14 February, 2012
Updated 18 January and 11 July, 2022

Summer nig
ht by the fiord

Marianne Haslev Skånland:

About the song "Summer night by the fjord" ('Sommernatt ved fjorden')


I have been asked by a friend abroad to write "something short but not too short" about Ketil Bjørnstad's lovely song 'Sommernatt ved fjorden' ("Summer night by the fjord"). Initially I thought for sure there would be interesting articles available on the internet, but I haven't found anything of exactly the type wanted and not in English. But I would be happy to bow to superior knowledge.

There are several very good renderings of the song on the net, though, here are two:

Sommernatt ved fjorden
Ellen Westberg Andersen

Also here:
Sommernatt ved fjorden

Sommernatt ved fjorden
Singer: Hege Monica Eskedal

Listening to them and looking at the accompanying graphics / pictures and little film will provide a good introduction to the story and its atmosphere.

The composer and lyricist
Ketil Bjørnstad is an accomplished pianist, composer and author. If I remember correctly, this particular song was given tribute by the music connoisseur and critic Kjell Hillveg as the most beautiful tune composed in Norway in modern times (which means at least after Grieg died).

The song is part of a suite of songs and textual passages called 'Leve Patagonia' ("Long live Patagonia"), about the lives and ideas of a group of culturally prominent bohemians and artists - mainly painters and writers - living in the Oslo area in the late eighteen hundreds. (They are all real people, not fictional characters.)
'Leve Patagonia' (Sorry I haven't found a version in English for this file.)

The fjord is not one of the steep, wild fjords of the west coast of Norway, it is the Oslo fjord, with shores of rolling landscape. Both of the above videos show scenes / paintings of this landscape. In the second video, the song is accompanied by paintings which all seem to be (though I am not familiar with every one of the paintings shown) by
Edvard Munch, including "The Sun", a large painting in the University hall, just down the main street from the royal palace in Oslo. One of the verses in the song talks of sunrise, so it is quite apt. Many of Munch's pictures had motives just from the Oslo fjord, some from Hvitsten on the eastern side, and depict just such a landscape as we hear of in the song. Hvitsten is mentioned in the song, as the place "where we live" (probably having moved out from the city for the summer). Edvard Munch actually belonged to the same artistic group as the people whom the song describes. Some other Munch paintings which tie in well with the song, and photographs from the places where he painted them, can be found in Ava Glenn Pope's thesis Astronomical dating of Edvard Munch's summer sky paintings, which gives an unusual and refreshing perspective on northern summer nights and Munch.

The story of the song is told through the eyes of a young girl,
Bokken Lasson, who is leaning out of her open window in the night.

Oslo is on 60 degrees latitude, so you have to go further north for midnight sun, but, for a couple of months around midsummer, night is very short and like dusk, and in fine weather it can be quite warm, so people are often out and about at all hours through the night, especially if they are holidaying by the sea or up in the mountains. The first verse says it will be autumn soon but the light is still in the north. Only in summer time is there light from a northerly direction because the sun is just below the horizon at night. The end of the song talks of the sun rising, that might be around 4 in the morning.

Bokken sees her older sister
Oda and Hans Jæger, who is courting her, run down to the sea, take a rowboat and row out on the fjord. - Oda was a painter, and her debut work which you can see in this article about her, shows a young girl sitting at a window looking out on a summerly Oslo fjord and may perhaps have provided inspiration for Bjørnstad's setting of the song? Two or three of the paintings in the second video, too, fit in well with the song, showing a woman at a window or inside a room, while a rowboat is visible out on the water.

Hans Jæger tries to convince Oda that he is in fact the man she is waiting for, but the relationship between them, although passionate, is not without conflict and remains unresolved. At the end of the song he walks away.

(Oda later married another man in the same group of people: the very prominent painter and writer
Christian Krohg.)

Though many good singers have done justice to 'Sommernatt ved fjorden', Ketil Bjørnstad had a particular singer in mind for the song: Ellen Westberg Andersen. She is the one who sings it in the first video above – viz the genuine original.

The visual accompaniment (the film) in this video gives a very direct illustration to the story, although Oda is dressed all in white, while the song says that Hans Jæger lay with his head "on her dark lap" (one can imagine Oda having on a light summer blouse and a dark skirt - long skirts at that time, of course). Also, in spite of the times, I am not sure that she would have put a hat on for such an unconventional, nightly outing. Bokken's flower is not a violet but a yellow poppy, but never mind. The filming must have been done in daytime, I think; even in the latter part of the night it would probably have been a bit more twilight-like than what we see here.

Here is
the text.

A fairly literal rendering:

Jæger is rowing
and Oda sits in front
in a rowboat which they have taken
I stand at the window this night
and a violet is my comfort
Soon the summer wind will augur autumn
But the light is in the north
Be blessed, you who row ( / are rowing)

The boat floats along
Now Jæger lets go of the oars
and reaches far forward
She takes his hand, it is his home
She laughs, I see that a rowboat
turns its nose down bashfully
at what happens onboard
and the feverishly hot words

Something happens
He lies there with his head on
my sister's dark lap
a blackbird wakes us with song
a little boat glides along
between night and day out in the fjord's main sailing passage
at Hvitsten where we live
Jæger sits up and rows

Another night
is over, the light comes quickly
My sister is a little tired
A steamship whistles, he rows straight
towards this house, that was all
and I shiver, it is quite cold
but Oda Lasson laughs
towards her pale escort

The boat is
tied up to the quay down from
my window, they get up
He tries to lift her body
He loves all that she is
But he understands that he is too close
He kisses her hair
The sun rises, and he walks away.


Images for Ketil Bjørnstad
(1) and (2)

Images for "The Sun", several versions

Images for Oda Lasson/Krohg

Images for Hans Jæger

Self-portrait and other paintings and photo of Christian Krohg