As a new Knudåge Riisager cycle launches, Andrew Mellor surveys Danish music’s long affair with the funny
In parts of the Concerto for Orchestra, which I had the chance to watch being recorded in Aarhus and which forms the core of the second disc in Dacapo’s series, there’s the enchanting feeling of a rabble of feisty instruments being subjected to some sense of enforced orchestral bureaucracy. Though that feeds into the very real habit of Danish composers to design their music in as neat and clipped a manner as their counterparts do furniture and buildings, it’s also an obvious piece of game-play: Riisager the civil servant reigning-in his own sense of creativity and adventure; wearing two masks, so to speak.
Which is itself a very Danish pursuit. ‘The whole idea of playing identity games has a lot to do with Riisager’s aesthetic viewpoint’ says Bo Holten. He points to Fastelavn, in which the composer quotes the tune of the traditional Danish carnival song Can You Guess Who I Am? It echoes Nielsen’s portrayal of the Danish carnival tradition in his opera Maskarade, where the ‘joke’ of identity confusion actually proves the rather profound nub of the opera’s narrative. ‘Riisager is saying, well, I’m wearing this mask today and maybe tomorrow I am wearing another one’, explains Holten. ‘The attitude is really that you can be anything.’
Riisager cultivates that thought in the soil of his First Symphony, the first movement of which seems to be a sort of theatrical symphonic identity game – themes poke their heads out from behind the orchestral curtain and pop up on the other side of the ensemble in a seemingly different guise; is that the theme we’ve just heard, slightly altered? It seems impossible to tell, until Riisager renders the question irrelevant by uniting the orchestra in brief moments of soaring rhapsody, not unlike Nielsen would have.
In fact, it’s easy to understate Nielsen’s influence on Riisager, particularly when tracing the course of that irreverence and freedom. The latter’s earliest major orchestral work Overture for Erasmus Montanus opens Volume One of Knudåge Riisager: The Symphonic Edition. There are two uncannily Nielsenite moments contained within: an extraordinary braying trombone and a theme that strongly references the first movement of Nielsen’s Second Symphony. Holten, though, also points to Charles Ives. ‘Riisager unfolds all of these lines in a neo-Baroque sense. It’s a stylistic plurality – the absorption of all these things that were in the air.’
Erasmus Montanus just pre-dates Riisager’s French training. By the time of the First Symphony (1925) his personal hallmarks are beginning to flower: whirling melodies fly over the top of distinctive modal harmonies; bitonality and unprepared modulations abound. Riisager scholar Claus Røllum-Larsen points to Riisager’s cheeky dig at Sonata form in the symphony – he effectively leaves his expositions both thematically and harmonically unresolved. More than anything theoretical, though, is a sense of simplicity and individualism that’s always on the look out for an authority to spike.
It’s difficult, even in Danish music, to find a more rampant sense of humour than that of Knudåge Riisager. But despite Grove’s conclusion in 2001 that contemporary Danish music has distanced itself from the ‘irony and pastiche’ of the 1970s (perhaps a Riisager reference), the reflection of Danish humour in music is still a vital strand in the work of current composers. In fact, as Holten and leagues of other Danish musicians suggest, it’s integral to the notion of a national style, to whatever extent that exists. ‘In Germany and France, fun is something extra you have’ says Holten, ‘but in our countries [Britain and Denmark] it’s not something extra – it’s a basic part of life.’
Holten and most notably Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen have further cultivated these ideas in their music. Through the wry fanfares of The Visit of the Royal Physician there seems to peer the silhouette of Riisager. Holmgreen’s profound wit is entrenched; pitched deep within often dark, troubling sounds. But it has intense playfulness, too – from his famously droll settings of pedestrian newspaper articles for vocalist and guitar Three Songs with texts from Politiken to the grim games of his Plateaux for Piano and Orchestra.
Holmgreen could easily be the subject of a probing analysis of humour in music – a PhD thesis in fact. ‘Music is a monster…you allow yourself to be chased by it’, he says in the documentary snapshot of his life made by Jytte Rex. The composer’s own talking-head snippets are saturated with piercingly intelligent eccentricities and plain-speaking analysis. But among its most telling insights is the sequence in which the composer dances to his own orchestral work Triptykon (see video below). Watching this intense, dark playfulness reminds me of a passage in Jack Lawson’s biography of Carl Nielsen referring to the Sixth Symphony.
Here, Lawson suggests, among the parps, hoots and scrapes of Nielsen’s ‘simple music’, could be the composer’s Mahlerian realisation of mortality. The big fight is over, and we’re left with a joke: a symphony titled ‘simple’ which actually contains some of the composer’s most complex (and farcical) music. ‘I feel, that like in life, in art tragedy is completely next to total happiness, and that’s dominant in my own music’, is one of the last things Bo Holten says to me back in Aarhus. ‘And I feel it in my life so often; that wonderful happiness is just next to total tragedy.’ He laughs straight afterwards though – a man who can see the funny side.
Suggested listening and viewing
Holten The Visit of the Royal Physician Amazon
Riisager Petrol Amazon
Riisager Darduse Amazon
Riisager Symphonic Edition Vol 1 Amazon
Gudmundsen-Holmgreen Plateaux Dacapo Records
Gudmundsen-Holmgreen Music is a Monster Dacapo Records