By Peter Elsnab, journalist and Jesper Nykjær Knudsen, music editor og journalist, 2006
Poor old devil
“Life is not the worst thing, we’ve got/ the coffee’ll soon be ready” is a line that every Dane knows, because “Svante’s Happy Day” (“Svantes Lykkelige Dag”) has long been a Danish classic with its homage to happiness in the simple, little things of life. Maybe it is because the ballad is imbued with that utterly basic feeling of cosy homeliness, which we imagine is quintessentially Danish. But it is not quite as simple as that.
The little man
Svante, who is the common figure throughout the album, is in fact a rather complex character. “My life’s barely worth a bottle,” is the opening line of the disc and Svante is full of booze and ennui at one and the same time: “What does it help that your liver is shrinking/when your stomach is swelling/I suffer from hatred of myself/ If only I was capable of being just a little pleased with myself,” he says in “Svante’s Black Ballad” (“Svantes Sorte Vise”) in such a way that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Because there is constantly a tragicomic twist to Svante with his fat belly and his egocentric melancholy. He doesn’t feel he is capable of living up to his beloved Nina or perhaps it’s just the feeling of sympathy for the little man and his inadequacies that hits many Danes in a soft spot?
Benny Andersen’s picturesque poems and Povl Dissing’s wry singing lectures were a great success from the word go, perhaps as a reaction to the overpoliticised motifs that dominated art in the early 1970s? The tales of Svante’s doings had their source in the private sphere of life and therefore offset the socially critical aspect. But despite the fact that the stories about Svante have today become a permanent part of the Danish cultural heritage, the songs were inspired largely by the Swedish ballad tradition.
So Svante is in fact a Swede in exile, stranded in Denmark and permitting himself to have the kingdom on at the same time. This can be seen most obviously in the song “Muddy Tongue” (“Muddermaalet”) which makes fun of the Danish mother tongue, none of which prevents “Svantes Viser” from being a fantastic example of the range of the Danes’ mother language. There you go. The coffee is still hot...
Did you know?
In 1975, the film Da Svante disappeared, directed by Henning Carlsen and with the manuscript of Carlsen and Benny Andersen jointly. The film is a film adaptation of the stories of the melancholy, Swedish-Danish Svante, which was last seen in 1971 and is now being sought by the schoolmate and friend Benny Andersen. In addition, one sees in the film several of Svantes shows performed by Povl Dissing, Benny Andersen and their other orchestra, which one among other things follows on tour.
The committee's justification
By the Committee for Music, 2006
The story of the melancholy Svante and his pot belly became popular almost immediately when Benny Andersen’s ‘Svantes Viser’ was published as a book in 1972. The book contained a number of songs that musical readers could sing and play. However, the songs first gained their own real identity when, the following year, in collaboration with Peter Abrahamsen, Benny Andersen managed to persuade a somewhat unwilling Povl Dissing to record them on an album, with the author himself on piano along with a small group of musicians including Peter Bastian on bassoon. These songs of low self-worth, alcoholism and tragicomic isolation in a fictitious exiled Swede’s life struck a nerve with Danes and have continued to do so ever since. And this is despite the fact that Svante calls Denmark “a small neurotic country inhabited by smiling idiots” and sings a cruel parody of the patriotic song ‘Vort modersmål er dejligt’ (Our mother tongue is beautiful) with the altered title ‘Muddermålet’ (Muddy-tongue).
It is ‘Svantes lykkelige dag’ in particular, with its chorus line “om lidt er kaffen klar” (‘Coffee will be ready soon’) that has ensured Svantes Viser a firm place in the national consciousness. Both the song and Benny Andersen himself have later been seen by many as quintessential Danishness, perhaps due to the focus on the warm conviviality of ‘hygge’, the ritual coffee making and the anticipation of simple pleasures. However, for others, Svantes Viser was predominantly part of Swedish tradition, both musically and lyrically. If you listen to the album today, you may be surprised by the freshness of Povl Dissing’s singing and in the arrangements. A listener will find themselves captivated from the very first minor chords of the opening song “Lille sang til Nina”, a song about unrequited love.