Støvring Højskole: Scandinavian Seminar

Monday 6 August 2001 (2-4 p.m.): Lecture on Danish Music

Some Highlights in Classical Danish Music

Good afternoon. My name is Erik Moldrup, and I will be your guide on this afternoon's tour of Danish music. To start things off right away, here’s a sample of what we would immediately identify as Danish music, Svend S. Schultz: Midsommersang (Midsummer’s Song) [example DM1000 VIII/19].

First of all, I feel a need to be frank and tell you that I've been here before, in this very room talking to Americans about Danish music. And every time I've thought hard and long to find an interesting angle of how to convey the message in the most suitable form. Having taught college and high school Music Theory and English Literature for more than 35 years that shouldn't be too much of a task for me—I know the music and the language—but I guess that you, too, know that the better you know a subject, the harder it is to exclude the details that if included may blur the picture, but if excluded will render a story less than the whole truth. For many of the finer details and calculations and accounts I refer you to these other lectures posted on the Internet (the URL’s are on the song sheets and after this article).

Danish Music - A Definition
Now, these things said, we need to define what we mean by "Danish music".
What is Danish music? Is it music that:

Of the four, the last option is by far the most desired for our purpose, the only trouble is that examples of such music are hard to come by. Music is indeed an international language, and only in isolated and secluded areas which serve as ghettos with little or no contact with the mainstream world do we find special phenomena like the music and dancing of the Spanish flamenco or the Irish riverdance.

Please allow me to stray for a couple of minutes to illustrate my point:

The famous English national anthem God Save the King, which has come to epitomize everything English, was, in fact, a menuet composed by the French composer Jean Baptiste Lully (who happened to be born in Italy); only the lyrics are English (but not so originally).

Handel, the composer of The Messiah, was German, and the composer of the French national anthem La Marseillaise was an Austrian (Ignace Pleyel), who in turn had adapted the tune from a Flemish oratorio called Esther. The only thing French is the words which were mainly re-writings from revolutionary pamphlets of the time.

In much the same way, many Irish polkas are not uniquely Irish folk music at all since their musical material is commonplace: as the name says, polkas originated in Poland, and their characteristics are the same the world over.

In short: music history is a story of give and take, of an eclectic borrowing, the world over.

As a cultural stepping stone between the North and Central Europe, Denmark and hence Danish culture has always been influenced by that of other countries, and the general geography and comparatively rather homogenous structure of Danish administration and mental attitude has meant that the general cultural development has never left any room—also literally, geographically speaking—for mad hermit geniuses inventing and preserving their own style due to no contact with the outside world.

I’ve just been to Alta, Norway, about a hundred miles from the North Cape, to see the midnight sun, and there’s a difference for you: barren land, far removed from anything, Sami culture with an ancient history of rock carvings. Yet, since it is part of welfare state Norway, today the small town boasts several shopping malls, a pedestrian street, satellite dishes galore and cable TV—they get and watch the same soaps as we do.

Add to the above that the language of the Danish administration was first French, then German, and that there’s always been an import of foreign artists who came to work in Denmark. There’s a famous anecdote about a Danish king who spoke French to his wife, German to his servants, and Danish to his dog.

In short, Danish culture has always received a considerable input from foreign sources, but that doesn’t mean that Danish composers haven’t excelled through the centuries.

In last year’s lecture I covered some of the problems relating to special trends in Danish music, including children’s songs—if you want to look it up, it’s at the indicated Internet addresses. This year I’ve decided to make the task a little easier for myself by limiting myself to a presentation of some of the absolute highlights in Danish music making within the reign of classical music through the ages. Because – as you undoubtedly know, or suspect – Danish music goes back a long way, more than 800 years of notated music.

But before we set afoot on that journey, let’s sing a Danish song, Oluf Ring’s Danmark nu blunder den lyse nat (Denmark, the night is a slumber lush) from 1922. The lyrics are from 1914.  My translation. [song sheet]

The Music - 20 Examples
The very first time Danes appear in notated music is in this French vocal piece from about 850 A.D. called Summa pia gratia. The lyrics say "Free us, o God, from the furious race of the North/ That devastates our lands/ It enslaves the old, the young, the virgin,/ Yea, even our children" [example MMID 2].

Only very little medieval music has survived in Denmark (as elsewhere) in notated form, and of the manuscripts we have left it is difficult to tell which music is Danish as opposed to common property. The lyrics are most often in Latin—the lingua franca of the period—which makes it difficult to discern the national identity of the music, but there are, however, also songs with Danish lyrics from the period.

Here’s one of the very first examples of original Danish music, a fragment of notes in the so-called Latin (Catholic) choral notation (quadratic notation) inscribed on the backside of the cover of a law book found in Skaane, Sweden, then part of Denmark, in about the year 1230 A.D. The Danish lyrics written in Runes are Drømdæ mik æn drøm i nat om silki… (I dreamed a dream last night, about silk and…) [example DM1000 I/1 or MMID 12 – pass illus around].

In the 1100s two Danes, a king and a duke, were canonized by the Roman church. The complete masses held in Denmark for these saints have been preserved for posterity and here’s an example of the Gregorian chant of the Roman Catholic church, Danish style, Ave Martyr Dux Danorum (Hail, Martyr Duke of the Danes) [example MMID 11]

Back then the music was predominantly vocal, which has to do with the pious ways in which music was performed, that is, mind you, the music we know of today. Because—since we only know of recorded (i.e. written) music, it also means that of what was sung and played outside the walls of the churches, or of the monasteries where the scribes lived, we know very little. We can only assume that the two kinds of music didn’t differ too much, but it is certain that the preferred instruments of secular (popular) music—various wind instruments of the time + percussion, the "fife and drum" if you will—do not appear in sacred or spiritual music which seems to have no rhythm at all, at least not a marked rhythm. Dancing took place outside the church, not inside it.

Later—to take a huge step forward, to the 1540s, the time after the Reformation when more instruments had come to the fore—the music, which so far had been only vocal, was now played, too, often with the instruments simply doubling the vocals, later scored more independently. Here’s a piece composed in the honor of the Danish king Christian III, the last line quoting his (German) motto: "Ach Gott, schaff deinen Willen" (Oh, God, thy will be done) [example DM1000 I/3].

In the Renaissance all European patrons of the arts, who were often the kings as much music was used to represent the king and his glory, made wide use of foreign artists. Thus the Danish Renaissance king Christian IV (1588-1648) sent Danish composers to Italy to learn from the Italians and exchanged musicians with his English brother-in-law King James I (the one with the Bible). The dowry was the Shetland and Orkney Islands as far as I remember – that’s how we lost them, officially, that is; they had been annexed illegally earlier on by Scotland. The Danish princess called Anne was later to preside over the opening night of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and Shakespeare may have got the inspiration to Hamlet from this close diplomatic and artistic co-operation between Denmark and England. Among the English musicians who worked in Denmark for years was lutenist John Dowland (1562-1626) who composed many of his finest pieces here. Here’s Dowland’s tribute to his employer, The King of Denmark’s Gaillard [example BIS 390/12].

Like his English colleague Henry VIII, Christian IV had several wives and a great many children whom he managed to marry away to the royalty of Europe. This called for much festive music by foreign, imported musicians and Danes alike as it is heard in Allesandro Orologio’s Intrada, dedicated to the Danish king [example BIS 390/1].

Among the many Danish students who were sent to Italy to study was Mogens Pedersøn (1580-1623) who composed secular as well as spiritual music. An example of the former is his madrigal with Italian lyrics "Tu fuggi e col fuggire" (You fly away, and by your flying/ You think that you can kill me) [example BIS 392/1].

The music played and enjoyed at court was thus international – even in Denmark which, however, at the time was a kingdom of considerable size. But most of what was played outside the walls of the castles is not known to us today.

You will have noted that alongside the upcoming instrumental music the vocal arts were not neglected. The music of the church was still predominantly vocal, thus in Pedersøn’s Kyrie from his mass Pratum Spirituale from 1620 (Lord, have mercy upon us) [example BIS 389/1].

However, instrumental music was soon to take the fore—beside wind instruments especially keyboard instruments such as the clavichord, the harpsichord, or the organ became popular—and in the Baroque era Danish composer Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) was much admired in Germany. Thus the great German composer J.S. Bach (1685-1750) made a pilgrimage in his formative years to hear Buxtehude play in Lübeck, now Germany. Incidentally, Buxtehude was born in what is today Sweden, which only adds to the confusion of what is Danish music. Here’s the second movement from Buxtehude’s Aria in A-Minor (BuxWV 249) [example DM1000 I/26].

You will have noticed that what we have heard so far would probably fit the repertoire of any European court or church (many of the psalms we sing in church today have German tunes), and in the following period, that of the Viennese Classicism in which the new bourgeoisie began to act as patrons of the art, Danish composer C.E.F. Weyse (1774-1842) composed in a style which was much influenced by Mozart. Here’s an extract from Weyse’s Symphony No. 6 in c-Minor, DF 122 , [example DM1000 III/1].

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

Let's sing another Danish song, this time Oluf Ring's Hvor smiler fager [song sheet]

Music Examples - continued
Not until the Romantic period of the 1800s with its emphasis on national differences did Danish music sound particularly and peculiarly Danish. (Incidentally, this emphasis on national differences also resulted in many revolutions, rebellions and attempted secessions - we had our revolution in 1849.)

But when the desire for inspiration from genuine folk music became the keyword, composers started collecting and studying medieval folk songs, i.e. first and foremost the lyrics as the tunes had all been handed down verbally and had undergone some change.

What has become our national opera is a so-called ballad opera, a play with songs. But the plot and the songs are linked to old tales of witchcraft which in a modern interpretation reveal a deep insight into psychological matters regarding sex and marriage, life and death. The following aria from 1828 by Friedrich Kuhlau (1786-1832 - another Dane born south of the present border) called Jeg lagde mit hoved til Elverhøj (I put my head close to the enchanted hill) was built on a folk song and describes a typical situation of the Romantic period: the fear, yet fascination of nature. Other similar examples would be the German poet Goethe’s Der Erlkönig (the Erl-king or Fairy King whose daughters are so enchanting), or the Romantic American Washington Irving’s famous story of the experiences of Rip Van Winkle [example DM1000 IV/9].

Our greatest Romantic composer is probably Niels Wilhelm Gade (1817-1890) who had a hard time in being accepted in Copenhagen, but who was hailed in Germany as the successor to Beethoven, no less. In this following song from his work Elverskud (Elf-shot, i.e. stricken by elfs) a young man is on his way home on the eve of his wedding, and on the way he is invited into the hills of the Fairy King to stay one night – or so he thinks. For when he resumes his journey the following day, he realizes that he has spent half a lifetime in the company of the Elf King and his daughters. This subject has been dealt with in volume upon volume of psychological interpretation: the dangers of transition and attraction. What makes the music interesting today is thus not only its historic value, but also the everlasting conflicts represented in it [example DM1000 V/1].

The following piece is also from Gade’s Elverskud depicting sunrise, a true Romantic time piece [example DM1000 V72].

Our greatest composer, however, is not Niels W. Gade, but Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). In the music of Nielsen we find Danish temper and humor expressed in an international mastery of form. His third symphony entitled Synfonia Espansiva (Expansion) is full of dynamic challenges and its scope thus more international than Danish, but it was a natural choice for the American conductor Leonard Bernstein when he was awarded the Danish Nobel prize for music, the Sonning Prize, and in return presented us with a fine recording of the symphony. This will be the only example that exceeds a few minutes, but to appreciate the development of the movement we need to listen to more than a few bars [example DM1000 VII/1].

After Nielsen followed a number of young composers who tried to maintain Nielsen’s combination of Danish humor and technical excellence, among them Knud Aage Riisager (1897-1974) who before he started composing was also a graduate of economics and worked for the Danish state as a head of department in the Ministry of Finance for 25 years. Riisager shared in the public oriented view that music should be captivating and elegant, but not devoid of internal tension. Here are a couple of short movements from his suite Slaraffenland (El Dorado, or: the land of milk and honey), a musical counterpart to a famous poem called "The Journey to America" in which we are told that in America everything is easily available - you just reach out to get what you want. This first of the selected movements is called Fountains of liqueur (or sodapop with spirits), and the orchestration clearly illustrates an influence from impressionist composers like Debussy and Ravel. In the second of these short movements, called Procession of the Gluttons, certain bi-tonal clusters indicate a strong influence from (the Russian born) Igor Stravinsky (who lived in France and the US most of his adult life) [examples DM1000 VIII/6-7].

From the mid-1900s on most Danish composers have usually been characterized through a comparison with the models they have studied with abroad. This also means that whatever national trait they might have displayed is subdued and overridden by more international standards. In other words, we are back to the situation before the Romantic period.

Among the most unique Danish composers of the latter part of the past century is Per Nørgaard (b. 1932) whose Drømmesange (Dream Songs) from 1981 bear testimony of his Nordic background plus a tendency to experiment, in this case by adding Asian inspired percussion to a simple folk song that undergoes further and further harmonic development [example DM1000 IX/3].

The inspiration from Asia is also felt very much in his composition I Ching (the Taoist philosophy) from 1982 [example DM1000 IX/6].

As is the case in most other western countries, the Danish music of the most recent decades has been marked by first avantgardist, later post modern attitudes or stylistic pluralism. I would like, however, to end this presentation of Danish music with a recent arrangement of an old folk song in which the Robert Frost-like meditative lyrics describing the Danish countryside are turned into a jazz ballad featuring bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen: I skovens dybe stille ro (Tranquility In The Woods). The pianist is the naturalized American Kenny Drew who lived in Copenhagen for many years [play tape].

August 2001
Erik Moldrup
comments to: erik(at)

Back to the main page


This lecture + lectures from previous years at
[the www’s may be omitted in all the following URL's]

e.g. Moldrup's Music Homepage



On Danish folk high schools in America, see:


DM 1000 = Dansk musik i 1000 år - an anthology - CD dacapo 8.224184-96
(A Thousands Years of Danish Music, box of 13 CD's)

MMID = Medieval Music in Denmark - CD dacapo 8.224133

BIS = Tidlig dansk musik (Early Danish Music) - box of four CD's - BIS-CD-389/392

Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (bass): I skovens dybe stille ro (Tranquility In the Woods): w/ (1) Kenny Drew (piano) or (2) Oscar Peterson (piano) - available on CD