Searching for Bellman.
Carl Michael Bellman is an important part of our Swedish tradition. Most Swedes know at least a couple songs penned by Bellman, and we all have a vague idea of who Ulla Winblad and Fader Berg are.
Bellman is part of our national heritage, just like Evert Taube, August Strindberg and Astrid Lindgren.
The difference is that Bellman is a bit trickier to understand for modern people — we have lost the skill to understand his language and his world. Nevertheless, we raise our glasses and sing: “Tag dig då en sup, tag dig sen dito en, dito två, dito tre, så dör du nöjdare.”
How can you not love Bellman? When American soprano Brett Umlauf was introduced to Bellman, she too, fell in love.
“A Swedish friend introduced me to Bellman,” she says, “and I began studying Swedish at Columbia University to better understand him and be able to sing the songs.”
Umlauf was involved with Baroque music and says the immediacy in Bellman’s texts made her want to sing them.
“His songs felt limitless for interpretation somehow. They also lent themselves for different moods, and for physicality. They are very theatrical.”
Along with Swedish bass and counter-tenor Staffan Liljas, Umlauf began working on a Bellman repertoire, and the more she learned, the more she wanted to know. Together they performed at Deutsches Haus at Columbia University in 2009.
“I think my favorite piece by Bellman is ‘Märk hur vår skugga.' It still gives me the chills to sing it.”
Umlauf’s professor at Columbia, Verne Moberg, encouraged her to apply for a grant from the Swedish Institute to go to Stockholm and learn more about Bellman there.
“I felt at home right away there! I spent seven weeks in Stockholm last summer and every minute was focused on Bellman,” Umlauf says. “It was amazing just walking around the city, looking for all the places in his songs. I realize summer in Sweden is very special, everything felt very fresh and everybody was very social. I also saw a lot of Bellman performances and all the artists who performed were generous and open. But what really got me interested during my stay in Sweden was a modern female performance of Bellman. You see mostly men performing Bellman songs and the woman, usually playing Ulla Winblad, is just in the background looking dainty. I don’t think Ulla has been given enough room.”
Umlauf returned to New York City with her suitcase packed with Xeroxed articles from various sources in Stockholm.
“I won’t be able to go through them all until February!”
She also dreams of presenting more Bellman performances.
“I just feel the entire world should know about Bellman! And I want to sing him in Swedish; it isn’t the same in English.”
For more info on Brett Umlauf: http://brettumlauf.com/
Who was Carl Michael Bellman?
The Swedish poet and composer Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795) is famous for the “Songs of Fredman” (“Fredmans sånger”) and the “Epistles of Fredman” (“Fredmans epistlar”). He made his debut in 1757 as a religious poet, and he also worked as a translator. In the 1760’s however, he performed with drinking songs and biblical parodies, such as “Gubben Noak.” At around the same time, he began performing his one-man show at private parties and events. In spite of his fame and his close contact with King Gustav III, Bellman always had financial difficulties and was constantly on the move. In his time, Bellman was seen as a great humorist, something that is easily lost on modern audiences. To sing about drunkards and prostitutes at that time was not common at all, whereas today it is not as shocking. Bellman has also done a lot for the city of Stockholm and Swedish nature — prior to his poems they were rarely mentioned in songs. Bellman has been interpreted by singers like Cornelis Vreeswijjk, Evert Taube, Sven-Bertil Taube, Fred Åkerström, rock musician Joakim Thåström and metal music bands like Candlemass. He has been translated into Italian, French, Finnish, Russian, Yiddish and English.
This week’s Bellman
Have you heard a good Bellman joke recently? The jokes always include a person named Bellman as the main character. The earliest Bellman jokes were inspired by Carl Michael Bellman; the earliest one to survive is printed in a book from 1835. The earlier Bellman jokes focused on Bellman’s life at court and were often quite crude.
A Russian, a German and Bellman wanted to see who could swim the fastest across the Atlantic. First out was the German. He swam one kilometer and drowned. Next came the Russian. He swam 10 kilometers and then he drowned. Then it was Bellman's turn. He swam and swam until he almost reached the coast of America — then he got tired and swam back.