A group of children meets in their holidays. They spend two weeks learning together, keeping house and working in the garden, and sharing their fellowship. They always start their morning by sitting in a circle and singing. They sing traditional folksongs, earnest and funny ones. The small ones do not understand all the texts immediately. Older ones explain what they mean: “… denn der Wind treibt Regen übers Land. Holt die goldnen Garben!” (“… since the wind drives rain across the land. Fetch the golden sheaves!”1) The children talk about the harvesting of corn today and in former times and what bread is made of.
Singing connects. Something is done together. Everybody is needed. The older children help to provide the sheets of music. The younger ones listen carefully to what the older comrades sing. Each day they can participate a little better. The choral singing sounds good when all the voices are contributing and it makes everyone happy.
When I was in primary school, it was the same in our class. Every day began with singing. We learned traditional songs, hiking songs, “Lumpenliedchen” [funny, often Swiss-dialect songs, editor’s note]. We started to sing in different registers and often even in canon. After this vocal beginning of the day in our classrooms, we started to learn. The warm-hearted lesson’s beginning – the pleasure in singing – gave us a fresh impetus to read, to write, and to calculate. This made learning easier.
At secondary level, besides the general singing lessons there was also the choir, in which many of us participated. There we sang melodies that were more demanding. We were proud when we were occasionally allowed to perform a song with the choir.
Many a rehearsed song we soon learned by heart. It was not only at school that we heard these traditional songs, but singing was a tradition also in the family. Proudly our father told us about the past and that he used to sing the “Messiah” in the church choir. One morning we heard him cheerfully singing “Am Brunnen vor dem Tore” (“At the well in front of the gate”) in front of the house. This is a wonderful traditional song. When the song “Han ame Ort es Blüemli gseh” (“I saw a floret at a place”) sounded on the radio, tears ran down the cheeks of this otherwise quite severe man, because of the emotions evoked by the content and the melancholy melody of the song. Likewise, our mother knew many songs, and sang now and then while she was at work. We sang during the daily washing of the dishes, as it was common in many families. We volunteered all the songs we knew, from “Chumm mer wie go Chrieseli günne” (“Come on, let’s go picking cherries”) to “Es wott es Fraueli z Märit go” (“A woman wants to go to the market”).
I especially remember all the vacation camps with long hiking tours in the mountains. When I am on my way with the rucksack today, it comes to my mind how we used to sing: “Wir wollen zu Land ausfahren, über die Fluren weit – aufwärts zu den klaren Gipfeln der Einsamkeit …” (“We want to go to the countryside, along the far mead – up hills to the clear summits of solitude …”). How does the text continue? I ask myself. Wasn’t there something about a mountain stream and wind, how I would like to sing it once again! I can’t stop thinking about it. Bit by bit, further text passages come to my mind, until I remember the whole song.
I can remember other songs. We used to sing for hours. There was always a very solemn atmosphere at the camp fire when, for example, we sounded the round “Abendstille überall” (“Evening silence everywhere”) and felt affiliated with each other.
At the occasion of the “afternoon for the elderly”, seniors can wish for a song to celebrate their birthdays. Each time I am amazed how rich in substance are the texts of the traditional songs they wish for. There are songs which extol nature and the seasons of the year, like “d Zyt isch do, d Zyt isch do, rüefts uf em Nussbaum scho Guggu” (“time has come, time has come – the cuckoo is already calling from the walnut tree”) or “Bunt sind schon die Wälder, gelb die Stoppelfelder und der Herbst beginnt” (“Coloured are the forests, yellow are the stubble fields and autumn is beginning”). Others express the beauty of our country with its mountains, lakes, and the old traditions, which have been cultivated over centuries. One of these songs, which always make my flesh creep, is “Luegit vo Bärge und Tal, flieht scho de Sunnestrahl, luegit uf Aue und Matte …” (“Look! The sunbeam flees from mountains and valleys. Look at wetlands and meadows …”). The appealing text and its well-suited melody express the delight in our country and the people who live in it. It is not surprising that many seniors keep the songs in their mind and in their hearts, even if their memory might be getting weaker – they have learnt it by heart and they keep it in their hearts.
When leafing through a songbook, one realises how old the generally known traditional songs are. Sometimes you can recognise this by their language: there are terms which we don’t use anymore today, like those in a hunting song from the 16th century: “Es taget vor dem Walde, stand uf Kätterlin! Die Hasen laufen balde, stand uf Kätterlin! Holder Buel, hei-a-ho …” (“It’s dawning outside the forest, get up Kätterlin! The hares will be running about soon, get up Kätterlin! Fair leman, hei-a-ho …”)
Regarding content, those songs are a real stock of material for historical studies. Very often there is talk of poverty and orphan boys standing at their parents’ grave. In addition, war and mercenarism are topics of the songs. There is the “Jungknab” (the young boy) in the song “Im Aargäu sind zwöi Liebi” (“There are two lovers”), who leaves his betrothed behind in order to go to war. After his returning home, she has found another sweetheart. How true is the line “im Röseligarte z Mailand hetts no für mänge Platz” (“There is space for many others in the rosary of Milan”) from the song “S’ wott aber e luschtige Summer gäh” (“There shall be a merry summer”). – This song was created in memory of the battle of Marignano.
Yodelling is also part of the Swiss singing tradition. In order to learn yodelling, a certain technique is required, and it is not easy to perform. If you have the pleasure of visiting a “Jodlerfest” (a yodelling festival) or of meeting yodelling people, it is worth listening closely to the texts. You can also enjoy this in traditional music broadcasts on the radio. You will marvel at these cultural achievements, at their unique tones and well-tuned melodies. Especially yodelling texts describe the life of the people in the country, nature, festivities, customs and rites. They often deal with friendship and value systems like the song about the “Schacherseppli”, who tells about his modest life and in this also radiates a sense of humour, joy, and satisfaction.
In quite a natural way, we also made our first contacts with other languages through the songs. Since Switzerland is multilingual, self-evidently, songs in French, Italian, and Romansh belong to its treasury of songs. We learnt French numbers playfully while we sang, “Un kilometre à pied, ça use, ça use … les souliers.” (“One kilometre on foot – that is a strain on the shoes …”), because in each verse one more kilometre was added to the distance we had to march in the song. We also knew Ticino songs like “Vieni sulla barchetta” (“Come with me into the little boat”) already as children. Of course we did not always understand the texts, but it was clear that it was one of our songs, like the beautiful Romansh lullaby, ”Dorma bain” (“Sleep well”) or the well-known ”La haut sur la montagne” (“Up there on the mountain”).
The children growing up today are also fond of singing, as we were. Luckily, there are still teachers that teach them songs with appealing melodies and a rewarding content. If done in a good mood, singing together is very valuable. Children memorise the rimes, which they love so much, and keep them in their souls. I hope that they will also gladly remember these songs when they are old, all the songs they sang or even learnt by heart. They will remain with them like a precious treasure.
This kind of singing is in no way comparable with those contrived stage performances that have recently become popular, where children, accompanied by playback music, hold a microphone in their hand and develop airs and graces as if they were all pop stars. It is only later that they bitterly become aware of the fact that a lot of this has remained dull and superficial.
My sister, who is Swiss but lives in Berlin, lately wished for a bunch of songs on her birthday. The Swiss guests had no problem in serenading her without rehearsal out of our treasury of songs. Our German neighbours and friends spontaneously sang along when it came to the song “Geh aus mein Herz und suche Freud in dieser schönen Sommerszeit” (“Go out, my heart and look for joy in the beautiful summertime”). The other guests joyfully listened to our Swiss songs, and the birthday child as well as singers and audience were filled with contentment.
Let us sing more again, all the beautiful songs that have come down to us from Switzerland and from all over the whole world! Time after time, you can discover new trouvailles that give you pleasure. I do not want to withhold from the readers what I found in the “Baselbieterlied”*:
“Me seit vom Baselbieter und redt ihm öppe no,
er säg nu: ‘mir wei luege’, er chönnt nid säge: ‘Jo’.
Doch tuesch ihn öppe froge: ‘witdu für’s Recht istoh?’
Do heisst’s nit, dass mer luege well, do sägen alli: ‘Jo!’”
(“They say of those from Basel, and they slander them a bit,
That they always say ‘we’ll see’ and never ‘yes, that’s it’
But if you ask them, ‘will you
Take a stance for what is right?’
They’ll never say ‘we’ll see’, but
All say ‘yes’ with face alight.”) •
One talks about the Baselbieter and sometimes speakes ill of him, he only said: “we will see”,
he was not able to say simply “Yes”.
But if you ask him once:
“Do you want to advocate for the right?”
He did not say, he will see
All say: “Yes!”
(Baselbiet is the dialect term for the Canton Basel-Country)
1 This is the German version of the English round “Heigh-ho! Anybody Home.” The English lyrics to the song have a different meaning: Heigh-ho! Anybody home. Food and drink and money have I none. Still I will be merry, still I will be merry. cf. <link http: mamalisa.com external-link seite:>mamalisa.com,. [Editor’s note]
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