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Friedrich Kuhlau

composer
1786
1832
© Royal Danish Library, Department of Maps, Prints and Photographs

Kuhlau was Danish music’s most cosmopolitan personality at the beginning of the nine­teenth century. He had a wide network abroad, and as a great admirer of Beethoven he fought for new tones in Danish musical life.

In human terms, too, Kuhlau stood out from the crowd; and not only because he was a German who never learned to speak Danish, and only had one eye. He was a rest­less soul who did not fit naturally into the small, homogeneous Copenhagen elite to which his audiences and patrons belonged. Instead, he preferred to live outside the capital.

If one reads through the ambiguous circumlocutions of the age the picture emer­ges of a warm, vital, but not very conformist man with a liking for jovial company, tobacco and wine – indeed something of an alcoholic. Like his model, Beethoven Kuh­lau never married, or as cryptically remarked in a commemorative speech after his death: “He lacked many of the relationships and motives that are most congenial and encouraging to mankind. Music was his truest, almost his only female companion through the reefs of life”.

Kuhlau was born in 1786 in the northern German town of Uelzen. As a boy, he lost his right eye in an accident, but this did not prevent him from aspiring to a future as a musician. As early as his teenage years he was active as a pianist and had his first com­­positions published.

In 1806 Kuhlau went to Hamburg, where he studied with the strict cantor Schwencke. But that same year the city was occupied by Napoleon’s troops, and, in 1810, when the young men of the city began to be conscripted into the French army, Kuhlau left the danger zone and travelled to Copenhagen. The next year he made his debut as a pianist in a concert at the Royal Danish Theatre and was well received as an intriguing messenger from the Continent.

For generations, Danish musical life had been dependent on immigrants and guests from the south. In 1813 Kuhlau too was granted Danish citizenship and the honorary title of Royal Court Musician with the duty of writing official cantatas and an opera every second year. These included epoch-making works in Danish music – the operas Røverborgen (The Robbers’ Castle) and Lulu and the music for the national play Elverhøj (The Elf-Hill) which has over the years been performed over 1000 times at the Royal Theatre. The Elverhøj music is based on Danish and Swedish ballads and became the clearest indication of a new national-romantic ideal in Danish culture of the time.

In short, Kuhlau was a leading figure in what posterity has dubbed the Danish Golden Age: the first half of the nineteenth century when the arts and sciences saw intense development, in stark contrast with the stagnating absolutism and the general impoverishment of the country.

Abroad, on the other hand, Kuhlau has passed into history as a flute composer. "The Beethoven of the flute" is the rather derogatory label that has stuck to him. Because he was never given a permanent position that matched his format, he had to exploit the fact that he could effortlessly write large quantities of high-quality music for the flute, one of the most popular instruments of the time. Kuhlau himself was not a flautist – a rumour that was already current in his own lifetime, but as he said, “I play this instrument very little, but I know it thoroughly”.