Minuets, wool, & Faroese history

Along with fish, wool, and tourism, music is now one of the Faroe Islands’ growing export areas. This summer we have made a small contribution to this by releasing an album of tunes from Faroese history:

 

When we are not running The Island Wool Company, Fiona and I are musicians (horn and clarinet) and a few years ago we joined with two of our Faroese friends (Angelika Nielsen – violin, and Olavur Jakobsen – guitar) to form a folk/classical group called Svabonio.

If we ever worry that we have too many different interests in our busy lives, we just have to turn for inspiration to the man who provided the music for our project: Jens Christian Svabo (1754-1824). He was an accomplished violinist (and artist, as you will see), but his scholarly work covered every aspect of Faroese society. He wrote the first Faroese dictionary (before the language had an agreed written form); he made collections of the old Faroese ballads; he wrote a geographical and ethnographical study of the islands; and he came up with many practical solutions to improve the lives of the Faroese population.

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Svabo’s sketch of Tórshavn’s fort (1780’s). Note the British navy ships.

Despite all these accomplishments, Svabo’s work was not recognised in his own lifetime. After many years of struggle in Copenhagen, he returned to his home town of Tórshavn to live out the rest of his life with the help of a meagre pension and the kindness of friends and family. His handwritten notebook of dance tunes (dated 1775) was not found until 1928 when an old house in Tórshavn was being renovated. Hence the title of our album, Lost and Found.

Svabo’s treatise on every aspect of Faroese nature, society and economy (Reports from Travels in the Faroe Islands, 1781 and 1782) contains some fascinating information about the use of wool in the 18th century. It is notable how little has changed since then in the way that sheep are reared in the outfields and mountains.

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Svabo’s drawings of some of the ear-markings used to identify sheep.

Svabo even went as far as providing recipes for dyeing wool and when the book was first published in the 1950s, the editors recreated samples:

So although the natural wool colours – white, greys, browns, and black – have been the basis of Faroese woollen clothes for centuries, there is a long tradition of colour dyeing – especially yellows and reds.

There are a couple of drawings in the book, which initially might look like wool sorting and spinning, but they actually show the production of fishing line from hemp:

Svabo’s range of knowledge is quite breathtaking. He was even up-to-date with the latest scientific work of the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus who had only given the Latin name to to the Red-necked Phalarope a few years earlier in 1758:

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In the music on our new album, we have been similarly stimulated by seeking connections between the old and the new and between different places. The accepted history of Faroese music has been that is was exclusively vocal: either hymns or sung ballads for dancing. But Svabo himself wrote,

At notable weddings and celebrations, especially in Tórshavn, the Faroese dance is very much starting to fall out of fashion, and in its place, minuets, Polish, English, Scottish dances, reels and contradances, are being introduced.

Luckily, the Faroese dance is still very much alive today. And contemporary music of all genres in the Faroes today is rooted in history, but influenced by a kaleidoscope of sources.

Note: If you would like to explore Faroese music further, a good place to start is at the website of the music label, TUTL.

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One thought on “Minuets, wool, & Faroese history

  1. Interesting post. I don’t know much about the Islands, look forward to reading more sometime. I am a knitter, love to find out more about the source of a ‘new’ wool to me!

    Like

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