Danish hymnody, like that of other Protestant countries, is largely a child of the Reformation. The Northern peoples were from ancient times lovers of song. Much of their early history is preserved in poetry, and no one was more honored among them than the skjald who most skillfully presented their thoughts and deeds in song. Nor was this love of poetry lost with the transition from paganism to Christianity. The splendid folk songs of the Middle Ages prove conclusively that both the love of poetry and the skill in writing it survived into the new age. One can only wonder what fine songs the stirring advent of Christianity might have produced among a people so naturally gifted in poetry if the church had encouraged rather than discouraged this native gift.
But the Church of Rome evinced little interest in the ancient ways of the people among whom she took root. Her priests received their training in a foreign tongue; her services were conducted in Latin; and the native language and literature were neglected. Except for a few lawbooks, the seven hundred years of Catholic supremacy in Denmark did not produce a single book in the Danish language. The ordinances of the church, furthermore, expressly forbade congregational singing at the church services, holding that, since it was unlawful for the laity to preach, it was also impermissible for them to sing in the sanctuary. It is thus likely that a Danish hymn had never been sung, except on a few special occasions in a Danish church before the triumph of the Reformation.
It is not likely, however, that this prohibition of hymn singing could be effectively extended to the homes or occasional private gatherings. Hans Thomisson, who compiled the most important of the early Danish hymnals, thus includes five |old hymns| in his collection with the explanation that he had done so to show |that even during the recent times of error there were pious Christians who, by the grace of God, preserved the true Gospel. And though these songs were not sung in the churches -- which were filled with songs in Latin that the people did not understand -- they were sung in the homes and before the doors|.
Most of these earlier hymns no doubt were songs to the Virgin Mary or legendary hymns, two types of songs which were then very common and popular throughout the church. Of the few real hymns in use, some were composed with alternating lines of Danish and Latin, indicating that they may have been sung responsively. Among these hymns we find the oldest known Danish Christmas hymn, which, in the beautiful recast of Grundtvig, is still one of the most favored Christmas songs in Danish.
Old Danish Hymn
tr., J. C. Aaberg
Christmas with gladness sounds,
When praising God, our Father,
We were in bondage lying,
But He hath heard our prayer.
Our inmost need supplying,
He sent the Savior here.
Therefore with praises ringing,
Our hearts for joy are singing:
All Glory, praise and might
Be God's for Christmas night.
Right in a golden year,
Came He here.
Throughout a world confounded
The tidings fraught with gladness
For every tribe of man
That He hath borne our sadness
And brought us joy again,
That He in death descended,
Like sun when day is ended,
And rose on Easter morn
With life and joy reborn.
He hath for every grief
Each grateful heart His praises
With angels at the manger,
We sing the Savior's birth,
Who wrought release from danger
And peace to man on earth,
Who satisfies our yearning,
And grief to joy is turning
Till we with Him arise
And dwell in Paradise.
The earliest Danish texts were translations from the Latin. Of these the fine translations of the well known hymns, |Stabat Mater Dolorosa|, and |Dies Est Laetitia in Ortu Regali|, are still used, the latter especially in Grundtvig's beautiful recast |Joy is the Guest of Earth Today|.
At a somewhat later period, but still well in advance of the Reformation, the first original Danish hymns must have appeared. Foremost among these, we may mention the splendid hymns, |I Will Now Hymn His Praises Who All My Sin Hath Borne|, |On Mary, Virgin Undefiled, Did God Bestow His Favor|, and the beautiful advent hymn, |O Bride of Christ, Rejoice|, all hymns that breathe a truly Evangelical spirit and testify to a remarkable skill in the use of a language then so sorely neglected.
Best known of all Pre-Reformation songs in Danish is |The Old Christian Day Song| -- the name under which it was printed by Hans Thomisson. Of the three manuscript copies of this song, which are preserved in the library of Upsala, Sweden, the oldest is commonly dated at |not later than 1450|. The song itself, however, is thought to be much older, dating probably from the latter part of the 14th century. Its place of origin is uncertain, with both Sweden and Denmark contending for the honor. The fact that the text printed by Hans Thomisson is identical, except for minor variations in dialect, with that of the oldest Swedish manuscript proves, at least, that the same version was also current in Danish, and that no conclusion as to its origin can now be drawn from the chance preservation of its text in Sweden. The following translation is based on Grundtvig's splendid revision of the song for the thousand years' festival of the Danish church.
Old Danish or Swedish Hymn
tr., J. C. Aaberg
With gladness we hail the blessed day
Now out of the sea ascending,
Illuming the earth upon its way
And cheer to all mortals lending.
God grant that His children everywhere
May prove that the night is ending.
How blest was that wondrous midnight hour
When Jesus was born of Mary!
Then dawned in the East with mighty power
The day that anew shall carry
The light of God's grace to every soul
That still with the Lord would tarry.
Should every creature in song rejoice,
And were every leaflet singing,
They could not His grace and glory voice,
Though earth with their praise were ringing,
For henceforth now shines the Light of Life,
Great joy to all mortals bringing.
Like gold is the blush of morning bright,
When day has from death arisen.
Blest comfort too holds the peaceful night
When skies in the sunset glisten.
So sparkle the eyes of those whose hearts
In peace for God's summons listen.
Then journey we to our fatherland,
Where summer reigns bright and vernal.
Where ready for us God's mansions stand
With thrones in their halls supernal.
So happily there with friends of light
We joy in the peace eternal.
In this imperishable song, Pre-Reformation hymnody reached its highest excellence, an excellence that later hymnody seldom has surpassed. |The Old Christian Day Song| shows, besides, that Northern hymnwriters even |during the time of popery| had caught the true spirit of Evangelical hymnody. Their songs were few, and they were often bandied about like homeless waifs, but they embodied the purest Christian ideals of that day and served in a measure to link the old church with the new.