But, in contrast to the glory and majesty of that masterpiece, the first half of the program consists of something much lighter and less familiar: the suite A God in Disguise by the Swedish composer Lars-Erik Larsson with lyrics by the poet Hjalmar
First the story. The god in question is Apollo, as you may have guessed from the illustration. According to Greek myth, Zeus punished Apollo for his killing of the dragon Delphyne (or, in later versions of the story, the Cyclops) by sentencing him to a year of servitude as a mortal. So Apollo chose to be a herdsman for the king of Thessaly, Admetus, who was famed for his hospitality and justice. During this year (some sources say it was nine years, not one, which gives more time for all of these events to happen) Apollo did several favors for Admetus, making his cows all bear twins and helping him win the hand of Alcestis, the daughter of King Pelias. (The winning of the princess's hand by doing an impossible task—how many times have you read that story? In this one, the successful suitor had to harness a boar and a lion to a chariot and then drive the combination to Pelias; Apollo used his ridin' and ropin' skills to get the job done.) But the biggest favor Apollo did for his buddy Admetus turned out to be the most tragic: Apollo got the Fates drunk and tricked them into promising that Admetus would escape the foreordained time of his death. All he had to do (all) was to get someone else to step in and take his place on the appointed day. The king assumed that one of his aged parents would be willing to do so, but for some strange reason both of them refused, saying that although their remaining lives were short they would cling to them as long as possible. No one else was willing either, and as Death (Thanatos) arrived Apollo tried to save his friend, but even he could not prevail. Then Alcestis stepped up and volunteered, saying that she would rather see her children be motherless than fatherless, went to her room, lay down on her bed, and died. Admetus has some very beautiful words to say about this whole situation in the play by Euripides:
I think my wife's fate is happier than my own, even though it may not seem so. No pain will ever touch her now, and she has ended life's many troubles with glory. But I, who have escaped my fate and ought not to be alive, shall now live out my life in sorrow.
Only fair to point out that he comes to this realization when it's too late, as his wife is being escorted down to the Underworld. But all is well in the end, as Hercules manages to wrestle with Death and get Alcestis back. (Feminist scholars have had a heyday with this story, as you can imagine.)
So that's the mythological background. Now for the piece itself. I am greatly indebted to the website Tzedaqyal's Blog by Jonathan Axelsson for the following information. Gullberg wrote his poem in 1933, just as Hitler was starting his rise to power, although he didn't add the prelude section until 1939, at which time he sent the lyrics to Larsson. World War II erupted in September of that year, and the suite premiered on Swedish Radio in 1940. I like the way the blog puts it: “In both word and music, “Förklädd Gud” became a defense for what was worthy and simple.” The prelude speaks up in favor of the common people:
This is not for the strong in the world but the weak.
Not for warriors but for peasants, who have
Ploughed their simple plots without complaining
That a god plays on his flute.
This is a Grecian legend…
Larsson recognized the delicacy of the words, saying, “It is so pure in expression, that it is extremely difficult to set it to music without distorting it.” The text concerns itself only with the experiences of Apollo as a farmhand and not with the larger story. As I imply in the title, Gullberg has taken the myth and made it into a fable; that is, a story with a moral. His ending lines spell that out:
When comes a heav'n-sent healing for souls in deep distress,
And when, free from all reck'ning, a hand will bless,
Then comes a light to spread such joy to a soul surpris'd,
That seated by our side was a god disguised.
As I read the text I was irresistibly reminded of Hebrews 13:2: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (KJV). Admetus has no idea who his new servant is but treats him with kindness and generosity, while the other servants consider the new hand below them:
The servants know him not in their attire,
far down the board they lay his bowl and spoon.
He shares his bed with cattle in the byre.
No earthly object does he call his own.
A god goes hid in shepherd’s plain attire.
Did you notice the reference to “far down the board they lay his bowl and spoon”? In earlier times your position at meals was very important; the farther down toward the foot of the table you sat the lower your station was. So Apollo eats his lonely, lowly meal and then goes off to bed down in the barn. No one sees his golden hair under his cloak, but flowers mark his path. He brings blessings, but no one recognizes them at the time.
Larsson's music will remind you of Sibelius and Grieg, but he has his own voice. We are so pleased to present this lovely and under-used suite.