Macho mystery: Till Havs

I’ve been listening to a song since childhood even though I still don’t really know what it means.

Imagine if the most impressive song you had ever heard was in a foreign language. So please picture the most impressive song you’ve ever heard, in your head.

Got it?

That could be a popular song or a classical aria or song. Imagine? Okay Computer? It’s now or never?  Oh patria mia? They’re all relatively easy to find.  Everyone is usually able to find their touchstone, and usually able to understand it.  Indeed, understanding is a part of the magic normally (although come to think of it, some songs –even in English– are pretty hard to understand. Radiohead?)

Because in my case, the music was well-nigh impossible to find it continued to be largely an unknown. And I feel like a cheat now that Google has made it possible to solve some of that mystery.

Not long ago my brother (who like me also loved the song) got the music as a gift from a student.  Finally we’re going to try it out. I’ve been playing the piano part in anticipation of him coming over to sing it. Bit by bit the mystery is receding.

The headline mentioned the word “macho” which tells you a lot about how I see the song. The title “Till havs” is Swedish for “At sea”.

But this is not like John Masefield’s poem “I must go down to the sea again”. That poem is nostalgic and distant, more in the head than out on the water. Of course the fact that I know what Masefield’s verse means changes it substantially. Till havs appeals to my subconscious because it’s more symbolic, a mostly musical experience, a song suggesting bravery, and the elemental power of the oceans.

And yes part of the magic comes from not knowing precisely what it means. In my youth –before the Canadian Opera Company invented surtitles, before titles became ubiquitous—we watched operas while knowing the synopsis and –if we were really keen—looking up the meaning of the text.

If you couldn’t find the score (and remember we couldn’t find this one until recently), you were out of luck. There was no google in the 1960s, ..or 70s… or 80s.

Although I was able to use google just now to translate the first part of the text, I feel like a cheater. So let me share the first part of the song (text by Jonatan Reuter 1859 – 1947):

Till havs                                                      At sea
Nu blåser havets friska vind                Now the fresh wind of the sea is blowing
ifrån sydväst                                            from the southwest
Och smeker ljuvligt sjömans                And sweetly caresses the sailor’s cheek
kind av alla vindar bäst!                       of all winds, the best

Then we get to the refrain…

But instead of deconstructing / translating the song I prefer to keep it in the mysterious form it has held for me, unknown in another language.

The song calls forth a very masculine sound from the singer.  Most arias and songs encourage a more reflective side to the singer, indeed that’s probably why opera relies so heavily upon divas: because gentle reflection can exploit the best qualities of a female voice.  Short of heavy metal, what can a loud male voice do? There are some moments I can think of such as Hagen’s call to the vassals in Gotterdammerung: which may be loud but isn’t at all pretty.

And then there’s “Till havs”.  The music is by Gustaf Nordqvist (1886−1949).nordqvist

I have been hearing this song since childhood. Today for the first time I saw a couple of videos that allowed me to see the song sung, which changes it slightly. There’s less mystery when you can watch the singer, even if I still don’t know what the text means.

To begin, there’s the singer with whom I associate the song, Swedish tenor Jussi Björling, who died when I was just 5 years old, the same year as my father.

I associate the two in my head. I have almost zero memories of my father, who took the family first to Sweden (long before I was born), before  eventually bringing the family to Canada (where I was born).

So the association isn’t completely random. Far from it.

This is the first time I’ve found a version of Björling singing with video, so that I get some idea of what he looks like as he sings the song, which is nice I suppose.   The recording is from 1953.

But it was more magical on the old vinyl record.

Here’s a more recent version sung by baritone Carry Persson in a lower key.  The sound is clearer in the recent version. But I think I like it better in the tenor’s key. And the poor audio somehow seems more apt for a life that is less about technological prowess and more about grappling with the natural world.


And here is another look at Björling singing, this time with piano in 1958, about two years before his death.

Forgive me if I keep listening to the song without knowing precisely what every word means. Before too long I suppose I’ll find out.

But for now I like being in the dark.

This entry was posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Macho mystery: Till Havs

  1. randy says:

    I would like the lyrics – as I am romantic about sailing and the ocean and understand the subtle meanings in the sailors minds. I do understand how melodies can stick in your mind from childhood. I have a few too.

  2. Daniel says:

    I don’t think you’d be disappointed by the lyrics. I’m Swedish and have heard the song from a young age but recently heard it again (I’m in my thirties) and was captivated by it. I think it’s a rare case of a songs melody, the almost bombastic bravery and gusto, being reflected perfectly in the lyrics. It maintains the sense of mystery that you describe even knowing what every word means. I won’t take anything away from your sense of it by posting a full translation here. I also fell in love with songs that I didn’t understand the meaning of and sometimes felt disappointed when I got older and realised that my idea of what they expressed was perhaps more interesting to me than the original intention. Then again, death of the author yadayada…. I will just say this – Till Havs, I believe, has a slightly different resonance than “at sea”. It literally means “to the sea” as in “take to the seas”. I won’t say I know what the song means because it’s rich and I love that it can be interpreted differently, but in me it evokes the feeling of throwing yourself out into an adventure. Striding out into something wild, uncontrollable and beautiful, that is larger than yourself. Doing so boldly, proudly and with a sense of adventure.

    • barczablog says:

      I think it’s more normal for Europeans to be confronted by things they do not understand, which is a very healthy situation. We are totally spoiled in North America, by a world who all seem to speak English as well as (or often better) than we do ourselves. I remember on my trip to Sweden that the one time I was in a place where they didn’t speak English was a corner store where the proprietors (Chinese or Korean) had likely just learned Swedish, and couldn’t also be expected to learn English too. But just as we’re spoiled with modern travel (superhighways, jets, high-speed rail), at one time the heroism of travel was risky, putting oneself into danger when things were not guaranteed. The fearsome sounds of the ocean (replicated in a sense by the orchestral accompaniment to the song) are part of the romance. Knowing where we are going (with our GPS’s & perfect digital maps on google street-view) rolls back the mystery of the world: which is a great teacher, challenging our arrogance.

      In other words, I don’t mind that I don’t understand. I like being lost (recalling wandering about in Stockholm or riding a boat around the city’s waterways, and the same in cities such as NY where the scheme is so logical, one can’t ever really be lost). Opera used to be more of an adventure in the unknown, when we didn’t have surtitles to explain everything. Oh well….There’s still death to face: the ultimate adventure.

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