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 first 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 Danish 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.
After Riisager's first symphony had been given its first performance in July 1926, there cannot have been much of an interval before he began work on the second symphony, which was finished on 30 March 1927. The work had been dogged by problems with the formal aspects, and indeed its form is unusual. The symphony is arranged in one movement which includes an introduction whose most important thematic material is the first five notes of an ascending E minor scale. The introductory bars and several broad, epic passages recall Sibelius' seventh symphony (1924) - a work that Sibelius himself had performed five times in Copenhagen in October 1924 - but soon characteristic Riisager features appear, not least a bitonal section with percussion. After the intro-duc-tion has culminated in ff and ebbed out in a diminuendo, the spirited first subject enters in the trumpet. Now we are no longer in doubt about the name of the composer! A sono-rous string passage leads into the delicate second subject, which is played by the first violins. Soon the first-subject material again takes the stage, and the exposition - which includes much development - ends in ff and a double bar. After this the true deve-lopment section begins. It takes its point of departure in the above-mentioned per-cus-sion passage in the exposition and paves the way for fragmentary melodic material in changing instrumentations or instrument groups and short rhythmic figures in the percus-sion, without any of this seeming willing to come together as proper thematic material. But it emer-ges that the rhythm initiated by the timpani becomes a major element in a short theme presented by the flutes which appears in double note values in the winds. Soon the first subject forces its way in. The progression is interrupted by a resumption of the intro-duc-tory motif, and the recapitulation sets in. The bridge to the second subject now comes in a retrograde version - that is, a version of the sonorous string passage from the expo-si-tion played backwards. A coda arrives, in which the first subject appears in double note values - accompanied by the ascending E minor scale from the introduction - and finally in quadruple note values. This cantus firmus conclusion of the symphony gives it a weight unusual for Riisager's works. As in the first symphony, in the second Riisa-ger avoids the traditional tonal scheme of the sonata form; by means of re-instrumen-tation and changes in rhythmic details he creates the variation that ‘-legitimizes' a repeti-tion of the material in a progression that lacks the most important feature of the form type used: the tonal -counterbalancing.
In May 1927 Riisager tried to get Carl Nielsen to put the second symphony on the programme at the society Musikforeningen, but it was not given its first performance until 5 March 1929 under the baton of Emil Reesen. The reviewers were certainly not positive. Hugo Seligmann thought it lacked any true basic thematic substance: "He gives this subjectless material a thematic treatment - so one is to understand: a task intrin-sically impossible, for the musical core is absent. But what then is left, one will ask. Will- o'-the-wisps! Oddities, pseudo-devilries!" In Ekstra Bladet one could read: "It was the now-old story of run-ups to something that never came to anything. A number of motifs at sixes and sevens, from highly extreme disharmonic figures to an unoriginal pastoral motif à la Händel; but without internal continuity, so one had the feeling that it might just as well have been played backwards as forwards." As was the case with Riisager's other symphonies, this one too was not performed more than a few times, so no revision of these views has hitherto been possible.
One might well imagine that Riisager's first two symphonies from the middle of the 1920s would have marked both the beginning and the end of his work with this form. In the structuring of these works he had shown with all possible clarity an urge to challenge the genre, so to speak from within. In 1940 he was to launch a radical and famous literary assault on the symphony (the article "The symphony is dead - long live music!"), but apparently he had no desire to let go of the genre. Just as he had been in-spired at the beginning of the 1930s to hark back to pre-classical genre names such as concerto and suite, in 1935 he chose to use the title Sinfonia for his new work. And indeed, several features entail that here too he makes a considerable break with the fundamental principles in the structuring of a symphony: on the one hand it consists solely of three rela-tively quick movements: I. Feroce, II. Violente e fantastico, and III. Tumultuoso. There is thus no clear contrasting of movements in the work. And on the other hand the first movement has no thematic dualism, meaning that the tonal conflict quite funda-mental to a traditional symphony is absent.
The movements in the sinfonia are all in ABA form, and the true driving force of the movements is the thematic-motivic development. The introductory theme which wholly dominates the first movement is based on the first five notes, varied and supple-mented as a motif. The motif consists of a triplet where the first note is repeated, as well as a two-note figure where the short first note functions almost as a grace note for the long second note. The seven-bar subject may well seem a little unassuming in terms of intervals - after all, it consists almost exclusively of seconds - on the other hand it contains certain recognizable rhythmic elements. Indeed, rhythm is very much what carries the first movement along. The movement ebbs out in a timpani solo where the same two-note figure alternates with triplets. The second movement is based on a clear-cut main subject and includes reminiscences of the theme of the first movement. Finally, material from the subjects in both the first and second movement appears in the con-cluding tumultuoso movement. In this the rhythmic element emerges even more strongly than it did in the two preceding movements. Thus throughout most of the recapitulation the timpani hammers out the rhythm or the rhythmic units that form part of the intro-duc-tory theme of the movement.
Sinfonia was given its first performance by the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Nicolai Malko in a Thursday Concert on 21 November 1935. It is inter-es-ting to cast a glance at some reviews of the concert. It is clear from these that Riisager still lived up to his old reputation as an enfant terrible. In Ekstra Bladet one could read that Sinfonia "was received - as is usual with Riisager - with both hisses and clapping, something he is alone in among living Danish composers." In another newspaper Riis-ager was called "Denmark's debatable composer", and Dagens Nyheder said that "Riisager occupies his own special position among Danish composers. You never know where you have him: he is the man of surprises and caprices."
Towards the end of 1931 Riisager completed what was probably his first deci-dedly neo-Baroque work, Concerto for Orchestra. Using the word concerto as the title of an orchestral genre was not yet common in 1931. The introductory Moderato e molto sonoro is slow-progressing. Shortly afterwards a highly dissonant sound appears in the full orchestra, involving all seven notes of the diatonic scale, and a few bars later a sequence influenced by Stravinsky sets in. This is a dissonance-rich ‘bare texture'. The second movement surprises by using a rocking motif in the main subject that recalls the beginning of the Dies Irae sequence from the Catholic Requiem Mass. The meaning of the motif is underscored by its later appearance at great volume. In the grave third movement the rocking motif again plays a decisive role in the thematic material. The last movement is in a rigorous neo-Baroque style, with massively polyphonic sections. As in the two preceding movements, here too the main theme is based on the rocking motif.
It will be understood that the neo-Baroque features are highly prominent; this applies both on the small scale - in motifs and themes - and on the large scale, that is in the concerto grosso-like contrast between both the orchestra's instrument groups - winds and strings, woodwinds and brass - and the individual instruments, such that the concept ‘concerto' may refer to the contrasting of the instrument groups and the individualization of the orchestral instruments.
From 1934, finally, comes the short, ebullient concert overture Primavera. Even in such a direct work as this one finds examples of harmonic treatment of a radically dissonant type, but the overture also has fine elements of birdsong, as is only fitting for a spring overture. Primavera was given its first performance under the baton of Emil Reesen in a concert at Det unge Tonekunstnerselskab in collaboration with the society Dansk Koncert-Forening on 30 January 1935 and was presented in the Tivoli Concert Hall on 4 July the same year.
Several of the radical tendencies one encounters in Riisager's works in the first half of the 1920s are concentrated in T-DOXC (poème mécanique) from 1926. In the first fair copy the work is called Jabiru T-DOXC and even earlier simply L'avion. The title that Riisager finally chose was the name of a then brand new type of commercial aircraft with nine seats which was introduced in Denmark in 1926. Writing music that described automobiles, ocean liners, industrial enterprises, trains and aircraft etc. was a hallmark of the Italian Futurists' artistic agenda around the First World War. To this end several of them had developed sound-producing apparatuses, such that one could go beyond the limitations imposed by the traditional musical instrumentarium. If one did not make use of such aids, it was quite legitimate - as the Frenchman Erik Satie did in the ballet music for -Parade (1917) - to include sound-makers such as a siren, a revolver, a typewriter and a wheel of fortune in the orchestra in order to get everyday sounds into the composition.
It is quite certain that at this time Riisager felt strongly drawn to Futurism. In the article "New beauty. Musical marginal notes" (1927) he wrote as follows: "Industri-alism has taught us the blue-grey poetry of the machine and the beauty of the elastic tension of steel. The machine is a living organism, a steadily working, calm-breathing being. These experiences of daily life enter into the creative mind as motifs, and the free imagination makes poetry of them. The captivating mystique of the geometrical figures and the wide-ranging thought structures of mathematics induce a rhythmic oscillation in the artistically transfor-mative capacity that generates psychic events and becomes the art of our time. The human psyche is a trembling compass needle which oscillates in order to come to rest in a steady point of equilibrium. It is this oscillation that is ex-pressed by art and therefore it impinges on human problems. A cactus and a lily possess the miracle of beauty, but each in its own way."
As indicated, aircraft had been proposed as obvious subjects for the Futurists who wanted to evoke the modern mechanical world, but the question is whether any other ‘aeroplane works' than Riisager's were written at all for orchestra. In the piano literature it is a different matter. As early as 1913 the Russian-American composer Leo Ornstein (1892/93?-2002) created his little piano work Suicide in an Airplane, which besides impressionistic features also included sound-painting elements. A more promi-nent and immediate ‘precursor' of Riisager's work, however, was the American George Antheil's (1900-1959) second piano sonata with the by-name The Airplane (1921, published in 1931). The work consists of two very short movements, and recurring features are the use of changing time signatures, strong dissonances, cluster effects and intense motoric activity as well as constant repetitions of short rhythmic modules.
However, it is far more likely that the inspiration for Riisager's work must be sought in Arthur Honegger's Mouvement symphonique No. 1 Pacific 231, which was composed in 1923, given its first performance in Paris on 8 May 1924 and published the same year. The work, which evokes a modern steam locomotive, was played for the first time in Denmark at a concert in Dansk Filharmonisk Selskab on 30 March 1926. Like Honegger, Riisager renounces specially sound-painting instruments and instead exclusively uses a traditional symphony orchestra ensemble.
In another newspaper article Riisager says of T-DOXC: "What I wanted to ex-press in the composition is the mental sensations evoked in me by the sight of the aeroplane gliding over the vault of heaven. It appears as a dot in the distance - gradually sweeps forward like a swelling tension in the sky and loses itself again on the horizon, wrapped in its -mantle of detonations. / It is not my intention to claim that the development of technology gives art new psychological content - but when one looks within oneself on the basis of the new technology and the many magnificent inventions, one will sense a new beauty arising and will be filled with a new aesthetic experience which is in prin-ciple different from everything one has earlier felt. / It has been a spiritual experience for me to gaze at the aeroplane swelling above me - and it is this experience, which can only be described in music, that I have wanted to express in ‘Jabiru T-Doxc'."
Although there are strong resemblances between Riisager's and Honegger's works, the differences between the two works are more striking. In Pacific 231 Hon-egger uses a strictly organized rhythmic acceleration - as an expression of the increa-sing and later decreasing speed of the locomotive - kept within the form of a chorale prelude of the kind familiar from J.S. Bach's later works. Much of the thematic and moti-vic material in the work can be traced back to the bearing cantus firmus. While Honegger lets his orchestra work like a machine and actually seem to be a machine, Riisager tries to describe a mental mood evoked by the sight of the aeroplane; he does this by letting his instruments alternate and thus conjure up a late-Impressionistic soundscape. T-DOXC opens with mainly pentatonic chords, but soon a motoric rhythm begins in the violins - this is intensified and becomes an ostinato rhythmic figure. Thus the way is paved for the fast alternation of repeated rhythmic figures - for instance in the large percussion group - which takes the process forward to the culminations of the piece and the subsequent relaxations of tension towards the end, where material from the introduction returns in delicate pianissimo. Disregarding the introduction and the ending, the process is typified by a quick, almost restless alternation of motifs and short themes in various instrumentations. Here too the work differs from Pacific 231, where the chorale seems to bear the ‘object' consistently through the orchestral texture.
The work was given its first performance in the Tivoli Concert Hall on 3 September 1927, when Frederik Schnedler-Petersen stood on the podium.
Claus Røllum-Larsen, Ph.D., is senior researcher at the Royal Danish Library.