Program Notes: Jul, Jul—A Scandinavian Christmas

Jul, the Scandinavian Christmas holiday, is celebrated throughout December and traditionally until St. Knut’s Day on January 13. The main celebration and the exchange of gifts takes place on Christmas Eve, December 24. St. Lucia’s Day is celebrated during Advent, on December 13. It is a charming holiday that celebrates a Roman saint who wore candles on her head to light her way as she carried food to persecuted Christians in hiding. A wish for light and warmth is understandable at this time of year in the dark and cold of Scandinavia.

The Christian Christmas celebration was incorporated into the old Norse tradition of a mid-winter festival that celebrated the recent harvest and looked forward to spring.  The Norse festival was well known as far back as the fourth century; the merging of that festival with Christian traditions occurred in the eleventh century.

A central aspect of the pagan Germanic celebration of midwinter was to eat and drink well, and in modern times is represented by the Julbord—a buffet, eaten at lunchtime. This may include herring, gravlax (salmon which has been cured in sugar, salt, and dill), smoked salmon, and other cold meats, cheeses, salads, pickles, and different types of bread. There will also be warm, savory foods such as meatballs, sausages, meat-stuffed cabbage rolls, jellied pigs’ feet, lutefisk, and oven-roasted pork ribs. Vegetables such as potatoes and red cabbage will also be served. The dessert of the Julbord might be a selection of sweet pastries, cookies, and other home-made sweets. To wash all that food down you can have some glogg, which is sweet mulled wine, and coffee to finish off the meal. Another holiday dessert is a rice pudding with raspberry jam or cinnamon, usually eaten during the evening after people have exchanged their presents.

Scandinavia has contributed many traditions that we see celebrated in the United States, such as Advent wreaths, candles, and calendars. Christmas seals were first seen in Denmark.  And the Scandinavian culture in turn adopted other European Christmas traditions, such as the German Christmas tree and the Dutch Santa Claus.

The musical traditions are equally charming. Scandinavian national music, often based on folk songs, blends cheer and melancholy into a unique sound. Perhaps this reflects the extremes of their climate—midnight sun at midsummer and darkness at midwinter. We present a broad range of music from this culture, from simple folksong arrangements to sophisticated Classical, Romantic, and modern settings of traditional and modern texts.

Bereden väg för Herran (Make way for the Lord) is a hymn with lyrics written in 1812 by Frans Michael Franzén,. Describing Jesus coming into Jerusalem, it is a popular Swedish Advent song.

Himmelriket liknas vid tio jungfrur (The kingdom of heaven is like unto ten virgins) is a traditional Advent song from Värmland, an area of western Sweden that borders on Norway. It uses the tale of the wise and foolish virgins to urge us to prepare properly for the coming of Christ.


Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)   A Danish composer, Nielsen’s interest and background in folk music had special resonance for Danes, and this was intensified during the nationalistic movements of the 1930s and during World War II, when singing was an important basis for the Danes to distinguish themselves from their German enemies. Thus, while outside Denmark Nielsen is largely thought of as a composer of orchestral music, in his own country he is more of a national symbol. These two sides were officially brought together in Denmark in 2006 when the Ministry of Culture issued a list of the twelve greatest Danish musical works, which included three by Nielsen.

Towards the end of 1923, Nielsen composed three Christmas carols, all of which were published just before Christmas of that year. They were originally for solo voice and orchestra, and were later set as SATB arrangements. The settings are fresh and uncomplicated, and preserve the folk nature of the songs.  We present two of them here.

Hjemlige Jul (Secret Christmas)

Himlen mørkner stor og stum (Heaven’s gloom a world apart) 


Ludvig Norman (1831–1885) was a Swedish composer, conductor, pianist, and music teacher. Together with Franz Berwald and Adolf Fredrik Lindblad, he ranks among the most important Swedish symphonists of the 19th century.

Jordens oro viker (Earth’s concerns give way to peace)   Although not explicitly presenting a Christmas theme, this motet does create an atmosphere of peace and serenity, much needed during this dark time of the year. Set for double chorus, it is sturdily homophonic, building to resonant climaxes, and resolving peacefully on the words “The heavens will explain all.”

Staffan var en stalledräng (Stefan was a stableboy) is a traditional song with many verses, from Mockfjärd, a tiny town in the center of Sweden. It is the tale of a stableboy who rides off in pursuit of the Christmas star, making sure that he is well fed and supplied with brandy for his year-long journey.    


Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Hvad est du dog skjøn (How fair is thy face)   Grieg’s Fire Salmer (Four Hymns), Opus 74, for baritone soloist and mixed choir, was his final composition, composed in the second half of 1906. He adapted melodies from L.M. Lindemann’s collection Older and More Recent Norwegian Folk Tunes, an anthology upon which he drew heavily throughout his career. These motets are particularly notable for their harmonic inventiveness: Grieg is very adept at adapting the modes of his source material—neither major nor minor—and at harmonizing it in a manner which sounds and feels authentic. The language of the texts is an interesting puzzle in itself.  Called “Bokmål” or “Riksmål,” it is actually more Danish than it is Norwegian, and reflects the centuries during which Norway was, effectively, a colony of Denmark. It seems that the musical aspect, the tunes themselves rather than the words, is what interested Grieg: “These melodies are so lovely that they deserve to be preserved in an artistic costume,” he wrote in his diary on September 15, 1906.

Ave maris stella (Hail, star of the sea)   Norway has a long relationship with the sea and sailing, so this text has great meaning for this country. This beautiful and serene setting of the Marian hymn is well known and beloved. Originally set for voice and piano in 1893, Grieg later made this arrangement for SSAATTBB chorus in 1898.


Henrik Rung (1807-1871) was a Danish composer, singing teacher and conductor. Rung was born in Copenhagen. In 1851 he founded the Cæciliaforeningen, serving as its chairman from 1851 to 1871.

Kimer, I klokker (Ring out, ye bells)   Nikolaj Grundtvig wrote this hymn text in 1856. The following year, in 1857, Rung composed the melody (and later published a version for four voices). He wrote melodies for many of Grundtvig’s hymns, despite the fact that he was not a church musician. 


Ivar Widéen (1871-1951) was a Swedish organist and composer. Widéen was greatly inspired by the music of Richard Wagner, Edvard Grieg, and August Söderman. He had a prominent role in Swedish choral music. He was principal conductor of the Småland Sångarförbund (choral society) and led that choir at annual national choir festivals. 

Gläns över sjö och strand (English title: Star of Bethlehem)   These words are the opening lines of a poem written by Viktor Rydberg, appearing in his novel Vapensmeden


Trond Kverno (b. 1945) is a contemporary Norwegian composer. He received degrees in church music, music theory, and choir direction from the Oslo Conservatory of Music, now the Norwegian Academy of Music, and was a professor of music there. He is known for his liturgical compositions. Church music has spearheaded major new developments in music in Norway throughout the post-war period, in terms of both musical innovation and institutional renewal. 

Ave maris stella, another setting of this hymn by a Norwegian composer, notable for its complexity and dynamic range. Quiet lyrical passages alternate with vigorous sections in irregular rhythms.

Corpus Christi Carol is a Middle English hymn (or carol), first found in a manuscript written around 1504. The original writer of the carol remains anonymous. The earliest surviving record of the piece preserves only the lyrics and is untitled. It has survived in altered form in the folk tradition as the Christmas carol “Down In Yon Forest.” The text is not specifically on a Christmas theme, yet a number of composers (including Benjamin Britten) have associated this work with Christmas. Kverno’s melancholy setting translates the Middle English into Norwegian.


Hugo Alfvén (1872–1960) became known as one of Sweden’s principal composers of his time. Alfvén’s music is in a late-Romantic idiom. His orchestration is skillful and colorful, reminiscent of that of Richard Strauss. Like Strauss, Alfvén wrote a considerable amount of program music. Some of Alfvén’s music evokes the landscape of Sweden.

Julsång (Christmas carol) was written in 1934 for the Siljan District Choir. The setting is simple, yet subtle and unusual harmonic shifts give it a unique color.


Ivar Widéen

På krubbans strå (In the manger straw) is a sweet and understated setting of a hymn from the Swedish Psalm Book, addressing Jesus in the manger.


Gustaf Nordqvist (1886-1949) was a Swedish composer, church musician, and professor. He served as organist at the Church of Adolf Fredrik in Stockholm 1914–1949 and as a teacher of harmony at the Stockholm Conservatory 1925–1949. 

Jul, jul, strålande jul (Christmas, Christmas, glorious Christmas) is Nordqvist’s most famous and beloved work. It has been subject to many interpretations in Sweden, other Scandinavian countries, and internationally by singers, choirs and orchestras. The song was one of the most popular Christmas carols in Sweden during the 20th century. The lyrics describe Christmas as white and snow-filled, depicting all the Christmas blessings, with a wish that Christmas bring light and peace to the world


Fredrik Sixten (b. 1962) is a Swedish composer, cathedral organist, and conductor. He was the conductor of Gothenburg’s boys choir between 1997 and 2001. Today he is the cathedral organist of the Härnösand Cathedral. His music has been extensively recorded and performed.

There is no rose of such vertu  This piece was written for and dedicated to the Sofia Vokalensemble of Stockholm. This hymn to the Virgin praises her as singularly worthy of the miraculous conception and birth of the Christ Child. The setting is a mysterious and sonorous joining of graceful melodic lines and veils of complex chords.


Otto Olsson (1879-1964) was a Swedish composer and one of the greatest organ virtuosos of his time. He used his strong background in counterpoint, combined with an affinity for French organ music, to create his late Romantic style of composition. He explored polytonality in his work, an advancement not found in other Swedish works of the time. 

Guds Son är född (God’s Son is born) is part of a set of Advent and Christmas songs Olsson wrote in the first part of the 20th century. The melodic line is passed to various voices, while the rest of the choir provides wordless harmonic support, until the final two verses when all the voices unite in four-part harmony for a joyful finish.


Program notes by Patricia Jennerjohn.

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