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Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Ballad of Elvira Madigan

It was a couple of days ago: a distinguished friend brought on Facebook a superb video, made by Stephen Malinowski. It was Mozart, the Andante from the 21-st Piano Concerto.

You say the Andante from the 21 Piano, you add, it's the Elvira Madigan. As you know, the nick does not come from Mozart times. It is due to a Swedish movie made by Bo Widerberg in 1967: Elvira Madigan; the Andante was its leitmotiv, played again and again, with the coming of each love scene. Other parts of that movie were scored with fragments from Vivaldi's concertos: the first movements from the Summer, and from L'Amoroso.

Maybe the association between the movie and the 21 Piano is not fortunate. Or is it? The Andante is divine, and it deserved a cinematic pair: a movie to render the same nobility, the same bouquet with nuances of discretion and delicacy, in the same dosage. But Mozart is unique!

Many people today haven't seen Elvira Madigan. But forty years ago, this movie was loved. And those who watched it should remember the childish tune that starts and ends the movie: it's Den blomstertid nu kommer, an old Swedish song, celebrating the coming of summer. It was composed by Israel Kolmodin in 1695. Then, in 1819, Johan Olof Wallin published a new version. Pupils in Sweden sing it each year in the last day of school.

(dedicated to Adrian Rezus)

Den blomstertid nu kommer
(video by BASSESWEDEN)

The story in the movie is real. In 1889 a Swedish aristocrat, Count Sixten Sparre, felt in love for a young tight rope dancer, Elvira Madigan. Sparre was married and had two children, but his passion proved overwhelming. He left his family, deserted from the military (he was a lieutenant in the Swedish army) and ran with Elvira in Denmark. They lived a passionate love for several months, being constantly on the run. After spending all the money they had, overdone by hunger, in impossibility to get lodging any more, they didn't find other solution than death. Sparre shot Elvira and then shot himself. They were buried together and, as it happens, their story overpassed reality and entered the realm of legend: one of those famous romantic loves in which the second part of the nineteenth century excelled. Their graves became a pilgrimage place for young couples. Later Johan Lindström Saxon would put the story in a ballad, the Doggerel about the Love and Cruel Death of the lovely Evira Madigan.

No wonder this story attracted the filmmakers. The first Elvira Madigan was made in Sweden in 1943. The other two Elvira Madigans came on the screen in 1967. One of them was produced in Denmark, the other was the Swedish movie (featuring Pia Degermark in the titular role), and this version became famous (and gave the nickname to the Andante from the 21 Piano).

Watching this Swedish version from 1967 makes obvious some reasons of its fame. The musical background is great; the scenes give the impression of coming from the brush of one of the French masters of the nineteenth century; and generally each sonic or visual detail is treated with care. It is a feast for the ear, and for the eye.

However the movie attracted also critical reviews. It was noted that the final (though a real story) lacked artistic motivation. It is not enough that it really happened; it should also be convincing on the screen. After all, as someone exclaimed after watching the movie, why shooting yourself when hungry and penniless? Steal a chicken instead, and leave the serious decisions for the next day. And generally, the story of these two lovers, as it entered the legend, lacks consistence. Much more likely the reality was about morbid obsession on the part of Sparre, while Elvira wanted to escape the misery of circus life and find a husband no matter what.

I think these critics miss the point. The movie is not recreating a novel, to be concerned too much about the likeliness of the story, or about the consistence of the decisions taken by the heroes. It is a ballad, playing a love story like a fairy tale. Love in all purity, with no connection with any earthly reality, unaware of any moral issue, of any obligation. A meditation about the ephemeral nature of love: as beautiful and short as summer in Sweden is. The tragic outcome is told from the very beginning and then is suggested in each scene: each moment has the awareness that summer will end before long, happiness will not last. You see, it is the only awareness of the heroes. They celebrate the beauty of each moment while they know that soon it'll be over.

Love, as beautiful, careless, and ephemeral, as the days of summer, as the butterfly caressed by Elvira in the final scene.

Elvira Madigan: Part 1/9
(video by alfsjoberg4u)

the real Elvira Madigan (photographed as a dancer, in a contemporary newspaper)

Elvira Madigan: Part 2/9
(video by alfsjoberg4u)

Elvira Madigan: Part 3/9
(video by alfsjoberg4u)

the two graves

Elvira Madigan: Part 4/9
(video by alfsjoberg4u)

Johan Lindström Saxon, the author of the ballad

Elvira Madigan: Part 5/9
(video by alfsjoberg4u)

Elvira Madigan: Part 6/9
(video by alfsjoberg4u)

Johan Olof Wallin, Archbishop of Uppsala

Elvira Madigan: Part 7/9
(video by alfsjoberg4u)

Pia Degermark, the interpret of Elvira Madigan

Elvira Madigan: Part 8/9
(video by alfsjoberg4u)

Elvira Madigan: Part 9/9
(video by alfsjoberg4u)

I will give you here the Ballad of Elvira Madigan, as I found it on the web:

Unhappy things still happen.
Even in our time,

Saddest of all is this

What happened to Elvira Madigan.

Lovely was she as an angel:
Eyes of blue and cheeks of red,

Waist as slender as a flower;

But she got a cruelly dead.

When she danced she on a tightrope,

Glad as skylark in the sky,
From the rows of filled-up benches
You could hear the cheers soar high.

Came then Count Lieutenant Sparre,

Beautiful and man of birth,

Gleaming eyes, heart a-flutter.

And love came answering his prayer.

Count Sparre was married,
Wife and children he had,

But from family he now fled
With Elvira Madigan.

Then to Denmark they fled.

But it had an unhappy end,

Though far away into the world

Had they planned their way to wend.

But, you see, their cash ran out,

Nought to live on!

To avoid poverty’s fate

Home they built inside a grave.

And the pistol full of pain

Sixten takes and aims

At Elvira’s young heart.

Scarcely lived she ere she died.

Hark all ye who joy in life,

Think of those and watch your way

That you not in blood may bathe

Kind folk when you come to die.




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