Emil Reesen was born to a musical family in 1887 in Gentofte north of Copenhagen. His father, Julius Reesen, was musical director in the First Regiment, his mother composed on the small scale, and there was no argument about whether Emil too should take up music. At the age of 4 he played both piano and violin, and at 14 he was given his first jobs as a pianist in cafés. When he was 15 he appeared for the first time with the status of “conductor” – this was in the Nykøbing Falster Revue. Reesen failed the admission text to the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen, something that continued to irritate him many years later. Instead he had some of the city’s finest private tutors like composer Vilhelm Rosenberg and pianist Siegfried Langgaard.
As a young man he had been a pupil of Liszt. His religious view of music left no noticeable traces on his pupil Reesen. Emil Reesen made his debut as a concert pianist in 1911 and got as far as performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. However, he was unwilling to give up all the various jobs a piano could also bring, so there was never really any question of a career as a classical soloist. On the other hand, a few years later Reesen became famous as a theatre conductor in Copenhagen. In 1917 he became conductor at the Tivoli Summer Theatre, in 1919 at the Dagmar Theatre and in 1921 at the Scala Theatre, which was the city’s leading musical theatre. There he performed in the biggest operettas and the best revues, and Reesen both conducted and composed for the productions. His sense of humour perfectly suited the ‘Roaring Twenties’, and cheeky, original tunes with titles like Roselille uden mor (Roselille Without her Mother), Adrienne med sin luftantenne (Adrienna with her Radio Antenna), Lille Lise let på tå (Little Lisa Light of Foot) and Guldfisken (The Goldfish) are classics of Danish revue history.
Another of his inventions was a foxtrot version of Puccini’s “Your Tiny Hand is Frozen” – it was so good that Reesen received an approving letter from Puccini. But Reesen aimed higher. In 1922 he had been on a study trip to Italy, and in 1925 he stopped working at the Scala Theatre to travel with his family to Paris for two and half years. When Reesen came back to Copenhagen, the new Danish Broadcasting Corporation had been established and a radio orchestra founded. The work had grown to more than the conductor Launy Grøndahl could manage alone, so in 1927 Reesen was employed as a conductor on an equal footing with Grøndahl. In 1931 he also began working as a ballet conductor at the Royal Danish Theatre, and Reesen was now one of the best known musical names in the country. However, his career on the radio came to an abrupt end in 1936 after long disagreements between him and the management. The temperamental Reesen was furious that he was only allowed to conduct short programmes of Danish music, and that his contract did not permit him to conduct other orchestras when he could fit it into his schedule.
For the rest of his life Emil Reesen was a freelance conductor. He conducted large orchestras like the Vienna Symphony and recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic, but also often went on tours of the Danish provinces performing film melodies. For a few years he was head of the progressive Copenhagen Concert Society, but he never managed to become permanent head of an orchestra.
In his final years Reesen was struck by paralysis, and he died at the age of 76 in 1964. His works are by and large unknown today. Only the operetta Farinelli, the imposing Kongemarch (Royal March) and a few revue songs are still alive at the beginning of the 21st century. It is better than nothing, but it only gives a microscopic picture of Reesen’s wide-ranging talents and his central position in Danish music for three or four decades.