Music, beating heart of Syttende Mai

Photo: Nasjonalbiblioteket / Wikimedia Commons
This postcard from the centennial includes an except from “Ja, vi elsker,” which will be heard and sung all over Norway this 17th of May.

Barbara K. Rostad
Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho

Parades, children, flags, russ, and bunads from all corners of the nation are all key elements for Syttende Mai—but what would these be without music?

While the first 17th of May sound may well be the 6:00 a.m. cannon fire with which the military officially salutes the day, for most the bright music of community and school bands calls up a festive atmosphere as people gather to march in or observe their local parade uniquely characterized by children and flags in approximately equal numbers.

“Ja, vi elsker dette landet” (Yes, We Love this Land) will be heard and sung all over Norway. First presented in 1864 at the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Norwegian Constitution, this song gradually eclipsed “Sønner av Norge” (Sons of Norway), though for many years both were played side by side and considered national anthems.

Some sources say that despite the popularity of “Ja, vi elsker,” “Sønner av Norge” remains the official national anthem. Other sources flatly state that there is no official national anthem for Norway; rather, several de facto national anthems have enjoyed this status over the years.

This article examines some of the more recent songs to be included in the national anthem category as well as other songs popular at on Syttende Mai.

Skål for freedom
From 1814 to 1820, “Norges Skaal” (Skål to Norway) was considered by many to be a national anthem. Written in 1771 by Johan Nordahl Brun in Copenhagen as a drinking song, it gained popularity when Norwegian nationalism was on the rise. Once banned by Danish officials, it was referred to as “the Norwegian Marseillaise” and was perceived as anti-Danish and revolutionary.

In four separate verses it toasts Norway, “birthplace of giants,” with its dream of liberty, brave heroes, Norwegian lasses, and Norway’s mountains. Despite a decline in popularity, “Norges Skaal,” also known as “To Norway, Birthplace of Giants,” is still in use. In 2015 the Birkelunden Men’s Choir sang it at the close of NRK’s 17th of May broadcast.

Sons of Norway
“Sønner av Norge” is also still in use. It too was recorded in 2015 by the Norwegian Army Music Corps together with another Norwegian choir and, like others described in this article, can be found on YouTube.

Written by two Norwegians who each also gave extensive time to careers other than writing, “Sønner av Norge” is the most famous work for both Henrik Bjerregaard, an attorney with a gift for words, and Christian Blom, a Norwegian ship owner born in Tønnsberg.

Blom attended the University of Copenhagen, then moved to Drammen to work in shipping. He wrote almost 50 musical pieces. Bjerregaard stopped writing when he became a Supreme Court Judge in 1830. But “Sons of Norway” was regarded as Norway’s national anthem from 1820, when it won an anthem contest, until it was gradually overcome by “Ja, vi elsker.”

A song of love
Today two quintessential pieces for Sytt­ende Mai are indisputably “Ja, vi elsker” and the royal anthem “Kongesangen.”

Two cousins, each famous in separate spheres, collaborated to produce the song that holds a place in the hearts of many Norwegians and Norwegian Americans after 140 years in the spotlight. A brother and sister from Randsfjorden, Oppland, each married and produced a son. One of these became Norwegian writer and poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson; the other was musician Rikard Nordraak. Though a decade separated the two cousins, their combined skills brought “Ja, vi elsker” to life over the course of close to a decade, from 1859 to 1868. Bjørnson kept revising even after the song was made public. He even deleted a verse intended to pay tribute to King Charles IV.

Nordraak’s expertise was in music, and he spent much time studying in Germany. He was stricken by tuberculosis there in October 1864, just months after the debut of “Ja, vi elsker.” He died in Paris the following March at age 23.

Though Bjørnson too died in Paris where he often wintered, he lasted through the first decade of the 20th century to die at 78 in 1910. By then he had become Norway’s first Nobel laureate, winning the prize for Literature in 1903. During his career he wrote not only poems but also plays, novels, and short stories. He also was a journalist, theatre director, and circuit lecturer. The Norwegian defense ship HNoMS Norge was sent to bring his body back to his own land for burial.

A song for a king, queen, etc.
A catchy tune linking Norway, the UK, and the U.S. has been around for decades with unclear origins. As many Norwegians and Norwegian Americans are aware, “Kongesangen,” Norway’s royal anthem, is not alone in using this tune for a patriotic song; it is also the melody for the UK’s “God Save the Queen” and, in the U.S., for “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

Lyrics for “Kongesangen” have more than one version too, the first being written by Henrik Wergeland, son of an Eidsvold pastor who was a member of the Constitution Assembly in 1814. With such a heritage, perhaps it’s not surprising he became a symbol of the fight for the celebration of the Constitution on May 17. Shortly after he graduated from college, Wergeland took a stand protesting the royal decree that banned any celebration of May 17.

Later he became the first to give a public address on behalf of the day and subsequently received credit as the one who “initiated the day.” Now his grave and statue are decorated by students and school children annually each Syttende Mai.

Wergeland died at 37, but his collected works still fill 23 volumes. He is most celebrated for his poetry, but he also wrote many plays and books including one on the history of the Norwegian Constitution, still regarded today as an important source.

Though Wergeland wrote the original words for “Kongesangen,” the verses used today were composed by Gustav Jensen, a Norwegian priest, hymn writer, seminary instructor, and liturgist. The new verses were prepared for the coronation of Haakon VII and Maude of Wales in 1906, not long after Norway gained its independence from Sweden in 1905 and invited Prince Carl of Denmark to become their king.

Calling all anthems
“Ja, vi elsker” and “Kongesangen” are Syttende Mai staples. Some of the other highly beloved Norwegian national songs include “Gud signe vårt dyre fedreland” (The Fatherland Hymn, originally called “Fedralandet”) and “Småguttenes Nationalsang” (Little Boys’ National Anthem, also with lyrics by Wergeland). Then there are regional songs such as the anthem for Western Norway, “Oh Western Land,” or Northern Norway, “I Know a Land.”

Traditional music brings pleasure and comfort, but new music is constantly being written. Sometimes a song is propelled into a greater consciousness as a result of circumstances. Ole Paus wrote “Mitt lille land” (My Little Land) in 1994 as a lyrical description of Norway. Nearly two decades later, following the July 2011 attacks, the song’s popularity catapulted.

The song was featured in memorial services after the attacks. The NRK Memorial Concert on July 30 was named “Mitt lille land” and the following year on Syttende Mai, their broadcast opened with it. It’s an example of how music can be used to help process sorrow. “My little country, a little place, a handful of peace thrown out among the plateus and fjords.” These lyrics paint a picture that may last and last. It could gain national anthem status—or not.

In 2012 a contest was announced for a new song to honor the bicentennial of Norway’s Constitution. Contest guidelines asked for something accessible to all with simple text and a melody that’s easy to sing. Winners were Grethe Myhre Skottene and Carl-Andreas Naes from Sarpsborg.

Their song, “Det går et festtog gjennom landet” (There is a Festive Parade Going through the Country”) made its debut in 2014. Its chorus, translated to English, says in part, “We are marching and we are singing songs in red, white, and blue.”

For more on “colorful” Syttende Mai music, see “From blue & yellow to ‘Rødt, hvitt og blått.’”

This article originally appeared in the May 5, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.