Danish: Den store hvide flok vi see
Norwegian: Den store hvide flok vi se
Text: Hans Adolph Brorson (1694-1764). Tune: Norwegian folk from Heddal
1. Behold a host, arrayed in white, Like thousand snow-clad mountains bright; With palms they stand. Who is this band Before the throne of light? Lo, these are they, of glorious fame Who from the great affliction came And in the flood Of Jesus' blood Are cleansed from guilt and blame. Now gathered in the holy place, Their voices they in worship raise; Their anthems swell where God doth dwell Mid angels' songs of praise. 2. Despised and scorned, they sojourned here; But now, how glorious they must appear! Those martyrs stand, A priestly band, God's throne forever near. So oft in troubled days gone by, In anguish they would weep and sigh; At home above the God of love For aye their tears shall dry. They now enjoy their Sabbath rest, The paschal banquet of the blest; The Lamb, their Lord, At festal board Himself is host and guest. 3. Then hail! ye mighty legions, yea, All hail! Now safe and blest for aye; And praise the Lord, Who with His Word Sustained you on the way. Ye did the joys of earth disdain, Ye toiled and sowed in tears and pain; Farewell, now bring your sheaves and sing Salvation's glad refrain. Swing high your palms, lift up your song, Yea, make it myriad voices strong: Eternally shall praise to Thee, God, and the Lamb belong.
Ribe, Denmark, where Brorson served as bishop until his death, is one of the oldest cities in Denmark, a Viking site, on the coast of western Jutland. In the cathedral towering over the city, there are portraits of Brorson, outside it are statutes of him in his bishop’s garb. What interests me is the parsonage where he lived during his time as bishop and where he died. During the festival honoring his 300th birthday, we were taken on a tour of the building, still being used by the diocese. There is a small room where Brorson lay during his last months of life, unable really to do much. Across the hall is a larger room, where his eldest son was kept pretty much captive so he would not harm himself or those who were caring for him. He was mentally ill and handicapped. Brorson would hear him shouting and banging against the walls as he lay near death.
What his family did not know, however, and only discovered after his death, was that during this time, after not writing any hymns for some years, probably given the demands of his work as bishop, he was writing a collection that a younger son, who found it after he died, called Svane=Sang. Swan=Songs.
The hymn is an All Saints’ Day hymn and funeral song, one of the last he wrote before his death. While not all of them are about heaven, most of them are, and they are rapturous, well-wrought poems, usually short, with incredibly rich images of heaven and incredibly tight rhymes and meters. Almost impossible to translate. Most of us who grew up in the Norwegian tradition on hearing the first three notes of the hymn, find it hard to hold back the tears.
Steffen Arndal, a Brorson scholar, argued that the imagery of the hymn comes especially from the frontispiece of the German hymnal of the day, Freylinghausen’s Geistreiches Gesangbuch 1704. It was the hymnal the Pietists of Northern Europe used and translated into their respective languages. The etching is a representation of the imagery in Revelation.
As Brorson is lying there in his sick bed, hearing his son pounding away and hollering, the picture he sees in Scripture and this hymnal transports him. In some ways the hymn is a description of his situation, a place of great affliction, but he sees where it will end. So the more he thinks of his own situation, the more glorious the heavenly scene becomes. He refers to the images of Psalm 126 with its notion of sowing and harvesting, the tears and now the joy of bringing in the sheaves.
As he lay there, he knew that the movement he had represented, Pietism, was fading before the chilly winds of the Enlightenment. An observer noted that when Brorson was buried, it was as if the warmth of the movement went to the grave with him. When his son found the small collection in his father’s effects, he quickly published it. At first they received little notice, but hymnal compilers began to include them. They made their way to Norway where the cantors/klokkers began singing them to local folk tunes people knew. (Remember at this time hymnals were simply texts with suggested tunes. The local cantor/klokker picked the tune for them to sing and was well aware of what they could sing.) The Norwegians loved them, especially when they were sung to their folk songs. They seemed to lift Brorson right up out of Denmark into Norway. The poetry and the tunes became favorites. Who knows how many tunes worked for this hymn? Stig Holter, the Norwegian hymnologist, thinks it had at least sixteen fairly well known tunes. The one Grieg picked became the tune most people know and love today. (The Danes have their own tune.)
It came to be more and more popular among Norwegians and Norwegian Americans. Even today people call and ask me for copies of the hymn in Norwegian so it can be sung at the funeral of an older family member.
One of the reasons, besides the melody, that it resonated with the farmers and settlers who worked hard with their hands, is the concrete earthy language that describes both their lives making a living from the earth, planting and harvesting, and the rapturous picture of both rest and glory that Brorson gives us from Scripture. I can imagine that he lost himself in those images as the banging on the walls across the hall faded away into scenes of a better place.
The tune comes from Heddal in Telemark and was gathered by Ludvig Lindemann who traveled the area looking for folk tunes. Grieg set it in 1877 for a baritone solo with a male chorus. Holter thinks that the strange form was the meter of the hymn Brorson was using when he wrote it. In 1926 the folk tune appeared in the official Norwegian hymnal.
Japanese male chorus https://youtu.be/uJDekLoYlxs
Håkan Hagegård https://youtu.be/acpCVkXidCc
Iver Kleive. Povl Dissing. Knut Reiersrud
The Danish tune/Ingolf Olsen https://youtu.be/8IpxbblRNnM