Five Christmas Songs, Op. 1

The opus numbering of Sibelius’s works contains many inconsistencies and illogicalities. The composer first produced a numbered list of works in 1896, and a list of opus numbers the following year, but many of these numbers were later changed. Not until 1903 did his works start to be published with opus numbers, and only from 1930–31 onwards can the numbering be regarded as definitive. A full description of the development of Sibelius’s opus numbers can be found in Fabian Dahlström’s Jean Sibelius: Thematisch-bibliographisches Verzeichnis seiner Werke.[1]

Pole position in the numerical listing of 1896 went to the Theme and Variations in C sharp minor for string quartet (JS 195, 1888), and in subsequent opus listings the number 1 was allocated to, among other works, the Suite in A major for string trio (JS 186, 1889) and the Piano Quintet in G minor (JS 158, 1890). In the end, however, it was given to a set of Christmas songs composed over many years. The earliest of them dates from the year after the first version of Lemminkäinen, and Sibelius continued to make different arrangements of the last two songs well into the so-called ‘Silence from Järvenpää’. A version for boys’ choir of Giv mig ej glans… dates from as late as 1954, just three years before the composer’s death.

Musically all of the songs are straightforward, strophic pieces. The genre of the Christmas song does not demand – or benefit from – great harmonic or formal audacity.

The first four songs in the set all have Swedish words, and all are settings of poems by Zachris Topelius (1818–98), a Finnish author, journalist, historian and rector of Helsinki University. The first three pieces are relatively little known. Although Sibelius wrote the date ‘1895’ in the fair copy of the manuscript, his diary proves that the first two, Nu står jul vid snöig port (Now Christmas Stands at the Snowy Gate) and Nu så kommer julen (Now is Christmas Coming), were completed on 1st May 1913 (‘Composed two Christmas Songs (for Op. 1) to words by Z. Topelius’[2]). Thus he wrote two Christmas songs at ‘Vappu’, the very day that Finland celebrates the coming of springtime!

The third song is Det mörknar ute (Outside it is growing dark). This was the earliest of the set to be written. Although the original manuscript is lost, it must date from around 1897 as it was first published in the Christmas 1897 issue of ‘Kyläkirjaston kuvalehti’, its text translated into Finnish by Aino Suonio[3] with the opening words ‘Jo joutuu ilta…’.

By far the most famous of the set is the fourth song, Giv mig ej glans, ej guld, ej prakt (Give me no Splendour, Gold or Pomp), the last of the four Topelius settings (October 1909), its theme instantly recognizable through countless performances in schools, churches and at public events all over Finland. What the majority of singers and listeners are unaware of, however, is that the famous tune (or at least its unmistakable opening bars) first saw the light of day a decade earlier, in a setting of the German-language poem, Segelfahrt (Sailing, JS 166), to a text by the man of letters and critic Johannes Öhquist. Giv mig ej glans… was apparently written for inclusion in ‘December, Jultidning för der Svenska Finland’ (‘Christmas Journal for Swedish Finland’). Performance of the song in Finnish (in an anonymous translation, as En etsi valtaa, loistoa…) soon became widespread; Sibelius’s own later arrangements include the Finnish text, and the first gramophone recording – by the singer J. Sinnemäki, accompanied on the piano by Reino Hurme (1937) – was also in Finnish.

The last number in the Op. 1 set is On hanget korkeat, nietokset (High are the Snowdrifts, a setting of an occasional poem by the teacher, journalist, poet and politician Wilkku Joukahainen [1879–1929]). Both the music and the text probably date from 1901, when Sibelius was hard at work on the Second Symphony. This is the only song in the Op. 1 set to have an original Finnish-language text, and it was probably written at the request of a Helsinki publishing firm, ‘Kansanopettajain Osakeyhtiö Valistus’, in whose Christmas magazine Joulupukki (Father Christmas) it was first published in 1901. Along with the later Giv mig ej glans…, this unassuming little piece has won an unassailable place in the repertoire of Finnish Christmas songs.

© Andrew Barnett 2016

Texts and English translations: click here


[1] Breitkopf & Härtel 2003, pp. 680–692

[2] Diary, 1 May 1913: ‘Komponerat tvenne Julvisor (till Op. 1) Z. Topelius’ ord.’

[3] A pseudonym of Aino Kallas, née Krohn