Carl Michael Bellman

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Carl Michael Bellman
Carl Michael Bellman, portrayed by Per Krafft 1779.jpg
Bellman playing the cittern,
in a portrait by Per Krafft, 1779
Born 4 February 1740
Died 11 February 1795
Nationality Swedish
Known for Poetry, Song
Notable work(s) Fredman's Epistles and Songs
Patron(s) King Carl Gustav III of Sweden

Carl Michael Bellman (About this sound listen ; 4 February 1740 – 11 February 1795) was a Swedish poet, songwriter, composer and performer. Bellman is a central figure in the Swedish song tradition and remains a powerful influence in Swedish music, as well as in Scandinavian literature, to this day.

Bellman is best known for two collections of poems set to music, Fredman's songs (Fredmans sånger) and Fredman's epistles (Fredmans epistlar). Each consists of about 70 songs. The general theme is drinking, but the songs wonderfully combine words and music to express feelings and moods ranging from humorous to elegiac, romantic to satirical.

Bellman's patrons included the King, Gustav III of Sweden, who called him the master improviser. Bellman has been compared to Shakespeare, Beethoven, Mozart, and Hogarth, but his gift, using elegantly baroque classical references in comic contrast to sordid drinking and prostitution, which are at once regretted and celebrated, is unique.

Bellman's songs continue to be performed and recorded by musicians from Scandinavia and in other languages including Italian, French, Russian and English.

Life and work[edit]

The start of Fredman's Epistle No. 23, 'Alas, thou my mother'. To a graceful minuet tune, Fredman, lying drunk in the gutter outside the Creep-in tavern, 'a summer night in the year 1768', blames his mother for his conception

Bellman was born in Stockholm. His main works are Fredman's songs (Fredmans sånger) and Fredman's epistles (Fredmans epistlar), each including some 70 songs, many of which are about sociable drinking, or were designed and are still used for such drinking. But this aspect of his songs is not the main reason he has become such an icon in the Scandinavian song tradition. Bellman was a master of rhyme and rhythm, with a wonderful sense for combining words and music. He wrote songs that were innovative and original in form (parodying and refreshing contemporary literary styles was one of his specialities), as well as challenging in subject matter.

On the surface, his songs centre to a large extent around themes like the joy of inebriation and the pursuit of sexual pleasure. Against this backdrop, however, he manages to elucidate the tender and fleeting themes of love, death, and the elusive qualities of the "present", the here-and-now, in a unique and moving manner. His songs reflect aspects of the life of the common man in 18th century Stockholm, but by his composition Gustafs skål, an informal royal anthem, he had also acquired the patronage of King Gustav III of Sweden.

Statue of Bellman by Alfred Nyström, 1872, in Stockholm's Djurgården

King Gustav III called Bellman "Il signor improvisatore" ('Master Improviser').[1]

Bellman has been compared with poets and musicians as diverse as Shakespeare[2] and Beethoven.[3] Kleveland notes that he has been called "Swedish poetry's Mozart, and Hogarth", observing that

The comparison with Hogarth was no accident. Like the English portrait painter, Bellman drew detailed pictures of his time in his songs, not so much of life at court as of ordinary people's everyday.


Paul Britten Austin says instead simply that:[4]

Bellman is unique among great poets, I think, in that virtually his entire opus is conceived to music. Other poets, of course, notably our Elizabethans, have written songs. But song was only one branch of their art. They did not leave behind, as Bellman did, a great musical-literary work nor paint in words and music a canvas of their age. Nor are their songs dramatic.


As for the songs, Britten Austin writes:

In 1768, .. Bellman had begun to compose an entirely new sort of song. A genre which 'had no model and can have no successors' (Kellgren), these songs were to grow swiftly in number until they made up the great work on which Bellman's reputation as a poet chiefly rests.


Some of the recurring characters in his songs are the clockmaker Jean Fredman, the prostitute Ulla Winblad, the ex-soldier, now alcoholic Mowitz and Fader Berg, a virtuoso on several instruments. Some of these were based on living models, others probably not. His songs often make references to Greek and Roman mythological characters such as the ferryman Charon and the God of wine and pleasure, Bacchus, brought for comic effect into Stockholm's surroundings.

Bellman mostly played the cittern,[a] becoming the most famous player of this instrument in Sweden. His portrait by Per Krafft the elder shows him playing an oval instrument with twelve strings, arranged as six pairs.[6]

Poetry and song[edit]

Boucher's Triumph of Venus, the model for Epistle 25, "All blow now!", where Bellman humorously contrasts rococo classical allusions with bawdy remarks

Bellman was understood as a great humorist by his contemporaries. He achieved this through incongruity, with what at a casual glance seems to be lofty biblical style or delicate pastoral poetry, but is in fact populated with drunks and whores, talking of life in taverns and excursions around Stockholm, frequently ending with allusions to sexual intercourse. For example, Blåsen nu alla! (All blow now!), begins with the sight of Venus crossing the water, as in François Boucher'sTriumph of Venus, but when she disembarks, Bellman quickly transforms her into a lustful Ulla Winblad. Similarly, the ornate and civilized minuet melody of Ach du min Moder (Alas, thou my mother) contrasts starkly with the text, which is about Fredman lying with a hangover in the gutter outside a pub, complaining bitterly about life.[7][8] Characters such as Ulla Winblad (her surname means vineleaf) recur through the Epistles; Britten Austin comments that

Ulla is at once a nymph of the taverns and a goddess of a rococo universe of graceful and hot imaginings.

—Paul Britten Austin[9]

Bellman was also an effective entertainer and mimic. He had the gift of being able to

go into a room apart and behind a half-open door mimic twenty or thirty people at the same time, a crowd pushing its way on to one of the Djurgården ferries, perhaps, or the uproarious atomosphere of a seaman's tavern. The illusion was so startling, his listeners could have sworn a mob of 'shoe-polishers, customs spies, seamen ... coalmen, washerwomen ... herring packers, tailors and bird-catchers' had burst into the next room.

—Paul Britten Austin[10]


Portrait of Bellman, drawn by Sergel, 1792

Major interpreters of Bellman's songs include Fred Åkerström and Cornelis Vreeswijk.[11] Other recordings have been made by modern Swedish artists including Evert Taube and his son Sven-Bertil Taube, and as rock music by Joakim Thåström, Candlemass or Marduk. They are also performed as choral music and as drinking songs.

Bellman has been translated into English, most notably by Paul Britten Austin, and into German, for example by Hannes Wader. German Communist leader Karl Liebknecht liked to sing Bellman in Swedish. Hans Christian Andersen was one of the first to translate Bellman into Danish.

Bellman's songs have also been translated and recorded in Icelandic (by Bubbi), Italian, French, Finnish (for instance by Vesa-Matti Loiri), Russian, Chuvash and Yiddish. English interpretations have been recorded by William Clauson, Martin Best,[12] Sven-Bertil Taube, Roger Hinchliffe and Martin Bagge.

There are a number of books in English with translations of Bellman's work. The authors include Charles Wharton Stork,[13] Hendrik Willem van Loon,[14] Paul Britten Austin,[15] and historian Michael Roberts.[16] In English the most thorough treatment of Bellman's life is also by Paul Britten Austin.[17]

See also[edit]

Selected works[edit]




  • Ingvar Andersson, Agne Beijer, Bertil Kjellberg, Bo Lindorm (1979), Ny svensk historia - Gustavianskt 1771-1810, ISBN 91-46-13373-9 
  • Ernst Brunner (2002), Fukta din aska 
  • Lars-Göran Eriksson (ed.), Kring Bellmann, Stockholm, Wahlström & Widstrand, 1982, ISBN 91-46-14135-9
  • Göran Hassler, Peter Dahl (illus.) (1989), Bellman - en antologi, En bok för alla, ISBN 91-7448-742-6 
  • Alf Henrikson (1986), Ekot av ett skott - öden kring 1792, Höganäs: Bra Böcker, ISBN 91-7752-124-2 
  • Lars Huldén (1991), Carl Michael Bellman, ISBN 91-27-03767-3 
  • Göran Hägg (1996), Den svenska litteraturhistorien, Wahlström & Widstrand, ISBN 91-46-17629-2 
  • Bengt Gustaf Jonshult (1990), Med Bellman på Haga och Carlberg (Nr 6 i serien SMÅSKRIFTER), Solna: Solna Hembygdsförening, ISBN 91-971109-1-4, ISSN 0280-3062 
  • Åse Kleveland, Svenolov Ehrén (illus.) (1984), Fredmans epistlar & sånger, Informationsförlaget 
  • Matz, Edvard (2004), Carl Michael Bellman - Nymfer och friskt kalas, Lund: Historiska Media, ISBN 91-89442-97-0 
  • Bengt Hjord (ed.), Stadsbor i gångna tider: Släktforskaren och staden: Årsbok 1989, Sveriges Släktforskarförbund, Norstedts Tryckeri, Stockholm 1989 ISBN 91-87676-03-6. Articles: "Carl Michael Bellmans okända släkt", Marianne Nyström s. 209-226 and "Skalde-Anor: Carl Michael Bellmans härstammning", Håkan Skogsjö s. 227-236


  1. ^ The instrument has survived, and was formerly exhibited at the National Museum in Stockholm.


  1. ^ a b Kleveland & Ehrén, 1984. page 6.
  2. ^ Hägg, 1996. page 149.
  3. ^ Hassler, 1989. page 6.
  4. ^ a b Britten Austin, 1967, page 11
  5. ^ Britten Austin, 1967. page 60.
  6. ^ Poulopoulos, Panagiotis (2011). The Guittar in the British Isles, 1750-1810 (PhD Thesis). University of Edinburgh. p. 199. 
  7. ^ Britten Austin, 1967. page 61
  8. ^ Hägg, 1996. pages 156-157.
  9. ^ Britten Austin, 1967. page 82
  10. ^ Britten Austin, 1967. page 42
  11. ^ Hägg, 1996. page 162.
  12. ^ [1] [2] [3]
  13. ^ Stork, 1917.
  14. ^ Van Loon and Castagnetta, 1939.
  15. ^ Britten Austin, 1999.
  16. ^ Roberts, 1977-1981.
  17. ^ Britten Austin, 1967.

External links[edit]




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