Tuesday, December 24, 2013

O Day Full of Grace

Merry Christmas!

For someone who spent at least 40 years absolutely HATING this holiday—mostly because the folks hawking useless junk made it too expensive to enjoy—I find it a little odd to be encouraging the idea that someone should feel joy in the middle of this time of cold and darkness.  (It was -2°F (-19°C) this afternoon at 2:00 when I got back from grocery shopping so it is still occasionally cold at Christmas. And no, the crass materialism has not disappeared.)

Not surprisingly, the reason I feel the need to spread tidings of comfort and joy relates to music.  In spite of the fact that Christmas is now associated with a large body of intensely vile and truly ugly music, there still remains much that is transcendentally beautiful.  And as someone who spent much of my childhood learning to perform this music, it is where I have turned for refuge from plastic Santas singing about Rudolf and other manifestation of bad taste.  And this year, I learned something completely new about my favorite carol that is so wonderful, it makes me giggle.

I happen to live in a little town that is arguably the center of choral singing in North America.  In 1911, a young musician from Norway established a choir associated with the small liberal arts school his countrymen had formed in the late 19th century. Named F. Melius Christiansen, this musician was handsome, gifted, and charismatic and it wasn't long before his choir was touring regularly showing audiences just how intensely wonderful a cappella singing could be.  Soon he was writing arrangements that would musically challenge his increasingly gifted charges.

One particularly difficult number is entitled O Day Full of Grace which became a beloved Christmas standard for any choir that could actually manage to stay on top of its aural fireworks.  For years I have loved the thing just for the sound but for some reason, this year I decided I really wanted to know the words that are often lost in those soaring musical phrases. Google is your friend and I soon discovered that this little gem was written by a fellow named Nicolai F. S. Grundtvig who had adapted a 15th-century folk song in 1826 to celebrate the 1000-year anniversary of the coming of Christianity to Denmark.

Grundtvig wrote approximately 1500 hymns but this accomplishment of his is rarely mentioned because of his big project in life—the folk school movement.  The Danes are still proud of their folk schools and for good reasons.  The goal of these schools was not only to teach practical skills to rural Danish youth, but provide them with a sufficient appreciation of their history and culture to make them effective citizens in a democracy.  The formula has been amazingly successful—last December I created a post about the role of a folk school in the development of the Danish wind turbine industry.  In fact, it can be argued that the ideas of Grundtvig are still relevant to the modern Danish economy.  Folk schools eventually came to USA and one in Tennessee called the Highlander Folk School helped educate Rosa Parks.

Not surprisingly, Grundtvig is still held in high esteem by many Danes.  In 1927, they decided to build a church in Copenhagen named for him.  Because Grundtvig was associated with innovation, the church would be a monument to modern Danish design—it remains one of the more spectacular examples of Protestant church architecture to this day.  It is built with simple yellow brick—the kind used to build warehouses.

In JUN 2011, former members of Christiansen's choir gathered here in Northfield to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the choir's founding.  One piece they performed was O Day Full of Grace.  The YouTube version of this performance looks like it may have been captured on a smartphone.  Even so the fireworks are even more spectacular when sung by at least 400 people.

Here is the best version I could find on Youtube sung by the Concordia Chior from Moorhead MN.  For many years this choir was directed by F. Melius' son so this recording can be consider authentic.

Merry Christmas everyone!

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful church and beautiful song! Thanks for sharing the story (we didn't sing this one in Youth Choir that I can recall).