Saturday, 2 December 2017

Staffansvisan / Staffan Stalledräng

Staffansvisan (Staffan's song), also known as Staffan Stalledräng (Staffan the Stable boy) is a likely candidate for being the best known in Sweden of all the Swedish ballads. It is still sung every year, usually as part of the Lucia celebrations on 13th December. So most people in Sweden will probably know some verses and at least one melody.

In Sweden, Lucia is a mid-December holiday with traditions of singing (luciasångar), eating buns (lussebullar), drinking (e.g., glögg), lighting candles (ljus; even more than usual), and not doing any work. The Lucia celebration seems to be a festival of light, celebrated on the date that was the actual Winter solstice, the shortest day, according to the old Julian calendar. The name Lucia comes from an Italian saint (whose name means light). But the old folkloric name for this shortest day (or longest night), Lussinatt (Lussi night), is obviously similar to the name Lucia. Lussinatt is named for Lussi, a certain evil supernatural being who would fly with her accomplices through the night, and who seems to have little in common with St Lucia apart from a similar sounding name.

Christmas and Lucia fall very close to one another, both traditionally involve a lot of singing, and there is typically a lot of overlap in songs: Songs that are specifically about either Lucia or Christmas could easily be sung on either occasion. The Staffansvisan (Staffan's song) was once more associated with St Stephen's day (boxing day), but nowadays it is usually sung on Lucia.

The Staffansvisan is sometimes associated with a Swedish St Staffan (or Stenfinn), who was a Christian missionary in 11th century Sweden (and Hälsingland in particular). But the stories of stables, horses, and hunting seen in the ballad don't seem to fit with this historical figure.

Some versions of the Staffansvisan are to do with the birth of Jesus, with King Herod, and with St Stephen as one of his stable boys. The legend of St Stephen and Herod seems to be based on a version of the story of Herod and the wise men, with the martyr Stephen added in place of the wise men. The biblical St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death after the death of Jesus, and doesn't belong at Herod's court at all.

The legend of St Staffan, the stable boy, illustrated by a 13th century ceiling painting at Dädesjö church in Småland, Sweden. Note the drinking horse and the star ... (Photo: Tor Svensson)


The versions of the ballad that are most commonly sung do not have a lot of action. Basically, it is told that Staffan is a stable boy, and that he gives water to his five horses. We hear brief descriptions of each of the horses. The fifth horse, a dapple-grey, is the one that Staffan rides himself. Usually at this point, the action stops, and there are one or two verses celebrating Christmas traditions to finish off the ballad. For example: Now there is fire in every hearth, with Christmas porridge and Christmas ham.

Traditionally, this song was used to beg for food and/or drink, and additional verses could be added to encourage donations! Geijer and Afzelius explain that in the huge number of recorded variations of this song, the differences usually come in these last verses. These verses could significantly extend the ballad as well: in Svenska Folkvisor från Forntiden a 30-verse version of the ballad is given. It can also be traditional for the singers to add comic verses at the end of the song proper.

This encouragement can take different forms: we're standing here freezing; coffee is good; we came here for your daughter; we're going to smash your windows ... these are just a few examples.

But there is more ballad action, even if these verses are more rarely sung nowadays: in an extended form, the ballad tells of what happens after Staffan has watered his horses. He goes out hunting, and kills various creatures: a wolf, fox, hare, and so on. And then he returns home again.

In other versions of the Swedish ballad, the song tells the legend of Stephen and Herod. Such versions of the ballad are often also called Staffansvisan, or sometimes Staffan och Herodes (Staffan and Herod). It may be that this form of the ballad was more similar to how the ballad first looked, but beyond the opening lines (also here Staffan is a stable boy, leading his horses to water), this form of the ballad and the form discussed above have evolved into two rather different songs.

When Staffan goes out to give water to his horses, he sees a star in the east. He tells Herod the meaning: that a king has been born. Herod says that he will only believe it if the newly cooked chicken on his table flaps its wings. It happens.

The English-language Child ballad St Stephen and Herod (Child 22) tells the same story as the Swedish Staffan och Herodes ballad, with the rooster coming back to life to crow Christus Natus Est (Christ is born).

In the Staffan and Herod versions of the ballad, the star of Bethlehem obviously plays a very significant part in the plot. But even in the versions of the ballad discussed first, where Herod and the birth of Jesus are not mentioned in the song proper, stars twinkling in the sky often appear somewhere in the omkväde (chorus) lines.

Staffan Stalledräng by Märta Måås-Fjetterström (1909)

Melodies and Performances

There are various melodies for this ballad in common use in Sweden. Rather than typing out scores from the many variations, I have just linked performances of probably the top two or three melodies, plus some other notable performances.

First, the version of Staffansvisan that seems to be the one (melody and omkväde) that most people in Sweden are most familiar with. This is not actually the version I learned when I was first in Sweden, in Lund.

[omkvädeVi tackom nu så gärna // Allt för den ljusa stjärnan. Ingen dagar synes än, stjärnorna på himmelen, de blänkar. (We thank you very much // Before the bright star. Day cannot be seen yet, the stars in the sky are twinkling.)]

Here is a performance of this version of Staffansvisan at a Jul i Folkton concert, live at Cassels in Grängesberg: Ale Möller (vocals, mandola, pipe), Lena Willemark (vocals, violin), Sofia Karlsson (vocals, flute), Lisa Rydberg (vocals, violin), Esbjörn Hazelius (vocals, cittern), Roger Tallroth (vocals, guitar), and Olle Linder (vocals, percussion).

Fans of obscure musical instruments should note that Ale Möller is one of the inventors of the Swedish / Nordic mandola (låtmandola --- meaning tune mandola). It's a five-course mandola. But what makes it special is that the strings can be individually capoed by screwing small single-string screw-like capos into holes in the neck. As a result it is easy to get into open tunings that allow drone strings and so on. Ale Möller is playing his låtmandola in this video.

You may see that she tells the audience what omkväde means (it's the refräng) just as I feel I have to every time I write it for you ...

I first came across Staffansvisan when I was living in Skåne, in Sweden's deep south. Now I don't see a huge number of recordings on YouTube of this version of the song that I know best. But this simple demo shows you the melody.
[omkväde: repeats // stjärnorna de tindrar så klara, gossar låt oss lustiga vara, en gång blott om året så, en fröjdefull jul vi får. (the stars are sparkling so clearly, boys let us be merry, just once a year, we get a happy christmas.)]

This is the Lund nations choirs' version of Staffansvisan. The nations at the two old Swedish universities of Lund and Uppsala are modelled on the nations at the old University of Paris. From the time the universities were founded, these nations were societies formed by  students who had travelled to study from different parts of the country. So the nations are named after different regions of Sweden, but nowadays there tends to be no geographical membership requirement. The nations mainly organise social activities, like singing and so on.

The melody and omkväde pattern are obviously somehow related to the version above. This melody is sometimes called the ira ira melody, after some lines in the omkväde. If I am not wrong, this one is originally from Norrland.
[omkväde: repeats // I ra, i ra, i ral lal le ra ra, hejsan, låt oss lustiga vara. En gång jul om året bara, sjung, falle dudeliga dulan lej. (I ra, i ra, i ral lal le ra ra, hey,  let us be merry, just christmas once a year, sing falle dudeliga dulan ley.)].

and live (worse sound, better picture):

a performance with only four voices:

Here is the Skåne choir singing live with Christer Lundh at Brekillegård. Some Skåne sounds for you ...
[omkväde: I ra i ra i kjom faralala, gossar låtom oss lustiga vara, en gång om året julen bara, hej sjung hopp falle julen nu. (I ra, i ra, i kjom faralala, boys, let us be merry, just christmas once a year, hey sing hopp falla julen nu -- or christmas now)].

But how about the great Folk och Rackare, regular performers of the traditional ballads? Well, their album Stjärnhästen (1981, meaning star horse) has several different versions of Staffansvisan. Here is one.
[omkväde: Håll dig väl fålen min // Allt för den ljusa stjärnan. (Be good, my horse // all before the bright star.); occasional extra omkväde: Ingen dagen synes än, men stjärnorna de blinkar i himmelen. (Day cannot yet be seen, but the stars are twinkling in the sky.)]

Here is another version from Folk och Rackare's Stjärnhästen. It is called För Redeliga Män (for honest men), and perhaps the link to Staffansvisan is not obvious at first: of course there is no mention of Herod, but neither is there even any mention of Staffan or his horses! In fact the whole song is a series of verses of the type traditionally sung at the end of Staffansvisan where the singers are demanding food, drink, etc. The title of the song comes from one of the omkväde lines. The twinkling stars in the sky are recognisable from the omkväde though. I think this one may be from Orust (an island in Bohuslän).
[omkväde: För redeliga män // Det är ingen dager än. Ingen dagen synes än, ingen måne lyser än, för stjärnorna på himmelen de blänker. (For honest men // It is not yet day. Day cannot yet be seen, the moon is not yet shining, but the stars in the sky are twinkling.)]

Regular readers of this blog will know that the Scandinavian medieval ballads are often covered by more metal-oriented bands. Here is such a take on Staffansvisan. This is Utmarken.

Finally, here is a version of the Staffan and Herod ballad.
[omkväde: Vaka med oss julenatt // Vaka med oss för oss alla. (Hold watch with us on Christmas night // hold watch with us for us all.)]


E. G. Geijer and A. A. Afzelius, Svenska Folkvisor Från Forntiden, Stockholm, 1814--1816, Nr 99, Sankt Staffans Visa
Sven-Bertil Jansson, Staffansvisan, Musikverket

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