The words for the national anthem, written by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, one of Norway’s great dramatists and poets, were first published in 1859. The original poem had six verses; in 1863 one of the original verses were deleted and three more were added, giving a total of eight verses; the deleted verse was a tribute to King Carl XV, but Bjørnson changed his political views later from monarchism to republicanism, and deleted that verse. Nowadays, the first verse and last two verses are most commonly sung.

The music was composed by Rikard Nordraak, cousin of Bjørnson and a friend of the famed Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, in 1864. It was first performed later that year for the 50th anniversary of their constitution, and caught on quickly, overtaking “Sønner af Norges” in popularity. It became a part of the reading books in schools all over the country, and was sung by the children in the children’s parades organized by Bjørnson on every 17th of May.

Despite its widespread use as the national anthem, it has never been officially declared as such. It has been the most popular song presented as the anthem since the early twentieth century, and was performed as the national anthem at the time of Norwegian independence in 1905. Since the summer of 2011, the patriotic song “Mitt lille land” has also been referred to as a “new national anthem”, and has been performed at patriotic events, but has not been used as a national anthem as much as “Ja, vi esker” continues to be.