Carl Michael Bellman was a Swedish poet and composer. Bellman is a central figure in the Swedish song tradition and remains a very important influence in Swedish music, as well as in Scandinavian literature in general, to this day.
Life and Work
Bellman was born in Stockholm. His main works are Fredmans sånger (Fredman's songs) and Fredmans epistlar (Fredman's epistles), each including some 70 songs, many of which are about sociable drinking, or were designed and are still used for such drinking. But this aspect of his songs is not the main reason he has become such an icon in the Scandinavian song tradition. Bellman was a master of rhyme and rhythm, with a wonderful sense for combining words and music. He wrote songs that were innovative and original in form (parodying and refreshing contemporary literary styles was one of his specialities), as well as challenging in subject matter.
On the surface, his songs centre to a large extent around themes like the joy of inebriation and the pursuit of sexual pleasure. Against this backdrop, however, he manages to elucidate the tender and fleeting themes of love, death, and the elusive qualities of the "present", the here-and-now, in a unique and moving manner. His songs reflect aspects of the life of the common man in 18th century Stockholm, but by his composition Gustafs skål, an informal royal anthem, he had also acquired the patronage of King Gustav III of Sweden.
King Gustav III called Bellman "Il signor improvisatore" ('Mister Improviser').
Bellman has been compared with poets and musicians as diverse as Shakespeare and Beethoven. Kleveland notes that he has been called "Swedish poetry's Mozart, and Hogarth", observing that
"The comparison with Hogarth was no accident. Like the English portrait painter, Bellman drew detailed pictures of his time in his songs, not so much of life at court as of ordinary people's everyday".
Britten Austin says instead simply that:
"Bellman is unique among great poets, I think, in that virtually his entire opus is conceived to music. Other poets, of course, notably our Elizabethans, have written songs. But song was only one branch of their art. They did not leave behind, as Bellman did, a great musical-literary work nor paint in words and music a canvas of their age. Nor are their songs dramatic."
As for the songs, Britten Austin writes:
"In 1768, .. Bellman had begun to compose an entirely new sort of song. A genre which 'had no model and can have no successors' (Kellgren), these songs were to grow swiftly in number until they made up the great work on which Bellman's reputation as a poet chiefly rests."
Some of the recurring characters in his songs are the clockmaker Jean Fredman, the prostitute Ulla Winblad, the ex-soldier, now alcoholic Mowitz and Fader Berg, a virtuoso on several instruments. Some of these were based on living models, others probably not. His songs often make references to Greek and Roman mythological characters such as the ferryman Charon and the God of wine and pleasure, Bacchus, brought for comic effect into Stockholm's surroundings.
Bellman mostly played the cittern; the instrument is on display in Stockholm City Museum.
Poetry and Song
Bellman was understood as a great humorist by his contemporaries. He achieved this through incongruity, with what at a casual glance seems to be lofty biblical style or delicate pastoral poetry, but is in fact populated with drunks and whores, talking of life in taverns and excursions around Stockholm, frequently ending with allusions to sexual intercourse. For example, "Blåsen nu alla!" ("All blow now!"), begins with the sight of Venus crossing the water, as in François Boucher'sTriumph of Venus, but when she disembarks, Bellman quickly transforms her into a lustful Ulla Winblad. Similarly, the ornate and civilized minuet melody of Ach du min Moder (Alas, thou my mother) contrasts starkly with the text, which is about Fredman lying with a hangover in the gutter outside a pub, complaining bitterly about life.Characters such as Ulla Winblad (her surname means vineleaf) recur through the Epistles; Britten Austin comments that
"Ulla is at once a nymph of the taverns and a goddess of a rococo universe of graceful and hot imaginings".
The songs of Bellman have been recorded by modern Swedish artists such as Cornelis Vreeswijk, Evert Taube and his son Sven-Bertil Taube, Fred Åkerström; and even as rock music by Joakim Thåström, Candlemass or Marduk. They are also frequently used as choral music and as drinking songs. Major interpreters of Bellman's songs include Fred Åkerström and Cornelis Vreeswijk.
Bellman has been translated into English, most notably by Paul Britten Austin, and there have been many translations into German (for example by Hannes Wader). German Communist leader Karl Liebknecht liked to sing Bellman in Swedish. Hans Christian Andersen was one of the first to translate Bellman into Danish.
Bellman's songs have also been translated and recorded in Icelandic (by Bubbi), Italian, French, Finnish (for instance by Vesa-Matti Loiri), Russian, Chuvash and Yiddish. English interpretations have been recorded by William Clauson, Martin Best, Sven-Bertil Taube, Roger Hinchliffe and Martin Bagge.
There are a number of books in English with translations of Bellman's work. The authors include Charles Wharton Stork, Hendrik Willem van Loon, Paul Britten Austin,and historian Michael Roberts. In English the most thorough treatment of Bellman's life is also by Paul Britten Austin.