Holger Danske, Opera in three acts

F.L.Æ. Kunzen (1761-1817), Words by Jens Baggesen (1764-1826)

By Finn Gravesen, writer and editor, 2006

Magic fairytale opera

The whole thing begins with a single, long theme on the horns, a mystical sound, which signifies the magical force of nature. It is the magic horn of Oberon, the Elf King, endowed with the power to make people dance. Oberon and his Queen, Titania, seek redemption through a couple of human beings who love each other so much that they remain faithful to each other in the face of all temptation - even when their very lives are threatened. The couple in question are Holger (the Dane) and Rezia. The horn returns to become the decisive factor during a hefty fight when Holger’s servant blows on the instrument to get everyone to dance! And in the final scene Oberon and Titania are of course united to the sound of two horns. 

Anti-German feeling 

Suspicion of foreigners is nothing new - neither in Denmark - and Kunzen’s problem was his German origin. Kunzen’s Holger the Dane opera - with libretto by Jens Baggesen - was a great success at its première at the Royal Danish Theatre in 1789 and the two young authors had naturally expected thanks and recognition for their work. But things were to be very different. Sparked by hatred for the Germans and petty jealousies, those in positions of influence came out and opposed the opera, which was in the event only performed six times. This débâcle did not however prevent the ordinary Copenhagener from liking the opera, a fact confirmed by one eyewitness who wrote: People learnt many of the pieces (from the opera) by heart straightaway ... and during the winter of 1789 you could hear these tunes - like folk songs - sung on all the streets and thoroughfares of Copenhagen as well as at guard parades.” 

Just like film 

Magic was the height of fashion at the time - Mozart’s Magic Flute was given its Copenhagen première two years later. In the case of Holger the Dane, things went so far that something approaching magic - or modern film technique, dissolving one scene into another - was required to carry out the scene changes. It was daring stuff - almost too much so! 

The music survives 

The quality of the music in the opera has never been contested. And many people consider Holger the Dane to be the first romantic opera ever written. 

Holger Danske sitting in armor. Drawing by painter Nicolai Abildgaard (1743-1809). 12.5 x 14.8 cm. Statens Museum for Kunst.
Score Music

Did you know?

Source: Nils Schiørring: Musikkens historie i Danmark Politikens Forlag, 1977.

Although Holger Danske is Kunzen's main work, it was poorly received. Partly because in Denmark at this time one did not particularly care about solemn opera, partly because of Jens Baggesen's libretto or textual repository - which did not fall into people's taste at Copenhagen's enlightenment, as it was filled with legends from old folk lore.

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Music, 2006

Holger Danske – the titular character being known in English as Ogier the Dane of Charlemagne fame – is one of the earliest Danish operas. However, it was not until a concert performance in the 1980s that it became clear that it was a masterpiece, a fresh and original opera in which every single detail was thoroughly refined and the entire work outstanding.
Later followed CD recordings of the work and a performance at the Royal Danish Theatre. When the work was performed for the first time, it sparked one of the most heated controversies of all time about Danish and German identity and opera as a genre. Perhaps this was the reason why it was subsequently forgotten. Neither the composer nor the genre was Danish, and Kunzen was forced to leave the country for some years after the Holger Danske debate. Opponents spoke of the opera genre as “in regard to taste, morals and finances, a destructive absurdity”. There was also criticism about the depiction of the main character, claiming that it was more German than Danish. 

Today, however, Holger Danske is seen as a characteristic ‘Danish’ version of the rush of fairy tale operas that were written at the end of the 18th century and well into the 19th. The most familiar international example is Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’; however, this was written two years after Holger Danske.
The ‘Danishness’ in the composition of the opera is the particularly flowing melody that runs throughout the entire work, even though it is divided into parts. There are absolutely no secco recitatives – songs with the rhythm of speech accompanied by harpsichord – but only melodies. There is also a leitmotif in the chorus which makes several appearances throughout. It’s inclusion at the end of the opera gives the work an impressive poetic conclusion. 

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