Riisagers earliest major orchestral work is Ouverture til Erasmus Montanus opus 1 (Overture to Erasmus Montanus) circa composed during the years 1918-1920. Erasmus Montanus is a play by the renowned Danish satirical playwright, Ludvig Holberg. As a matter of course, Riisager submitted his work to Dansk Koncert-Forening (Danish Concerto Society) – the contemporary forum for new Danish orchestral music – for performance purposes. He was, however, told that his work was unperformable. Hence, it was a great pleasure to him when the Swedish composer and conductor, Ture Rangström, offered to give the overture its first performance at Konserthuset i Göteborg (the Concert House in Gothenburg) on 15 October 1924.

It is difficult to assess which part of the overture that constituted the society’s concrete reason for turning down this work. We have no knowledge of its original form at the time of submission. We can only wonder why, in particular, Peder Gram, Riisager’s teacher of theory who at that time was the society’s conductor, would not have taken the work under his wing and, for instance, effected that such passages as were considered unperformable be rearranged. The overture is such a well-written and mature work that it should very much lay claim to be played. We should bear in mind, though, that later – in May 1924 – Riisager himself felt obliged to re-orchestrate the work – probably at the prospect of a performance of the overture in Gothenburg. It may also have been based on the background of his study visit to Paris and the experience gained from the teaching he had received here.

His interest in the works of Ludvig Holbergs had already been aroused during Riisager’s years at grammar school where, at Henrik Madsens Skole (later to become [the now closed] Skt. Jørgens Gymnasium), one of his teachers was the highly esteemed Holberg researcher, Th. A. Müller. It was Müller’s teaching that inspired his composition of this work. In Riisager’s autograph to the overture, he has set out two descriptions of the work – both deleted. The second one was worded as follows:

“The overture is an introduction to Holberg’s ‘Erasmus Montanus’. It does not propose to present any actual depiction of the play’s gallery of characters or plot, as it is rather intended as a musical representation of the tenor of the comedy. It is in this peaceful milieu that Erasmus is let loose” (our translation).

The overture is arranged in four parts. The opening seems to conjure up a pastoral scene with its pentatonic coloured oboe motif which is answered by flute and piccolo together with the hunting tones of the horns. The latter are further developed by clarinet and flute. This progress is played out on a tone carpet comprising a triad of the string instruments with first-violin flageolet tones and contrabasses contributing with downward pizzicato tones. A wide string melody is introduced a bit later. This is played on the G string and, gradually, the rest of the orchestra joins in. Following a culmination in which the string melody is delivered by the trumpets, a diminuendo will lead to a brief passage of a plain melody played by clarinets and bassoons embracing a rising fifth and, finally, a string passage leads back to the solo parts played by horns and woodwinds.

Next, the main section sets in – one is unwilling to call it the main theme part, since there is no subsidiary theme. Neither is there any involvement of a main theme as such but, in contrast, a number of brief melody passages that are developed and combined without the formation of larger thematic elements. As an introduction to and between several of the brief thematic sections, we perceive whirling string passages, but later, the motivic development is intensified towards the completion of the main section with modulation towards the subdominant key, C major. Now, the work embarks on a kind of development-like section in which material from the main section is arranged by the woodwinds. These shenanigans reach their climax as the bassoons deliver a baroque passage with glissandi. Soon after, however, there is a change of scene. We are now in a hall in which a minuet is danced. This scene has a stylised air and exerts an impact on the context which may hint at the Allegretto mosso con grazia (quasi Menuetto) section of Liszt’ssymphonic poetry Tasso: lamento e trionfo (1847-1854). Whereas Liszt’s minuet theme is intended as an allusion to the Ferrara court, Riisager relates directly to Erasmus. Riisager himself has stated: “But, in fact, his love for Lisbed and his sorry lack of consequence may also cause his heart to be touched, and it is a valuable movement that takes place within him, proving victorious over his dogmatism. This graceful moment is suggested by the small minuet theme” (our translation). The main section is resumed in the wake of this brief intermezzo. Later, a solemn hymn-like section sets in – to be interrupted by rapid string runs leading to the coda, in which playful woodwind figures suggest traces of the minuet part, whereupon the piece is brought to its conclusion.

The overture has a fresh and sparkling expression, radiating a certain superiority which, for instance, pivots on the clearly arranged progression of strong formal incisions together with the gusto that is perceived in the arrangement of the motif and which, likewise, emerges in the instrumentation. In the concert hall, this overture soon became one of Riisager’s most popular works. As far as we know, it was only used a few times as an overture to Holberg’s comedy: this was at the gala performance on the occasion of Aarhus Teater’s 25-year anniversary in 1925 and in connection with a number of performances at the Royal Danish Theatre in 1947. As a matter of curiosity, it can be mentioned that the performance in Aarhus led to a rather harsh review in one of the local papers, Aarhusposten, in which one could for instance read that “it was not easy to understand. It was a mix between cock crowing, roaring bulls, nail boxes and a motor horn with a cold” (our translation), whereas another Aarhus paper, Demokraten, found the overture to be “a melodious and tuneful, albeit undeniably ultra-modern composition” (our translation).

From the autograph to the overture Fastelavn (Shrovetide) (1930), we know that, originally, Riisager had intentions of combining this work with Ouverture til Erasmus Montanus, ouverturen Klods Hans (the overture, Numbskull Jack) (1929) and Forspillet til en dansk comoedieComoedie  (the prelude to a Danish comedy) (1930), in order that, together, they should constitute a series of orchestral works entitled “Danske Billeder” (Danish scenes). With respect to the first recording of these four works, it was decided to refer to this collective title, even though, later, this was in fact not adhered to by Riisager. On the CD, the two latter works have been switched around.

The equilibristic orchestra style that – in high spirits and entertainingly – conjure up situations and tonality is characteristic of these compositions. They are works which to the full show Riisager in the role as the “playful musical child” that, presumably, he himself wished to play and, also, they bear witness to his pleasure in exploiting the potential of the orchestra – for instance with an extensive use of solo passages. All things considered, we rediscover a diversity of characteristic Riisager facets in these orchestral works: the usage of the kaleidoscopic motif and theme, the many unintegrated passages from one key into another, the emphasis of the high register of the violins, the bitonality, and the sharp collisions of seconds, likewise at a high register.

The completion date of Klods Hans opus 18 is 17 July 1929, and its first performance was on 2 April 1930 in connection with the 125-year anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth. The work was performed by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra (Statsradiofoniens Symfoniorkester (now, DR Symfoniorkestret)) with Launy Grøndahl as the conductor. As was the case with Ouverture til Erasmus Montanus, Riisager stresses that this is not programme music: “The overture is intended as sheer fantasising on the basis of the idea of this Danish lad who, astride his billy-goat, rushes straight through a pompous and stuck-up gathering of imaginary prejudice. Thus, the piece has no connection with the plot of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale” (our translation). Listening to Klods Hans, one may wonder about the lack of a form of plot, as the work comprises several passages of an explicitly illustrative nature. Accordingly, what Riisager seeks to adhere to here, is the character – the idea as such, as it were.

Fastelavn opus 20, dated 10 June 1930, was performed for the first time on 7 March 1932 at a concert organised by the Society of Young Musicians and took place at the grandiose Concert Hall of the Odd Fellow Palace in Copenhagen. The conductor was Peder Gram. The overture is dedicated to “the pranksters and all the mirthful girls of Copenhagen” (our translation). In a description of the work – available in the autograph, albeit absent from the printed version, as Riisager apparently did not wish to include it here – it says as follows: “The Danish term ‘Fastelavn’ is the musical expression for the Danish way of celebrating Lent, with the Medieval remnants of primitive playfulness and happy-go-lucky boozing-up, still remaining among the Danes. It is not a depiction of a carnival under the southern sun, but rather of contemporary Copenhagen street life – teeming with the false noses of the boys, rattling tins and singing in the backyards, ricked out in Dad’s sweater, wrong side up, and Mum’s worn skirt. There is tilting of barrels and rousing of birch-rods for buns. These comments do not constitute any programme for the piece, as they are nothing but an ordinary guide for an audience that may – in vain – anticipate associations of traditional carnival figures, the dancing of pierrettes and the moaning of harlequins” (our translation). Fastelavn  is a kind of tour de force for the orchestra, only to be interrupted by the intermediate section, intoning the old Danish Shrovetide song ’Kan du gætte, hvem jeg er’ (guess who I am). This melody, also known from the song ‘Ved vejen lå et hus’ (a house by the roadside) is dealt with in an exceedingly ingenious way. The same melody also plays a part in the recapitulation of the main section.

Likewise, Comoedie opus 21 (Comedy), the composition of which was completed on 10 November 1930, has a strong virtuoso appearance and, over long stretches, this work carry the stamp of a regular concert for orchestra. This manifests itself in e.g. a longer section which is introduced by a bassoon solo, the melody of which is adopted and imitated by the woodwinds – one by one. Having been presented by the full woodwind and string corps, the theme is imitated by the strings in a brief five-part movement. However, interacting without inhibition relative to tradition, Riisager interrupts the severe movement and allows a much freer usage of the theme to join in. Riisager dedicated Comoedie to the conductor and composer, Emil Reesen, who was the head of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra on the date of the first performance of the work – 1 February 1934.

On 1 June 1925, Riisager completed his first symphony, which was allocated the opus number, 8. This work, which was never printed, is dedicated the memory of Riisager’s father who died in 1919. It is a symphony in three movements, of which the first is in three sections with recapitulation. This might lead to the assumption that this was a matter of a more or less conventional type of sonata movement. What is exceptional about the structure of the first movement, however, is the very fact that there is no difference in tonality between exposition and recapitulation. A coda has been added to the recapitulation together with a few minor – but significant – alterations to one of the themes from the side-theme section. By contrast, though, reversals of the order with respect to the various instrument groups have been made in a longer passage of the recapitulation, proportional to the exposition. Thus, the music material by the strings has for instance been transferred to the woodwinds that, in return, have surrendered their material to the strings. The fact that the recapitulation comprises no counterbalancing of tonal suspense in the exposition means that the movement fails to meet the most basic ‘requirements’ to the movement form of a sonata. This might thus be considered to be an expression of Riisager’s disrespect for the principle of the sonata form as a pronounced Germanic type of form; and, hence, he has chosen to have exclusive instrumentation matters constitute one of the most significant differences between the two movement sections. In this respect, giving predominance to the melodic element and instrumentation, Riisager closely pursues the French symphonics of the period, in which the sonata movement form was subject to disapproval. Incidentally, this anti-Germanic attitude was reinforced in the wake of World War I.

The thematic/motivic features play a considerable role in the symphony. It is opened by a four-tone trumpet motif which is immediately developed into two phases in which the compass is continually increased. The development of the motif is continued throughout the movement and, what should attract our attention is the fact that the main theme of the second movement is presented in the coda of the first movement as a distinct development of the main theme of the first movement – to which it constitutes the contra-part. Incontestably, an atypical disposition! A few measures into the first movement, we encounter a shrewd move: Here, the commencement of an old Danish children’s singing game, Ruder Es (‘Ritsch-ratsch’) (The ace of diamonds), is introduced by the principal flute. At the close of the work, a small fragment of this melody returns in the trumpets with a transition into small resounding seconds which, by the way, point back towards the intense introduction to the final – an introduction comprised by kinds of sound patterns consisting of small seconds in ff, which are recapitulated by the strings.ff.

In addition, the symphony’s movements are bound together by means of the themes. Riisager was probably conscious that by defying the symphony form’s crucial movement principles and by his recapitulation of themes in several movements, he was pursuing a tendency towards the French symphony tradition. Moreover, the urge to simplify and structure the musical movement more rigorously constitutes an element in the general trend after World War I and, as such, it is in line with the anti-impressionistic efforts of the French composers’ group Les six.

The symphony was first performed in Tivolis Koncertsal (Tivoli’s Concert Hall) on 17 July 1926 and conducted by Frederik Schnedler-Petersen. The reviews of the Danish newspapers were mixed: Thus, in the Danish daily, Berlingske Tidende, the critic insinuated that though an ultra-radical work had been expected, it was no “more rebellious or pathless in its modernism than a trained contemporary ear could easily [find] its way” (our translation). Yet, this critic did consider that, here and there, the complex of themes lacked originality in its dependence on Stravinsky and Puccini. In his exhaustive discussion of the symphony, the music critic of another Danish newspaper, Nationaltidende (the National Gazette, a then Danish newspaper), Gunnar Hauch, referred to the earlier works’ “Reminiscences of absinth from Montmartre” (our translation), whereas with this symphony, he considered Riisager to be on his way up. Hauch likewise observed Stravinsky and Puccini traits together with traces of Wagner. “Albeit very few reflections of Carl Nielsen from whom young Danish composers will usually dish out aplenty” (our translation). Writing for the major Danish daily, Politiken, another critic, Hugo Seligmann, emphasised Riisager’s dissociation from Carl Nielsen: “In his eagerness to react against what is topical in his native country, he has – himself – changed native country” (our translation). And Seligmann’s judgment on the work was harsh: “At the conclusion of the work, one is back to square one and none the wiser” (our translation). The work simply had no or little thematic carrying power, nor any thematic development.

These reviews demonstrate that the symphony was considered to be a rare visitor to the contemporary Danish music scene. This was hardly disappointing to Riisager, since with this – his first symphony – he had, in fact, not only provided a musical test piece of this great form, since he had, moreover, been capable of putting his unequivocal stamp on the content. He may well have moved within the predominantly Germanic and most tradition-loaded of all orchestra forms, yet he did so without submitting to any straitjacket. As mentioned, his highly personal instrumentation signalled a movement away from German music, and he sooner disregarded several basic rules that apply to the structures of the symphony.

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

Photo: Adam Bull with artists of The Australian Ballet, Études. Photography by Jeff Busby© 2012

Catalogue of works

Ballet music

  • Benzin (Petrol)
  • Cocktail Party opus 19
  • Stævnemødet (the Rendezvous)
  • Qarrtsiluni
  • Tolv med Posten opus 37 (Twelve by mail coach)
  • Slaraffenland (Land of milk and honey)
  • Fugl Phønix opus 44 (The phoenix)
  • Études
  • Månerenen opus 57 (The moon reindeer)
  • Stjærner opus 58 (Stars)
  • Les Victoires de l’Amour
  • Fruen fra havet opus 59 (The lady of the waves) 
  • Galla-Variationer (grand pas de deux) (Gala variations (grand pas de deux))
  • Ballet Royal opus 64
  • Galla-Variationer (grand pas de deux) (for mindre ork.) (Gala variations (grand pas de deux) (for small orchestras))
  • Svinedrengen (The swineherd)

Music for plays

  • Darduse opus 32
  • Niels Ebbesen (1945)
  • Melampe
  • Pilatus
  • Ejendommen Mtr. Nr. 267 Østre Kvarter (The property, title no. 267 in the land register, Østre Kvarter)
  • De usynlige (The invisible)
  • Mascarade (Masquerade)
  • Hagbarth og Signe (Hagbarth and Signe) 


  • Susanne opus 49

Music for revues

  • Finale (Byens Larm) (Finale (The din of the city))

Film music

  • Cement                         
  • Copenhagen

Orchestral works

  • See Claus Røllum-Larsen’s Book, volume 2, page 768 (in Danish only)

Other compositions

  • See Claus Røllum-Larsen’s Book, volume 2, page 768 (in Danish only)

Chamber music

  • See Claus Røllum-Larsen’s Book, volume 2, pages 768 and 769 (in Danish only)

Piano music

  • See Claus Røllum-Larsen’s Book, volume 2, page 769 (in Danish only)

Bell chiming

  • The chimes of the Frederiksberg town hall bells.


  • See Claus Røllum-Larsen’s Book, volume 2, pages 769 and 770 (in Danish only).