Scandinavian Seminar 2002

Stovring, Monday 5 August 2002, 2-4 p.m.

Good afternoon.  My name is Erik Moldrup, and I feel privileged to be the one to tell you about Danish music in this week’s series of lectures on Denmark and Danish culture. I teach advanced level music history, theory and composition at one of our local high school-colleges with occasional freelancing at our local university. (I also taught high school and college in Washington State and Oregon when I was a Fulbright exchange teacher in the US in the academic year 1990-91.) Quite frankly, I have been looking forward to meeting you and sharing with you some of the music of Denmark.  The most important thing, however, is that by coming here you have shown an interest in Denmark, and I only hope that today you’ll learn something valuable to enlarge your scope and understanding of Danish ways. One warning in advance, though: Recent bran research says that music affects the same brain center as do delicious foods, sweets, and cocaine...

From my previous experiences I’ve learned that a two-hour lecture after lunch may be a bit of a strain on one’s concentration, so this year I intend to talk less, play many short examples, and also sing a few Danish songs with you.

When looking for songs to sing with you I found out that only a few Danish songs are translated into English, and of those that are translated, some are not very good, so I’ve translated the songs we’ll sing today myself – after all, some of the lyrics were written by Danish Nobel Prize winners, which didn’t come out in the translations I found.

The first song describes the wonders of Danish nature.  We don’t have much to boast of in terms of climate – temperate is the word – but the mildness, as opposed to roughness, of the nature surrounding us, is the subject of the song.
[sing: Danmark nu blunder – Denmark, the night is a slumber lush]

The second song also describes Danish summer, the light Scandinavian nights (which you may already have noticed), and the smell of soft rain (oh, yeah, summer and rain go together, now more than ever).
[play tape: Yndigt dufter Denmark – Lovely is the smell of Denmark]

The third song deals with the history below our feet, how we live in contact with our past
[sing: Hvor smiler fager – How fair and smiling the Danish coast]

Now, these are but three of many hundreds of songs that a great many Danes used to know, and they were sung widely whenever people gathered.  In recent years especially young people tend to focus on pop music, and our great national treasure of songs may sink into oblivion as these songs are not sung much in our grade schools anymore.  Which brings me to a favorite topic: What is Danish music?  Is it the music Danes listen to and sing?  Or music composed by Danes, even in a foreign vein?  Preferably, our subject should be music that’s unmistakably Danish because of special traits and features, but, alas, that kind of music is hard to come by.

Could you tell that the two songs we just sung are Scandinavian, even Danish?  Or could they be German?  Or English?

Let me illustrate this a little further:
This little song epitomizes everything English – “God Save the King/Queen” [play song] – but the music was, in fact, written by an Italian born Frenchman by the name of Jean Baptiste Lully, and only later was it brought to England.  It is really a menuet.  Or take Handel’s “The Messiah”, a great piece of English music, but Handel was German, wrote operas in the Italian vain popular at his time, and never really mastered the English language. His English king was German, too.  The composer of the French national anthem was an Austrian (Ignace Pleyel) who in turn had adapted the tune from a Flemish oratorio called “Esther”.

So, music generally escapes the usual definitions of nationality.  Musicians have always studied abroad to pick up new trends later to be familiarized in their home countries by their various patrons and, sometimes, eventually by the public at large.

The ruling classes were the ones who got to benefit from this international interchange, but the common man rarely enjoyed the music, at most only in diluted form when it had been passed on and filtered through the layers of society.

Like language, music is an integral part of any culture, and since we have different languages and dialects within languages, we might expect musical dialects from country to country.  This is not always so, however.  There are certain traits and features common to all music – how else could we appreciate music from other countries? – just like the European languages are really not that far apart [examples: king-kung-konge-König-konungr/rex-roi-rei-rey]

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 speaking—for mad hermit geniuses inventing and preserving their own style due to no contact with the outside world.  On the contrary, Danish culture is eclectic.

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 Swedish-American accent.)

Add to the above that the language of the Danish administration was first French, then German, and the fact that there has always been an import of foreign artists who came to work in Denmark just as Denmark has sent representatives abroad.  There’s a famous anecdote about a Danish king who spoke French to his wife and family, German to his staff, 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.
if time allows: 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]
Last year I spent a week in 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 thousands of years of ancient history with 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.
Take this little setting for choir: the lyrics are English – what nationality is the composer? (Danish = me)
[tape: Song]
[possibly also “In A Year”]

Furthermore: should we limit our listening to classical music only?  Would it be fair to exemplify American music by playing only Samuel Barber and possibly Edgar Varèse (who was French-born) and not Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma”, Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”, or, above all, jazz, plus an array of hybrid forms?

Here’s what most people across the world associate with Danish music: the greatest Danish export music success of all times, the Danish band “Aqua” with a satiric parody song called “Barbie Girl”
[tape: Barbie]

But let’s go back to the beginnings and listen to the music of the Vikings [read short excerpt from Ibrahim ibn Ahmed’s account of the Vikings’ singing]
if time allows: But – let’s go back to the beginnings, to the time of the Vikings, and listen to the music of the lures – not the lures from the Lurpak butter, they’re from the Bronze Ages some 3000 years ago – but an instrument similar to the alpenhorn (about four feet long).
[CD: Viking Tones 1]
if time allows: Another famous piece is from the Orkney Islands, then part of Denmark, from the 1100s.
[CD: Viking Tones 10, St. Magnus Hymn]

Perhaps the most famous of all is a fragment of a tune inscribed on the binding of the first Book of Law in Skaane, now Sweden, from the early 1200s.  Here played on a 6-stringed lyre like the ones we know from Homer’s Greece as well as sung.
[CD: Viking Tones 2, I dreamt me a dream last night + CD Medieval Music in Denmark 12]

Back then the music was predominantly vocal, which has to do with the pious ways in which music was performed, that is: 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—plus a stringed instrument like the lyre do not appear in sacred or spiritual music which seems to have had no rhythm at all, at least not a marked rhythm.  Dancing took place outside the church, not inside it.

if time allows:
Later—to make 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 ).  Among the English musicians who worked in Denmark for years was lutenist John Dowland 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].

if time allows:
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].
if time allows:
Many Danish students were sent to Italy to study, among them 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 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 by keyboard instruments such as the clavichord, the harpsichord, or the organ—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 (the age of Hayn, Mozart and Beethoven), in which the new bourgeoisie (following the revolutions in France and elsewhere) 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.

if time allows:
Here’s an extract from Weyse’s  Symphony No. 6 in c-Minor, DF 122 , [example DM1000 III/1].
Not until the Romantic period of the 1800s with its emphasis on national differences resulting from the revolutions, rebellions and attempted secessions of the time (we had our revolution in 1849) did Danish music sound particularly and peculiarly Danish.

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.

if time allows:
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) describes a typical situation of the Romantic period: the fascination and fear 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 Washington Irving’s famous story of the experiences of Rip Van Winkle [example DM1000 IV/9].

Our greatest Romantic composer is probably Niels W. 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 before 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 Elverhøj 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 combined the Danish temper and humor with an international  mastery of form.  Although he composed many charming tunes, his credoo was that “in art there should be no smoothing over.”  His third symphony entitled Synfonia Espansiva (Expansion) is full of dynamic challenges and was thus 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 “America” in which we are told that in America everything is easily available - you just reach out to get what you want.  This first movement is called Fountains of liqueur, 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 Stravinsky.
[ex 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.
[exDM1000 IX/3]

The inspiration from Asia is also felt very much in his composition I Ching (the Taoist philosophy) from 1982 [example DM 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: 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]
Already at 16 Ørsted-Pedersen was invited to join Count Basie’s famous orchestra, an offer he declined and good for us, for he has made a great many wonderful recordings of Danish songs + some of his own compositions.  Here’s a children’s song: “One Elephant Came A-Marching” [these are his two girls singing - play tape]

We’re nearing the end of my lecture.  For our closing song let’s sing one of the most beloved Danish songs Jens the Roadman [tell story - Danish Robert Burns]

if time allows:
Folk high schools – story of Highlander Folk High School – on the Internet

Victor Borge, Danish humor

This lecture and two of my previous lectures are posted and made public on the Internet in case you’d like to read them – the URL’s are +

August 2002
Erik Moldrup