopping street.
So I was enchanted. I set about learning the new tune to the old song, and I’m still playing it 10 years later.
The Church of the Holy Spirit is one of Copenhagen’s oldest churches. Søren Kierkegaard was baptized there, and he’d go to services there even after he soured on organized religion, if for no other reason than to see Regine Olsen, with whom he had a complicated relationship. The church dates back to the Middle Ages, when a hospital, a poorhouse and an abbey were established there. (The used book sale took place at a kind of parish house in the old hospital building, said to be the oldest existing church structure in Copenhagen.) But I was there for another purpose.
When Derbi and I were getting ready for our trip to Denmark and Sweden, I read about something called Night Church (Natkirken in Danish), a project of the state Church of Denmark that seeks to attract younger worshipers with an eclectic mix of contemporary and traditional styles of music and meditation on Friday nights. So I arranged an interview with the Rev. Mikkel Vale, then the Night Church pastor at Holy Spirit, and attended Friday night services there and at Our Lady (Vor Frue) cathedral.
I never was able to get my Night Church article published, but I wrote it up for my trad music blog, and I came away impressed with the outreach in a thoroughly secular, cosmopolitan city like Copenhagen. “[W]e postmodern people are both misguided sheep and independent cats,” Vale told a diocesan magazine at the time. “We shall be shepherds to cats.”
Since I identify as both a misguided sheep and an independent cat, I was drawn in immediately. The music ranged from a new age-y cover of the Ramones at Our Lady to an old-fashioned Lutheran hymn sing, including hymns by Grundtvig and Danish symphonic composer Carl Nielsen, and a powerfully moving candlelight communion service at the Church of the Holy Spirit. I don’t usually quote myself, but I think this calls for an exception.
“What we experienced last Friday night in Copenhagen,” I blogged at the time, “left this cat purring.”
There’s something else here, too. Et barn er født i Betlehem is about the incarnation. A child is born in Bethlehem, and Jerusalem rejoices. In performance by the National Girls’ Choir — or Sigurd Barrett’s sing-along, for that matter — the song becomes flesh. And that is the etymological root of the word incarnation, from Latin carnis, flesh. Similarly, A.P. Berggreen’s arrangement of Grundtvig’s 10-stanza Danish translation brought the old German carol to life in the 1840s.
And when I play it on my dulcimer by the fireside, however inexpertly, I feel like I’m bringing the song to life again as I transpose the melody from G to D and train my fingers (which involves a little stretching and a lot of repetition), to match the intervals, phrasing, tempo and dynamics and — most of all — the emotion I hear when the Danish National Girl’s Choir performs it. Those kids can really sing!
Until I picked up the dulcimer, Et barn er født was just a printed page on an elementary school textbook in a language I can barely read. At least that’s what it was for me. I don’t want to stretch the analogy too far, but surely it’s a form of incarnation when I teach my recalcitrant fingers to match the girls’ choir’s phrasing by moving smoothly from the C# on the A string to the E and then the open D on the melody string, and back to the B on the A string. All of which strikes me as good news for other misguided sheep and independent, postmodern cats.
[Published Jan. 2, 2022]