God In Disguise – Poetic protest against Nazism 1933


For a change to my writings, I want to offer you a piece of poetry that is also set to music; Förklädd Gud – God In Disguise. The background to the creation of this lyrical work is interesting and it also has a spiritual connotation in itself, which appeals to me on a deeper level.

Today’s Quote
“This is not for the strong in the world but the weak.
Not for warriors but for peasants, who have
Ploughed their simple plots without complaining
That a God plays on his flute.
This is a Grecian legend.”
(Hjalmar Gullberg, Förklädd gud, 1933)

Swedish author and poet Hjalmar Gullberg (1898-1961) in this idyllic pastoral poetry takes the starting point in a scene from the ancient Greek mythology of the god Apollo, doomed to live as a human being for a year as a servant and a shepherd of King Admetus of Thessaly, as in Euripides’ play “Alcestis.” This musical work was premiered live on Swedish Radio in May 31, 1940. Soloists were Kerstin Törlind, soprano and Hugo Hasslo, barytone. Olof Molander was the narrator. Swedish Radio Choir and Svensk Radiotjänst Entertainment Orchestra were directed by the composer, Lars-Erik Larsson.

First something about this time of readiness in Sweden – or “Duck and Cover!” During the years 1940-41 the contingency-propaganda was at its strongest, it happened immediately after the German occupation of our neighbouring countries Norway and Denmark. The “spiritual readiness” permeated the entire society. The radio became a motor and a conduit for public defense.

Svensk Radiotjänst (former name of Sveriges Radio/Swedish Radio) produced virtually every day programmes related to preparedness, for example protection against gas-attacks, spies, how to cook food in a rational way, music programmes directed to serving soldiers who lived in military barracks, etc. The national radio reported on everything that happened in the neighbourhoods, for example “Day of Inner Preparedness” and broadcasts from the closure of the “National March.” Both events took place on Skansen open-air museum in the summer of 1940.

How did people live during the war? It is easy to see the clichés from movies and TV series depicting this time; patrolling soldiers in ill-fitting uniforms, old women in kerchiefs, women in small-flowered chaste dresses, wood gas cars and bikes on the streets and spirited couplet-songs that people hummed or played on the funnel gramophone. We must not forget the ration cards for butter, milk, meat, cigarettes and much more. At that time, people could change their ration cards between each others, just as kids today switch Pokémon cards or sport cards, I guess.

Other concrete clues to the 1940’s we get is found in “Oscar Knaust’s Little Cookbook” from 1943. Mr Knaust was the proprietor of the legendary Hotel Knaust in Sundsvall in the nothern part of the country.
This cookbook is a good testimony to the diet in Sweden during World War II. Knaust portrays with great care and enthusiasm the use of rare and unknown commodities such as silver fox, nutria, rook, palate from ox, bream, carp, dried cod and sculpin and old wheat-bread. I suspect that people in general did not like the food.

In 1940, three premieres of musical radio shows were aired, each in their own way coloured by the mood around the time of war preparedness; among them Lars-Erik Larsson’s neo-romantic God In Disguise.

This masterpiece really captivated me when I heard the 1956 version on the radio when I was a kid in the 1960’s and 70’s, and it still rises feelings of awe and comfort in me. This technique used of switching between singing and recitative/narration of a poem followed by another song, more narration followed by another song, is a very relaxing and meditative form of music performance. So let us take part of this wonderful lyric. For lyrics and video in Swedish, see links below.

The initial lines were not included in the original text when the poetic suite “Förklädd Gud” (“God in Disguise”) was published first time in Hjalmar Gullberg’s cycle “Kärlek i Tjugonde Seklet” (“Love in the Twentieth Century,”) which appeared in 1933, the year when Nazism begun its bloody history in Europe, which the poet experienced in his own surroundings. The text was finally added six years later in 1939 in what would become this master peace of art. In May 31, 1940 the poetic suite premiered live on Swedish Radio. This work was used in the struggle against war powers during that time. In both word and music, “Förklädd Gud” became a defence for what was worthy and simple. If you ask me, this lyrics and music, was and is still an expression to fight against oppression and hatred, wherever it may come from. This is reinforced in the highest degree in the first stanza, the Prelude. This is the literary work in its entirety.

This is not for the strong in the world but the weak.
Not for warriors but for peasants, who have
Ploughed their simple plots without complaining
That a God plays on his flute.
This is a Grecian legend…

I. Who breathes an air
Who breathes an air in season
upon his pipe at dawn
too high for human reason,
born of the heaven-born?
Who makes interpretation,
knows the flute’s hidden word
turned earthly elation
for plant and herd?

Who is it gently leading
his flock afield to graze,
kindly his creatures feeding
with herb and crystal lays?
Who walks amid the meadow
where sultry summer fails,
and sleeps in earth’s shadow
on straw with thralls?

II. Apollo dwells in a Thessalian stable
Apollo dwells in a Thessalian stable.
There are no laurels round his golden head:
He was sent down from the high god’s Olympian hall,
doomed for a year to earn his daily bread,
a shepherd lives in a Thessalian stable.

The servants know him not in their attire,
far down the board they lay his bowl and spoon.
He shares his bed with cattle in the byre.
No earthly object does he call his own.
A god goes hid in shepherd’s plain attire.

III. Round watchful autumn embers
Round watchful autumn embers
He gathers the shuddering band,
and binds up the wounded members
with comforting hand.

A home in story fits him,
in song and poem his birth.
Yet plaintiess he acquits him
in duly on earth.

IV. Where gods have passed
Where gods have passed over will blessing be spread.
What though the cloak cover his golden head,
bare soil blossoms forth in his tread.

He plays in a hollow new-turned by the plougher,
for creatures to follow, for sun and shower,
where Death is deprived of his power.

V. Now blessed be Tessalia’s lord
Now blessed be Tessalia’s lord,
within whose courts we toil.
When cock-crow summons him abroad,
he walks on hallowed soil.

For he who dwells with hinds in stall,
whose common fare he shares,
has moon for sister, sun at call,
and walks among the stars.

VI. What woodland is transmuted
What woodland is transmuted in radiance,
as wedding-songs are fluted, and creatures dance?

From out what unknown portal took he his way,
who is not as a mortal, nor come to stay?

Does he remember, banished by mead and shore,
a world of music vanished and known no more?

Does he recall the singing, the virgin choir,
the ecstasy outwinging a deathless lyre?

VII. And gods are walking yet upon this earth
And gods are walking yet upon this earth.
One of them may be sitting by your hearth.

Do not suppose a god can ever die.
He passes you unmarked by your dull eye.

He bears no purple robe, no sceptred rod.
Only his influence reveals the god.

The never-broken rule runs in this wise:
A god who walks on earth walks in disguise.

VIII. Think you at morning hour
Think you at morning hour
sheep-flocks would crop the mound,
that grass-grown earthly bower,
if gods could not be found?

Think you the spring would flower
binding a wreath around
all dead men’s earthly bower,
if gods could not be found?

IX. If a look bid us mingle
If a look bid us mingle in quiet Agape
us, dull and coldly single as most men be;

if a hand, all unbidden, like true celestial balm
on soul misery-ridden, should touch our palm;

and if radiance guide us where we tormented trod —
then unrevealed beside us there walks a god.

(Lyrics in English from Swedish Society Discofil, SCD 1096, 1998.)

Facts on the lyrics:
Hjalmar Gullberg had submitted his text to Lars-Erik Larsson (who wrote the music) a whole year before the first manuscript even were put on paper. This text made particular demands on simplicity. Indeed, Larsson himself said: “It is so pure in expression, that it is extremely difficult to set it to music without distorting it.” The music was composed in 1939, the first broadcast performance talking place in 1940. Perhaps that seems as an expression of an escapism to have created such an idyll at a time when war was ravaging the world. But there is a motto in the first verse which changes its entire perspective.

This was an unusual but funny post to write! Due to copyrights I am not able to download an mp3-file, but following the links below, you will find a video from the Swedish Radio Choir and some ideas where to listen and even to buy a CD. The best musical interpretation of “Förklädd Gud,” in my opinion, is a recording from the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm in March 10, 1956 with Stockholm Radio Orchestra and Martin Lidstam’s Vocal Ensemble. Mrs Elisabeth Söderström soprano, Erik Sædén, baritone and Lars Ekborg, a wonderful narrator with a smooth voice. A classic recording in my opinion (and, incidentally, the very first recording made!)

Facts on Hjalmar Gullberg (1898-1961)
Swedish author and poet. Between 1936-1950, he was head of the Swedish Radio Theatre and served as a program director during 1949-50, as well as he was a member of the Swedish Academy in 1940-1961. During World War II, he became one of the country’s most read and beloved poets, a leading figure in the so-called contingency poetry during the war, and did much to promote poetry and theatre via the radio.

Read more on Hjalmar Gullberg
Hjalmar Gullberg Sällskapet

Facts on Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986)
Swedish composer. From 1937 to 1944, Lars-Erik Larsson was engaged as a conductor by the Swedish Broadcasting Service. During that period, the radio in Sweden cultivated a new type of progammes, which has since gone out of use; a literary-musical suite, a poem, a piece of music, a poem again and another piece of music, until the form was suitably completed. The suite is from the composer’s neo-romantic period.

Read more on Lars-Erik Larson
Classical Composers Database

Swedish Radio Choir. God in Disguise on Track 6.

Förklädd Gud (1956), Missa Brevis (1957), De Nakna Trädens Sånger (1978), Lars-Erik Larsson & Hjalmar Gullberg.
Label: Swedish Society Discofil – SCD 1096.
Country: Sweden. Released: 1998. Genre: Classical. Style: Neo-Romantic.
Website: Swedish Society.
Search for “Förklädd Gud.”

The Prelude (without the narration) is found in a 3-part CD Box called “Angels” that can be ordered from Naxos.
Website: Naxos.

The Lyrics in Swedish: Malmö Symphony Orchestra.

© 2012 Jonathan Axelsson
אתר הבית של יונתן
Twitter @tzedaqyal


About Meadow of Tzedaqyal

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 1881-1955)
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