Knudåge Riisager: The Symphonic Edition Vol. 2
03 August 2013
Lee PassarellaMoving on to Denmark in the first half of the twentieth century, we find Knudåge Riisager
bringing contemporary European trends to a less-than-fully-receptive Danish public. Riisager had studied composition in his native country with Romantic composer Otto Malling, but the training that really changed his creative life came in Paris, where Riisager studied with neo-classical pioneer Albert Roussel. Roussel’s crystalline orchestral palette, refreshingly acerbic harmonies, and motoric rhythms showed Riisager the way, and subsequent influences—from Honegger, Prokofiev, Bartók, and Stravinsky—helped solidify his unique modernist musical language.
That language is still in its formative stages in T-Doxc of 1926. This is not music about some distant relative of Tyrannosaurus rex but a musical evocation of an experimental Japanese airplane of the twenties—shades of Honegger’s Pacific 231. The piece was written at a time when machine music was all the rage (think of Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry or Antheil’s Ballet mécanique, which featured actual airplane propellers among its “instrumentation.”) Along with the influence of French modernists, however, there’s more than a whiff of Riisager’s great compatriot Carl Nielsen; the trombone glissandi and other orchestral effects might have been cribbed from Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony.
Riisager’s Symphony No. 2 (1927) followed close on the heels of his First Symphony—and garnered about the same level of enthusiasm among Danish critics, one of whom sniped, “He gives this subjectless material a thematic treatment—so one is to understand: a task intrinsically impossible, for the musical core is absent.” You were expecting maybe Nielsen’s Seventh? Actually, Riisager, in a self-revelatory later essay, bid a fond farewell to the symphony. (The essay is pointedly entitled “The Symphony Is Dead—Long Live Music!”) But while symphonic writing is not Riisager’s lingua franca, the Second Symphony represents a real advance over his first effort in the form, having the kind of sweep and largeness of gesture lacking in the First. This is probably because Riisager was ready to take a page or two from the playbook of other Scandinavian symphonists, Sibelius most prominently, but Nielsen as well. Thus the piece still represents a young composer trying to find his unique voice, not being fully ready to abandon the musical past or embrace the musical future.
The Concerto for Orchestra of 1931 represents a marked advance over the works of the twenties, yet its neo-Baroque trappings aren’t all that original, given that Stravinsky, Bloch, and Casella had beaten Riisager to the punch by five or ten years. It is, however, well written and attractive; maybe the most flattering thing I can say for it is that it reminds me of Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, composed seven years later.
By the time (1935) of his third symphony, named simply Sinfonia by the composer, Riisager had found his true voice. Not only does this piece sound like no one other than Riisager, it features a unique and uniquely non-symphonic constructional principle. Cast in three fast movements (Feroce, Violento e fantastico, and Tumultuoso) in ABA form, the work totally eschews the time-honored symphonic principles of contrast and dialectic. If that doesn’t sound very promising on paper, the Sinfonia is, for me, far and away the most interesting individual work on the program.
However, as Riisager himself confessed, the symphony represented a musical dead end for him; his true musical medium was not the concert hall but the theater. Starting in 1928 with the quirky entertainment entitled Benzin, Riisager built a new career for himself as a ballet composer, winning international acclaim for scores such as Etudes based on the piano music of Carl Czerny. And therein lies the reason why we hear so little of Knudåge Riisager today. Despite a succession of interesting and colorful orchestral compositions through the twenties and thirties, Riisager failed to establish a strong persona as a composer of music for the concert hall. However, his subsequent success as a composer of ballet music lessened rather than extended the reach of his art; there seems to be little room in the pantheon of twentieth-century composers of ballet. Beyond the great works in that form by Stravinsky, Bartók, Prokofiev, and Copland, not many modern ballets are heard in the concert hall or seen in the theater.
A sad state of affairs perhaps, but Riisager’s vital, witty music is anything but. Even the lesser pieces on the current program are entertaining vehicles for orchestral display. This may not be great music, but it’s very, very good, with hardly a dull moment in the nearly seventy minutes that Dacapo generously provides. The playing by the Aarhus Symphony under Bo Holton is every bit as robust as the music, and the engineering offers up an array of bright colors, plus gutsy impact (oh, that bass drum!) I enjoyed Volume 1 in this series; I really dig Volume 2. What’s next, Dacapo?