‘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.
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