Knudåge Riisager was born on 6th March 1897 in Port Kunda, Estonia, where his father had built and at that time managed a cement factory. On the death of F.L. Smidth in 1899 Riisager's father was called home to work in Copenhagen for F.L. Smidth Company, and the family then moved to Frederiksberg, where Riisager lived for the rest of his life. After his school leaving exam in 1915 he began studying political science at the University of Copenhagen, and in 1921 he took the cand. polit. degree. From 1925 until 1950 he worked as a civil servant - for the last eleven years as a Departmental Head in the Ministry of Finance. Knudåge Riisager died on 26th December 1974.
Alongside this straightforward administrative career Riisager was prolifically active as a composer, music writer and organizer. He had his first training in theory and composition from Otto Malling, and after the latter's death in 1915 from Peder Gram. It was a study trip to Paris in 1923 that were to open the young composer's eyes in earnest to the new currents in contemporary music. In Paris Riisager became a pupil of Albert Roussel and Paul Le Flem, and the French influence can be clearly felt in his compositions from the mid-1920s. While the works of the years up to 1921 have a Nordic, lyrical, sometimes Carl Nielsenesque tone, the compositions of the years up to the mid-thirties show the influence not only of the Frenchmen Roussel and Satie, but also of Proko-fiev, Honegger, Bartók, and not least Stra-vinsky. Riisager's highly personal style is already evident in the works of these years, as expressed for example by the almost provocative use of dissonant seconds, his fondness for bitonality, the humorous element of sheer music--making, and especially Riis-ager's own distinctive attitude to orchestral setting.
This whole development can be heard in works like the Overture for Erasmus Montanus and Songs to texts by Sigbjørn Obstfelder, both from c. 1920, Suite dionysiaque from 1924, as well as Variations on a Theme of Mezangeau and T-Doxc. Poème mécanique, both from 1926. The last of these works, subtitled Jabiru, mechanical poetry, is a musical portrait of what was then a brand-new Japanese aeroplane type. The work is quite in the spirit of the ‘machine music' of the period and as such a fine example of the young composer's international orientation and will to experiment. By 1928 Riisager had begun his collaboration with the ballet at the Royal Theatre; that year he composed the music for Elna Jørgen-Jensen's ballet Benzin (Petrol) with stage designs by Robert Storm Petersen. The premiere of this work, as far its reception was concerned, must be described as a resounding flop, and when it appeared in 1930 it only managed a total of three performances. At the end of the 1930s Riisager resumed his work as a ballet composer, supplying the music for Børge Ralov's Hans Christian Andersen ballet Tolv med Posten (Twelve by the Mail). But this was not premiered at the Royal Theatre until 1942, incidentally together with Harald Lander's Slaraffenland (Fool's Paradise) and Qarrtsiluni - also with Riisager's music. Although he composed a number of significant works in the thirties and forties, it was very much these ballet scores that established Riisager's name with the general public as one of the leading composers of his generation.
And for the next few years, too, ballet music was to be Riisager's most prominent field of work. In 1945 he completed the music for Lander's Fugl Fønix (The Phoenix), and in 1947 he reworked and scored a selection of Carl Czerny's piano etudes into his and -Harald Lander's ballet Etude (later called Etudes). With this work in particular -Riisager won international recognition, and although there are precedents for the use of orchestrated piano pieces as ballet music (for example Ottorino Respighi's La Boutique -fantasque (1919)), the combination of the piano etudes and the technical progression of the dance steps has a special dimension which is precisely the point of the work as a whole.
In the 1920s Riisager had been one of the most active champions of the performance of contemporary music in Copenhagen, and was thus one of the founders of Unge Tonekunst-neres Selskab (the Society of Young Composers) (chairman 1922-24) and a member of the judging committee of the society Foreningen ‘Ny Musik'. Finally, in 1937, he became the chairman of Dansk Komponistforening (the Association of Danish Composers) - a post he kept for 25 years.
Riisager's great initiative and his talent for identifying and solving problems made him an obvious candidate for membership of innumerable society boards, committees, councils etc. not only in Denmark but also outside the country. And as we have seen, alongside these activities he kept up his work at the Ministry until 1950, when he retired as Head of Department. But Riisager refused to rest on his laurels as a senior citizen, so in 1956 he took up the challenge of becoming director of the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen. This is quite thought-provoking, since he had never himself attended the institution. And in fact as director he devoted himself to the administrative work and never taught in the eleven years he was at the Academy.
After finishing Etude Riisager went to work on his only opera, the one-acter Susanne, to a libretto by his close friend Mogens Lorentzen. It was no great success: it only saw 17 performances, and when it was revived in 1957 - for Riisager's sixtieth birthday - it was only on stage six times. Several major works now followed, including a concerto for the violin virtuoso Wandy Tworek, but as before it was to be ballet music that brought Riisager success. In the fifties his compositions included two ballet scores for the -Swedish choreographer Birgit Cullberg: Månerenen (Moon Reindeer), premiered at the Royal Theatre in 1957, and Fruen fra Havet (The Lady From The Sea), first performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1960. Worth singling out from Riisager's last ten years are Sangen om det uendelige (The Song of the Infinite) from 1964 to a text by the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, and the orchestral works Trittico from 1971 and To Apollo, composed in 1972.
Knudåge Riisager combined a full-time job as a civil servant with extensive activities as a composer, and besides making an important contribution to many of the organizations of the musical world he was an extremely prolific writer; in his younger years especially in music articles, but later as an essayist, as is evident for example from the fine books Tanker i tiden (Thoughts in Time) (1952) and Det usynlige mønster (The Invisible Pattern) (1957). In these lucidly formulated literary works, too, we experience Knudåge Riisager as a cultural personality with thorough training in the humanities and a broad cultural perspective.
As a composer Riisager had no pupils or successors, but with his unmistakable personal tone he succeeded in enriching Danish music with an extra dimension of spirituality and pithiness.