Carl Michael Bellman
may not be well-known outside the Nordic region, but within
Scandinavian literature he is regarded as one of the most important
and original poets ever. From a rather modest start as an entertainer
in pubs and at parties he gradually advanced to become a favourite
with King Gustavus III and had for some time a position as unofficial
poet laureate. His most important works are the two collections
Fredman’s Epistles (1790) and Fredman’s Songs (1791).
These contain a wide variety of poems, many of them long narratives,
requiring a real singer/actor to perform them, something Bellman
obviously was, according to eye-witnesses. Among these songs
are burlesque portraits of drunkards and prostitutes but also
pastorals, bible parodies, drinking songs. Often Death looms
darkly over the proceedings.
The music is to
a great extent comprises borrowings from and adaptations of
marches, minuets, folk songs, operas and operettas, very often
from French Opéra-Comique - Gustavus III was very French-oriented.
But they are not mere loans; he modifies them very skilfully
to fit the texts, which at all times are at the forefront. In
some cases the tunes he used were written by well-known composers:
Handel, Roman, Rousseau and Johann Gottlieb Naumann, to mention
just four. In other cases the originators are long forgotten.
He is also supposed to have composed some of the finest of them
himself: on this disc tracks 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 26 and 32, of
which the last mentioned, Fjäriln vingad syns på Haga, is
one of the songs that almost every grown-up person in Sweden
can at least hum and probably also knows a few lines.
For English speakers
it is good to know that there exist excellent translations of
many of these songs by Paul Britten Austin, some of them recorded
by Martin Best back in the 1970s or 1980s. On Proprius there
is also a disc where Martin Bagge sings a selection of them.
With so much focus
on the texts it may seem a bit odd to record a whole disc with
only the music, but, as C-G Stellan Mörner wrote in the liner
notes to the original LP issue back in 1960: “Many of these
melodies were in fact originally instrumental or else had a
melodic line in their instrumental accompaniment, consequently
there is good reason for these melodies to appear in their instrumental
garb without their vocal elements.” The choice of Claude Génetay
as arranger ensures stylish orchestrations, Génetay being French-born
and specializing in 18th century music. Recording
the music in the Drottningholm Court Theatre, built in the late
18th century, further lends an aura of period atmosphere,
although the orchestra play on modern instruments. Conductor
Stig Westerberg sees to it that the playing is vigorous and
springy, but I believe that recorded today it might have been
even more pointed, with more “air” between the notes. Génetay’s
arrangements have worn well and he has often observed Bellman’s
instructions about what particular instruments the singer was
supposed to imitate. The overall impression is more of early
19th than late 18th century. Lovers of
good melodies need not bother about this, but should know that
the ordering of the pieces gives maximum variety.
Squeezing 33 melodies
into a disc playing for less than 38 minutes of course means
that many of them are frustratingly short: most of them around
one minute and none exceeding two minutes but who needs to play
the whole disc at one sitting? 38 minutes was of course quite
normal playing time for an LP in the early 1960s and Swedish
Society probably didn’t have any suitable fillers. Sound quality
is quite OK for a 45-year-old recording and even if this may
not be regarded as essential listening it is highly entertaining
and many of the melodies should appeal even to non-Scandinavians.