Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Power of the Harp

After all the doom and deaths in my recent postings, I am happy to be able to write about something a little more cheerful ... about a ballad story that showcases the great positive effect and influence that good music can have: The Power of the Harp (Harpans Kraft in Swedish).

It is probably necessary to introduce the villain of this story: the neck (näcken in Swedish). The neck is a supernatural creature of the water, usually male, who lives in rivers, lakes, and waterfalls. He is a musician, and likes to play on his fiddle, and in that way to lure people into the water to drown. It is also said that the neck can teach people to play music if they go out with their fiddle and hang around likely looking streams. But in the story told in this ballad, the neck is more concerned with the drowning of young girls.

The appearance of necks is not universally agreed upon, and they have been drawn very differently by different Scandinavian artists – I have posted some classic pictures here. I remember when I was living in Sweden that there were adverts (for the Swedish Railways or the Inland Railway) featuring a naked leaf-crowned man sitting in a stream playing the violin, a la neck, apparently. This ballad tells us anyway that the neck is an ugly creature.

Nøkken: One of Theodor Kittelsen's paintings of the neck. Kittelsen tends to paint the neck as a glowing-eyed lake monster. Another more revealing rendition of Kittelsen's neck is at the end of this post. Note also that Kittelsen has painted the neck in a lake with waterlilies. Certainly in Swedish, waterlilies are called näckrosor (neck roses) after the neck. I think this is also true in Norwegian.


In the beginning, we are introduced to two young people in love. Let us call them Lord Peter and Little Kerstin. Peter notices that Kerstin is upset, and he tries to find out what is wrong. He comes up with several suggestions, all of them wrong, unfortunately. But eventually she tells him what the problem is.

She is worried about a prophecy that was made when she was born, that she would die on the morning of her wedding day, in the river at the hands of the neck.

When Peter hears this, he promises to build a very substantial and expensive bridge across the river so that Kerstin will not risk drowning.

The bridge is built, and Kerstin and Peter's wedding day arrives. And Peter sends many of his men to escort Kerstin safely across the river. But it all goes wrong. The men notice a deer in the woods, and they ride off to chase it, leaving little Kerstin to cross the bridge alone.

She falls into the river, and into the lair of the neck.

When Peter hears about this, he orders that his harp be fetched with some urgency. The harp is duly delivered, and Peter starts to play. We are told how beautifully he was playing, and of the effect it had on all the creatures of the forest, and also on the ugly neck sitting in the stream. Eventually, the neck pleads with Peter to stop his playing. Peter replies that he will only stop playing if Kerstin is returned. Not only returned, but returned alive and whole, as though she had never been in the neck's lair. And not only that, but all her drowned sisters should be returned also.

The neck obliges. So all the drowned girls escape from the river, and Peter and Kerstin are able to celebrate their wedding.

Näcken by Ernst Josephson. The neck as a naked streamside fiddler, as he is often imagined in Sweden.

This ballad was sung widely, and very many variants of the text were recorded in Sweden alone (the ballad was also known in Denmark and Norway). Here is one version of a Swedish text from Geijer & Afzelius.

The story of The Power of the Harp has much in common with the classical tale of the famous harpist Orpheus and his (failed) attempt to rescue Euridice from the underworld. The Scandinavian ballad has a happier ending though.


Here are six Swedish melodies for the ballad:

(1) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 137 / Arwidsson No. 149B).

(2) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 136 / Arwidsson No. 149A / Berggreen No. 5A).

(3) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 138 / Berggreen No. 37), melody from Östergötland.

(4) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 139).

(5) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 140 / Berggreen No. 5B), melody from Västergötland and Värmland.

(6) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 141).

Of these six distinct melodies from Sweden, five have similar omkväde (repeated chorus) lines. There is only one omkväde line for each of these ballads (sung after the two rhyming ballad lines). It is interesting to compare these lines, which are as follows:

(1) Men hjertans allrakäraste hvad sörjen I då?
(2) Min hjärteliga kär, I sägen mig hvad eder sörjer
(3) Min hjärteliga kär, säg för mig hvem I sörjen
(5) Min hjärteliga kär, min hjärteliga kär, I sägen mig hvarför I sörgen
(6) Min hjärtelig kär, min hjärtelig kär, säg för mig hvi du sörger

These all mean something along the lines of All-dearest of mine, tell me why you are sorrowful. So these omkväde lines reflect the first part of the ballad, where Peter is coming up with various suggestions to try to find out why Kerstin is so sad. There are some slight differences in meaning (and in the forms of address), but probably the most significant difference between these lines is in the way they scan to fit the melody.

The other (melody No. 4 above) has a different omkväde pattern: vid den hvitaste sand / Liten Kerstin, lyster eder följa ungersven inför Öland (on the whitest sand / Little Kerstin, do you want to go with a young man to Öland).

In Norway, the harpist is called Villeman and the bride Magnhild, and the ballad is usually known as Villeman and Magnhild. The Norwegian recordings I have linked below all use the same melody and omkväde lines – the omkväde lines are unlike those in the Swedish ballads. They are: Hei fagraste lindelauvi alle / For de runerne de lyster han å vinne (All the fairest linden leaves / For the runes he wanted to win).

Näcken och Aegirs Döttrar by Nils Blommer. Here the neck is in the sea, and is shown playing a harp. Aegir is a Norse sea god, and his daughters are the waves.


I would have liked to begin with the recording of Harpans Kraft by Swedish folk rock pioneers Folk och Rackare, recorded for their album Anno 1979 (1979), but this is unfortunately not on YouTube. You can see the album here on Or if you are a Spotify user, you can find the album here. Folk och Rackare are not using any of the melodies above for their rendition, but they sing the same omkväde line as in melody No 1.

Harpans Kraft is one of a number of Scandinavian medieval ballads recorded by the German group Estampie for their 2013 album Secrets of the North. This is quite an alternative interpretation, and I like the sound, though the lyics can be difficult to make out. Again, this version does not seem to be based on any of the melodies above, but it has the same type of omkvade as Nos 1–3, 5, and 6.

The Swedish trio Ulv have also recorded Harpans Kraft for their album Eldprovet, with their characteristic medieval chant-like sound. Ulv do not use any of the melodies given above, and even the omkväde here is a different one. Another ballad recorded by Ulv and previously featured on this blog is Sir Olof and the Elves.

The ballad seems to have been more wideley recorded in Norwegian, where it is known as Villeman og Magnhild. I have posted a selection here. These Norwegian versions all use basically the same melody and the same omkväde lines.

The Norwegian medieval band Kalenda Maya have recorded a short Villeman og Magnhild, with harmonies and medieval instrumentation. It is one of a whole albumful of Norwegian medieval ballads, Norske Middelalderballader, recorded in 1989.
Kalenda Maya:

Here is a typically extremely spectacular live rendition of Villeman og Magnhild from the German folk metal band In Extremo. Their recorded version appears on their album Gold (1997). For more from In Extremo, check out their version of Herr Mannelig here.
In Extremo (Live):

Kari Tauring's version of Villeman og Magnhild, from her album Nykken and Bear (2013).
Kari Tauring:

Rita Eriksen and Dolores Keane recorded Villemann og Magnhild for their album Tideland (1996). The Norwegian vocals and the typical melody are intermingled with snatches of Irish tune:
Rita Eriksen and Dolores Keane:

There are several more recorded versions in Norwegian. Here is one that is geographically restricted: Trio Mediæval, Villeman og Magnhild.

Finally, here is a recording in Danish. This is Frode Veddinge's Harpens Kraft.
Frode Veddinge:

Here are a couple more pictures of the Neck:

Sir Peter and the Ugly Sprite by W. J. Wiegand. This is actually an illustration of Julia Goddard's retelling of the Harpans Kraft story: Chirstin's Trouble.

Theodor Kittelsen's neck playing the harp.


E. G. Geijer and A. A. Afzelius, Svenska Folkvisor Från Forntiden, Stockholm, 1814--1816
J. N. Ahlström, 300 Nordiska Folkvisor, Stockholm, 1878
A. P. Berggreen, Folke-Sanger og Melodier, Copenhagen, 1860
A. I. Arwidsson, Svenska Fornsånger, Vol 2, Stockholm, 1887

My own translation of The Power of the Harp is included in my book, Lord Peter and Little Kerstin.