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 was 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 around 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.
Ever since his youth Knudåge Riisager had been fascinated by the orchestra and its potential for variety and expression. With Overture to Erasmus Montanus (1920, instrumentation 1924) he made his name early as an able orchestrator, and later he developed these qualities until he emerged at the end of the 1920s as one of the most significant Danish orchestral composers of his generation. Riisager’s art of instrumentation went hand in hand with his efforts to create music typified by clarity and rigour. At an early stage, for example, he distanced himself from the German Romantic tradition and its musical forms, which Riisager regarded as outdated and an expression of a world that had come to an end with the First World War. In his first two symphonies he heaped scorn on the elementary formal criteria of the Classical and Romantic symphony, and in the Third Symphony he shifted the emphasis to the rhythmic element instead of using the harmonic development as a bearing idea. Towards 1940 one senses a dichotomy in Riisager: on the one hand he has no great interest in the symphonic form; on the other it holds an allure for him. By this time he had already written three sympho-nies, and he now took the drastic step of writing an article in which he quite simply pronounced the symphony dead. The famous article (“The symphony is dead – long live music!”) appeared in Dansk Musiktidsskrift in February 1940, and there one could read: “The symphonic subject is ambivalent and its musical potential is dependent on the degree of such ambivalence, on dualism. The motivic technique of modern musical style absolutely strives (quite contrary to the Romantic symphonic principle) for clarity and succinctness, and this basic requirement necessarily draws with it logical motion, the forward-driving technique of motion that is entirely useless in the symphonic form.” The article also mounts powerful attacks on those composers who – in Riisager’s opinion – blindly followed in the wake of Carl Nielsen: “The very thought of ‘continuing’ Carl Nielsen’s work is a poor idea, because it has after all been done better – that is, by Nielsen himself – than it can be done in the future.” No wonder the article caused a sensation in the circle of young Danish composers who were disciples of Carl Nielsen and saw in him the renewal of Danish music. In fact Riisager did too; but he wanted the composers to move away from Nielsen as a model and stand on their own feet.
One might justifiably expect that a composer who acted as radically as Riisager in this case would follow his criticism through as a matter of course, and would not in future work with the symphonic form. But things were to go quite differently. While Riisager was writing his article he was actually working determinedly on his Fourth Symphony, which was finished on 28 May 1940. The work is in three movements and bears the title Sinfonia gaia, that is ‘Gay Symphony’. A highly prominent feature is that the rhythm of the introductory theme recurs almost continuously in the timpani through-out the movement. The crucial role that the rhythm plays is emphasized not only in the theme and its use of the timpani rhythm, but also in the variation brought about by having the theme come in at different points in the bar, creating new stresses. The middle movement is a peaceful Allegretto chiaro, while the final movement is a hectic rondo, with the rhythm again playing a prominent role.
That the symphony, despite its title, was associated with the tense political situation in the country in April 1940, is evident from Riisager’s programme note, which was printed in the programme for the first performance: “‘Sinfonia gaia’ is in three short, tightly formed movements. In the conviction that when something can be said briefly, there is no reason to say it at length, this symphony circumvents any resusci-tation of the traditional symphonic concept. Indeed ‘Sinfonia’ here means simply ‘soun-d-ing together’, and this sounding-together bears the designation ‘gaia’, which means cheerful. Perhaps rather optimistically. It was written last winter, which is in fact of interest, as it contrariously gives expression to hope and will – hope that light and clarity despite everything exist in themselves, and the will towards undaunted action. / If one did not have to allow for the musicians, who require Italian headings in the music, the first movement could be called ‘Defiance’, the second movement (which takes the place of the usual slow movement) could be called ‘Gracefulness’, and the third quite simply ‘Courage’. In general the point should be evident from the music itself. If it is not … but now let us see!” The work was given its first performance at a Thursday Concert on the radio on 24 October 1940 with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the Royal Orchestra conductor Johan Hye-Knudsen. The symphony has presumably only had that first performance until the present CD recording.
Among the works which bear witness most beautifully to Riisager’s neo-Baroque style in the 1930s are Sinfonia concertante for string orchestra and Partita for a large orchestra. They were both completed in the autumn of 1937, and both have led a rela-tively quiet existence in the shadow, first and foremost, of the Concertino for Trumpet and Strings. While Partita is a rather massively orchestrated work typified by rigorous writing, Sinfonia concertante has an airy, elegant charm. The five movements are fur-nished only with tempo designatons – not references to Baroque forms – but every-where one finds references to the neo-Baroque polyphonic structure. In the second movement, “Intermezzo espressivo”, we find a melodic declamation à la Bartók, while Hindemith can be sensed in the intense fourth movement, “Largo”. Sinfonia concer-tante was given its first performance in Gothenburg on 17 February 1938, when the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra played under the baton of Tor Mann.
A quite different and highly entertaining work is Summer Rhapsody from 1943. The work is a potpourri of Danish folk melodies, played without significant reworking, apart – of course – from being clad in an orchestration that clearly bears the fingerprints of the composer. The rhapsody clearly reflects Riisager’s old love of Danish folk music, and as such the work lies close to the orchestral suite On the Occasion of... from 1934, but its expression is quite different. Whereas On the Occasion of... is mainly in a strict neo-Baroque style, Summer Rhapsody is a powerfully atmospheric work of a more Romantic bent. When one listens to the rhapsody one easily gets the feeling of being a spectator to a series of folk tableaux, and indeed the piece has inspired a film, Summer Rhapsody, with a script by Mogens Lorentzen. This was produced in 1947 by Dansk Kulturfilm at Minerva Films with Hagen Hasselbalch directing. Summer Rhapsody was given its first performance on 30 January 1944 at a ‘People’s Concert’ in the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s building (now the New Stage of the Royal Danish Theatre) by the Danish Radio Orchestra conducted by Emil Reesen. However, the autograph orchestral score and parts were in the music library of the Tivoli Concert Hall during a fire on 24 June 1944, when a counter-sabotage action bombed several of the old amusement park’s premises, including the Concert Hall, whose music archives were greatly damaged. The action was mounted by the Danish-German terrorist group ‘the Brøndum Gang’. In fact the score of Summer Rhapsody was almost destroyed by the action, which is why, shortly after the sabotage action, Riisager made the now-familiar reconstruction of the work.
In the winter of 1950 Riisager completed his fifth and last symphony, which was given the by-name Sinfonia serena. The work, end-dated 15 February 1950, was given its first performance at a concert in the large hall of the Odd Fellow Palæ in Copen-hagen on 21 November 1950 by the Chamber Orchestra of Collegium Musicum con-duc-ted by Lavard Friisholm. The orchestra in this symphony consists of strings and timpani. Riisager based his work on contrasts in the texture and sonority and not least the rhythmic drive. The toccata-like melody of the introductory bars, like the comple-men-tary rhythms, clearly refers back to the Baroque, and in this sense the symphony follows on smoothly from Riisager’s neo-Baroque works of the 1930s. The conflict between the semiquaver motion of the main section and the quaver melody is the driving force in the movement. The semiquavers also dominate the second movement, whose emphasis is on the rhythmic. In contrast to this we have the third movement, which is dominated by an almost Bartók-like theme which appears several times in varied forms. In the last movement the semiquaver melodic motion returns. Sinfonia serena became the last work Riisager had performed at an ISCM festival. It was performed at the Salzburg Festival on 24 June 1952 in a concert with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lavard Friisholm.
With this, the last of three CDs featuring Knudåge Riisager’s “Symphonic Works”, concentrating on the five symphonies, it is now possible to make the acquain-tance of one of the genres that Riisager refused to abandon – even though he tried to kill it off! – and to which he returned time and again in the course of 25 years. The three CDs thus offer insight into the composer behind the facade, in the sense that the general image of Riisager is probably mainly based on his successful ballet scores, his dazzling overtures and his supreme mastery of chamber music, especially for woodwinds. But Riisager’s ambitions were higher. Throughout most of his years as an active composer he tried for example to procure the absolutely right opera libretto. Although in 1950 he was able to see his one-acter Susanne performed at the Royal Danish Theatre, we know that he kept searching for the libretto that could form the basis of his personal ‘revision’ of the opera form; but the plans were never realized. Nor was he willing to abandon the symphonic form, and we can now listen to the recordings on the three CDs of the symphonies, most of which have been performed earlier just once or twice, for example as studio productions. They show Riisager as a searching, unprejudiced composer for whom the classical form types, despite all opposition, maintained an attraction and a fascination.
Claus Røllum-Larsen, Ph.D., is a senior researcher at the Royal Library, Copenhagen.