We went to Stockholm, some twenty years ago, to see the sites associated with the eighteenth century composer Carl Michael Bellman: the old town, where he lived and caroused, and his grave. It was a Swedish friend, exiled in Leiden, who introduced us to Bellman; she had a record of his songs in English, sung by Martin Best. They were beautiful, but somehow, once we had heard a few Swedish versions, sounded too English. Our friend always became very sentimental when talking about Bellman (neither of us had previously heard of him), and how all Swedes knew his songs, and we could see that behind those Englished versions there lurked the perfect Swedish one.
The perfect version of one of the most dramatic songs, the one that begins ‘Märk hur var skugga (…) Movitz, mon frère,’ the one that R translated into Dutch and that we played at his funeral, turned out to be by a Dutchman who had emigrated to Sweden, Cornelis Vreeswijk. His other songs were beneath contempt, but this song was the definitive version; there is no need for anyone else to record it ever again.
All those years ago, on the bus into town from Stockholm airport, R fell into conversation with the man next to him. Seeing a sign to Haga he asked, ‘Is that Haga Park, like the song?’ and hummed the first notes, which at that time we knew only from the Martin Best version. Indeed it was, the very place, and the man was amazed that a foreigner should have heard of Bellman at all, let alone the song about Haga Park. The title in English is ‘O’er the misty park of Haga’ (in Swedish it is ‘Fjäriln vingad syns på Haga’), and it has a very gentle, pastoral sound to it.
I don’t remember ever hearing it in Swedish, at any rate not in anything approaching a perfect version. But this morning, on Radio 3, I heard it: unannounced, following a dawn chorus of Swedish birds, there it was, sung in a pure sweet soprano, straight from the past, conjuring up the airport bus, that man so surprised, and R, so happy to have recognised the name of the park. He died nine years ago this month; as I listened I burst into tears as suddenly and unexpectedly as the song had started.
It is by Anna Emilsson and Jakob Lindberg, from a record called Återspeglingar – Svenska Sånger; you can hear it on Spotify, but it won’t be the same.