Viking music: how the ancient Scandinavians inspired classical music
Michael Scott Rohan dons his helmet to explore the various works that have been inspired by the marauding
The name Viking awakens an immediate image in our minds.
Half terrifying, half comic, instantly recognisable even in cartoon caricatures like Hägar the Horrible or Stoick the Vast in Helen Cresswell’s Dragon books – huge, hairy, violent, in the winged or horned helmets we know they never really wore, sporting real names like Eyolf the Foul and Thorolf Lousebeard, and yet somehow full of integrity, immensely courageous, outward-looking and indomitable.
It’s compelling and, like most caricatures, more than a little true; and it haunts our history.
Who were the Vikings?
Understandably so. In barely two centuries Viking ships came boiling out of Denmark, Norway and Sweden to occupy Iceland, Greenland, Normandy – hence the name – Russia, Ireland and Britain, where they settled most of Northern England and southern Scotland, becoming Christianised and absorbed.
They traded from the coast of North America to Byzantium, where they supplied the emperor’s Varangian Guard. We owe them much of our language, four days of the week, and concepts ranging from democracy to law – a Viking word. And, not unnaturally, these overwhelming Norsemen have also invaded our music.
At first, unsurprisingly, it was as enemies. Probably their first appearance was a line that much-raided monks supposedly added to the liturgy: ‘A furore Normannorum, domine, defende nos!’ (From the wrath of the Norsemen, Lord deliver us!). But as the British increasingly celebrated their history, Norsemen made handy punchbags.
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How did the Vikings have inspired music?
In Purcell’s King Arthur (1691), based on Alfred the Great rather than Round Table legends, the king fights Saxons depicted, not unreasonably, as proto-Vikings. In Thomas Arne’s 1740 Masque of Alfred they’re still heathen sword-fodder, led by one Hubba, with suitably uncouth music – ‘the valiant Hubba bites the bloody field!’ sings the chorus – followed, of course, by ‘Rule, Britannia’.
Throughout the 19th century Alfred’s story was repeatedly set by, among others, Mayr, Donizetti – facing surely the only Viking chieftain called Atkins – and even Dvoπák.
But there’d been a definite sea-change by then. Dvoπák’s Vikings are almost the main protagonists, still invaders but nobler, lovers as well as warriors – the Norsemen have become romantic. Increasingly scholars and archaeologists were discovering that they too had a culture, even a literature and mythology to rival Greece or Rome.
In France, the composer and chess master Philidor caused a sensation by staging his opera seria, Ernelynde, princesse de Norvège (1767), in Norway, rather than traditional classical settings. Increasingly the untrammeled, uncompromised nature of the Vikings attracted the Romantic movement. Their mythical poems, the Eddas, were translated by figures like Adam Oehlenschläger in Denmark, the brothers Grimm in Germany and, in Britain, Thomas Gray (of Gray’s Elegy fame). Many countries became proud of their Viking ancestry.
Not all, though. History and archaeology, with sources ranging from the accounts of Arab travellers to Byzantine treaties, leave little doubt that the Rus, founders of Russia, were Swedish Vikings who sailed down the great rivers as far as Constaninople, conquering native Slavs to found the realms of Kiev and Novgorod.
This didn’t sit well with Russian nationalist composers, though. In the seminal Russian opera, Glinka’s Russlan and Lyudmila (1842), Farlaf (a Byzantine rendering of the Viking name Far-Olaf) is a comically Falstaffian coward. In Verstovsky’s Askold’s Tomb (1835), the late pagan ruler returns as a demonic, corrupting influence. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko (1898) depicts a Viking trader as a grim guest among civilized Slavs; he gets a magnificent rolling aria, but he’s eclipsed by the sensuous Indian and Venetian who follow. In Mlada (1892) a ‘Varangian’ is a primitive oaf. In Czechoslovakia, Fibich’s Fall of Arkona (1899) similarly favoured Slav over Viking.
Wagner naturally comes to mind, but he, like other Germans, was more interested in the Vikings’ Teutonic ancestors. However, he did base his mighty Ring cycle (1876) strongly on Norse myth – less on the German Nibelungenlied than its rough-hewn Norse counterpart, the Völsunga Saga; whole scenes derive from Eddaic poems, especially in Siegfried.
Curiously it was his French admirers who turned to the actual Vikings, notably Chabrier in Gwendoline (1886), the tragic romance of an English lady and Viking prince, culminating in an inferno of burning ships, but alas rather less coruscating music. Likewise Franck’s Hulda (1886) hardly summons up the Norman spirit.
Naturally enough it was the Scandinavian countries who celebrated the Vikings most enthusiastically. Early composers like Franz Berwald and Niels Gade only toyed with myth and folklore, but the most versatile, JPE Hartmann, set Guldhornene (1832), Oehlenschläger’s poem about two decorated golden horns discovered in a Viking burial (and subsequently melted down).
From the grim Eddaic apocalypse Völuspá he composed one of Denmark’s finest choral works, Vølvens spådom (The Words of the Wise-Woman, 1872) and collaborated with the great ballet-master Bournonville on two huge Edda-themed ballets, the semi-comic Thrymskviden, in which Thor has to go after his stolen hammer – in drag – and Valkyrien (1861) about a Viking warrior’s love for a Valkyrie. Nielsen composed only one Viking-themed work, the tone-poem Saga-drøm (1908), but it’s among the finest – sombrely beautiful, with an improvised central cadenza depicting the dreams of the Icelandic hero Gunnar of Hlidarendi as he sails into exile.
Sweden produced two Viking-themed operas, Stenhammar’s Tirfing (1897-8) about an accursed sword, and Peterson-Berger’s Arnljot (1907-9), still performed every year in his home province; both are Wagnerian in style, yet individual enough to be interesting. Finland isn’t really Scandinavian, but its greatest composer, Sibelius, often hailed his Swedish Viking ancestors, although only one work, the sprawling En Saga (1892-1902), appears to be based on their myths.
Norway, though, did better, in the person of Grieg. His collaboration with playwright Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson on the opera Olav Trygvason (1873) collapsed, but the remaining choral prologue superbly evokes a Viking temple sacrifice, concluding with the priestess kneeling before a Lohengrin-like vision of the young king in shining armour.
The real Olaf Tryggvason was a charismatic sea-king who may have led the Viking force at the celebrated Battle of Maldon, annihilating the English army and, becoming a Christian, briefly and bloodily subduing most of Norway before meeting a watery end; but his religious fervour remained characteristically Viking, converting opponents by means including hot coals and poisonous snakes.
Surprisingly, this vision of Olaf as Viking as a gallant knight was sustained by Elgar in his breakthrough oratorio Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf (1896) to verses by Longfellow and HA Ackworth – Longfellow’s are merely a little Victorian, but Ackworth’s are embarrassingly bad. Nevertheless, Olaf contains some splendid music: the thundering chorus ‘I am the God Thor’; the breezy ‘A little bird in the air’, and the darkly thrilling ‘Wrath of Odin’, with its enigmatic ballad refrain ‘Dead rides Sir Morten of Fogelsang!’ Grainger also set this, and several other Viking-related pieces, while Delius, another Scandinavian enthusiast, captured Norse folk-tale’s brooding romance most effectively in his tone-poem Eventyr (1917).
Recent British composers have taken a more realistic view of the Vikings. Peter Maxwell Davies’s chamber opera Martyrdom of St Magnus (1976), a drama of self-sacrifice set among the Viking rulers of the Scottish Isles, is appropriately stark and grim. Judith Weir’s miniature opera King Harald’s Saga (1979), the story of Norwegian King Harald Hardrada, subverts Wagnerian expectations in having its eight roles sung by one soprano, unaccompanied – a post-modernist view, perhaps, but not inappropriate to Hardrada’s heroic futility.
And increasingly Vikings have also found a musical home in the cinema, in particular three fine scores: Mario Nascimbene’s for The Vikings (1958); Jerry Goldsmith’s for The 13th Warrior (1999), in which the Arab traveller Ahmad ibn Fadlan gets entangled in the events of Beowulf; and John Powell’s for the likeable animation How To Train Your Dragon (2010), with a Celtic flavour which reminds us how strongly the Vikings influenced Scotland and Ireland.
Perhaps the most dedicated Viking composer, though, was Icelander Jón Leifs, whose works include Baldr (1947), a dance-drama about the Viking youth-god, and Saga Symphony (1942), both of which exploit local instruments ranging from bronze shields to tuned lava blocks! Leifs’s harshly rhythmical style isn’t to everyone’s taste, but he does depict the Norse world’s harsher realities.
Regrettably Leifs was accused, largely unfairly, of Nazi sympathies. Certainly they and others twisted and misrepresented the Viking heritage into brutal supremacism. But we know now that the real Vikings notably lacked racial prejudice, assimilating well with many races, and were unexpectedly civilized in other ways, often settling major issues – the adoption of Christianity, for example – with peace and tolerance. Music’s romantic image may not be so far off after all.
What was Viking music actually like?
SO WHAT OF THE VIKINGS’ own music? None of it has survived, but we can guess something of it from their own accounts, from the folk tunes their descendants inherited and from the instruments we know they had.
These include horns, ranging from tuned and fingered cow horns to metal instruments, and the huge lurs (below), curling about the body, that today decorate packs of Danish butter.
They had stringed instruments, from lyres with only a few strings to bowed rebecs and, above all, harps, much like Celtic clarsachs; some may also have had dulcimer-style instruments like early Finnish kanteles or Russian guslis. Their wind instruments ranged from flutes, sometimes of pierced bone, to panpipes and early bagpipes.
They loved dancing, especially athletic ‘rafter-kicking’ and singing. We know that at dinner and drinking in their royal halls, everyone was expected to sing for general entertainment – heroic ballads or Edda verses, probably punctuated by strokes of the harp.
The vocal group Sequentia have made a speciality of reviving music from this era, from plainchant to Beowulf, and in their disc Edda they valiantly try to reconstruct a sequence of Norse song. It’s worth hearing, though the reality may have sounded more robust. Arab travellers didn’t take to Viking song, describing it as worse than growling dogs or trundling carts, but given the preferred Arabic sound, this just suggests they had a good bass section.
One had to be careful, though, with choice of subject, and satirical songs were considered a kind of witchcraft. Thangbrand, the first Christian missionary to Iceland, personally beheaded a couple of such satirists. Even the Vikings couldn’t get away from critics.