The first instalment in our brief survey of music from the Nordic countries – Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden [FINDS] – featured composers from Iceland and Sweden. This edition showcases music by a selection of Danish composers, whom we’ll introduce in broadly chronological order.
We start with Friedrich Kuhlau (1786–1832) who, although he was German-born, certainly qualifies as a feather in Denmark’s hat. We’ll hear pianist Jens Lühr perform some of his music in due course, so I’ll let him introduce the composer:
“Friedrich Kuhlau, together with Christoph Ernst Friedrich Weyse (1774–1842), was the most important early Romantic composer in Denmark, where his fame is mainly based on the overture and incidental music he composed for Elverhøj (Elves’ Hill), a theatre piece by Johan Ludvig Heiberg. Outside of Denmark he is better known today for his popular piano sonatinas and flute works.
Born in 1786 at Uelzen in the district of Lower Saxony in Germany, his family subsequently moved to Hamburg, from where he fled in 1810 to Copenhagen in order to avoid conscription into the Napoleonic Army, which occupied Hamburg from 1806 to 1814. In 1813 he became a Danish citizen and was engaged as a royal chamber musician.
Kuhlau’s relatively low income forced him to write a lot of easy-to-play music for piano and compositions for flute, two of the most popular instruments at that time. He went on to be widely considered the ‘Danish Beethoven’ or the ‘Beethoven of the flute’, since his appreciation for the great composer is evident in his style of writing, although this appreciation never approaches plagiarism.”
To demonstrate the point, here’s the exposition of the first movement of Kuhlau’s virtuosic Piano Sonata in E flat major, which he composed two years after settling in Denmark.
Piano Sonata in E flat major (GP797)
Next we have a pair of composers who lived at the same time but engaged in completely different styles of music – Niels Wilhelm Gade (1817–1890) and Hans Christian Lumbye (1810–1874).
Gade started his musical career as a violinist in the Danish Royal Orchestra, his first success as a composer coming in 1840 with his overture Echoes of Ossian. His First Symphony was accepted by Mendelssohn and performed by the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, where Gade met both Mendelssohn and Schumann. He succeeded Mendelssohn as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1847, returning the following year to Denmark, where he came to assume a leading position in the musical life of the country, writing music in a style greatly influenced by Mendelssohn and Schumann.
Gade melded Nordic spirit with the technique of the Germanic masters, not least in his three violin sonatas: the light-fingered First, dedicated to Clara Schumann; the mercurial Second, dedicated to Robert Schumann; and the weighty Third with its lovely Romanze, which we now hear.
Lumbye wrote in a much lighter style. He inaugurated concerts in the manner of Johann Strauss in his native Copenhagen after hearing the Viennese bands of Joseph Lanner and the elder Strauss. Leading his orchestra while playing the violin, he provided entertainment at Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens. He wrote a large quantity of attractive dance music in the manner that Lanner and Strauss had made popular, including waltzes, polkas, galops and marches.
The following story, as handed down by Lumbye’s grandchild, describes the genesis of his Champagne Galop, written in 1845: One evening Lumbye had been invited to a prestigious gathering at the British Legation in Copenhagen, but on his way there he had to pass his favourite hostelry, and decided that he preferred to spend the evening in those familiar surroundings. On returning home late in the evening he had to tell his family how he had wallowed in champagne at the Legation (which he had in fact never visited). To illustrate this for the expectant family he sat down at the piano and improvised his way through what was later to become the world-famous Champagne Galop.
Champagne Galop (8.556843)
Carl Nielsen (1865–1931) was the principal post-Romantic Danish composer. Following subsidised study at the Copenhagen Conservatory, he went on to enjoy a long career during which he developed his own personal style of composition, in particular in a series of six important symphonies.These are essentially tonal, emotionally direct works that alternate long melodic lines with passages of blazing energy. Symphony No. 4, ‘The Inextinguishable’, is his most dramatic and conveys ‘the elemental will to live’.
Written between 1916 and 1918, The Fourth employs a large orchestra, including two sets of timpani, which make a particular contribution to the Allegro finale, in which the forces of struggle and conflict are finally resolved, proclaiming music and the will to live as inextinguishable, even though events in Europe at the time might too easily have suggested only despair. Here’s how the symphony draws to a close in a 1966 performance by the Royal Danish Orchestra conducted by Igor Markevitch.
Symphony No. 4 (VOX-NX-2001)
Organist and composer Rued Langgaard (1893–1952) was born in Copenhagen. His father, a pianist and composer, had been a pupil of Liszt. Largely self-taught as a composer, Rued had early success in Berlin, when performances of his works were given by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, while Danish critics remained sceptical. He was successful in Germany, while at home his works were broadcast; otherwise he had little support.
Langgaard’s music shows an affinity with that of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin in that both men believed that through their music they could pave the way for a spiritual revolution. Langgaard explored his youthful fascination with Catholicism in music of fanaticism and ecstasy.
Langgaard’s Music of the Abyss was composed in Venice in March 1921 (where he also gained inspiration for his doomsday opera Antichrist). As in the opera, Langgaard deals with some of the most destructive forces in time and existence. Based on a series of apocalyptic visions taken from The Book of Revelation, he paints the horrors of hell in musical images. The second of the two movements is headed Frenetico, quasi rondo.
Music of the Abyss (8.574312)
Vagn Holmboe (1909–1996) is regarded by many as a successor to Carl Nielsen, not least in terms of symphonic repertoire; Holmboe wrote 14 symphonies. But I’ve chosen a work on a much smaller scale, his Moya – 7 Japanese Songs, which is his most distinctive work for voice and piano. Composed in 1952, the music explores a new type of accompaniment which together with the very simple melodic lines creates an exotic effect. In the first four songs the piano sounds almost like a plucked string instrument and the voice like a flute. In Holmboe’s own words:
“Moya is Japanese and means something like ’fog’. I have not attempted to imitate Japanese music, but in some songs there is a slight suggestion of the transparent Koto or Shamisen music which is typically Japanese.”
The first song is titled Foggy evening. Sung in a Danish translation of the original Japanese, here’s an English translation of the text:
Every evening, when the fog spreads over the meadows and the cranes mournfully call out to each other, I think of my beloved.
Jakamosji (8th century)
Foggy evening (8.572728)
Finally to a pupil of Holmboe, Per Nørgård (b. 1932), who went on to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. Starting from a style akin to that of Sibelius, he has developed a personal musical language of his own and has exercised a strong influence over younger contemporaries in Scandinavia. We finish with one of his choral pieces, 3 Systrar (Three Sisters). Norgard introduces the work as follows:
“3 Systrar dates from 1993, when the Swedish choral conductor Gunnar Eriksson showed me Solveig von Schulz’s entreating poem about the three sisters in one and the same person – another form of the concept of the ‘simultaneities’ often present in my music. The secretive whispering that complements the unclear insinuations of the sung fragments of the text may express the necessary acceptance that this is a spoken (or rather whispered) concern that I, as a man, can never fully understand.”
3 Systrar (SCD1090)