Norwegian Stev Text and Tune Relationships: Millennium-old Vocal Tradition as Accentual Poetry


  • Jacqueline Ekgren Ekgren Musikkinstitutt


Norwegian stev are one-stanza songs sung throughout centuries especially in the regions of Setesdal and Telemark. The tradition is now thought to connect over a millennium in an unbroken line with Old Norse poetry. Texts abound while melodies are few: 20 000 nystev use 43 melodies, and 5 000 gamalstev use 5 melodies. The main focus of a stev performer, a kvedar, is variation of text not melody. The stev stanza has four lines, with four accents per line in nystev, whereas gamalstev have a 4-3-4-3 accent-pattern (“ballad meter”). The four accents per line are grouped in two pairs of accents. Each accent pair, a “dipod” or a “two-pulse”,
emphasizes two “important” words. Other aspects of the dipod are shown in analysis of: 1) metrics (poetic accents and phrasing), 2) melody (paired tonal centers), 3) duration (short-long duration after 1st and 2nd accent in the dipod). Norwegian stev as sung-recited, ”kveding”, have an irregular rhythm, yet present a predictable accent pattern. Stev can be regarded as accentual poetry with a complex meter, closer to free verse than to rigid meters. The terms“strong” and “weak” beats normally used in music and poetry do not do justice to the rhythmic force found in stev. The basic unit in stev has two strong accents, which gives a tight and clearly defined structure, yet allows performance flexibility. Flexibility may be the key to the survival of a tradition. Dipodic vocal traditions are found in early cultures such as visuorð in Old Norse poetry, as well as musicals and popular music today such as “Summertime” or “September Song”. The flexibility of expression in Norwegian stev is readily demonstrated through performance.

Author Biography

Jacqueline Ekgren, Ekgren Musikkinstitutt

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, she studied at Stanford University, Calif. (Bachelor of Arts, Music), Vienna, Austria: studied voice, classical guitar; completed opera school (Reifeprung); also gave concerts of folk songs from many lands, Lieder, and opera arias, accompanying herself on guitar. Debut in Vienna and Oslo.
Concert tours (sacred and secular music) in Norway introduced her to nooks and crannies in mountainous regions and the rich Norwegian tradition of unaccompanied folk songs. Unlike folk songs from other countries, these songs could not be set to guitar accompaniment without losing there inherent vitality. In 1975 she wrote her thesis on the oral tradition in the repertoire of traditional singer Aslak Brekke (Masters degree, transcriptions published 1983 as book; cand. philol. degree 1979 Univ. of Oslo, music, pedagogy, psychology). She has continued researching the unusual, irregular but systematically two-pulse rhythm of the 4-line stanza called stev, and presents findings to conferences on folk music and metrics of poetry.
She is founder and head of Ekgren Musikkinstitutt, Oslo, for voice workshops, performance of all genres, concerts, and research. In 1996 she published the complete songs of Norwegian composer Andreas Haarklou (4 CDs and book of music) and of Aksel Berg, poet, composer, and organist in 2005 (limited edition).
Recent publications include: 2009 Dipod rules:.. in Versatility in Versification. Multidisciplinary Approaches to Metrics; 2011 Article to appear in publication from Conference on Metrics: Meter and Rhythm, Vechta Univ. Germany, 2009.