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The Swedish Song – From Lute To Protest

February 14, 2012

Performance practice within the Swedish song type known as “visa” changed during the 20th century from rural romanticism to protest song in the service of the left-wing political movement. A common trait for the whole period, however, is that the visa often has been associated with intimacy, authenticity and unpretentiousness. A thesis published by the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, discusses the change of the visa as presented on public stages from 1900 to 1970.

“Most people in Sweden have an idea of what characterizes the typical singer of a visa: a male troubadour presenting mainly his own compositions, and accompanying himself on a guitar or a lute. But how has this genre emerged? And why is it that the literary visa and the vocal folk music have followed divergent pathways when it comes to performance practice? These were the questions that I wanted to investigate”, says the author of the thesis, Marita Rhedin.

“A visa (plural ‘visor’) can, according to the professor Bengt R. Jonsson, be defined as ‘a stanzaic poem with a strophic musical setting, both literarily and musically usually characterized by a certain degree of simplicity in style’, Marita Rhedin explains.

Marita Rhedin has used recordings of visor to follow the change of the publicly performed visa from the beginning of the 20th century, through the visa revival during the 1930s and 1940s, to a new wave of popularity in the 1960s. She has focused mainly on performance practice, the accepted way of performing visor in public.

“Visor are sung and have always been sung by people in all kinds of everyday situations. This has given the visa a certain private, informal touch also when performed on the stage”, says Marita Rhedin.

In the so-called literary visa the lyrics are generally regarded as having a more prominent position in relation to the music. The popularity of the literary visa during the 1930s was partly due to the beginnings of the welfare state and the contemporary idea of national identity, in which the visa could be presented as an all-Swedish alternative to jazz and “schlager”. Thanks to the radio the literary visa became popular in a wider sense. The microphone also meant that less voluminous, more ‘intimate’, voices could assert themselves. As the literary visa grew during the 1930s, however, it became exclusive.

“When the society ‘Friends of the Visa’ (‘Visans vänner’) was founded in 1936 it was initially sceptical about allowing women to participate. Singing to the lute, which dominated the society’s musical content, was mainly associated with male performers, in particular with the popular singer Sven Scholander”, says Marita Rhedin.

Performance style changed during the 1960s, primary caused by influences from American folk song, jazz and blues. During this period the visa also acquired more clearly political undertones, as songs associated with a movement for social change, like protest songs or poetry by poets with working-class backgrounds, to a greater extent was incorporated in the singers’ repertoire.

“Although the performance style and repertoire have changed, certain characteristics are stable, including the importance of communicating the content of the lyrics”, summarizes Marita Rhedin.

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