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Norse Music

            The Norse are infamous for the Viking raids, but they also had a rich cultural heritage.    Fortunately, many poems and sagas survived, but how many of them, if any, were set to music that now is lost? What role did music play in their society?

            Historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote both of the high esteem in which poets and singers were held and the scorn heaped on travelling musicians (leikari).  Earl Rognvald of the Orkneys (1135‑58) included the harp in his list of skills ‑‑ nine skills that were apparently the traditional skills of heroes:

                        There are nine skills known to me --
                        At ‘tables’ I play ably;
                        Rarely I run out of runes;
                        Reading, smith-craft, both come ready;
                        I can skim the ground on skis,
                        Wield a bow, do well in rowing;
                        To both arts I can bend my mind;
                        Poet’s lay and harper’s playing.[1]

            In his introduction to Heimskringla, the Norse King Sagas, Snorre Sturlason(1179-1241) in listing his sources states that ‘part is written down after old songs and ballads[2] which our forefathers had for their amusement.”[3]  The sagas frequently are interrupted by characters breaking into poetic lays, but there are comparably few direct references to music in the sagas. Unfortunately, due in part to problems with translation, it is unclear how many of these verses were spoken and how many were chanted or sung. In chapter 36 of the Ynglinga Saga, for example, Thjodolf creates several poems, but Samuel Laing's translation notes him as singing of the death of King Yngvar:

            …after this defeat the Swedes returned home.  Thjodolf sings of it thus:
                        Certain it is the Estland foe
                        The fair‑haired Swedish king laid low.
                        On Estland's strand, o'er Swedish graves,
                        The East Sea sings her song of waves;
                        King Yngvar's dirge is ocean's roar
                        Resounding on the rock‑ribbed shore."[4] (pg 31)

             At best we only get a tantalizing glimpse of forms that must have played an important role in the North.  In the Finnish oral tradition, as recorded in the epic poem the Kalevala, much is made of the power of songs.  Vainamöinen is their greatest hero and strongest magician because he is their most powerful singer.  This tradition is echoed in the Hávamál where a third of the text is devoted to “The Counseling of the Stray-Singer” and “The Song of Spells”.


            Just as most of the sagas were written in the Middle Ages, hundreds of years after the events they record, so too is the music historian restricted to sources that date well after the Norse period.  The Norse did not have a means of musical notation and it is only well after the Christianization of the North that we begin to find examples from popular culture.

            The earliest music that has been preserved comes from the Danish Codex Runicus.  This vellum manuscript from the 1300s contains the Scanian Law (Skåne being part of Denmark until 1658) and is remarkable as it is written entirely in runes.  It also has two lines of a melody with the accompanying text.  The text reads:

Drømde mik en drøm i nat, um silki ok ærlik pæl

I dreamt a dream last night of silk and fine fur.[5]

            It has been suggested that this is the first two lines of a ballad or folksong (folkevise).  Given the shape of the melodic line and the above comments from Snorre Sturlason, this seems fairly likely.

AM 28 8vo - Codex Runicus Manuscript
Arnamagnæan Digitization Project website

                        (See Appendix A for the sheet music and further discussion).

            The earliest complete melody, believed to have been written in the Orkneys during the thirteenth century, is Nobilis Humilis.  Recorded in the Codex Upsaliensis (C233), this is a beautiful, lilting 2-part hymn dedicated to St. Magnus who died in 1115.  Though in Latin, with a religious text, the music does not conform to the church music of the time.  Rather than using organum (parallel 5ths), the harmonies are almost purely parallel 3rds.  In Europe at the time thirds were strictly avoided in musical compostion.  It has been suggested that this was due in part to the Pythagorean tuning system that was in use at that time which makes thirds sound “out of tune”.

            Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald de Barri (c. 1147‑1220) seems to discuss this style of music in his Descriptio Cambriae:

            Also in the northern parts of of Britain, that is, beyond the Humber and around York, the people who inhabit these parts use a similar kind of singing in symphonic harmony  [i.e., based on the symphoniae or concords]: but with a variety of only two distinct melodies and parts, one murmuring below, the other equally soothing and charming the ear above. Yet in both nations this special style has been acquired not by studied art but by long usage, so that it has now become as it were a habit of second nature. And this has now become so strong in either nation, and taken such firm roots, that one never hears simple [unison?] singing, but either with many voices as in the former [Wales], or nevertheless at least two as in the latter [northern England]. And what is yet more marvellous: even children, and indeed infants, almost from when they first turn from tears to songs, follow the same fashion of singing.

            Since the English do not generally use this manner of singing, but only the northerners, I believe that it is from the Danes and Norwegians, who often used to occupy these parts of the island and were wont to hold them for long periods of time, that the inhabitants have acquired likewise their affinities of speech and their special manner of singing.[6]

.           While one must always beware of modern bias, in reading through the Eddas there is a natural tendency to want to sing or chant many of the verses.  Though not recorded until the late 1700s, Johan Hartmann transcribed several Icelandic melodies to which skaldic verse was sung.[7]  Iceland being an isolated culture, there is a strong likelihood that these tunes changed little from when the text was first recorded hundreds of years earlier.  One of these examples is from the Voluspaa where the origins of the world are described:

                        In the beginning when Ymir lived,
                        There was neither sand nor sea nor cold waves,
                        Nor could any earth or heaven be found;
                        There was Ginnunga,
                        But grass nowhere.[8]

            In his article "Viking Music", Kaare Lie suggests that the fourth of these tunes recorded by Hartmann may once have had a second part in parallel thirds just as in the Hymn to St Magnus.  This tune, set to a poem by the Norwegian king Harald Hardrade, starts and ends on the third rather than the tonic as the other songs do.   In this song, Harald boast of his seamanship:

                        The ship cut along by wide
                        Sikiley [Sicily], where we were proud. 
                        The boat merrily glided
                        With the joyful swains.
                        I do not expect that a laggard
                        Will ever come there.
                        Still, the gold‑decked maid in Gardar [Ellisif, daughter of King Jarisleiv]
                        Will say that she scorns me.[9]

            Although the Orkney Islands are currently part of Scotland, they belonged to Norway until 1468 and still retain much of their Norse heritage. When Sir Walter Scott visited Orkney in 1814 he documented this story:

“A clergyman, who was not long deceased, remembered well when some remnants of the Norse were still spoken in the island called North Ronaldshaw. When  [Thomas] Gray's Ode, entitled the "[The]  Fatal Sisters", was  first published, or at  least first reached that  remote island, the  reverend gentleman  had the well‑judged curiosity to read it to some of the old persons of the isle, as a poem which regarded the history of their own country.

            They listened with great attention to the preliminary stanzas:

"Now the storm begins to lour,
            Haste the doom of hell prepare,
            Iron sleet of arrowy shower
            Hurtles in the darkened air."

But when they had heard a verse or two more, they interrupted the reader, telling him that they knew the song well in the Norse language, and had often sung it to him when he asked them for an old song. They called it "The Magicians" or the Enchantresses."[10]  It is also known as the Darraðarljoð from Njal’s Saga (Chapter 156).

             In Finland, notated broadside ballads were not published until 1622, but there is a strong tradition of oral transmission.  In fact, Finnish musical tradition included several aspects that stabilized their music making the music that was recorded into the 18th century more likely to be consistent with the music sung during the Norse period.  First, as mentioned previously, the Finns have a strong tradition linking magic and music —  their word laulaa “to sing” originally meant “to enchant” — and given that accuracy in the text was key to the magic, retaining the songs exactly was of greater importance than it is for most cultures.  The 1905 wax cylinder recording of Tulen synty, for example, tells the story of the birth of fire.  This information could then be used to control fire and possibly assist in healing burns.[11] The second tradition that would have stabilized the music was there was a prescribed way of singing the songs which included both an echo and a mnemonic movement component.  In singing the Kalevala two singers would sit facing each other with their hands crossed, joined and thus knotted together. Memory was then stimulated as they rocked back and forth with one leading and the other singing the echo thus renewing and reinforcing the words:

                        Strike we now, hand into hand
                        Fingers into curve of fingers
                        So that we may sing good songs,
                        Voice the best of all our legends
                        For the hearing of our loved ones
                        Those who want to learn them from us,
                        Those among the rising young ones
                        Of the growing generation.[12]

.Furthermore, theses Finnish melodies are very consistent in their elements:

            With the exception of incantations all poems in Kalevalaic metre were sung, generally by a single voice to a one‑ or two‑phrase melody with a narrow range, usually a 5th.  The range is widest in the west, while on the Karelian isthmus and in Ingria two‑ and three‑note melodies are usual.  The melodies are normally syllabic, melisma becoming more frequent towards the east.  There are many types of melody, of which the best known is the "Kalevala melody".  This is characterized by two‑line stanzas and 5/4 metre; the two last notes of each line are on the tonic or 2nd and are twice as long as the others.[13]  

            There are probably many other pieces of music that date back to early Scandinavia, but provenance becomes even more of a problem.  For example, as mentioned previously there is a long folk tradition of ballads, but in general they were written down quite late. The Danish ballad “Ebbe Skammelssøn” is a good example of this. The English version, “Lord Ingran and Chiel Wyatt”, dates to the early 1600s.[14]  I’ve been assured by others with more of a background in music ethnicology that an early date is plausible, but unfortunately, linguistic limitations and the scarcity of English translations prevents a more detailed analysis.  The shape of the text and its tragically bloody storyline seem consistent in comparison to the sagas -- but to the later medieval sagas.  There is a distinctly medieval feel to the piece and unless the Danish is quite a bit different (which is very possible), I suspect it dates no earlier than the 1400s. In The Medieval Popular Ballad, Johannes Steenstrup helps date this form through his discussion of dance.  In Iceland, he states, the term “ballad” signified a dance and despite other pastimes discussed in the sagas, dance is not referred to until the 11th and 12th centuries.[15]  Steenstrup makes vague references to Danish balladry being an older tradition, but he makes no other mentions of time frames.

            Along similar veins, En Märkelig Vise om de Söfarne Mänd is another Danish ballad that can be only clearly documented to the seventeenth century. This “Wonderful Ballad of the Seafaring Men” eventually found derivations across Europe by the eighteenth century, but the story has even earlier roots as its cautionary tale of cannibalism among stranded seamen is also found in the writings of Tacitus (in Agricola xxviii) and the German chapbook of Henry the Lion.[16]

            (See Appendix B for the music discussed in this section and for the texts of  “Ebbe Skammelssøn” and “En Märkelig Vise om de Söfarne Mänd”)

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[1]Simpson, Jacqueline.  Everyday Life in the Viking Age. (B.T. Batsford Ltd: London, 1967). Pg. 162.  In Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards’ translation of the Orkneyinga Saga this passage is translated more simply as “I’ve mastered music and verse”.  (Penguin Books: NY, 1981). p. 108.

[2]In the entry “Iceland” in the Grove Dictionary of Music, this passage is translated as “kvaethi (old chants) and söguljóth (epic songs)”. Pg. 49.

[3]Sturlason, Snorre.  Heimskringla: The Norse King Sagas.  Trans. Samuel Laing. (J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd: London, 1951). Pg 3.

[4]Sturlason, Snorre.  Heimskringla: The Norse King Sagas.  Trans. Samuel Laing. (J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd: London, 1951). Pg 31.

[5]Arnamagnæan Digitization Project. AM 28 8vo - Codex Runicus.  University of Copenhagen. Accessed Oct. 2002.

[6]Parrish, Vicki and Robinson, Michael. Giraldus Cambrensis.

[7]Hartmann’s collection was first published in J. B. de la Borde’s Essai sur la Musicque Ancienne et Moderne in 1780.

[8]Horton, John.  Scandinavian Music: A short history.  Greenwood Press, 1963. p. 19.

[9]Lie, Kare A. The Songs of the Vikings.  2001.

[10]Towrie, Sigurd. “Norn ‑ the Language of Orkney.”Orkneyjar--the heritage of the Orkney Islands.

[11] Tulen Synty.  Recorded by Petri Shemeikka.  The Kalevala Heritage: Archive Recordings of Ancient Finnish Songs. (Ondine: Helsinki, Finland. 1995)  track 6.

[12]Lönnrot, Elias. The Kalevala: Epic of the Finnish People. Trans. Eino Friberg. (Otava Publ. Co. Ltd.: Helsinki, Finland. 1988.

[13]"Finland". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.  Ed Stanley Sadie.  v 6. p.587.

[14]This is one of the ballads recorded by Francis Child in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.  5 volumes. 1882-1898.

[15]Steenstrup,  Johannes.   The Medieval Popular Ballad.  (University of Washington Press: Seattle, 1968).  Originally published 1891. p. 10.

[16]GrundtvigSvend. “En Märkelig Vise om de Söfarne Mänd”.  The Folk‑Lore Record, Volume III part II, 1881.  http://www.folk‑

      Updated: 4 Dec, 2007
Text © Richard Schweitzer, 2007   Copyright details
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