I have just spent time in some 18th century Stockholm bars. The drinking was heavy, the clientele disreputable and death only a short step away from the party, as I was reading, listening and singing through the songs of Swedish poet and musician Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795). His songs move quickly from high to low, from romantic or sacral themes and straight into the gutters (much like the man himself), painting a striking and entertaining picture of 18th century Stockholm along the way.
Fredman’s epistles (1790), which I read, is the first of two collections of Bellman’s songs. Bellman is a central figure in Swedish song tradition, and provided plenty of high-class dinner/drinking songs for my student choir, so I was already familiar with his more popular works, but this was the first time I explored some of his less famous songs. It has been a very interesting experience, as it was a song collection I was not satisfied by just reading them but had to listen to as many of them as possible, and occasionally sing along, which allowed me to experience his work on many levels. As many of his characters are recurring the lesser known song also added to my appreciation of his better known works. However, what I really started to appreciate as I read, apart from his musical abilities, was his skill in setting the scenes, allowing me to experience 18th century Stockholm through his texts.
Fredman’s epistles is part of my Classics club reading challenge. Bellman has also been translated into English by Paul Britten Austin, but as I read them in Swedish I can’t vouch for the translation.
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