Category Archives: Music

‘Walkin’ in my Winter Underwear’

Why is this the best time of year? Because when I’m reading a long book, as I am now, I can share wonderful musical moments like this in lieu of a review. It’s a precious memory from my childhood, from a kid’s show called “Lunch With Casey,” broadcast in the Twin Cities in the 1960s. I’ve shared it before, but I’m doing it again because I know how much it means to you.

‘Glade Jul’

I’m between book reviews tonight, so I thought, “Hey, I can post Christmas videos now.” And what do I discover on YouTube, but a Sissel video I haven’t seen before? This one’s a treasure, because it shows her just when she was beginning to be famous in Norway. You’ll recognize the song as “Silent Night,” as they sing it over there. “Glade Jul” means “Happy Christmas.”

This is the young Sissel I modeled the character of Halla after, in The Year of the Warrior.

It’s also worth doing well

I have very few fond memories of the time – decades ago – when I used to watch the 60 Minutes TV program. But one of them is (I think, it might possibly have been a different show) a segment on the Portsmouth Sinfonia, “the worst orchestra in the world.” Atlas Obscura has an article about it:

The original Sinfonia consisted of 13 members, mostly students who had little to no musical experience. The “scratch” orchestra was meant as a one-off joke, part of a larger collection of silly acts. And they didn’t win the contest. Still, their playful irreverence hit a nerve. Spurred on by an outpouring of enthusiasm for their initial performance, the Sinfonia continued to play, growing in size over the next several years. Their policy was that anyone, of any skill level, could join, with the exception being that skilled musicians could not join and simply play poorly on purpose. Another rule was that all members had to show up for practice.

For a while they attracted large crowds, and they even cut a couple albums. People (like me) were charmed by the blatant effrontery of the thing. It was a sort of an embodiment of Chesterton’s maxim, in his essay on amateurism, that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

The concept is fun, but it seems to me there’s a serious side too. The pleasures of bad music, like other pleasures of the flesh, are fleeting. In the end, quality counts. There’s a difference between enthusiasm and virtuosity, and virtuosity has staying power. It’s worth preserving.

Which brings me to this link, from Legal Insurrection, about protests at very liberal Reed College, Portland, Oregon. A number of students are angry that the school’s Humanities 110 course, a core course in the freshman curriculum, concentrates on western civilization.

I’m gonna go ahead and say it. Western civilization is the best civilization the world has ever seen. The very anger of the course’s opponents is a symptom of their cognitive dissonance, a refusal to accept the evidence of history, science, and their own senses.

Beethoven’s Fifth As It Was First Heard

Gerald Elias paints a slice of life in 1808 Vienna for someone looking forward to the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Of course, as a music lover, you sing in your parish choir and play duets and trios at home with the family (you on piano, and assorted family members doing the vocalizing). You are partial to Mozart’s concert arias, though they are the devil to get through unscathed.

The only music that is possible for you, or anyone in the world, to hear is live, face-to-face. That makes life pretty quiet. The cows low in the field on the hill, the goldfinches chirp in the linden tree in front of your house, the easy flow of the brook gurgles behind it. At night, sometimes you can hear loud talk from the tavern on the corner, but otherwise from dusk until dawn life is essentially silent.

While you wait for the performance to begin you wonder why it takes Beethoven so much longer to write a symphony than other composers – a mystery to you because from everything you’ve been told, his symphonies are rough around the edges, disconnected, and make an altogether unpleasant noise. The program, which Beethoven himself is conducting (though it’s well-known he’s hard of hearing), is as crazy as the man himself: the Sixth Symphony, one of his concert arias, the Gloria from his Mass in C, and his Fourth Piano Concerto, which Beethoven will perform himself. That’s the first half.

God Has Designed Us to Sing

We have three young daughters, and it has surprised us with each of them how early they could sing. Simple melodies with mumbled words grew into phrases like “O sing happylujah,” or a bizarre mixture of “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

Keith and Kristin Getty say, “Your ability to sing is fearfully and wonderfully made,” which is the reason God has called us to sing in worship. They say it isn’t your talent for carrying a tune that’s most important; it’s the tenor of your heart.

‘The Last Farewell’

You might be surprised to know that Sissel is not the only singer I’ve been obsessed with over the years. Though my obsession for Roger Whittaker was of a different sort. I never fantasized about marrying him, for instance.

“The Last Farewell” came out at a time in my life when I was susceptible to such a song, and it knocked me for a loop. I kept the radio on all the time, waiting for it to be played, until my roommate took me out to a store (Target, I think) to get the album. (The idea of buying music was still unfamiliar to me in those days.)

The song itself is actually about the 10 Years’ War of the 18th Century. The situation is supposed to be that an English sailor has fallen in love with a beautiful Caribbean woman. Now he has to sail off to fight. It was written in response to a sort of competition they held on a TV show Roger Whittaker hosted in England. People would send their original songs in, and if one passed muster Roger would sing it on the show.

Hope you enjoy it. Have a great weekend.

Country & Northern

From PJ Media, via Dave Lull: This New Yorker Grew to Love Country Music — in the Last Place You’d Ever Think.

And, yes, they adore country music. It speaks to them. Because it’s the real America, if you like, speaking to the real Norway. And guess what? Listening to that music here, I’ve undergone a long-delayed conversion. I’ve finally realized that of all the popular music produced today, it’s country songs, by far, that are most likely to have real melodies and real lyrics, to speak honestly and movingly about love and friendship, to exhibit courage and humor in the face of adversity, and to show appreciation for everyday comforts and pleasures. All in all, they’re the closest thing around today to the standards by Kern, Berlin, Rodgers, and company that I grew up on.

This story may surprise you. But to one who, like me, has spent time at the Hostfest in Minot, North Dakota, it’s just part of life. Like trains, dogs, pickup trucks… and lutefisk.

‘Be Thou My Vision’ (martial version)

Here’s the best-loved Irish hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” done by… I don’t know whom. A male group. I chose this version because it includes the often-skipped third verse, beginning, “Be Thou my battle-shield…”

The original could well have been known by Father Ailill, the narrator of my Erling novels. It’s often attributed to the sixth-century Saint Dallan, though some scholars date it to the eighth century. Pre-Viking in either case.

It was first translated into English in 1905, but the singable verse version was done by Eleanor Hull in 1912. The tune would not have been used by medieval monks, but is an Irish folk tune called “Slane.”

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

Glenn Yarbrough

The Hobbit as his table

We’ve had news of the death of several public figures this year: Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Harper Lee, and Elie Weisel to name a few. You may have missed the news of the death of a folk singer back in August. Glenn Yarbrough, whose 77th birthday is coming up January 12, began singing in college after some encouragement from his roommate, Jac Holzman, and  Woody Guthrie, who was a visitor and eighteen years Glenn’s senior.

Glenn sang the lead song in the Rankin and Bass production of The Hobbit. I’d like to say–I think I’d like to say this–that I internalized “The Greatest Adventure” and made it my life song. I don’t think a fair perspective on my life would say I had broken the mould of my life and created someone new. I’m not like Bilbo was before his adventures, but I’m not like he was afterward either. It’s very likely that I have not “stopped thinking and wasting the day.”

The bridge of Glenn’s song has always held me. I’ve even nicknamed myself Raindream because of these words.

A man who’s a dreamer
And never takes leave
Who thinks of a world that is just make-believe
Will never know passion,
Will never know pain,
Who sits by the window will one day see rain.

I have needed this kick in the pants repeatedly, but like the believer who loves to feel conviction while neglecting to repent, I can’t say I’ve acted on it. At least, not often.

I know I’ve heard more of Glenn’s music, but I don’t remember the context. Perhaps my parents had one of his records. Maybe I heard it through Pandora at some point. I hope he died knowing the Lord.

“Now a Thousand Christmas Lights are Lit.”

Tonight, another Norwegian Christmas song you can’t understand, from Sissel. Because it’s good for your education.

“Nå tennes tusen julelys,” is the name of the song. It means “Now a thousand Christmas lights are lit.” It paints a picture of Christmas lights being kindled all around the world. It goes on to talk of the Christmas star, and then moves on to a hope that the light of Christmas will bring peace to the world. I think it’s very beautiful.

Happy St. Stephen’s Day. And Boxing Day.

‘I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve’

Tonight, another classic Norwegian Christmas hymn. This one, “Jeg Er Så Glad Hver Julekveld,” is probably the best-known original Norwegian carol. Which isn’t saying much; you’ve probably never heard it. But it’s famous to us. I had to memorize it phonetically when I was a kid, for a Christmas program in church.

The title means, “I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve,” and that’s what the translation is called, if you can find it. The singer (clearly a child) is saying how much he loves Christmas Eve, and the reasons are all about Jesus. How the star shone forth and Jesus was born, and how Jesus lives in Heaven to hear our prayers. How his mother trims the Christmas tree and fills the room with light, explaining that Jesus came as a Light to enlighten the world.

It should really be done by a children’s choir, but I couldn’t find a video like that. So this one will have to do.

Glade Jul. Merry Christmas.

“Oh How Beautiful the Sky”

For your Christmas (Jul) edification: One of Norway’s most popular Christmas hymns — “Deilig er den Himmel Blå,” which when found in English translation is usually rendered “Oh, How Beautiful the Sky.” It’s actually a Danish hymn, written by Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig, a prominent but eccentric Danish cleric and educator (he’s mentioned in Catherine Marshall’s novel Christy).

The gist of the thing is that the sky is beautiful, and delightful to look at. The stars are twinkling and shining, and they turn our thoughts to Heaven. The Wise Men followed a star to Bethlehem, and we have God’s Word which, like the star, will lead us also to Christ.

The choir here is the boy’s choir of Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. St. Olaf is buried there (we’re not sure where). I visited it once. The emblem on the boys’ robes is the coat of arms of the church, either the cathedral itself or the diocese. I’m pretty sure.