Writing Disa’s processional hymn was the most challenging and enjoyable piece of writing I have done in a long time. I really wanted the music to contribute to the authenticity of her ceremony. My goal, therefore, was to produce a piece which would have been unquestioningly plausible for 9th century Birka.
Which proved nearly impossible.
I began by searching for extant examples of medieval Swedish music. This search was fruitless. I expanded the search for extant examples of medieval Scandinavian music and came up with nothing. I researched Swedish folk music in hopes of finding something which could have originated from an earlier point in time; all I found was old music with well-documented provenance from the 18th century.
Failing to find existing music, I began to look for references to lost music. Were there descriptions of music being performed which might give a hint towards composition? Any mention of music in ceremony or secular life? I drew blanks. Next I scoured the on-line collection of the Swedish History Museum for musical instruments, thinking that the instrumentation could be a clue to composition. Unfortunately, I didn’t find a single thing. I broadened that search to include grave finds from Birka. Although I had never heard of musical instruments being included in Birka grave goods, I thought there might be a chance I had missed something. I hadn’t. However, I did learn of a reference which took me down a whole different rabbit hole.
In researching Birka grave goods I read a brief mention of a monk who had spent several years in Birka. This monk, Ansgar, later became an archbishop. After his death he was canonized and elevated to sainthood. His pupil, fellow traveler, and successor, Archbishop (later Saint) Rimbert, wrote a hagiography about Ansgar which detailed much of his life. This hagiography, Vita Ansgarii, records Ansgar’s experiences in Birka in 820-822 C.E. and again in 853-854 C.E. He had first travelled there at the request of Swedish ambassadors to the Court of Louis the Pious.
Here’s something I could work with! A monk performing liturgical rites in Birka would be introducing pieces of extant music to the people of that time and place. Ansgar was of the Order of Saint Benedict, and spent his childhood through young adulthood at the Benedictine monastery of Corbie, in Picardy. I began, then, to research the chants which are known to have been part of the Benedictine liturgy of the early to mid ninth century.
Out of the depths, it came to me. One of my favorite psalms, 130, known as De Profundis, was a chant in the Ordinary Use of the Benedictines. It was sung at the beginning of vespers service every Tuesday and during Lent each Friday after Lauds.
De profúndis clamávi ad te, Dómine: Dómine, exáudi vocem meam.
Fiant aures tuae intendétes in oratiónem servitui.
Si iniquitátes observáveris, Dómine: Dómine, quis sustinébit?
Quia apud to propitiátio est, et propter legem tuam sustínuite, Dómine.
So although I was unable to find extant music in Swedish, I was able to find extant music which the people of Birka would have listened to and perhaps sung. This music would have been familiar to them from the two periods of time in which Ansgar lived amongst them. From there, it was just a matter of composing lyrics which fit the meter and stresses of the original.
I am not fluent in Latin, but I read enough to have a good sense of syntax and grammar. Better yet, I know to check my grammar using good resources. An English-to-Latin dictionary and an old high school Latin text book are kept on hand for these occasions.
The tone I wanted to strike was one of praise for and celebration of Disa’s art and her nobility.
In English, the words translate as:
Your name is sung by a thousand winds, lady.
Lady, hear my voice.
Today, we celebrate your science and art.
The King stands to greet you, lady.
All Glory is with you because of your mastery,
And to your Order are you elevated.
Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, Disa’s procession was curtailed and the singer was unable to get through more than just the first line before Disa had already reached the thrones. No recording of even that one line exists, as far as I am aware.
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