As a new Knudåge Riisager cycle launches, Andrew Mellor surveys Danish music’s long affair with the funny
‘We have the same sense of humour, the English and the Danes, don’t we?’ There’s a teetering pause. Backstage at the Symphony Hall in Aarhus, composer Bo Holten has me fixed with expectant eyes and a burgeoning grin. ‘That’s why we get along so well, isn’t it?’
In the moment, it feels like the most un-sidestep-able question ever posed. After all, laughter isn’t easily faked. Something’s either funny or it isn’t. And as the silence grows longer, it seems that something in this situation is. In our wry, standoffish exchange of smiles, there are sprinklings of irony, farce and rancour. Laughter spontaneously takes over, and the question has answered itself.
I smiled, initially, because I took Holten’s theory as a great complement. He’s a funny man – in person and in his art: The Visit of the Royal Physician has become his most celebrated work of late, an opera not without its own amusing streak that cuts readily through barriers both linguistic and operatic.
Physician has been a hit in Denmark, mostly because it’s an imposing piece of music theatre but also, one suspects, because it references a distinct tradition of humour in Danish creative life which has long found a welcome home in music – theatrical and otherwise. A strong theme in William J Harvey’s 1915 survey of the country and its people is their singular sense of humour. Harvey’s delightful Denmark and the Danes is woefully light on music – it covers off Carl Nielsen in less than 20 words – but it does allude to a national musical style that errs towards rebellion and rarely feels entirely secure in its own seriousness. A century on, Danish musicians still talk most often of ‘irony’, ‘playfulness’ and ‘wit’ when asked for the watchwords of their country’s musical style.
Back at the Symphony Hall in Aarhus, Bo Holten is doing just that. He talks of his own music, and also that of fellow Dane Knudåge Riisager (1897-1974), whose symphonic works the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra is in the process of recording for Dacapo, with Holten as conductor.
I first happened upon Riisager via Petrol (‘Benzin’ in Danish), the filling-station ballet he created in 1928 with the help of the Danish cartoonist and comedian Robert Storm Peterson (‘Storm P’ to his friends, of which Riisager was one of the closest). Owain Arwel Hughes recorded the piece with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in 2007. In a sense, it’s the perfect introduction to Riisager’s mature style. In France in the 1920s, studying with Roussel and hanging around with Stravinsky and Les Six, Riisager moved his post-Nielsenesque voice towards a certain brand of neo-Classicism, French in its aesthetic thrust but with a noticeably Danish accent. That break-out lyricism so beloved of Nielsen to some extent survived, together with an acerbic edge that provided another degree of separation from the showiness of the Parisians.
Petrol failed dismally. ‘The funny thing wasn’t that it was a thundering fiasco,’ commented Riisager at the time, ‘but that when it was played…one of the well-known critics wrote: “it will probably remain long in the repertoire”. And that was in fact the last time it was played.’ The composer’s comment says something about his pragmatic irreverence – all the more for the fact that here it was reflexive; the joke is on Riisager himself.
Petrol had its limitations and Riisager knew it. While it does carry emerging examples of one of his most impressive strengths – a remarkable facility for orchestral effects that casts him as the Danish Ravel (try the first movement of his 1936 score Darduse for some of the best examples) – it remains effectively a procession of musical gags cast in fresh orchestrations.
But there’s a sprinkling of something else emerging in Petrol, too, which is the glottal physicality of a very Danish delivery. Just as spoken Danish has a sort of anti-comedy – a dark, trowelling-out of the words that can meet British ears as a curious hybrid of Liverpudlian and Taiwanese – so those comic turns in Riisager often come with added splatter. It’s connected partly to the fact that Riisager’s clean neo-Classical tendencies mean the punchline is often nicely droll and deadpan.
When Petrol was first performed at the old stage of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, the audience would have done well to drag their eyes upwards from the Picasso-inspired designs hatched by Storm P himself, and towards the motto that still adorns the proscenium in gold lettering. Ej blot til Lyst, it reads, ‘not for pleasure alone.’
Riisager must have read the phrase countless times; the trajectory of his compositional course after Petrol suggests he came to cherish it. In the post-Nielsen climate, Riisager would have known that the realisation of Denmark’s true national humour in music depended on the opposition of forces, both ‘serious’ and otherwise (in short, the opportunity to set things up and then knock them down, in both a literal musical sense and a wider cultural one). He knew that music had an intellectual, emotional and even social role to play and he voiced his strong beliefs in its everyday value: ‘art is not for cranks’, he once said, ‘it is for living human beings.’
You could certainly argue that Riisager is at his most Danish and arguably his most convincing when the surface comic imperative of Petrol is actually nagging more ‘serious’ musical structures from below, rather than steering them from above. We’ll get to know a little about that with Bo Holten’s cycle of symphonic recordings from Aarhus. On their first disc, there’s plenty of high-jinx in the form of Jack the Dullard and the Fastelavn (listen below), but one of the most fascinating passages is the modal slow movement of his First Symphony, a spacious and almost elegiac movement that’s prodded by a gentle bi-tonality; a weaving theme is played on a flute, and in an entirely different key to the Coplandesque strings.
Literally speaking, such a contradiction came easily to Riisager, who wasn’t quite what he seemed. He spent the vast majority of his working life in the full-time employment of the Danish civil service, becoming a departmental head at the finance ministry where he worked until 1950. Sven Erik Werner suggests the composer saw his working life and his compositional live as fully integrated – ‘two sides of the same coin’ he puts it.