About Knudåge Riisager

Knudåge Riisager was born on 6 March 1897 in Port Kunda in Estonia where his father, Emil Riisager, had been instrumental in the establishment of a cement works of which he was now the manager. In the wake of Engineer Smidth’s death in 1899, the father was called back home in order to work for F.L. Smidth & Co in Copenhagen. The family then moved to Frederiksberg where Riisager would live for the rest of his life. After completing his A levels (studentereksamen in Danish) in 1915, he enrolled on the political science discipline at University of Copenhagen from where he graduated as MSc in 1921. Between 1925 and 1950 he worked as a civil servant, the last eleven years as a chief of section in the Danish Ministry of Finance. Knudåge Riisager died on 26 December 1974. 

Concurrently with this conventional administrative carrier, Riisager expressed an exuberant undertaking as a composer, a writer about music and an organisation man. He received his first tuition in theory and composition from Otto Malling and, after Malling’s death in 1915, from Peder Gram. It was, however, a stay in Paris in 1923 for purposes of study that truly was to open the eyes of the young composer to the new currents of contemporary music. In Paris, Riisager studied under Albert Roussel and Paul Le Flem and, as of the mid-1920s, we clearly perceive the French influence in his compositions. While, during the years leading up to 1921, his works share a Nordic lyrical trait, at times even an air of Carl Nielsen, his compositions dating from the years up to the mid-1930s are not only influenced by the Frenchmen Roussel and Satie, as they are also inspired by Prokofiev, Honegger, Bartók, and – not least – Stravinsky. Riisager’s highly personal style is, however, already apparent in his works from these years. This is thus seen in the virtually provocative application of second dissonances, the pleasure in bitonality, the humorous approach, the trickling of musicianism and, not least, the orchestration that is so typical of Riisager.

This entire development, which can be perceived in his musical works such as Ouverture til Erasmus Montanus (Overture to Erasmus Montanus), a play by the renowned Danish satirical playwright, Ludvig Holberg, also known as ‘the father of Danish comedy’ (1722)and Sange til tekster af Sigbjørn Obstfelder (Songs to texts by Sigbjørn Obstfelder) – both circa 1920Suite dionysiaque from 1924; as well as  Variationer over et Thema af Mezangeau (Variations on a theme by Mezangeau); and Poème mécanique with the subtitle Jabiru, mekanisk Digtning (Jabiru, mechanical poetry), both from 1926. The latter is a reference to Jabiru Aircraft and a musical portrait depicting a brand-new Japanese aircraft model of that time. This work is quite in tune with the machine music of the period and, as such, a fine example of the young composer’s international perspective and his will to experiment.

As early as 1928, Riisager had initiated a collaboration with the Royal Danish Ballet as, this year, he composed the music for Elna Jørgen-Jensen’s ballet entitled Benzin (Petrol), with scenography by Robert Storm Petersen. As to reception, the first performance of this work should be described as nothing but a colossal fiasco and, at its appearance in 1930, it only ran for three performances. Towards the end of the 1930s, Riisager resumed his work as a ballet composer by providing the music for Børge Ralov’s ballet inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale Tolv med Posten (Twelve by mail coach). The first performance of this ballet took place at the Royal Danish Theatre albeit this did not, however, happen until 1942 – incidentally together with the, then, director of the Royal Danish Ballet, Harald Lander’s Slaraffenland (Land of milk and honey) and Qarrtsiluni (a Greenland Eskimo term for ’stillness in which the holy songs are born’) – also with music by Riisager. Though, during the 1930s and 40s, Riisager composed a number of important works, it very much came to be these ballet scores that would be contributory to his making a name for himself in the general public as one of his generation’s leading composers.

Likewise, ballet music became Riisager’s most substantial field of work during the following years. In 1945, he completed the music for Lander’s Fugl Fønix (The phoenix) and, in 1947, he adapted and orchestrated a selection of Carl Czerny’s piano études for his and Harald Lander’s ballet Étude (later to be referred to as Études). [“There was a continuation of the given thematic material and, as compared with writing entirely new scores from scratch, the work with this was, in fact, just as comprehensive. But it was, without a doubt, great fun to enter into the spirit of this world, considering the particular perspective: at one and the same time being respectful of the serenity and lucidity radiating from the études and yet bring them up to the present, insofar as this would be consistent with the first consideration” (our translation)]. (Comment by Knudåge Riisager, written in 1947 (page 520: Claus Røllum-Larsen, Bog 2 om Knudåge Riisager) (Book 2 on Knudåge Riisager, (in Danish only)).

It was through this work that Riisager won particular international renown, and even though there are precedents for the application of orchestrated piano movements as ballet music (e.g. Ottorino Respighi’s La boutique fantasque (1919)), the combination of the piano études and the technical progression of the dance steps holds a specific dimension which is precisely the point of the complete work.

In the 1920s, Riisager had been one of the most ardent protagonists of the performance of new music in Copenhagen and, as such, he was a co-founder of Unge Tonekunstneres Selskab (the Society of Young Musicians) (of which he was the chairman from 1922 to 24). He was also a member of the board of censors of the association ‘Ny Musik’ (New Music). Finally, in 1937, he was appointed chairman of Danish Composers’ Society – an appointment he should keep for 25 years.

Such characteristics as ahighlevel of initiative and enthusiasm coupled with an ability to define problems, and the solution thereof, contributed to make Riisager an obvious board member of countless associations, societies, committees, councils, etc. – in Denmark as abroad. As already mentioned, he attended to his duties at the ministry along with these activities until 1950, in which year he retired as chief of section. Yet, Riisager was never tempted by early retirement living and, hence, he accepted an invitation to become the president of the Royal Danish Academy of Music. This is quite thought provoking, considering the fact that he had never frequented this educational establishment himself. In his capacity as president, he actually devoted himself to the task of administrative work; and, not once, during the eleven years of his connection with the academy, did he teach.

After his completion of Étude,  Riisager set out to work on his only opera, the one-act play Susanne – for a libretto by his close friend, Mogens Lorentzen. This could hardly be described as a success: it only ran for 17 performances and, at the revival in 1957 in connection with Riisager’s sixtieth anniversary, it only saw six performances. Now, several major works followed, such as for instance a concerto for the great Danish violinist, Wandy Tworek. As hitherto, it was, however, the ballet music that should prove to provide success for Riisager. Throughout the 1950s, he for instance composed two ballet scores for the Swedish choreographer, Birgit Cullberg: first, Månerenen (The moon reindeer), opening at the Royal Danish Theatre in 1957, and second, Fruen fra Havet (The lady of the waves), having its first performance in 1960 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Among the most notable works to be mentioned from Riisager’s last decade are Sangen om det uendelige (Song of the eternity) from 1964, with text by the Italian poet, Giacomo Leopardi, together with the orchestra works Trittico from 1971 and Til Apollon (To Apollon), composed in 1972.

Knudåge Riisager mastered the combination of a fulltime job as a civil servant with an all-embracing career as a composer. Further, in addition to making a substantial contribution to a considerable number of organisations linked with the music life, he excelled as an extremely prolific writer. In his early years, he was very well versed as a writer of articles but, later in life, he became an excellent writer of essays – a fact that for instance appears from the eminent books Tanker i tiden (1952) (Ideas of our time)  and Det usynlige mønster (1957) (The invisible pattern). Through these clearly formulated literary contributions, we similarly encounter Knudåge Riisager as a humanistically cultured and distinguished author with a wide cultural outlook.

As a composer, Riisager had no students or successors, but through his unmistakeable personal tone he had the capability of enriching Danish music by an additional dimension of spirituality and terse expression.

By Claus Røllum-Larsen, Senior Researcher, PhD. at the Royal Danish Library.

Foto: Allan Moe/Scanpix


Born on 6 March 1897  in Port Kunda, Estonia. Parents: engineer Henrik Emil Riisager and Henrikke Riisager.


Died on 26 December 1974 in Frederiksberg.


Married to the painter, Åse Riisager. Together they had the two children, Torben and Elsebet.


MSc. Private studies in theory of music, as well as studies in Paris, where he studied composition and instrumentation.

Debut as a composer

1919 – Strygekvartet nr. 1.

Other occupation

1939-50 Chief of section at the Danish Ministry of Finance
1937-62 Chairman of the Danish Composers’ Society
1956-67 President of the Royal Danish Academy of Music.