Hymnoden Härdelin

  • Stephan Borgehammar CTR


Alf Härdelin (1927–2014) was a Swedish theologian and medievalist. In addition to a large academic output, he wrote eleven original hymns and translated 213 from Latin or German into Swedish. This article begins by showing how integrated this activity was with Härdelin’s theological work: both as an academic and as a hymnist he followed the Dominican adage, contemplata aliis tradere, ”to give to others the fruit of contemplation”.

His interest in medieval theology was aroused in the late 60s. During the 70s he published a study on the medieval interpretation of why water is mixed with the wine in the Eucharist, as well as two anthologies of medieval prose texts in Swedish translation. His first attempts at translating poetry resulted in two small anthologies of poems by the medieval mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg (1217–1290) and the modern Benedictine nun Silja Walter (1919–2011). In the 80s the Roman Catholic Church in Sweden produced both a new hymnal (Cecilia, 3rd ed. 1987) and a Swedish translation of the Liturgia horarum (Kyrkans dagliga bön 1990). It was in order to contribute to this effort that Härdelin wrote his original hymns and most of his hymn translations. His activity peaked in the years 1984–86, when he produced nine original texts and at least eighty but probably about one hundred translations (all cannot be dated with accuracy). Not all of his compositions found their way into the official liturgical books, but in 1990 he published 160 of his translations in a privately produced hymnal for the divine office called Gloria. Here he also provided melodies, mostly Gregorian (occasionally slightly altered), and three of his own composition. An anthology of liturgical poetry in translation published in 2010 contains some additional texts, e.g. from the Birgittine office Cantus sororum.

How successful have Härdelin’s hymns been? They are much used by Roman Catholics in Sweden. The pocket version of the Liturgia horarum that appeared in 2009 (Psalterium för de fyra veckorna) has 105 hymns of which thirty are translations by Härdelin. The hymnal Cecilia had thirty-seven hymns written or translated by Härdelin in the third edition, out of which twenty-eight remain in the fourth (2013). As for reception in non-Roman Catholic circles, nine of eighteen ecumenical or Protestant works for the divine office that have been published in Swedish since 1995 contain some of Härdelin’s hymn translations, and those that don’t tend to lack hymns altogether. So far, however, none of Härdelin’s original hymns seems to have been translated from Swedish into another language.

When translating from Latin to Swedish, Härdelin was concerned above all to be faithful to the original. The theological content had to be transmitted without alterations. He also always imitated the metre and (if applicable) the rhyme scheme of the original. Close analysis reveals, however, that he was no purist when it came to metre; slight deviations from the original texts can be found, particularly in Sapphic verse, where he prefers a modern variant with emphasis on the first, fourth, sixth and tenth syllables to the classical model favoured by medieval hymnists.

No attempt is made in this article to evaluate Härdelin’s hymns aesthetically. Time will tell which of them will continue to be embraced by worshipping communities and which will fall into disuse.

The article is accompanied by a table of all Alf Härdelin’s hymns giving the first line, the year of composition, the first line and author of the original text (in the case of translations), the place(s) of publication, the melody source, the metre and the rhyme scheme.