For many, the Christmas Carol is a central feature of this time of year. Whether it’s gathering on a cold evening to sing together, possibly even door to door, or attending a school or church service, or dusting off a selection of “Carols from Kings”, the chances are the old favourites will feature at some point this yuletide.
Each year Classic FM runs a competition asking the nation to vote for their favourite carol, with the chance to win a hamper from Fortnums. Last year the winner was "O Holy Night”, with "Silent Night" in second place, and "In the Bleak Mid-Winter" taking bronze. However, I’d like to suggest, nay recommend, exploring a different tradition this year - the tradition of Danish carols.
Danish Christmas, much like the traditions of neighbouring Nordic countries, is very much a festival of light - the roots of the pagan midwinter festival not far away. Christmas trees were traditionally decorated with dozens of candles, lit on Christmas Eve, around which the family would dance and sing. The Danish also refer to this period as hjerternes fest - the party of the hearts - and I feel like this notion is well captured by the range of carols, both secular and religious, which can be found in the Danish tradition.
I was introduced to these by way of an old friend, who recommended to me the 1999 Naxos disc “A Danish Christmas”. It is this very disc that I commend to you:
It's a collection of 31 songs, performed by Musica Ficta - a Copenhagen-based vocal ensemble, well worth exploring for their excellent repertoire of Italian madrigals. Here they are, looking for all the world like a promo photo for the Danish version of The Apprentice:
The conductor, and in many cases, the arranger, is Bo Holten - sometime guest-conductor for the BBC singers. He’s also represented as composer of I denne sode juletid (At this sweet Christmas time).
This collection is jolly, musically varied, and beautifully recorded. The songs also have lasting merit well beyond this time of year - once you get to know them, I wouldn’t be surprised to find them appearing in a playlist later in 2021, and before December next year!
If I were to pick a favourite, it would probably be Paul Hellmuth's arrangement of Mit hjerte altid vanker (My heart always wanders), to a melody by Carl Nielsen. The original song was written by the Danish bishop and hymn writer Hans Adolph Brorson, and first printed in 1732. The music and text are meditative, peaceful, and simple, and it’s easy to sing - spanning only an octave.
Special mention must also be given to the sentiment expressed in Sikken voldsom trængsel - Nu er det jul igen (What a great throng and noise - Now it is Christmas…). Here it is translated colloquially:
”What a terrible hustle and bustle / it’s cold and one has to walk to get warm / the street lights are lit at 4 p.m. / It’ll be a loud evening / in the middle of the street trees and fruit are sold / look at the shop, it’s so shiny / Thousands of goods are for sale / the price is even lower than usual, would you imagine that! / price, price, price, price, price, price”
A rather more… informal... version can be found here:
It culminates with the delightful:
"If you’re not a lazy bastard / You get up early Christmas Morning / the bell chimes, and the street is so slippery / the church lights up the quiet night / inside there’s singing and cheerful peace / it’s best when the sermon is bad / because then you get to nap / nap, nap, nap, nap, nap, nap"
I recommend this disc wholeheartedly. Queue it up on your streaming platform of choice (search Naxos Danish Christmas), or shell out a whopping £6 to Presto Music for the physical disc, or get change from £4 for the digital download. Listen to it a few times, and I’m confident you’ll find some you take to, and who knows, they might even overtake "O Holy Night", or find their way into your carolling repertoire in years to come.