Knudåge Riisager by Claus Røllum-Larsen
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 Slaraf-fenland (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.
KNUDÅGE RIISAGER AND THE VIOLIN by Claus Røllum-Larsen
Knudåge Riisager had a close relationship with the violin, an instrument he was already playing at the age of seven. At first he had a child's violin, but at 15 he was given a full-sized violin. His first teacher was Carl Sanne, who also taught him music theory, but in 1915 Riisager began taking lessons from Peder Møller. Møller was one of the most important Danish violinists of the time, prominent both as a soloist in orchestral concerts and as a trio and quartet player. As a teacher too he was greatly appreciated, and by all indications Riisager enjoyed the violin lessons. When Riisager made his debut as a composer in 1919 with his First String Quartet, it was the Peder Møller Quartet who ‘christened' it. We know relatively little about Riisager's violin career. In his upper secondary years at the Henrik Madsen School (the later - now closed-down - Skt. Jørgens Upper Secondary) he was a member of the school orchestra and appeared in concerts as early as 1913. But after Riisager had taken his school leaving exam in 1915, the violin playing seems to have faded into the background in favour of his studies in economics at the University on the one hand, and on the other his training in music theory with a view to becoming a composer.
Although Riisager thus played down or presumably actually gave up his activities as a musician, his work list bears unmistakable marks of his close relationship with the violin and a wish to enrich the instrument with a number of substantial works, concluding with his only solo concerto, the violin concerto from 1951. Back in his early teenage years Riisager had tackled small pieces for violin and piano. Romance in C major, which he dedicated to his mother, Henrikke Riisager, is his earliest dated com-position. This lush little work was - not surprisingly - conceived in a Late Romantic style which may have echoes of Fini Henriques' violin music, which Riisager knew - perhaps of Henriques' well loved violin romance. More lively and elaborated is his Minuet from 1916. By this time Riisager had composed seriously for four years and had written more than 20 works, most of which were very likely just as short as those recorded here. Riisager presumably destroyed the majority of these early works, but fortunately, from 1914 on, we have a quite respectable series of works that show us the development in the young composer's style. There is at any rate a considerable leap from the two works mentioned to the third early Riisager work, Aquarelle in E major. This is from 1917 and makes use of a far more developed harmony that has touches of early Impressionism, and which with its delicate expression fully matches the title Aquarelle - that is, watercolour painting. In these early years Riisager tried his hand at setting dissonances against pure triads, in final chords for example, and Aquarelle is a surprisingly successful example of this ‘experimental' style of his youth.
However, Riisager also wrote larger youthful works for violin. From 1917, for example, we have a three-movement sonata with piano, and from 1919 a sonata for violin and viola. After this his early association with the violin stops. We have to move forward to 1923 before Riisager again feels inspired by the combination violin/piano. During his watershed stay in Paris in 1923, he composed Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2, op. 5, and the next year, in April 1924, he completed a revision of the work. Like the early Romance, this sonata is also dedicated to the composer's mother, but now the format of the work has grown crucially. His study period in Paris had fundamentally changed Riisager's way of writing. For one thing he took lessons from highly respected teach-ers, for another he frequented a milieu where it was not only French music that made a strong impression on him; the new music of the period in general was present in ample quantities. Riisager's sonata bears the imprint of these many different impressions, but if one were to mention the most important impulses, they must be Erik Satie, Igor Stravin-sky and Sergei Prokofiev. In the first movement, though, one of the most salient features is the Romantic gesture; that is, the expansive treatment of melody with large intervals and the swelling harmonies which, it must be admitted, execute som drastic swerves and colour the musical pro-gression in fascinating ways, but which trace their origins and mode of expression to the Romantic sonata style. In the third movement, however, the ties with the Romantic style have on the whole gone. The first subject, with its fourth leaps, its sharply drawn profile and its shifting time signatures, takes us into the tonal world of the 1920s. One notes that the first chord in the accompaniment is a hammered-out stacking of fourths and thus has a pentatonic sound.
This sonata is a major work in Riisager's production and is important to the understanding of his early development, in the sense that it contains prominent stylistic features from the works of the composers he had met during his stay in Paris, where he wrote the sonata in the course of the summer. Nevertheless it repre-sents a stage in his development that he quickly put behind him; perhaps he himself felt the ties to the great Romantic tradition were too restrictive. At all events, in several of the works that he composed in the year after his time in Paris he was on his way towards something quite different - one hears this in works like Suite Dionysiaque op. 6 and the Sinfonietta for Eight Winds op. 7. Here the impulses from among others Satie and Stravinsky are far more conspicuous than in the sonata, which was given its first performance on 17th February 1925 by the violinist Karen Fridericia and the pianist Max Rytter in a concert at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen.
Concertino for Five Violins and Piano, op. 28a, and Sonata for Two Solo Violins, op. 55b, are both representative of the neo-Baroque way of writing that Riisager used in a number of works after his period of study with Hermann Grabner in Leipzig in 1932. The Concer-tino, which is end-dated 22nd May 1933, is typified by intense drive and a style that clearly refers to the concerto form of the Baroque. As is the case with the contempo-raneous Concertino for Trumpet and String Orchestra, the middle movement is more removed from the Baroque idiom for such movements. In the Trumpet Concertino the soloist plays this section muted, as do the six instruments in the Violin Concertino; that is, the violins are muted and the piano plays una corda. The Concertino for Five Violins and Piano was given its first performance at Den Frie Udstilling in Copenhagen on 25th November 1933 by the violinists Charles Senderowitz, Lilli Paulsen, Gjerd Bruhn, Lavard Friis-holm and Ejvin Andersen, with the composer Otto Mortensen at the piano.
The Sonata for Two Solo Violins is a far later work. It was composed in 1951 and only given its first performance on 18th February 1958. The inspiration to compose such a sonata may have come to Riisager from Béla Bartók's Sonata for Solo Violin from 1944, or perhaps rather from Sergei Prokofiev's Sonata for Two Violins from 1932. Riisager's work is in three movements, the first of which is marked by its forward drive and a certain mechanistic rigour, but also by limited rhythmic variation. The second movement is decidedly polyphonic and cantabile, while the third movement is strongly rhythmic and sonorous. The sonata is certainly one of Riisager's most challen-ging works for the listener. But the sonata presents among other things many harmonic surprises which the attentive listener will be able to enjoy.
Besides these, this CD features three short works for violin and piano: Sovesang (Lulla-by), which is an arrangement of one of the melodies from Børneviser (Children's Songs) - Riisager and Mogens Lorentzen's popular collection for children from 1936; Bricconata, that is ‘a prank', from 1952; and Palavas from 1951. The last two works were written for and dedicated to Wandy Tworek, to whom Riisager had also dedicated his violin concerto, which had been given its first performance by Tworek in a DR Thursday Concert the same year. Both these small works - unlike the concerto - are virtuosic sparklers clearly composed with Wandy Tworek's effervescent, charming playing in mind. One almost gets the idea that Palavas, with its violinistic acrobatics, is a discreet tribute to Fini Henriques.
Claus Røllum-Larsen is senior researcher at The Royal Library.