Since the 1890s, the visionary poem Draumkvedet - the Dream Lay - has been regarded as a national epic and inspired numerous Norwegian artists. The most impressive presentation of it so far was the production by Det Norske Teatret of Arne Nordheim’s musical dramatisation in 1994.
Vil du meg lyde, eg kveda kan - Come list to me, and I will tell
om einkvan nytan drengjen, - of a lad so brave and strong;
alt om’n Olav Åsteson - I’ll tell you of Olav Åsteson
som heve sovi så lengje - Who slept a sleep so long.
Visionary poetry was a common element of religious literature in the Middle Ages, the best known example being Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia – The Divine Comedy. The most well-known Norwegian visionary poem is Draumkvedet, the ballad of Olav Åsteson, who falls asleep on Christmas Eve and sleeps through all twelve days of Christmas, only to awaken on the thirteenth day (Epiphany) when he rides to church to tell of what he has dreamed. His dream is a vision in which he makes a pilgrimage along the path trodden by the dead, through deep marshes and over thorny heaths to Gjallarbrua, the bridge leading to the Kingdom of the Dead. On the other side of the bridge he beholds Purgatory, Hell and the blissful souls in Paradise. He also watches the battle between Christ, St. Michael and the angels, and the Devil and his army. Finally, he witnesses the Day of Judgment, when each soul is weighed on a pair of scales by St. Michael.
Draumkvedet conceals many secrets, not least about its own age and origin. The material is so fragmented that it is highly uncertain whether it is from the 10th, 11th or 12th century. While most modern researchers date it to the late Middle Ages, some have argued that it may have been written as late as the 17th century. The theme is clearly pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism; St. Michael and Purgatory do not feature in Norwegian Lutheran Protestantism. However, Gjallarbrua is the name of the bridge to paradise in pre-Christian Norse mythology. Moreover, the Devil is called Grutte Gråskjegg (Grutte Greybeard), which is one of the names used for the Norse god Odin. It is therefore conceivable that the ballad dates as far back as the earliest days of Christianity in Norway, the eleventh century, when the Christian faith existed alongside the old heathen gods.
In Norway, the Reformation was the result of an order handed down by the authorities rather than a popular protest movement. Consequently, the Roman Catholic mentality lived on long after the Reformation, especially in isolated areas such as northern Telemark, where Draumkvedet was discovered. On that basis, it has been argued that it dates from the seventeenth century. A particularly strong resemblance between this vision and the one experienced by the Irish nobleman Tundall in 1149, which was noted down shortly thereafter and translated into several European languages – including Old Norse in the 1200s – point to an earlier date.
There is no evidence of Draumkvedet’s existence prior to the 1800s. Nevertheless, it so closely resembles medieval visionary poetry that one might think that the Reformation never took root in Norway. The most important transcription dates from the 1840s, when pastor M. B. Landstad noted down the version sung by the serving girl, Maren Ramseid. She sang thirty stanzas, whereas most singers know only a few. When Landstad and musicologist L. M. Lindeman published their collection of Norwegian folk songs in 1853, he included a reconstruction comprising sixty stanzas which he had selected from many variants, Maren Ramseid’s included. Professor Moltke Moe of the University of Oslo lectured on Norwegian ballads at the beginning of the 1890s and included his own reconstruction of Draumkvedet, which comprised fifty-two stanzas.
Moe’s reconstruction became an element in the building of the nation and a national identity in the period prior to Norway’s independence in 1905. Thanks to his efforts, Draumkvedet was transformed from an oral ballad into a literary text, and a national epic to boot. He also drew parallels with Dante’s Divine Comedy, thus adding the necessary scholarly authenticity to the existing evidence of literary value and early origin.
His version of Draumkvedet, as we now know it, is the one that has been translated into other languages and has inspired so many composers, musicians and artists. Although it is not entirely clear whether Draumkvedet really is an epic poem – it is certainly not particularly epic in form – it has also interested dramatists. Although the ballad has a thin story line, there is no plot as such. Its strength lies in the disparate, expressive images rather than the epic structure.
…og nedatt på svarte dikje, - …and down to the dyke full dark,
eg hev settåt heite helvite - both have I seen the flames of hell
og ein deil av himmerikje, - and of heaven likewise a part,
For månen skin’e - The moon shines,
og vegjine falle så vide. - and the roads do stretch so wide
The music – old and new
In Telemark there was a well-established tradition of lyrical monostrophic folk songs known as stev. The stev is a typical, short, four-line form which has been used extensively for improvisation and was often characterised by proverbial words of wisdom and distinct images. The various four-line stanzas of Draumkvedet are similar to gamlestev in form, and many of them are also found as independent stev. According to a local saying, there was none so stupid that he did not know some stanzas of Draumkvedet, nor anyone so smart that he knew the whole ballad.
Bikkja bit, og ormen sting, - The dog he bites and the serpent stings,
og stuten stend og stangar, - and the bull he gores with his horn;
det slepp ingjen ivii Gjallarbrui - no one shall pass over Gjallar Bridge
som feller domane vrange. - who sets the law to scorn.
For månen skin’e, - The moon it shines,
og vegjine falle så vide - and the roads do stretch so wide.
A few of the best singers were aware that the stanzas of the ballad should be sung in a particular order, but most of them had no idea of what this order was. Most singers had only a vague idea of the story of Draumkvedet. One reason was the archaic dialect in isolated Telemark, where the visionary poem was found, which was fairly incomprehensible in the rest of the country. This in turn led to the ballad sometimes being regarded as an ordinary stevrekke, a conglomerate series of stev, independent single stanzas with a common theme.
All the melodies associated with Draumkvedet are stev tunes as well, so the ballad can be sung to all the old stev tunes. Most of the works that have been composed to the ballad texts are based on the four melodies that have been handed down, which Lindeman transcribed after listening to different singers. The most important source sang Draumkvedet to several different tunes and also varied the burdens, which were each associated with their own particular tune. However, most singers sang the entire ballad to the same tune.
Lindeman’s arrangement of a short version established this melodic tradition, upon which many subsequent versions are based. Some are purely instrumental, such as Klaus Egge’s Draumkvede-sonate for piano (1933) and Trond Kverno’s Triptychon II: Tre ikoner fra Draumkvedet for organ (1989), while others have written everything from solo songs to major choral works, such as David Monrad Johansen (male-voice choir, 1921), Sparre Olsen (mixed choir, solo and orchestra, 1936), Eivind Groven (mixed choir, solo and orchestra, 1963), Ludvig Nielsen (two versions: Liturgisk oratorium, 1962, and Passacaglia for orgel, 1963). Johan Kvandal (arrangement of the melodies for mixed choir and instrumental ensemble, 1997) and Johan Varen Ugland (Meditasjoner for clarinet, female choir and organ, 1999). Of all the versions, Arne Nordheim’s is the freest.
Opera, musical drama, Singspiel? When Det Norske Teatret was embarking on a musical dramatisation of Draumkvedet, the largest original production in the theatre’s history, composer Arne Nordheim found the form difficult to define. His through-composed version of the legendary ballad is closer to opera than anything else he has written. It contains recitatives, arias and enormous, demanding choral and solo parts.
Det er heitt i helvite, - Hot it is in the vaults of hell,
heitar hell nokon hyggje; - and foul is there the feast;
der hengde dei ’pivi ein tjørukjetil - they swung a pot of pitch o’er the fire,
og brytja nedi ein pressterygg’e. - flung in a back of priest.
I brokksvalin - In the trial-porch
der skó domen stande. - shall stand the seat of doom.
The theatre’s musical director, Egil Monn-Iversen, who commissioned the work by shouting out of his car window while talking to someone else on his mobile phone: “Arne! You’re going to write Antigone and Draumkvedet! ” maintains that the result is more Nordheim’s vision than his version of the ballad. Nordheim explains:
“Draumkvedet is a ballad that stands strongly on its own, but the theatre chose to produce it in a musical dramatic form. Parts of the old ballad have been retained and the old folk melodies move in and out of my music and tickle people’s frames of reference. After a drastic, universal call, the music sinks back to zero from the point of view of tension. It starts off trickling somewhere deep down as a pure folk melody which increases in strength as the story of Olav Åsteson’s journey through countries beyond daylight, dreams and death is narrated.
The dramatic version follows the poem from verse to verse and all the familiar images in the dramatic conflict between good and evil are presented in the form of tableaux. This is picture-book theatre with angels, devils and spiritual meeting places where happy, sad, sinful souls meet and are called in to be sentenced for everything from moving border stones to incest. They are heralded in on a lure, and that lure is not easily forgotten!” says the composer.
The sound of the lure was created by sampling. Arne Nordheim acquired part of a recording of the sound of ancient bronze lures that had been discovered in Danish bogs. From this small “sample” he built an entire range of sounds electronically. The sounds of the long harp, Hardanger fiddle, cow-call and folk song, steel and a mass of human voices were also manipulated electronically, played in parallel with the orchestra and synchronised by the conductor.
Sæl er den i fø’esheimen - Blest is he who in this life
fatige gjev’ sko; - gave shoes to the needy poor;
han tar inkje berrføtt gange - he will not have to walk bare-foot
på kvasse heklemog. - on the sharp and thorny moor.
Tunga talar, - Tongue shall speak
og sanning svarar på domedag. - and truth reply on Judgment Day.
Angels and devils
Nordheim’s musical starting-point was the ancient ballad, but the visual aspect came from the verses. On Gjallarbrua there is a storm of ice as sharp as steel, and this had to be reflected in the sound image and re-created musically, just as the many repetitions were allowed to retain their own suggestive rhythm and mood. Some good old tricks were useful, such as leitmotiv and major-minor situations, the major keys representing light and the minor keys darkness.
Of the orchestra’s sixteen musicians, three were percussionists who played on fifteen different instruments. All manner of chimes were incorporated, from church bells, crystals and sparkling sounds to metallic, frightening, sallow ones. All the instruments were amplified and incorporated into a previously-arranged system where the input was slightly delayed and layered on top of the original, so that the sound grew increasingly stronger and deeper.
“It was important to give a credible picture of heaven and hell. In heaven, celestial peace reigns. There are angels complete with wings, including a tired old angel with a deep bass voice and a counter-tenor representing the angel’s earliest childhood! My small personal contribution to the performance was the introduction of Urkvinna – the first woman. She represents our ecstatic mother, Earth, sex, strong female forces. The horrific visions of purgatory are eruptive, volcanic. Everything boils and bubbles in the big laundry of the soul. The choir sings Dies irae and sticks manfully to its part, while the electronic part loses its grip and slides irrevocably, the focus is dissolved and disharmonies occur,” says Arne Nordheim, whose musical finale was a kind of bass line where the words “young”, “old”, “dreams”, “many” were taken out of the last verse, expanded and continued, continued – until everything faded away and disappeared….
Gamle mennar og unge - Now give ye heed, as best ye may
dei gjev’e etter gaum’e - all men, both young and old:
det var han Olav Åsteson, - for it was Olav Åsteson,
no hev han tålt sine draumar. - and this the dream he told.
Sources: Velle Espeland, NMIC.
Translation of Draumkvedet by Knut Liestøl, H. Aschehough & Co. 1946.
The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation is currently making a multi-track
recording of Arne Nordheim's music for Draumkvedet which will be released on CD.