“Ja, vi elsker dette landet som det stiger frem”
The story of Norway’s national anthem
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
Did you know that Norway didn’t have an official national anthem until Dec. 11, 2019? That may come as surprise to many of you who have been singing “Ja, vi elsker dette landet”—“Yes, we love this country”—every Syttende Mai, year after year. And yes, “Ja, vi elsker dette landet” was the song chosen as Norway’ s national anthem by a vote of the Storting, 150 years after it was written.
You might ask what took so long, but national anthems have way of taking their time before getting their official status. Here in the United States, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was not adopted as our national anthem until the 20th century, even though the song had been around since the War of 1812. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order designating it as the national anthem, and in 1931—more than 100 years after it was composed—Congress passed a measure declaring “The Star-Spangled Banner” to be the official national anthem of the United States.
The poem had been around since 1814. After witnessing the massive overnight British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Maryland on Sept. 13, Francis Scott Key is said to have sat down and penned it during a moment of gratitude and inspiration. But even though it was not made official until over a century later, the American armed forces had already unofficially adopted it as their national song.
The beginnings of “Ja, vi elsker” were perhaps a bit less dramatic, but that doesn’t mean the song is less inspiring. Just think about the music. “The Star-Spangled Banner” ascends the scale in its opening strophe, while “Ja, vi elsker” descends the scale and back up, then back down and up again, almost as if you are climbing one of Norway’s majestic mountains rising out of the sea. These opening strophes make both national anthems memorable—but perhaps not the easiest to sing for everyone. Then there are the endings that ascend even higher up the scale. Very dramatic, indeed, but difficult if you start the anthems on too high a key—something to keep in mind if you are planning a musical singalong for your national day celebration.
So, you may be wondering what the history of “Ja, vi elsker dette landet” is. The poem was written by the National Romantic poet Bjørnsterne Bjørnson around 1859. Bjørnson was a great Norwegian patriot, as the word of poems would attest. A few years later during the winters of 1863 and 1864, his cousin Rikard Nordraak composed the melody. Nordraak can also be counted as one of the great Norwegian patriots of his day and had a major influence on the musical development of Norway’ s national composer Edvard Grieg. It was Nordraak who encouraged Grieg to compose in a Norwegian style, as opposed to the German fashion of composition of Grieg’s early works.
The sound of Norway is also heard in Nordraak’s music to “Ja, vi elsker.” There is a self-assured bold simplicity with an almost folksy flavor, while the song, nonetheless, retains its drama and dignity.
The song’s first public performance took place on May 17, 1864, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution and it soon became a Norwegian greatest hit
There had been other popular songs before this, and many have stuck around and are still sung on the 17th of May. In the early 19th century, the song “Norges Skaal” was considered to be Norway’s de facto national anthem. Then “Sønner av Norge,” also known as “Norsk Nationalsang,” became popular from 1820 on, and it was still sung into the 20th century.
Norway also found an unofficial royal anthem, “Kongesangen,” which Gustav Jensen based on “God Save the King.” The psalm “Gud signe vårt dyre fedreland,” with words by Elias Blix and its melody by Christoph Ernst Friedrich Weyse, is often called Norway’s “national psalm.” Both songs are still sung today.
In more recent times, Norway has adopted yet another unofficial national anthem with “Mitt lille land” written by Ole Paus in 1994.
But all this said, yes, we really do love “Ja, vi elsker,” although most of us don’t know more than two or three verses, while, in total, there are eight of them.
The lyrics we sing today are very close to the modified Danish language Bjørnson wrote in. It makes sense for the national anthem sung in the Norwegian language, and the text we know today is Norwegian Bokmål.
So, this year, may you sing out this great song with great pride, knowing more of its history. It’s a proud one worth remembering.
Watch Sissel Kyrkjebø’s version of “Ja, vi elsker dette landet” on YouTube.
This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.