Matthias Bieri, Simone Richard and siblings Nik and Anja Loosli met at as expats from Berne at the music academy in Luzern. As a divertimento from their classical music training at the famous Swiss music academy, they got together in the evenings and sang folk songs of their home Canton Berne. It took off amongst the four and their listening audiences at the time and the quartet Urbärn was born in 2007. Today, each of the four musician friends all successfully perform or teach music through other venues, but frequently come together to sing as Urbärn. The quartet they founded has a special place in their heart and their recent ten year anniversary concert proved it.
The intimate, wood clad Burgerspital concert hall right next door to the train station in down-town Berne was packed full on the ground and balustrade. To see the venue this full put widespread smiles on the quartet’s faces as the concert had been advertised through word-of-mouth and social media only. I was lucky to learn about it through a local friend.
In an ad-hoc and creative way, the group had printed ‘menus’ with suggestions of their 45 repertoire songs in the way of entrée, main course and dessert. Rather than naming the songs, the team gave a one sentence description that the audience was invited to select by sending text messages to the singers. Essentially, the audience determined the concert content. It worked and was great fun!
“These folk songs touch us deeply and we want to tickle the complexity out of them for the audience,” says Nik. “We notice in general a revival of traditional folksongs on many levels, especially the Rööseligarte Swiss traditional song collection of the 18th century,” adds Anja and continues “there definitely is a high recognition level and amazingly, this is as true for teenagers as much as for adults.”
These traditional Swiss songs were written for many reasons: long winded rhymes while bringing in the cows – including stubborn ones – or telling stories such as the oldest known Swiss folk song, dated 1741 – S’Vreneli ab em Guggisbärg – which tells the sad, true story of a farm maiden and her unlucky suitor. This haunting tune was so potent it was forbidden to be sung in foreign legions as Swiss soldiers would become unfit for battle. The song took on an even greater life, not only being carried into France by soldiers, then reset in French, but Edward Benjamin Britten, the central figure of 20th-century British classical music intonated it one hundred years later. Songs were often influenced by gypsies and modified many times.