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

Jacqueline Ekgren


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.

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