Fredmans Epistlar / Fredmans Sanger for mixed ensemble
Bellman, Carl Michael / arr. Hermann, Ulrich
Carl Michael Bellman
(b. Stockholm, 4 February 1740 – d. Stockholm, 11 February 1795)
Bellman was the eldest of fifteen children born to the royal court secretary Johann Arendt Bellman and his wife Catharina Hermonia, the daughter of a preacher. The paternal side of his family hailed from Germany, and his maternal grandfather was professor of rhetoric in Uppsala. In short, Carl Michael came from cultivated middle-class surroundings. This left a mark on his high educational attainments: he spoke several foreign languages and turned out estimable drawings and paintings in his early childhood. But it was only after a feverish cold at the age of twelve that his talent for poetry immediately emerged.
Aided by his private tutor, the great Claes Ludvig Ennes, Bellman was able to publish two books at the age of seventeen: Schweidnitz: Protestant Thoughts on Death and Posthumous Admonitions of a Father to his Son Before Undertaking a Great Journey. He also became an active musician, especially on the citrinchen, an instrument resembling a cittern that he had inherited from his grandfather, and on which, he claimed, he soon played beyond compare. Whether he could actually read music is still a moot question. Whatever the case, when publishing his two famous songbooks Fredmans Epistlar (“Fredman’s Epistles,” 1790) and Fredmans Sånger (“Fredman’s Songs,” 1791), he gladly accepted the help of his colleague and friend Olof Åhlström (1756-1835), who wrote out the songs with melody and piano accompaniment. (These piano settings of the Epistlar and Sånger, being the sources of my own arrangements, are reproduced in the appendix.)
After the miserable failure of his attempts to learn and practice a middle-class profession as a bank clerk, Bellman turned to art and became a poet-musician. He wrote his works under the pseudonym “Fredman” (a man who, it is said, actually existed in Stockholm, a down-and-out watchmaker without workshop or place of business). In contrast to his own name Bellman (“man of war,” from the Latin bellum), Fredman was a “man of peace” (fred being the Swedish word for peace), and he placed his songs on the lips of this peaceable character. Being a secretary to the royal court (King Gustav III took him under his wing in 1772, after which Bellman adopted the Horatian adage “Aere perennium…”), it was only behind a mask that he could toy with the “lower ten-thousand” and the colorful, merry, erotic, often drunken antics of the figures that “Fredman” manipulated like a maître de plaisir manipulating his puppets. (At that time Stockholm, Sweden’s largest city, had just 50,000 inhabitants, and it would not reach the 100,000 mark until the end of the century.) Incidentally, Fredmans Epistlar was originally intended to contain one-hundred songs, which explains why nos. 25 and 50 are specially emphasized both in their subject matter and in their musical language. In the event, it included eighty-twos pieces.
The themes of Bellman’s songs extend from cradle to grave. The only topic he avoided was high-level politics – for good reason: Gustav III, a monarch keenly interested in music and the arts, stumbled over his own global power schemes, launching a war against Russia (which, of course, he lost) and becoming the ineluctable victim of that famous assassination in 1792 that would later form the basis of Verdi’s opera Un ballo in maschera.
After the death of his benefactor little more was heard of Bellman. Always dependent on the support of his patrons, he fell into financial difficulties, which in 1794 even landed him in debtor’s prison (albeit in the royal castle). There he contracted tuberculosis, to which he succumbed on 11 February 1795. His wife, Lovisa Grönlund, survived him by many years and was able to witness a statue consecrated to her husband’s memory in the Djurgarden district of Stockholm in 1829. This honor has been followed by an annual “Bellman Day” on 26 July, when he – and his poetry and music – are commemorated by the entire country with games, dancing, food, and song.
What other artists have achieved their own national holiday? Neither Goethe nor Schiller, neither Wagner nor any other towering artistic figure has managed to do so – unlike the Swedish poet-musician Carl Michael Bellman…
Read full preface > HERE