Støvring Højskole - Scandinavian Seminar

Erik Møldrup, Lecture on Some Characteristic Features in Danish Music
Monday 7 August 2000, 2 - 4 p.m.

Good afternoon. My name is Erik Moldrup, and it’s my privilege to be the one to tell you about Danish music. I would have liked to have my Danish students illustrate some Danish songs for you, but unfortunately school is still out for the summer. However, I had them record a few songs on this tape which I am going to hand over to your group in case you’d like to copy it for distribution among you.

Let’s begin the lecture by listening to a beautiful Danish psalm to set the mood.

[Example Mit hjerte altid vanker - My Heart Is Always Yearning - tape]

Today’s subject is Danish music. Here’s a very recent example of Danish music that has risen to the top of the charts the world over, even in America - the most popular Danish (pop)group ever: [play tape, Aqua, I’m A Barbie Girl ]

Now, how should we define our subject Danish music?

Is Danish music merely music composed by Danes? Or the music Danes (prefer to) listen to?

An American youngster once asked my eldest son, "What‘s your favorite American dish?"

My son thought for a long, long time - thinking of Betty Crocker and special recipes - but finally he had to give up and answered, "I don’t know any American dishes."

"Aw," come on, said the American, "there’s pizzas, hamburgers, wieners, French fries, pastrami, pasta, tacos…, and if you have a sweet tooth, there’s your Danish…"

My point is - of course - that to the American boy every item of food sold and eaten in America was American - regardless of origin. (I wonder if he would have checked himself before suggesting "Chinese". BTW, you won’t find any of your well-known Danish in this country - we don’t make them like the ones you know - and we even call them Viennese bread. Wisconsians may know the kringle which is much closer to the original.)

Back to my question: Music, like language, is an integral part of any culture, and since languages differ, one would expect similar differences in music, even different musical dialects. You may remember that in Bernard Shaw’s "My Fair Lady" Professor Higgins was able to tell exactly what street his Eliza came from. This used to be the case in Denmark, too, but today spoken dialects tend to be interwoven into more than just a patchwork: they are becoming fully integrated.

In the linguistic terms of today we’d say that sociolects or cultural dialects have substituted the regional dialects. People tend to sound more and more alike as we move more and more - especially the professionals: from our place of birth at one end of the country to receive our education at another end, after which we apply for a position in a third place. If we have children along the way they may not speak with any particular dialect at all - other than the one that you will have acquired yourself, which is bound to be a mix of things.

Now, is there a specific common denominator that distinguishes Danish music from that of the rest of the western world?

I’m afraid not, or - rather - not any more. Some of the music of Norway and Sweden may have a particular tone that is Scandinavian; however, what is peculiar for Danish music is difficult to distill; and to describe certain characteristic Danish features in the field of music would require at least a couple of doctorate theses - if it is at all possible.

(You’ve probably heard the Swedish pop group "Abba". Does their music sound Swedish?)

Yet we still cling to the idea that being Danish is something of its own, a state of mind reflected in our Danish ways, but it would be nice if we were able to pinpoint what it is exactly that we appreciate so much about being Danish.

Suppose the similarity of musical style has to do with the fact we are talking pop music?

Today many rock and pop bands from Iceland, or Indonesia, or Indiana sound the same.

Thanks to movies, CD’s, television & radio, the world wide web etc. the world has in fact and in many ways become a global village; but if we tend to act alike also culturally this raises the question whether or not these are superficial trends of fashion, or whether all humans have something archetypal in common that enables us to appreciate all expressions of non-verbal art and especially music because it appeals to emotions close to basic instincts?

Let me play for you a ‘typical’ piece of English music: "God save our gracious Queen"

[play]… to some this is a tune that epitomizes the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of the British empire, but it was, actually, composed by the French composer Jean Baptiste Lully (ironically a representative of their French arch-enemies), and originally a dance tune.

Further, one of the most loved works of English music of the Baroque era, the "Messiah" - a celebrated piece and thought to be very ‘English’ was composed the by the German Georg Friedrich Handel. So, it seems that unlike languages and lyrics musical features are not able to convey any ‘meaning’ as such. The Nazis fitted other words to originally Communist tunes, just like Handel in his "Messiah" re-cycled some of his earlier settings to other words, often quite contrary and very vernacular or ‘worldly’ lyrics far from the dignified lyrics of the Bible.

What music may reflect or "tell" is not any specific "story", rather a state of mind - more about this later.

The influx of foreign material and cultural influence isn’t of a recent date, nor is it restricted to Denmark or to pop music. A few of you may know the following song from Wisconsin 1861, "I Shan’t Forget That Day"/"Dengang jeg drog af sted" sung by a small choir of my pupils in my own arrangement. It is a genuine Danish song, but as you will hear, the song works equally well in both languages, and the lyrics are the same [play tape + see text at bottom of this web page]

What happened was that a Danish song, written and composed in the war from 1848-50 against the rebels in the now German duchies of Schleswig-Holstein (you may know the breed of cow) was translated and sung by Danish immigrants in Wisconsin when they were volunteer soldiers in the Civil War 1861-65.

However, the lilting 6/8 rhythm of the original English folk song of Billy Boy was drastically changed into a swinging 2/4 rhythm when it made the journey to the US, and the change of the social circumstances was reflected in the lyrics, too: thus in the English version the girl makes an ‘Irish stew’ whereas her American counterpart is much more of a tomcat and bites Billy on the chin and tosses his hat to the cat [play and sing a bit of both].

I once read that among the Scandinavian immigrants in the US the 300,000+ Danes scattered rather quickly and were integrated more easily - and therefore never constituted a conspicuous cultural force and influence - whereas the Norwegians and especially the Swedes tended to stay together and hence were a long time in integrating. (From westerns we all know the Swedish cook "Olson" who speaks with a very peculiar and typical dialect.) As you will see later this ability to adapt reflects the eclectic nature of Danish culture including music.

Now, let me read to you the Danish poet Benny Andersen’s poem on what it means to be Danish: [read: A Cosmopolitan In Denmark]

The distinguishing mark of Danish culture today is perhaps not so much what we read, eat, wear or listen or dance to, but our mental outlook upon the world: storyteller Hans Christian Andersen wrote about Denmark, "You tiny country so snugly hidden away while the rest of the world is burning round your cradle". On the one hand this indicates a smug withdrawal from focal point issues, but on the other hand it also indicates that our national and cultural profile is not one to attract attention.

Poet Benny Andersen puts it this way in his poem on Goodness: [read poem]

We like to think that Danish culture is something particular that can be distinguished from, say, that of Germany, and we are really disappointed when tourists tell us that they don’t see the difference when crossing the border. The tourists don’t recognize the North until they get to Sweden or Norway. I guess the question is what kind of common denominator we will allow and how closely we look at the distinguishing features of our cultures.

Now, we certainly do share cultural bonds with Sweden and Norway which is clearly reflected in our languages - after all Norway was part of the Danish kingdom till 1815 - when we lost it to - Sweden (!) - Norway did not become an independent kingdom until 1905 - and then with a king of Danish descent! Still, we know almost instantly, even from just looking at somebody from a distance, that the person in question is either Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian: the gait, the clothing, the haircut, the posture, and when we speak - apart from the intonation of the language - first of all the humor; a lot of things go into the picture. Perhaps the climate and countryside is the key to the problem. [ex "To be or not to be…/ At vare eller ikke vare"… to us the Norwegian pronunciation is impossible - the pathos is gone]

Sometimes, though, Norwegian and Swedish folk songs fit right into the Danish repertoire. I bet most Danes will think of the following as a genuine example of a Danish folk song, but it is, in fact Norwegian. In my arrangement I’ve added an extra bit of Danish humor + a fugal treatment: Norwegian traditional, Poul sine høns - Paul was careless, and his hens were taken by the fox [play tape]

What is beyond doubt, however, is that Denmark is situated as a stepping stone between the North and central mainland Europe; so Danish culture is an eclectic mix of both which also reflects in our mental outlook. We were Vikings, but we are not a truly Nordic people.

You know - and probably better than I do - that lumping together the people of a nation is wrong or impossible, especially for a nation the size of the US of A. The same thing, however, applies to a very small and relatively homogenous nation like Denmark because when you narrow down your scope you will still find traits and features that distinguish one region from another.

Linguistic studies will reveal that the Danish language is spoken in hundreds of dialects, small variations just 10 miles apart, mostly due to the fact that it wasn’t until this century that people moved or even went visiting outside their own parish. People lived and died where they were born. And natural boundaries such as creeks were apparently enough to keep people from roaming. What a fall from the Vikings’ circumnavigating the world!

Similarly, folk dancing was different from region to region, even in the way people dressed. In the old days the costumes were as good an indication of origin as license plates. Some Norwegians still dress that way (and Guatemalans, I just happen to know).

However, wherever you are in Denmark you are never more than some 30 miles from the sea, and we are and have always been a sea-faring people which means that from early on foreign cultural influence has been felt and copied, especially in the ruling circles. Those who never left their parishes didn’t feel the change that much - on the other hand, their culture is not the one that set the trend to follow. It was said about one of our kings of the 1700s that he spoke French to his wife the Queen, German to his servants (as in the army), and Danish to his dog! And our equivalent to French playwright Molière, Ludvig Holberg, who in his plays mixed satire and political wit with compassion for the common man, wrote most of his other writings in Latin.

And because Denmark is so small, we didn’t have the vast regions of wilderness like the ones we see in Norway and Sweden, hence no peculiar hermits nor any great number of self-taught characters disregarding the established ways of musical expression, and similarly no peculiar instruments like the Norwegian hardangerfele (related to the hurdy-gurdy).

On the contrary, in the 1600s the Danish king Christian IV sent out musicians to study at the courts in Italy and England to acquire some of the finesse and style of the trendsetters, - a trait we see repeated in today’s Denmark when people like to drink good imported wine, cook in refined Italian or French style, acquire the latest in electronic appliances, and dress in the latest foreign fashion – we’re super consumers of brand name goods.

Even and especially in the music of the romantic period - which otherwise was supposed to stress the national heritage - Denmark was copying especially German trends, e.g. the solo song with piano accompaniment, the Lied.

Like the naturalized German Englishman Handel several outstanding Danish composers were born ‘south of the border’ near the now German city of Hamburg; and if we limit ourselves to what is Danish and Danish only (i.e. this side of the border and outside the influence of mainstream Europe), the repertoire will not be a very big one.

So to find something particularly Danish we have to go back to the time when contact with other nations and cultures was scarce - the folk songs of the Middle Ages. We’ll return to the folk songs in the second half of my lecture.

Right now I’d like to end this first half of my lecture by playing for you the first movement of Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s third symphony from 1912 entitled Espansiva, quite possibly the best symphonic work in all of Danish symphonic music and a good example of a classical Danish composer writing for an international audience. In his own words he "wanted to protest against the typical Danish smoothing over - stronger rhythms and more advanced harmony."

When in 1965 Leonard Bernstein was awarded the distinguished Danish Sonning Music Prize (a prize awarded to a.o. Igor Stravinsky and Miles Davis) in recognition of his recording of Nielsen’s fifth symphony with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, he signed for it by conducting the Royal Danish Symphony Orchestra in Nielsen’s Sinfonia Espansiva, which in its ‘expanding’ development of its themes resembles the very best in Beethoven and Brahms - a feature much appreciated by the dynamic American Leonard Bernstein [play music].

On the tape is also the first and last movements of his fifth symphony - featuring a solo snare drum - and like it happened to some of his contemporaries in the beginning of this century (Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky) some of Nielsen’s audience were either baffled or downright angry and fled the halls causing riots at its first performances.

------------------------- end of first half of lecture ---------------------------------------

Perhaps the most significant part of the Danish musical output is found in our songs.
In other countries people may cry for "a speech" at weddings or other social functions.  In Denmark we like to put our words into a song, especially in this type of school as you must have experienced already. Grundtvig - the founder of a.o. the Danish "high schools" like the one right here - wrote songs that were history lessons for the farmers, partly as enlightenment, partly to boost their self-esteem as free farmers of Viking breed. These "high schools" thus became political breeding grounds for Danish farm youth which eventually lead to such feats as the co-ops and the foundation of a proper political party of farmers that eventually took power in parliament. (The party was called the "Left" because they sat on the left hand side in parliament. This was before the industrial workers united, and it is worth noticing that the "leftish" farmers tried very hard to keep the workers away from political influence by claiming that only landowners or people in business should be allowed to vote.)

But Grundtvig has earned himself an everlasting place in Danish cultural history not only as a writer of psalms and songs, but also as one of the founders of our constitution and a most powerful advocate of a more liberal educational policy for Denmark. He mounted a campaign against rigid, formalized teaching and urged that children should be encouraged to express their own personalities. I shall return to that later in my lecture.

Alongside the artistic solo song of the Romantic era, the Lied, Danish songs for the people were composed by a host of songwriters to some of the best lyrics about our country, countrymen, and heritage. The singing of these songs came to an all time high during WW2 when Danes protested the German occupation by gathering in great numbers singing together the well-known songs of Denmark (in the Ghandi–Martin Luther King fashion of non-violent civil disobedience).

Hvor smiler fager
Danmark nu blunder
Jens vejmand
Det var en lørdag aften
Livet er en morgengave

Now, these were public songs praising Denmark and Danes, but the tradition is carried further: before our referendums on the European Union there were homemade supportive songs for "Yes" and "No" sung on the radio; but most importantly: whenever there is a family function of some importance (birthdays, baptism, confirmations, weddings, silver weddings, etc.) new homemade occasional songs to known tunes are written by parents, siblings, aunts and uncles telling anecdotes from the family past.

Some of these family songs are trashy - the important thing is that we expect them, and sing them - and laugh - together! - when remembering the past. It’s our way of keeping up with the family past - much like what Kunta Kinte did in Alex Haley’s "Roots".

A typical first stanza of a song of this kind would be:

It’s fun to be in school again
To learn of Danish ways
We studied have for hours on end
Enjoying every day
At Stovring High we learn and grow
In minds as well as hearts
Communicate in constant flow
About the Nordic arts

to the tune of "America, the Beautiful" (no offense, of course - incidentally, it goes equally well to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne", which only proves once again that outer musical form may be applied to different contents…)

This tradition for poetic output is seen clearly in the many children’s songs we sing - and they sing. In addition to and far overshadowing nursery rhymes we have a great many songs for children, some of them made by children themselves - sometimes we have a craze of making songs or rap-like rhymes, crazes that sweep the country like that of the hoola-hoop or yo-yo. To illustrate this development in Danish music I’d like to play you a medley of such songs.

When I was a child in the 1940s and 50s children’s songs were like the following song - please note the musical accuracy and precise pronunciation - the adult conductor is very much present: Op lille Hans - Rise, little boy, time for school [play tape]

In the 60s and 70s the influence of the rebellious youth had set in, and now it didn’t matter if the singing was a bit off pitch (like the blues) - and the accompaniment was jazzy:

Per Syvspring – The Seven Jumps of Dancing Peter - this is actually a dance in the old group vain - [play tape]

Here’s another example of serious music making for children. This simple children’s song has been dressed up in a fine gospel-like arrangement. Still simple but with a lot of refined musical quality, and played by one of our foremost bass players Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen: En elefant kom marcherende - One Elephant Came A-Marching, two elephants came… [play tape]

Some of the old children’s songs have been re-recorded over and over in new arrangements: Åh, abe - The Monkey Song [play tape]

The roots of this last song date back to the 30s when a group of writers and composers initiated what came to be called cultural radicalism . The object was to liberate the mind as well as the body through loosening the ties of traditional thinking as regards decency and decorum. One of our most famous designers Poul Henningsen was the leading figure in this movement.

Poul Henningsen also wrote satirical lyrics to new Danish tunes in the jazz vain, some of which were turned into a special Danish feature, a Revy (Review) which combined the tradition of music hall variety with political and cultural satire, very often close to the aphoristic style of Benny Andersen, the cosmopolitan from earlier on. Many of these songs are still sung as they deal with everlasting ethical problems like xenophobia, third world problems, desire for power, etc. Poems and texts that should always be remembered, and since they are songs, they will the more. (You will get back to this in your lecture on Danish literature)

Here’s a Robert Frost-like meditative song describing the Danish countryside:
Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen: I skovens dybe stille ro (Tranquility In The Woods).  The piano player is the naturalized American Kenny Drew who lived in Copenhagen for many years [ play tape]

Another example is this harmonically very complicated song about the sweet smell of a very damp afternoon and evening after rainfall:
Yndigt dufter Danmark - How Lovely Is The Scent of Denmark [play tape]

Several of our composers of this century have composed tunes to lyrics of the past century. Thus Otto Mortensen (one of my teachers in arranging and composition at the University of Århus) set the following love song to music. The lyrics of the first stanza are:

She is sweet, she is soft,
She is slender round her waist.
She is pliable and meek
And stands tall like a rush.
Her cheek is so soft
And as warm as a rose.
She is dainty and kissable
On mouth, hand, and arm.

Hun er sød - She Is Sweet [play tape]

The origins of the singing outside the church dates back to the folk songs of the Middle Ages, but unfortunately we don’t know very much about it as it is not recorded. The recorded history of Danish music is limited to church related music which was predominantly German in character due to the introduction of the teachings of Martin Luther called the ‘Reformation’ in 1536. New psalm lyrics were written to the old well-known hymns and other tunes of which most were German. Not until the 17- and 1800s did we record folk music, and even that presents some problems as the ‘scribes’, the informants of the time, may have been inaccurate, or simply changed what they though ‘odd’ (meaning peculiarly Danish) into more established and generally accepted ways of musical expression.

The earliest fragment of Danish music is from c. 1300, but it stands alone as documentation of the tradition. It was added on the manuscript of a law for Skåne now the southern part of Sweden, and it goes like this: "Drømdæ mik æn drøm i nat um silki ok ærlik pæl" (I Dreamed Last Night) in an old Greek key called the Dorian mode, close to the minor mode.

For many years in the beginning of radio broadcasts this fragment was used as a pause signal between the programs. (Now there’s hardly a second between the programs.)

[sing ex]

These early folk songs probably originated either as a counterpart to the Gregorian chant heard in church, or as an offspring of a troubadour-like tradition, i.e. not folk songs at all, but songs written for and by the noblesse, the landed gentry. But they survived and was sung widely, danced to and formed the stepping stone to the broadsides of later centuries.

One such song is Ravnen - the Raven - a song on the Faustian theme of a woman who trades her first born child to be with the one she loves - [sing/dance orig.]

Last year the song was revived by a pop group which gave it this techno-like rendition:

Sorten Muld, Ravnen [play tape]

This last song is very typical of our mixed heritage: we still sing the old songs, but we sing them in today’s international fashion - and that’s probably how it should be: tradition for tradition’s sake is not healthy for any culture. So when you see pictures of Danish country houses and quaint little villages like Solvang, California, you should note that they are few in number and that we put them in the catalogue mainly to attract tourists. Inside, these houses are all equipped with the latest of fashions and gadgets as these houses cost quite a lot and the owners are all well off. No museum to it at all. We are not mummies.

But - as one of our rock poets urged in a song: "Your spine will wither away if you don’t dance with your grannie." Don’t be so dynamic that you lose sight of and forget about your past.

And from what I see is happening in America, you’ve come to the same conclusion.

Your presence here sets a fine example.

Thank you.

Erik Moldrup


I Shan’t Forget That Day
When first I went away
My lassie dear she would not stay
Of course she would not stay.
You cannot go along
Through warfare, strife, and throng
But if they don’t kill me, dear,
I shall return with song.
I would, there were no danger, Sis,
As lief remain with thee,
But all the girls of North, you see,
Rely just now on me.
And therefore I will fight
The rebels left and right,
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!

(Incidentally, "Hurrah" - hooray - was the old battle cry used by Danish soldiers to scare off the enemy by sounding it off when attacking. Later it has come to signal a toast. So it goes.)

Occasional lyrics to the tune of "America the Beautiful"/"Auld Lang Syne"…:
(the uneven rhymes are intended)

It’s fun to be in school again
To learn of Danish ways.
We studied have for hours on end
Enjoying every day.
At Stovring High we learn and grow
In minds as well as hearts,
Communicate in constant flow
About the Nordic arts.

Chr. Winther/O. Mortensen: Hun er sød/She Is Sweet (first stanza, my transl.)

She is sweet, she is soft,
She is slim round her waist.
She is flexible and pliable
Erect like a rush.
Ooh, her cheek is so soft
And as warm as a rose.
She is dainty-cute and kissable
On mouth, hand, and arm.

Danish trad.: Jeg kan se på dine øjne (first stanza)

I can tell from the look in your eyes that you are in love with another.
My sweetest friend tell me who it is.
Your dark brown eyes and your rosy mouth
They have put upon my heart a burden so heavy.


A (very) short history of Danish music - overview:

the Middle Ages: folk songs and ballads (troubadours) fifes and drums (tambourines)

Renascence : king Christian IV, musical export/import, Danish musicians studied abroad

Baroque: predominantly German in character (psalms, organ works)

Classicism: German Classicism (like Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert)

Romanticism: Lieder in the German vain + growing interest in Danish folk songs

20th Century: the Danish folk-like song

Outstanding Danes of international repute:

Tycho Brahe (suggested laws for the movement of the planets - 1500s)

Ole Rømer (measured the speed of light in 1676)

H.C. Ørsted (found electro magnetism c. 1800)

Søren Kierkegaard (formed the philosophy of existentialism, 1820s)

Valdemar Poulsen (invented the radio c. 1900 - like Marconi/Bell)

Niels Bohr (founder of quantum mechanics - 1920s)


As you may already know the Scandinavian countries have a lot in common:

  • our languages are different in intonation, but very similar in spelling
  • exx. (old Norse: konungr, Swedish: kung, Danish: konge,

    (German: König, English king >< Latin: rex, French: roi)

  • our democratic heritage, political parties and parliaments
  • our judicial systems
  • but first of all our history:
  • we were all Vikings
  • we are all monarchies, interrelated or -married
  • Norway was part of the Danish kingdom until the fall of Napoleon in 1815, and after that part of Sweden until 1905
  • it is perhaps interesting to note that the Swedes were our arch-enemies till c.1850 when a battalion of students from Sweden came to our assistance in the war against the rebels in the southern duchies who were assisted by Prussia and Austria. And when the Swedes started to migrate due to the generally miserable conditions in Sweden in the mid 1800s (a whole lot of them to the US), many of them also took the shorter journey to Denmark