Fagartiklar og tittelregister

Norske mellomalderballadar

… all for his maiden fair

Velle Espeland Artikkelen er tidlegare publisert i eit pensumkompendium for Universitetet i Oslo (2004) og på nettsidene til Norsk visearkiv.

The Norwegian Ballads

There are many kinds of songs within the folk song traditions of Norway: work songs, lullabies, broadsides, laments, lampoons and many more. But one song type, the ballad, is distinct from the others in both form and content. Their content indicates that they are among the oldest types of songs known in our country, and it is in these ballads that folklorists have shown most interest.

Like folk tales, ballads are folk literature; the content of many ballads resembles the content of the folk tales. One such example is seen in the ballad about «Åsmund Frægdegjæva»; this tells of a hero who fights trolls, frees a maiden from imprisonment in the mountain, and in the end wins the maiden and revenges himself on his two false-hearted brothers. This story is similar to the folk tales about the Ash Lad (Askeladden). But, while folk tales always have happy endings, this is not as probable in ballads, and the people we meet in these songs are often subjected to sorrow and tragedy. The lovers die in the song «Bendik and Årolilja», «Olav Liljekrans» is killed by the queen of the elves, and «Little Kjersti» has to remain with the Mountain King in the mountain from which no prince will set her free. But it is precisely the fact that these ballads also deal with tragedy and sorrow that make them concern us in a different and more emotional way than do tales of the Ash Lad, the princess and the troll. Ballads still have the power to move us, and their poetry has retained its vitality over the centuries.

The word ballad comes from the Latin word ballare; to dance. Although the word thus means a song to dance to, what really characterizes these songs is that they are epical, that they tell a story. In German and English, the word ballade is used to mean every kind of narrative song. In Scandinavia, however, we use the word primarily in relation to the oldest folk songs, which can also be spoken of as medieval ballads because they have a medieval setting. They can be compared to the songs called Child Ballads in England, named after Professor Francis James Child who published The English and Scottish Popular Ballads in the late 1800s.

People have sung narratives since the beginning of time. In Europe the two main traditions for such sung narratives are the non-strophic heroic epos and the ballad. The heroic epos is a long, continuous song of which the building blocks are the individual lines of verse to which the melody is most often joined. The Old Greek Odyssey is a heroic epos of this type, and an Scandinavian example of this form is found in the Finnish Kalevala poetry. These can be rather monotonous listening. The Scandinavian ballad, on the other hand, belongs to the European ballad tradition: the ballad is strophic and its melody is joined to the stanza. It has a final rhyme and a refrain (burden).

Sunfair and the Dragon King

Ballads use an antiquated language that even modern Norwegians may find difficult to understand. A very few Norwegian ballads have been translated into other languages: «Solfager og ormekongen» («Sunfair and the Dragon King»), previously little known, became recognizable after Edvard Grieg composed a piano piece based on its melody, and five of the stanzas (from a much longer Norwegian original) were translated into English. A synopsis of the plot is as follows: King David leaves his betrothed Sunfair to travel abroad. While he is away his brother Ormekongen (the Dragon King), tries to seduce Sunfair. She resists and the Dragon King gives her a potion to make her lose consciousness. He then buries her apparently dead body, but later steals her secretly from the grave and leaves the country with her. King David follows disguised as a pilgrim. He reveals himself to Sunfair and brings her back home again.

Five stanzas of this long story were translated by Christopher Norman [Ragnar Christophersen]. The translation, while not especially good, can be sung to the original melody:


1. The King of the Dragons came a riding on his mare,
And the maiden was so young.
Sunfair stood waiting and sunned her golden hair.
I love to ride out in the meadows.

2. And do you hear, my Sunfair, what I order thee?
Thou’lt leave King David and be betrothed to me.

3. Never shall it come to pass while I do live,
That I two brothers should my pledge give.

4. Three magic potions in her cup he went and poured;
Sunfair drank and swoon’d without a word.

5. To King David came the message sinister and dread!
Sunfair, your love, your sweetheart, is dead!

Groups of ballads

Scandinavian ballads are usually divided into six groups according to content:

  • A. Ballads of the supernatural
  • B. Legendary ballads
  • C. Historical ballads
  • D. Ballads of chivalry
  • E. Heroic ballads
  • F. Jocular ballads

Ballads of the supernatural

Ballads of the supernatural deal with sorcery, magic, and people who encounter the supernatural. In this group of ballads, however, it is not the Ash Lad’s simple encounter with the troll that is portrayed. The hero in folk tales is always superior to his enemies; he chops off the troll’s head and wins the hand of the princess. But supernatural spirits are really dangerous beings, and in ballads of the supernatural, it is not quite that easy. It could be said that ballads of the supernatural and heroic ballads are comparable, as legends are comparable to fairy tales. In legends and in ballads of the supernatural, supernatural beings are all-powerful and humans can receive mortal wounds in their encounters with them.

Many ballads recount a tragic love affair between humans and supernatural beings, from which humans usually retire the losers. The ballad «Olav Liljekrans» (cf. the Scottish «Clerk Colvill», Child No. 42) tells of a young man who rides out to invite guests to his wedding. He meets a group of elves deep in the forest. The queen of the elves asks him to dance with her, but he refuses because he is to be married the next day. In revenge the queen curses him with sickness, and he returns home a dying man. His death is concealed from his bride, but she finally discovers the truth and then dies as well. Another song tells of Little Kjersti who has a child by the king of the mountain. She is forced to drink a potion of forgetfulness and to remain in the mountain all the rest of her days.

It is sometimes possible for things to turn out for the best. Magnhild, the heroine of the song «Villeman and Magnhild», knows that she is fated to drown. Villeman tries to thwart this, but on their way to the church Magnhild nevertheless falls into the river. Villeman takes his harp and by means of his music, forces the river-spirit to release Magnhild.

Not all ballads of the supernatural deal with supernatural beings. The supernatural may also take shape of runic witchcraft, transformation, and manifestations by ghosts or omens. The large number of notations of ballads in this group is evidence of the great popularity in Norway of ballads of the supernatural.

Legendary ballads

Legendary ballads make up a relatively small group of songs that take their motifs from Christian legends. These songs may deal with celebrated saints such as the Apostle James, Mary Magdalene, St Stephen, and St Olav, or with more anonymous, local men and women. Songs dealing with miracles also exist as do a tiny group of visionary songs among which «Draumkvedet» («The Dream Ballad») is the best known.

Historical ballads

Some Ballads of the supernatural may also refer to actual events, but the term historical ballad is reserved for songs that have historical source material confirming the subject matter. Norwegian historical ballads in particular deal with historical events which took place around the year 1300. «Falkvor Lommannsson» is considered a historical ballad because an ancient Swedish chronicle shows that a Folke Lagmansson abducted Lady Ingrid Svantepolksdotter in March, 1288, and fled to Norway with her. Without access to this chronicle we would have categorized this song among the Ballads of chivalry.

It is not to be expected that ballads constitute precise historical source material; 500 years of oral tradition can lead to a great number of changes, and the generations that followed would have been more interested in the songs providing good stories than in being historically accurate. The song about Falkvor Lommannsson has survived due to its appeal as a romantic story of the abduction of a bride, but the historical sources lead us to suspect that it was more likely a case of rape based on power politics.

Ballads of chivalry

Ballads of chivalry consist of realistic songs about contemporary life among the nobility or the gentry, with a preference for dramatic events.

Most of the songs are about love. Although some describe happy love affairs, the great majority are tragic. These ballads do not shrink from discussing difficult subjects such as rape, incest, adultery and murders caused by jealousy. The song «Gjødalin og Herreper» (Gjødalin and Sir Per) tells a dramatic story that is far from being a fairy-tale subject. Sir Per rides to Gjødalin’s house despite his mother’s warnings. When he arrives, he finds that Gjødalin has locked the door. He breaks in, rips her silken shift from her body and tries to rape her. She, however, has a little knife with which she manages to stab him in the heart. Then she sets him on his horse and sends him back to his mother, mortally wounded.

Chivalrous ballads often make use of international narrative motifs and may be novelistic and multi-episodic. «Rullemann and Hilleborg» is one song whose subject can be found in many other countries (cf. «Lady Isabel and the Elf-knight», Child No. 4). The song tells of Rullemann, a serial killer who has murdered nine maidens. When he attempts the same with Hilleborg, she manages to trick him and to stab him with her knife.

Some ballads have been placed in this group because they do not easily fit into any other.

Heroic ballads

Heroic ballads are narratives of a more fairy tale sort. The heroes are tall and strong, they throw themselves at their enemies with an out-and-out fearlessness and joy of combat. These songs are extremely visual with tremendous, colourful depictions. In ballads of chivalry and of the supernatural the development usually takes place by means of the hero’s dialogue, but the super hero of the heroic ballads never talks very much. The narrative is carried by the dramatic depictions.

These songs share the same delight in coarse-grained exaggeration as the sagas, and many of them are closely related to the youngest group of Icelandic sagas, the so-called fornaldar sogur, with their telling of romantic and fantastic stories. While parallels to other groups can be found all over Europe, ballads of this type are found only in Scandinavia with the single exception of a Scots ballad (cf. «Kemp Owain», Child No. 34: Professor Child notes, however, that «Kemp Owain» has taken its subject from an Icelandic saga).

Ballads about the hero Roland and his brave fight against the Moors can be found in many European countries. In the Norwegian ballad «Roland og Magnus kongjen» («Roland and King Magnus» ) this story is told in the style of a heroic ballad. At the battle of Ronceveaux, Roland advances on the Moors and mows them down like a reaper with a sharp scythe, so that the haze rising from the blood of the fallen soldiers casts a shadow over the battlefield.

Jocular ballads

These songs have enjoyed great popular recognition, but because the humour is often burlesque and crudely erotic, they were neglected by the cultivated people who transcribed the ballads during the 1800s. These were not songs suited to creating national pride, and several songs containing erotic humour were censored.

Many of these songs make fun of gender roles, often by turning them upside down. A typical example is the song «Ungersven på tinget» («The Young Man at the Moot») which tells of a strong and aggressive woman who rapes a man. In the morning he goes to court and tries to have her arrested, but is merely ridiculed. Another large group of Jocular ballads deals with animals. In «Kråkevisa» («The Tremendous Crow») the humour lies in the description of an impossibly huge crow. Other popular songs such as «Tordivelen og flua» («The Beetle marries the Fly») deal with animals who act like humans. The animal songs have a naïve humour that children still find appealing.

When we sing ballads in our day we are almost always motivated by the age of the song, but «The Tremendous Crow» and «The Miller’s Daughter» («Møllardottera») are still sung simply because they are funny. «The Tremendous Crow» is quite probably the most popular folk song in the entire Norwegian repertoire.

illustration to the ballad of Åsmund Frægdegjæva by Gerhard Munthe

Illustration to the ballad of Åsmund Frægdegjæva
by Gerhard Munthe

Characteristics of ballads

Folk songs are changeable and dependent on human imagination, and, as with folk tales, it is impossible to establish clear boundaries for this genre. Transitional forms and doubtful cases always exist, and this means that we do not have any useful definition of what a ballad is. Because attempts at definitions are either too imprecise or too extensive, it has been customary instead to list in books or articles a large number of characteristics for ballads. Many individual songs may not meet one or more of the characteristics, each characteristic will also be attributable to many songs not usually considered to be ballads, and the boundaries between other groups of songs remain blurry. But, considered together, such characteristics do provide us with an impression of the ballad genre.

Ballads are songs

It must be emphasized that ballads are songs, because many scholars of literature and even of folklore have considered them to be literature. In his introduction to Norske Folkevisor (The Popular Edition of Norwegian Ballads), Professor Knut Liestøl writes constantly about how the folk songs are to be read, but he almost never uses the word sing nor are there any melodies in this popular edition. Ballads are still presented as literary poems without music in books for public school use. Later in this article we shall see how the style of ballads is characterized by formulae and repetition. When written ballad texts are read this seems incongruent, but when experienced as songs, the natural effect of the formulae and repetitions is to help the public in its comprehension of the narrative.

Ballads are transmitted orally

The ballads have existed in a tradition of oral culture; they have been passed on from mouth to ear. They depend on memory and the repeated interest of new generations to learn and to sing them.

Oral transmission is a creative process, and poetry remembered in this manner will be subject to constant change. Something will always be damaged by forgetfulness and incorrect memory, but as long as the song appeals to people, it will be rebuilt and recomposed. When a song loses interest, it will either be changed to regain interest or it will be forgotten. When no-one makes the effort to learn it anymore, a song will be lost. A written culture can preserve items that no longer have meaning or interest; whereas an oral tradition does not have this ability.

Variations occur when portions of the text are forgotten and reconstructed, antiquated traits modernized, or a new melody fitted. This means that the form the song had the first time it was sung is beyond our reach. While we can make educated guesses about the original form, they remain guesswork. This is why we usually state that all meaningful variants of an orally transmitted song are of equal value: a ballad never has one «correct» form, and all complete variants are equally correct.

Ballads are anonymous

It is often said that a folk song has «composed itself». Of course, the melody and the content of every ballad must actually have been originated by a person, but just as we can never reach back to the original form, so we can never discover the poet or composer. The original creators and their work have disappeared in the darkness of history, but any number of co-composers have kept the song alive. This does not necessarily involve a destruction of the artistic work. There are many examples of simple and modest snatches of a song existing in a oral tradition which grow to become powerful works. Seen in this light it is entirely proper to say that the romantic idea of people being the composers is indeed meaningful. Over the years the singers have remodelled, re-sung, reworked and thus made the ballads into a form of collective poetry.

Ballads are epic

Ballads are narratives in that they tell a story. They also have lyric and dramatic elements; often the refrain has a lyric mood and is built up of scenes while the plot is developed through dialogue. But ballads are first and foremost epic. When we divide ballads according to type, this is done on the basis of the narrative.

Ballads have a regular stanzaic form

The most reliable hallmark of a ballad is the form of the stanza. And looking at the form of the stanza is the only way that we can establish fragments and detached stanzas as belonging to the specific genre of ballads.

It is usually said that ballad stanzas have two distinct forms, two-lined and four-lined. But this difference can most easily be seen in written versions of a song; when a song is sung it is not as easy to determine whether the stanza has two or four lines. A more effective differentiation can be made by seeing how the burden (refrain) is placed. The main stanzaic forms are one with a final burden only, and a second with both an interior refrain and a final burden. The first form may have two long stanza lines which are written as four lines, or short stanza lines written in two. In each case, the long or short stanza lines have a concluding rhyme – a song we write down as a four-lined stanza will rhyme only in the second and fourth lines. Ballads do not utilize a strict form of rhyming: vowel harmony, in which the words that rhyme have similar vowel sounds (ven can rhyme with fe, prud can rhyme with bur), can often be sufficient.

An example of a stanza with both an interior refrain and a final burden can be that of «Villemann and Magnhild» (followed by an English translation):

Villemann og hass møy så prud,
hei fagraste lindelauvi alle,
dei leika gulltavel i hennar bur.
Ved de rone det lyste å vinne.

(Villemann and his maid so fair,
Hey, all the leaves of the sweet linden tree,
They played at draughts in her bower there.
With the wiles that the winning beguiled.)

This is a very common form of stanza. Other well-known songs with this form are «Liti Kjersti og bergekongen» («Little Kjersti and the Mountain King»), «Horpa» («The Harp, or the Two Sisters»), «Olav Liljekrans» and «Kråkevisa» («The Tremendous Crow»). This form of stanza is never found with long stanza lines (as a four-lined stanza).

Stanzas with final burdens and two short stanza lines are less common. One example is «Valivan»:

Å Valivan høyde frå eit anna land
at der va’ det ei skjønn jomfru så belevand
Valivan siglar årleg.

(Oh, Valivan heard of a distant land
Where there lived a maid so exceeding fair.
Valivan sailed so early.)

Other examples of this type can be found in «Terningspelet» («The Game of Dice»), «Dalebu Jonsson» and «Rosengår og Veneliti».

Final burdens and long stanza lines (four-lined stanzas) can be found in, for example, «Falkvor Lommannsson»:

Det var Torstein Davidson,
han ville til bryllaups bjode;
og der var Falkvor Lommannsson,
han let sine hestar ringskoe.
Riddaren våge sitt liv for ei jomfru.

(And there was Torstein Davidson,
who bade to the day he would wed;
And there was Falkvor Lommannsson,
who bade that his horses be shod.
The knight risked his life for a maiden.)

This form of stanza is especially common in ballads of the supernatural about trolls and giants. Other songs with this form are «Åsmund Frægdegjæva», «Hemingen Unge» and «Bendik og Årolilja».

Ballads do not hold to a completely constant rhythm. Lines vary between three and four heavy syllables and although the principal sense is iambic, innumerable exceptions can be found. Ballads are made for singing and what is most important is that the rhythm of the text corresponds to the melody.

Ballad language, style, formulae and burdens

Ballads are songs that relate a story. Their narrative style is concise and refined, but also demanding: the language is stylised; they have no room for descriptions of unnecessary details, and have been compared to a spotlight that focuses solely on the crucial climaxes of a narrative. The listener must imagine the everyday incidents in between.

But when something is of vital importance, a ballad may repeat a stanza two and three times with minor changes in the rhyming words (incremental repetition). This can appear unnecessary when we read the text, but is very effective when the plot is to be perceived through listening. Formulae are used in the same way. Ballads use a great number of formulae dealing with both individual phrases, such as kåpa blå, det raude gull («the coat so blue», «the gold so red»), and with entire stanzas. Formulaic stanzas may be used, for example, when the hero is about to set off on a sea voyage, when a murder is committed or when a conversation is about to start. Such formulae are unacceptable in written literature, but they serve two purposes in ballads: partly as aids for recollection and partly as means by which the audience, recognizing the form of expression, more easily can understand the development of the story.

The ballad style is also objective in that the narrative is usually related in the third person. A few use the first person (I-form) such as «Draumkvedet» («The Dream Ballad»), but these are exceptions. The narratives are unambiguous with no intricate parallel plots. They are often developed through dialogue, which can be difficult to understand because the listener seldom knows who is speaking. Some help can be found, however, because there are never more than two people speaking at the same time. For example, the song «Liti Kjersti og bergekongen» («Little Kjersti and the Mountain King») opens with a dialogue between Little Kjersti and her mother. After a while, the Mountain King appears, but then the mother leaves the scene. We recognize this narrative technique, known as the «law of two», as being present in folk tales also.

The burden (refrain), important to the style of ballads, can also assume varying forms. It can be quite short, as in: Imot den blide sumar (Toward the lovely summer) or long, as in: Det regnar og det bles. For langt nord i fjello, djupt under hello’, der leikar det (It rained and it stormed. For north in the fells, deep under the heath, they were playing.). This means that the burden binds the melody. It is not very difficult to lend a melody from one ballad to another, but in that case the burden must either have a comparable rhythm or it must follow the melody. This can be observed in the many ballad notations in which the burden obviously has been borrowed from a different song.

Ballad melodies

We know very little about how ballads were sung in the 1800s and even less about the ballad songs of earlier centuries. Very few of the scholars who went out to document ballads in the 1800s were able to write music and, indeed, many of them were hardly interested in melodies. They were only interested in the text, and so many more texts than melodies have been preserved. There are many types of ballads for which we have no documented form of melody at all. This does not mean that the ballads were only recited. Ballads are songs, and they are made to be sung.

Those ballad collectors who did document melodies had great difficulty in documenting what they heard. Using musical notation and equipped with classic ideals of style, they tried to preserve melodies sung by people who had scarcely heard a well-tuned instrument and whose conception of melody was completely different from what we have today. They met with ornamentation, a tonality and a rhythm unlike anything they were used to. In the 1800s, this problem was solved by normalizing the melody. Lindeman’s goal was a harmonized arrangement for polyphonic vocal choir or piano. When we go back to his rough drafts, his first notations of a melody, we can easily see how he struggled to catch the peculiarities of the melody, and we cannot help but be impressed by his attempts to document all the strange and irregular sounds that he heard.

Recordings that became available only at the turn of the last century are the first to tell us exactly how the rural population class sang. At about this same time music scholars began serious discussions of the tonality of folk songs. These discussions related especially to quarter tones, tones lying between the tonal intervals of the classic scale, and other types of scales such as the pentatonic and the old «church modes».

Today we think that a song should consist of a text set to a definite melody. Ballads, however, have only a very unregimented connection between text and melody. Some very popular and much-used songs were set to the same type of melody in a large area, but more commonly the melody varies more than the text. Only when the ballads were printed and published in books did a firmer connection between text and melody become more common.

Oddly enough there does not seem to be congruence between types of texts and types of melodies. Jocular ballads can have been sung to lyrical or melancholy melodies, while dramatic and tragic texts can have had a jolly melody.

Ballad melodies do not constitute a musical genre. We cannot identify a ballad melody according to musical characteristics. The only attribute that the melodies have in common is that they have been sung to a ballad text, which means that there is great variation between them. We find melodies of extremely antiquated stylistic character as well as melodies whose form seems far more modern. The result has been that no scholar has made serious attempts to reconstruct an ur-form of melody, as text researchers have attempted with texts.

Ballads as songs to dance to

Many ballad researchers believe that ballads first came to Scandinavia in the Middle Ages as songs to dance to, and were used all over Scandinavia in dances. The ballad as dance was thought to have been forgotten later and to have been preserved only on the Faeroe Islands. We can certainly say that ballads are dance music on the Faeroes, where the people have danced to ballads and other songs for hundreds of years. Dancers grasped each other’s hands and danced in a ring while a lead singer sang the song and everyone joined in on the refrain.

There are numerous source materials that tell of dancing in medieval Scandinavia, but none indicates clearly that dancing was done to ballads. The hypothesis that ballads are songs to dance to is partly based on the texts of ballads themselves and partly on those sources telling of dancing in general. Many ballads recount dancing. One ballad named «Tak hardt i hånd, trø lett på fot» (Clasp firm of hand, step light of foot) tells in detail about dancing and kveding (singing a lay), and many refrains mention dancing: Trø meg inkje for nære (Step not too close to me) and På vollen dansar mi jomfru (My true love dances on the green) from «Olav og Kari», Så lett går dansen gjennom lunden (Lightly, lightly they dance through the grove) from «Olav Liljekrans».

In addition to the ballads themselves, some written sources speak of dancing, especially those where clergymen warn against dancing. These sources date to medieval times, the period during which ballads are thought to have become popular in Scandinavia. We also have medieval frescoes showing people holding each other’s hands and dancing in a long line, but none of these sources can say anything about what type of music is being used. They might have been vocal songs, but the frescoes also show instruments being played. The very well-known dance frieze from Ørslev Church in Denmark, which is often used to illustrate medieval dancing to ballads, also shows a hare playing a horn.


We can, however, also find evidence that opposes the hypothesis about dancing. The rhythm of the Faeroese ballads is a dance rhythm, and there are several signs that they are dancing songs, but the ballads documented in Norway and Sweden are marked by freer, text-based rhythmics. The long burdens of the Faeroese ballads have an obvious function for dancing: the dancers sing along in the burden and give the lead singer a chance to catch his breath and to think about the next stanza. But in the rest of Scandinavia the burdens are generally much shorter.

Scandinavian ballad regions

In the past ballads and folk tales were often considered as being uniquely national forms of poetry. But national characteristics in folk poetry are quite superficial, and folk tales are actually among the most international forms of poetry. Ballads are not quite as international since like all fixed-form poetry they are more closely linked to a national language, but they also are part of a European tradition. Norwegian ballads belong to a rather uniform Scandinavian ballad genre, which we meet throughout Scandinavia. Only a few of the Scandinavian ballad types are limited to one country only, and most of them have crossed national borders.


Denmark is the most important ballad country in Scandinavia, and far more ballads have been preserved there than in any other Nordic country. The oldest ballad notations are Danish and fully two-thirds of all Scandinavian ballad types can be found here.

At the court of King Christian III at the time of the Reformation in the mid-1500s, many young noblemen made their own handwritten songbooks. Such songbooks, known as «aristocratic song books», contain many ballads. The oldest of these songbooks, Hjertebogen (The Heart Book), was written between 1550 and 1555. It was given this name because the pages have been cut to form a heart when the book is opened, somewhat like a present-day school child’s autograph or remembrance book. This comparison may be especially apt because the owner of the Heart Book had many members of the nobility at court write their names and a greeting in it. Hjertebogen contains 83 songs of which 20 are ballads.

Approximately 40 aristocratic song books dated between 1550 and 1600 have been preserved in Denmark. The custom of creating them continued throughout the remainder of the 1600s, and by this time it was taken over by the young ladies of the aristocracy.

It was also in this setting that northern Europe’s first folk-song book, Hundreviseboka («The Book of One Hundred Songs»), was published by historian Anders Sørensen Vedel in 1591. This book was very popular. One hundred years later in 1695, the clergyman Peder Syv added one hundred other ballads to it, and it became known as Kjempeviseboka («The Heroic Songbook»). When published under the title 200 Viser om Konger Kemper oc Andre (200 Songs about Kings Giants and Others) it also gained great popularity in Norway and the Faeroe Islands. New editions were published until far into the 1800s.

Because Denmark was so richly endowed with old ballad notations, few efforts were made to collect oral tradition. Such collecting activity was only begun as late as in 1860.

The Danish ballads have been published in the eminent work Danmarks gamle Folkeviser («Denmark’s Ancient Folk Songs»), usually abbreviated as DgF, which appeared in 12 large volumes between 1853 and 1976. The Norwegian folk-song collector, Sophus Bugge, sent copies of many Norwegian ballad notations to the Danish editors and, as a result, many Norwegian ballads have been published only in DgF.


Norway is quite unlike Denmark when it comes to ballads. Almost without exception, Norwegian ballads are those that were noted down by folklore collectors after 1840, while the Danish material is dominated by the old aristocratic song books. This also means that while the Norwegian material was written down in a period when the songs represented a dying art, the Danish collections came from a setting which was much closer to the ballads in both style and norms of life. Approximately one-third of all Scandinavian ballad types can be found in Norway. Telemark County has a dominant position in the Norwegian ballad tradition. The great majority of Norwegian ballads were written down in western Telemark and the inner regions of Agder County.

The oldest Norwegian ballad recorded in writing is «Friarferdi til Gøtland» («The Wooing Journey to Gotland») from Volda, Sunnmøre County, dated to 1612. We also have one notation from the 1600s and some few from the 1700s, but the majority of the Norwegian ballads have been documented by folklorists.

During and after the Napoleonic wars various ethnic groups began to interest themselves in their own distinctive national identity. Many such groups believed that national identity lay in orally transmitted folk poetry. The collecting of folk songs started fairly late in Norway, reaching a serious level of activity as late as in 1840. Olea Crøger and Magnus Brostrup Landstad were the first to collect folk songs; Landstad wrote down the texts, while Crøger wrote down both text and melody. The result of this work appeared in 1854 with the publication of Norske Folkeviser («Norwegian Folk Songs»). Ludvig Mathias Lindeman, Norway’s most important collector of folk melodies, was responsible for the melody appendix to this work.

Sophus Bugge was a generation younger than Landstad. Still a student when Norske Folkeviser was published, he immediately set about collecting ballads and continued this activity every summer even after he had been appointed professor of Old Norse Philology. His plan for publishing a scientific edition of the ballads was, unfortunately, never realized. His son-in-law Rikard Berge, the last of our important ballad collectors, wrote down a few melodies but was mainly interested in collecting texts.

About 1920, both Rikard Berge and O.M. Sandvig began recording ballad melodies on wax cylinders. As time passed, magnetophones began to be used and numerous recordings of ballads were made for the folk music collection of the national broadcasting company NRK and the Norwegian Archives of Folk Music. Most of the active collecting of ballad texts was completed around 1900, but unknown ballad melodies still continued to be documented until the 1970s.

After Sophus Bugge died, Moltke Moe took over responsibility for publishing the Norwegian ballad notations. Moltke Moe was, however, more interested in the restitution (reconstruction) of the ballads and together with Knut Liestøl, published a large collection of such reconstructed songs. (More about this later) These are the familiar texts from this century’s popular editions, school reading books, anthologies and school editions.


Sweden’s position lies between Denmark and Norway. Sweden’s own aristocratic song books are fewer than in Denmark, but active collecting of oral tradition began earlier than in Norway.

A three-volume collection of Swedish ballads, Geijer and Afselius’ Svenska Folkvisor från forntiden («Swedish Folk Songs from the Past»), published as early as in 1814–18, contained texts and melodies which had been written down as early as in the late 1700s. The three volumes have since been re-published in many new and revised editions.

A scientific edition of the Swedish ballads, Sveriges medeltida balladar («Sweden’s medieval ballads») has been published by the Svenskt Visarkiv. The work was originally planned to include nine volumes, but it was concluded in 2001 with the publication of the fifth volume of texts. The final four volumes, intended to include commentary and indexes, will probably never be published.


The collecting of ballads in Swedish-speaking Finland started after 1860, and it soon appeared that surprisingly many ballads had survived in the districts of Østerbotten and Nyland and on the coastal islands of Åboland. Otto Andersson published a scientific edition of ballads in 1934 in a series entitled Finlands svenska Folkdiktning «Finland’s Swedish folk poetry». When Sweden’s national broadcasting company started making recordings of folk music, a large number of excellent ballad singers emerged in Finland.

The Faeroe Islands

The Faeroes are the area of Scandinavia in which the ballad has maintained the strongest position, due mainly to the popularity of the song-dances. The people of the Faeroes do not dance only to ballads, they also dance to other older songs as well as to newer songs of many kinds. But local ballads are still popular and new ballads have been written and set to music as late as in our own day. The collecting of Faeroese ballads started as early as in the 1780s, with collections of melody materials proving to have been especially rewarding.

The Faeroese ballads are distinguished by their extreme length. It can take hours to sing just one song and their burdens are extensive as well. As mentioned above, when dancing to one of these songs, the length of the burden gives the lead singer a chance to catch his breath and to reflect on the next verse.


The Icelandic population has been literate since medieval times, and oral poetry and ballads have therefore had a weaker position there. Many of the stories told in ballad form in the rest of Scandinavia have had a literary form in Iceland that is called rimur. There is also an ancient tradition of dancing to songs in Iceland, but to other song forms than ballads. Apart from a 16th-century manuscript of ballads, little else exists. And only a few Icelandic ballad melodies have been preserved, because no collecting of ballads has been carried out for the past 200 years.

In Scotland and England we find the songs that most resemble the Scandinavian ballads. While the four-lined stanza usually does not have a burden in British ballads, the two-lined stanza with a divided burden is entirely similar to the Scandinavian. Many ballads are known as well on both sides of the North Sea: «Dei to søstre» (TSB A 38) corresponds completely to «The two sisters» (Child 10), «Svein Normann og Gulbjørg», also known as «Kvinnemorderen» (TSB D 411) corresponds to «Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight» (Child 4), «Maria Magdalena» (TSB B 16) to «The Maid and the Palmer» (Child 21), etc.

We also find ballads in Germany, but the difference between these and the Scandinavian ballads is much greater. German ballads have different forms of stanzas even though many of the stories they relate are similar. German ballads did, on the other hand, reach us through Danish broadsides during the 16- and 1700s with many of these ballads enjoying great popularity in our country. One example is «Jomfruen og greven» («The Maid and the Count») or in German, «Graf und Nonne» (Deutsche Volkslieder 155). This was one of the most widely spread songs in Europe, which can be found in a great many languages of Central, Eastern and Northern Europe.

Ballads and the Middle Ages

Speaking of ballads as medieval songs emphasizes their extreme age. But ballads cannot be considered as medieval poetry in the same way as are Old Norse literature, the Icelandic family sagas and the sagas of the kings. The sagas were written down during the Middle Ages and even though many have been preserved only as later copies, we can be fairly certain as to the original form. This does not hold true of the ballads. The oldest complete ballad notations found in Scandinavia are dated to about 1550. The existence of many variants is to be expected, and since they were orally transmitted, it is impossible to be sure of their original form.

When we speak of the ballad genre as having been established in the Middle Ages, this contention is based on two types of arguments. First, the medieval source material: although these sources are meagre, a few fragments indicate that the ballad form existed in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages. In addition, some ballads are ancient songs that even by the 1500s had long survived in oral form. Second, the contents of the ballads are linked to the Middle Ages. The historical ballads tell of events from medieval times and the mentality reflected in the ballad genre is clearly medieval. The religion cited in the ballads is pre-Reformation Catholic and the stories are of a type that we can recognize from Old Norse literature.

Medieval sources

Let us first examine the medieval source material. We have a few tiny fragments that could be portions of ballad stanzas. The most well-known of these is Runeverset i Skånske lov («The runic verse in the Scanian law»), two lines of verse written on a blank space in a Danish legal manuscript dated about 1300. Like the legal text itself, the verse is written in runestaves instead of Latin letters. A melody has also been written down for this runic verse and this is the oldest secular melody notation in Scandinavia. The verse reads:

Drømde mik en drøm i nat
um silki ok ærlik pæl

(I dreamed a dream this very night
of silk and noble furs)

Silki ok ærlik pæl sounds very much like a ballad formula and the verse might have been a ballad burden. This verse was not written down at the same time as the legal text, but must have been noted later in the manuscript, thought to be around 1320.


During the first half of the 15th century, a Danish mapmaker who called himself Claudius Clavus lived and worked in Rome. He concentrated on the Nordic countries and placed both Iceland and Greenland on his maps. Because he had no place-names for Greenland, he used the words of a song stanza instead and wrote them on the map. His original map has been lost, but on later copies we can read the verse written along the outline of the coast of Greenland starting in the northeast and continuing around southernmost point to the north-west. We cannot be certain about the kind of ballad to which this stanza belongs; it might even be a mere verse of derision. But it bears a strong resemblance to the opening stanza of a Swedish ballad «Kung Speleman» (TSB E 90). We call it the Grønlandstrofa («Greenland Stanza»):

Ther boer eeynh manh (ij) eyn Gro(n)landz aa
ooc Spieldebedh mundhe han heyde
meer haw(er) han aff nidefildh
enn hanh ha(uer)flesk hi(t)h feyde
Nordum dr(i)u(e)r sandhin aa‹…› (the rest is illegible)

A possible translation:

(There lives a man by a Greenland stream
and Spieldebedh is his name.
More hath he of nit-filled fells
than he hath of fatty pork
Northerly drifts the sand ‹…›)

Claudius Clavus must have drawn this map about 1440, and the notation is the oldest preserved ballad stanza complete with burden.

The only existing medieval ballad text with several stanzas was written down on an unused page of a religious manuscript (the Linköping manuscript), given to Solum Church near Skien in Telemark County. Alongside several trial pen strokes, the owner has written down a ballad burden:

Drømth hffuer mik om Jomfrwer i alle naath.

(I have dreamt of fair maidens the whole night long)

Some later scribe filled up the rest of the page with the first seven stanzas of a song that uses this burden. The song, entitled «Ridder i hjorteham» («The Knight in the Deerskin»), is about a knight who is turned into a stag. It has not been found in any other sources. The song text has been written in Danish, although the main text of the manuscript in written in Swedish and in one blank space someone has copied some legal documents in Norwegian. The song notation has been dated to 1500 or slightly earlier on the basis of the handwriting.

In addition to these sources, other source material suggests that ballads have long existed. During the first years of the 14th century, Queen Euphemia of Norway had three long chivalric poems translated from the French. Translations to saga form had previously been made of chivalric poetry at the Norwegian court, but the «Euphemia-verses», as these poems are called, were translated in a fixed form. They are literary poetry rather than ballads and never had an oral form, but they include a number of formulae and language usage reminiscent of the ballads. The language of the «Euphemia-verses» is old Swedish.

The original map of Claudius Clavus is lost, but this copy from 1480 contains parts of the stanza

The original map of Claudius Clavus is lost,
but this copy from 1480 contains parts of the stanza

The content of the ballads

The second group of arguments link the ballads to the Middle Ages through their content.

The religion of the ballads is pre-Reformation Catholicism. This is clearly seen in the legendary ballads in which well-known saints such as Mary Magdalene, St James, St Olav and St Stephen appear. The worship of and legends about saints were phenomena which 16th-century and later Protestant clergy tried to eradicate.

The historical ballads deal with events of the Middle Ages. The Norwegian historical ballads center on events dated to about 1300. Folkvor Lommannsson carried off his bride in 1288; Alv Erlingson, about whom there are several ballads, was executed in 1290; the «Margareta songs» tell of little Princess Margareta who was sent to Scotland from the court in Bergen in order to ensure the royal Scottish hereditary succession, but who died in 1290 at the age of eight, in the town still called «St. Margaret’s Hope» on the Orkney Islands before reaching her destination. The song about the death of holy King Håkon mixes incidents from Håkon IV Håkonson’s death in 1263 with Håkon V Magnusson’s death in 1319.

There are also many ballads that take their contents from literature that was popular in the Middle Ages. Many of these tell stories that we recognize from the Old Norse sagas or from sagas that are translations of chivalric European poetry.

Arguments that counter the medieval hypothesis

A great objection to the hypothesis about the ballads being medieval songs is that the source material is so meagre. In Norway we have almost no sources prior to 1840 that tell of ballads. Extensive medieval ballad poetry ought to have left some traces, so our task is to attempt to find explanations for their lack. Using the content of the songs to argue that the songs were written in medieval times is also weak, since the ballads could easily have been written as historical songs. People living in the 1500s had excellent ideas of the conditions in «olden days». In addition, the Middle Ages did not stop abruptly at the time of the Reformation. The medieval mentality continued on for a long time, especially in those areas where ballads were popular.

A third and perhaps the strongest argument concerns language. The Norwegian language underwent an extensive modification in the late Middle Ages. The inflectional pattern was greatly simplified and the relationship between long and short syllables was equalized. It is difficult to conceive of poetry in a fixed form being able to survive this important change without undergoing substantial revision.

Even though medieval source materials are meagre, they do certainly show that ballad-like poetry existed, and we ought to be able to claim that the ballad genre existed at the very least in the 1300s. It is likely that some songs must have gone that far back in time. «Falkvor Lommannsson» must have been composed at a time when the theft of the bride in 1288 was still remembered. «Roland og Magnus kongjen» must have been composed while the tales from the Karlamagnussoga («Charlemagne’s saga») were still familiar. We do not, however, know what these songs were like when they were new. As with all oral poetry, they have been adapted and made more general. Nor does this mean that all types of ballads originated in the Middle Ages. Many of them were undoubtedly composed at a much later time.

Hypotheses concerning the origin of the ballads

The source materials relevant to the origin of the ballads and their earliest history are so meagre and so inadequate that we really can be sure of little. Still there is an abundance of hypotheses as to how the ballads originated, and generations of scholars have set up chains of «proof» in attempts to explain this form of poetry. What all these hypotheses have in common is their flimsy basis in actual facts.

The national-romantics of the 1800s would have preferred the ballads to have evolved within Scandinavia and to be old as possible. It was not easy, however, to find arguments for this desired history. There is a great difference between Old Norse poetry in fixed form and the ballad. The age-old poetry makes use of alliteration and not final rhymes; in addition there are very few similarities in the form of the stanzas. The burden (refrain), which is so characteristic of the ballad seems instead to point toward French medieval poetry as a model.

In the French material dated to the 1200s two genres in particular, the ronde and the chansons de toile, share an unmistakable similarity with the structure of the ballad. As early as the late 1800s a connection between the Nordic ballads and these forms of French poetry seemed apparent. Contemporary scholars made serious attempts to find some kind of organic development in culture as well, but any real form for development from the ronde to the ballad proved difficult to trace. These French forms are short, mostly monostrophic, lyrical poems, and it was difficult to see how such diminutive forms could have developed into long, epic ballads. The Norwegian scholar Moltke Moe introduced a theory that the ballad had evolved from a lyrical single stanza, and that the burden was a remnant of this stanza. Some few ballad notations do indeed contain a lyrical single stanza of this type, but the basis for this «burdenstem» theory is too weak for it to be regarded as anything other than conjecture. A detailed comparison of these ancient French poetry forms and the earliest preserved Nordic ballads can be found in The Birth of the Ballad by David Colbert.

Bengt R. Jonsson is the latest to have presented an extensive theory concerning the origin of the Scandinavian ballad. His theory has been published as a 680-page article: «Bråvalla och Lena. Kring balladen SMB 56». Jonsson points out that Denmark is the pre-eminent Nordic ballad country because it preserved much more ballad material than the others. But the amount collected speaks only to the circumstances of the Renaissance, and does not necessarily say anything about origins of the material. Scholars of earlier times chose to link the ballads to the age of Denmark as a ruling power under Valdemar the Great and Valdemar Sejr (1146–1241), but most authorities now believe that this period lies too far back in time to have had any influence on the ballads.

Circumstancial evidence suggests rather that the Scandinavian ballad genre was established toward the very end of the 1200s. At this time the royal court in Bergen, and later Oslo, were the cultural centres of Scandinavia. The literary historic context is precisely that of the literature that was popular at the time. At the court of the Norwegian king Håkon Håkonson (1217–1263) European chivalric poetry was translated into epic saga form, and these «sagas» formed the basis for ballads such as «Roland og Magnus kongjen» (Roland at the battle of Roncevaux» TSB E 29). The fornaldersagas, (exciting sagas of ancient times), which also provided themes for many ballads, were popular in this period as well.

In addition, the Norwegian court had excellent contacts with Europe and the British isles, and the Norwegian historical ballads are linked to this period. Falkvor Lommannsson carried off his bride, Ingrid Svantepolksdotter, in 1288 and the Margaretavisa («Song of Margareta») tells of the seven-year-old princess who as King Alexander’s only grandchild (daughter of King Eirik Magnusson (1280–1299) and Princess Margaretha of Scotland) was sent to Scotland in 1290 to ensure the hereditary succession.

Because it is to the west of the North Sea that we find the songs that most resemble the Scandinavian ballads in both content and form, Bengt R. Jonsson believes that the ballad genre came to Scandinavia via England and Scotland, and that it first became established at the Norwegian court in Bergen. At that time many Swedish noblemen were in exile at the Norwegian court, and through them the genre spread quickly to the rest of Scandinavia. One of these noblemen was Falkvor Lommannsson. Naturally he and his followers had a great motivation to present the stealing of the bride in a romantic light as it is in the ballad, rather that a politically based rape. Although Ingrid Svantepolksdotter was the granddaughter of King Sverker and, in addition, the only woman who could bear a legitimate royal heir for the Sverker faction, this motive is never mentioned in the ballad. Here it is presented as a romantic story with a happy ending. This ballad about Falkvor Lommannsson may not only be one of the first Norwegian ballads, but a biased song serving a definite goal as well.

Bengt R. Jonsson’s theory does not explain everything, however. One problem is that the historical ballads listed in Child relate events from the 15th and 16th centuries, while those from Scandinavia are linked to persons from the 13th and 14th centuries. The Danish song «Dronning Dagmar’s Død» (TSB C 6) has many similarities to «The Death of Queen Jane» (Child 170), but while Danish Queen Dagmar died in 1212, the Scottish song is about Queen Jane Seymour who died in 1537. If the theory is correct, the circumstances ought to have been the other way round. Another problem is that in the region around Bergen, where the Scandinavian ballad genre is supposed to have been established, we find very few ballads.

Ballads as literary heirlooms: restitution

One of the reasons for collecting ballads and folk tales in the 1800s was the intention to create a Norwegian national culture and to discover a cultural tradition with uniquely Norwegian characteristics. People elsewhere in Europe were searching for their own folk literature at the time: the poetry of folk songs was an important element in building a nation-state, because they contained the national language, most important of all national characteristics, and so were very well suited to being used as national symbols. Many ethnic groups whose lingual traditions were suppressed used song traditions as a basis for a national literature. In Norway the ballads were used to fill out the literary vacuum between the Old Norse saga literature of the Middle Ages, and poet/parson Petter Dass (1647–1707).

To accomplish this however, the ballads had to be conceived of as literature instead of merely as songs, and they had to be taken out of their traditional milieu and linked to the Middle Ages. This was no easy task. The Norwegian ballad material was fragmented and linguistically difficult. If the songs were to appear as poetry of high quality, they would have to be put through extensive adaptation.

The work of adapting the texts was called «restitution». The ideological basis for restitution lay in the belief that the songs had been created as high-quality works of art in the Middle Ages and had retained a constant form during their century-long oral transmission, although this may have deteriorated slightly during the very last generations. Thus it ought to be possible to recreate the original ur-form by comparing all the notations made of a particular type of song. The objection to this from our perspective is that oral tradition is not a constant phenomenon; on the contrary, the wealth of variations within many types of songs shows that a great deal of recomposition took place.

When the ur-form is seen as the most artistically superlative, and tradition as the desired constant which has only recently deteriorated, then the best and most colourful contemporary notations will, of course, be considered the closest to the original. But because it was also important that the restitutive form give a definite impression of being medieval poetry, there was no point in making the text more understandable for modern readers. Indeed, Moltke Moe often inserts especially ancient-sounding words in the text of a ballad. In the restitution of the song about Roland and King Magnus (Charlemagne) he even creates new medieval words that he then has to explain. In addition, he changes the episodes in the song so that it will confirm to the plot of the Old Norse Karlamagnus saga («Charlemagne’s Saga»).

The restitution of ballads was not an isolated phenomenon. As an example of the same sort of ideology, at that same time other scholars working on the restoration of the stave churches planned the rebuilding of the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim to give it the appearance it would have had if the church had been completed during the Middle Ages.

Moltke Moe established Folklore as an academic subject in Norway. When he was appointed professor in 1886, he started the restitution of the Norwegian ballads. Moltke Moe died in 1913, but his successor, Knut Liestøl, continued the work. These restitutions were published under the title Norske folkevisor («Norwegian Folk Songs») in 1920–1924. In later years, Moe and Liestøl’s versions of the folk songs were considered to be officially authorized. They were the subject of literary analysis and commentary, and they were reprinted anew in school books and anthologies. It was only around 1970 that scholars again began examining the original notations.

Ballads on paper

Whenever people have mastered the art of writing, they have used itg to preserve what they were most concerned with. In the 1700s and early 1800s, however, Norway lacked a standard written language with which to preserve her folk songs. The written language was Danish and only songs written in Danish were easily written down.

The first printed collection of ballads in Scandinavia was Vedel’s book of one hundred folk songs published in Denmark in 1591. At that time only people belonging to the highest social class were able to make use of an expensive printed book. Later on in the 1700s, however, when Vedel’s book of a hundred songs had become Syvs kjempevisebok containing two hundred songs, literacy had begun to be so universal that the book also became available to ordinary people in Denmark, Norway and the Faeroe Islands. The book contained only texts, but readers adapted them to melodies they knew, or made up their own. Folklore collectors were not especially interested in noting down anything they suspected had been derived from Syv’s songbook, but from the collections of melodies made by Lindeman and others we can understand how popular this songbook was in Norway. Jørgen Moe has a notation about the singer Bendik Sveigedalen telling that he could sing almost the entire songbook by heart.

In addition to Syv’s songbook, Danish broadside ballads also appeared in Norway and melodies were made and adapted to these songs in the same way. Songs printed in the songbook and on broadsides have also been taken up in oral tradition. Even when such songs vary, however, the variations are fairly limited because the printed form has acted as a stabilizer. A good example of this is «Ebbe Skammelsøn», a song that was very popular in both Denmark and Norway – the song has been given a few extra stanzas in the Norwegian version but follows the broadside version for the most part.

In the 1700s we see handwritten songbooks appearing in Norway, but there are seldom any attempts to write songs in the Norwegian language. Danish transcripts dominate the texts, and not until the early 1800s do attempts to write Norwegian song texts appear. «Roland and Magnus kongen» has been preserved in this kind of songbook. When the folklore collectors began their activity forty years later only a few individual verses of this song still existed.

The Danish language enjoyed high status and in the original notations made of Norwegian ballads we often find Danish expressions, formulae and burdens that date back to Danish written sources. Moltke Moe and Knut Liestøl cleansed these from the notations when they restituated the song texts for their editions of the ballads.

Titles and type numbers

When scholars discovered that ballads from different places in Scandinavia related the same story, they needed to group them accordingly. Singers had little use for names – the first line («Jeg lagde meg så silde» –) or the names of the main characters («Villemann og Magnhild») was good enough. But the names of the characters could change a lot in the different variants; Villemann and Magnhild might also be called Gaute and Magnhild or Gudmund and Signeliti. In order to avoid problems, type-names were created that told more about the subject than the song. In Denmark a song type was called «Harpens kraft» («The Harp’s Power») and this could be used even when the names of the characters varied. The song about the two sisters or «Horpa» could be called «Den talende harpa» («The talking harp»). Scholars still experienced problems with identifying types across national borders, and type numbers were adopted when the substantial work Danmarks gamle Folkeviser began to be published in 1853. «Villemann og Magnhild» could then be called DgF 40 because «Harpens kraft» is song number 40 in Danmarks gamle Folkeviser. The song about the two sisters was DgF 95. This could have been an excellent solution if all Scandinavian ballad types had been found in Denmark and thus included in DgF, but a song like «Åsmund Frægdegjæva» necessarily lacked a DgF number because it has been known only in Norway.

In 1978 a catalogue of Scandinavian ballads, The Types of the Scandinavian Medieval Ballad (usually referred to as the TSB-catalogue) was published. This catalogue contained everything that scholars had agreed upon as being Scandinavian ballads, grouped and numbered as to ballad types. After the publication of this catalogue, these TSB-numbers have been used to identify ballads in editions, ballad literature and even on recordings. This ballad catalogue is also customarily used to define the genre: a song that can be identified by means of a TSB-number is accepted as a ballad.

The ballad in our time

When Olea Crøger and Landstad collected ballads in Telemark during the 1840s, they considered it a rescue operation. Landstad compared it to saving a family heirloom from a burning house. He was convinced that ballads would have disappeared in the course of a few years. But the ballad genre did not die. Perhaps the survival of many folk songs is due to the prestige and status they received when people from the city started to show them interest and record them. They continued to be sung in their old surroundings, but they also found new fields in which to survive.

Artists had begun making use of the ballads as early as in the 1800s. Henrik Ibsen based some of his earliest dramas, such as Gildet på Solhaug (1856) and Olav Liljekrans (1857), on ballad material. Edvard Grieg composed arrangements of ballad melodies, and around the turn of the last century, Gerhard Munthe began illustrating the ballads in a sort of art nouveau-style. At the same time, the ballads themselves began to be more well-known among ordinary people. They found special use in three ways during the 1900s: as literature, as dance-songs and as a form of music.

Researchers and folklorists looked upon the ballads as literature. They had them published and commented upon as texts, while ballads were also studied in relation to the literature of the Middle Ages and included in reading books for school use and in anthologies of poetry.

The liberal organisation of youth that gained popularity around 1900 needed a dance-form that was not as erotically loaded as couple dancing was. Inspired by a book about the song dances on the Faeroe Islands, the author Hulda Garborg (1862–1934) travelled there in the summer of 1902 to learn about them. She returned home with great enthusiasm and began creating a Norwegian song-dancing tradition (folkeviseleiken) based on the Faeroese dances. The Norwegian form of dancing is, however, far more complicated than the Faeroese. This dance tradition has retained its popularity up to the present day and must be given much of the credit for the ballads being as well known as they are among today’s Norwegians. The dancing songs differ somewhat from the traditional song style of the ballads: the rhythm must be more even for dancing, and it is thus impossible to adjust the rhythm to the text of individual stanzas as we can hear in old recordings of ballad songs.

The musical aspect of the ballads was especially conspicuous in Lindeman’s editions of folk melodies. Many ballad tunes were published in Fjældmelodier («Mountain melodies»), and he also published a collection of arrangements for choir using texts from Landstad’s Norske Folkeviser. The arrangements for piano published in Berggreen’s Norske Folkemelodier also enjoyed great popularity. But it was only after the bass-baritone singer Thorvald Lammers went on tour in the 1890s with a programme of ballads that their melodies became known to other people than the groups of specially interested. Lammers naturally sang in an accepted European concert style to piano accompaniment. He did not have many successors although other vocalists did occasionally have ballads on their programmes. Ballads did not gain much popularity as music until after World War II when interest in folk music became more widespread.

Illustration from an instruction book on Norwegian song-dance

Illustration from an instruction book on Norwegian song-dance

The ballad and the folk music revival

In the early 1900s ballads were seldom heard in public and if ballads were performed on the stage or the radio, they were almost always sung by classically schooled artists who performed them as arranged pieces of music.

Only in the post-war years did Norway’s national broadcasting company begin playing recordings of traditional folk singers, and the first gramophone records of traditional recordings of ballads and other folk songs appeared in the 1950s.

In the 1960s and into the 1970s, a young generation began to be interested in folk music and a new type of vocalist appeared. These were more-or-less professional singers who had learned from the older traditional singers and who were eager to carry on that tradition. But some elements were changed when the song became professionalized. Whenever these singers performed for a modern audience, it was expected that they would create an old-fashioned sound. In addition they cultivated some traits that had been considered as being characteristic of the old songs. They embellished the song with melismata, under-defined intonation and uneven rhythms. Vocal folk music adapted itself to the demands of our time and became an individual stylistic art or, more correctly perhaps, an alternative aesthetic.

Ballads have traditionally been performed as vocal solos without accompaniment. In the 1960s and -70s, groups with vocalists and musicians playing various folk instruments were formed. During the last few years, performances of ballads accompanied by medieval instruments have also become popular.

An important member of the vocal folk music scene is Agnes Buen Garnås. She comes from a family with strong folk-music traditions and has sung vocal folk music since her early youth. Kirsten Bråten Berg sings in the tradition of the Setesdal region of Agder County. Both Agnes Buen Garnås and Kirsten Bråten Berg have made recordings with jazz musicians. Agnes Buen Garnås has sung with Jan Garbarek and Kirsten Bråten Berg with Arild Andersen.

Tone Hulbækmo from Østerdalen in Hedmark County began singing as a purely folk vocalist, but has since developed on a broader front. The group Kalenda Maya, in which she participated, played medieval music and made use of their experience with this music when they made a recording of Norwegian ballads. Sinikka Langeland belongs to the younger generation of folk singers. Her mother is Finnish and comes from a region of Norway that has had a Finnish population. She plays the Finnish national instrument, the kantele, but is most interested in the Norwegian vocal tradition.

Remarkably enough, most folk singers are women. Arve Moen Bergset is, however, one exception. He belongs to the very youngest generation and released his first solo recording as a child. Other younger male vocalists include Halvor Håkanes and Jon Anders Halvorsen.

Selected discography

Agnes Buen Garnås and Jan Garbarek: Rosenfole. Kirkelig kulturverksted FXCD 83. 1989. One of Norway’s foremost traditional vocalist sings ballads to jazz accompaniment by Jan Garbarek.

Agnes Buen Garnås: Draumkvedet. Kirkelig kulturverksted FXCD 50. 1992. Draumkvedet (»The Dream Ballad») is so long that it fills an entire CD on its own.

Kirsten Bråten Berg: Min kvedarlund. Heilo HCD 7087. 1993. Ballads and other folk songs. English commentary.

Arild Andersen and Kirsten Bråten Berg: Arv. Kirkelig kulturverksted FXCD 133. 1994. Ballads and other folk songs arranged and harmonized by Arild Andersen.

[Tone Hulbækmo et al] Kalenda Maya: Norske middelalderballader – Norse ballads. Kirkelig kulturverksted FXCD 82.1989. A representative collection of ballads accompanied by medieval instruments. English commentary but no translation of song texts.

Aurora borealis: Harpa. Grappa GRCD 4132. 1997. Variants of the ballad «Harpa» («The two sisters») from all the Nordic countries as well as a variant from England. The songs are accompanied by medieval instruments.

Det syng! Ballader på vandring. Grappa GRCD 4123. 1997. Five talented traditional vocalists sing ballads and other folk songs. The booklet of texts is in Norwegian only.

Sinikka Langeland: Strengen var av røde guld. Middelaldervallader fra Solør. Grappa GRCD 4136. 1997.

Ballads performed in the traditional style without accompaniment. English commentary.

Sinikka Langeland: Lille Rosa – Kjærlighetsballader. Grappa GRCD 4170. 2000. Ballads about love performed in traditional style to the accompaniment of the Finnish kantele. English commentary.

Jon Anders Halvorsen and Tore Bruvoll: Nattsang. Heilo 7194. 2004.


Blom, Ådel: Norske mellomalderballadar 1: Legendeviser. Oslo 1982

Child, Francis James: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Boston and New York 1882–1898.

Colbert, David: The Birth of the Ballad. Stockholm 1989

Deutsche Volkslieder. Balladen. 1935–

Danmarks gamle Folkeviser. København 1853–1976

Jonsson, Bergt. R.: Bråvalla och Lena. Kring balladen SMB 56. I Sumlen: Årsbok för vis- och folkmusikforskning 1989, p. 49–166. Sumlen 1990–1991, p. 163–458. Sumlen 1992–1993, p. 9–278.

Landstad, M.B. Norske Folkeviser. Kristiania 1853

Liestøl, Knut og Moltke Moe: Norske folkevisor. Folkeutgave. Kristiania 1920–1924

Sveriges medeltida ballader. 1–5. Stockholm 1983–2001

The Types of the Scandinavian Medieval Ballads. Ed. Bengt R. Jonsson, Svale Solheim and Eva Danielson. Oslo 1978.

Illustration to the ballad Lindormen by Gerhard Munthe

Illustration to the ballad Lindormen
by Gerhard Munthe

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Om Fagartiklar og tittelregister

Dette bandet av Norske mellomalderballadar – Tekstar inneheld ei edisjonsfilologisk innleiing, eit tittelregister, og tre fagartiklar om dei norske mellomalderballadane.

I tillegg til dei generelle fagartiklane har Velle Espeland og Olav Solberg skrive kortare tekstar om balladetypane. Desse står som innleiingar til kvar enkelt balladetype i tekstbanda: Naturmytiske ballader, Legendeballader, Historiske ballader, Ridderballadar 1, Ridderballadar 2, Kjempe- og trollballadar og Skjemteballadar

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