Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), words: V. Andersen efter Ludvig Holberg

By Finn Gravesen, writer and editor, 2006

Topsy-turvy world 

This is the true essence of the carnival - and the masquerade. Everything is upside down, and people do all that is forbidden. Here the norm is utter abandon and lack of respect. It’s fun to put on fancy dress costumes, to indulge in intrigue and subterfuge, but the funniest thing of all is when the masks fall and all is revealed. In this opera, in which the dance plays a dominant role, it’s done with a hearty, festive “Kehraus”, a very fast dance, in which everyone participates in the party fun and irresponsible mirth of the occasion, and the whole thing comes right in the end. 

Tempo and rhythm 

Carl Nielsen’s opera Masquerade is an adaptation of Holberg’s comedy dating back to 1724. With singers, orchestra, choir and ballet. A show of everything the Royal Danish Theatre could muster.

From the word go - in the overture - things move fast with a swiftly paced, teeming torrent of notes signalling life and activity. Then Henrik kicks the show off, putting the fun into action. Henrik is a servant with the young burgher Leander, son of starchy old Jeronimus, Henrik’s diametrical opposite. There is no doubt that Carl Nielsen identifies himself with Henrik, giving him the lead role in the opera. In the first act, Henrik and Jeronimus each sing their own ditty to the masquerade - Henrik insisting that the charade brings all its participants happiness - Jeronimus taking a more negative stance in his song “There was peace and quiet on the streets in days of old” (“Fordum var der fred paa gaden”). He sings out all his hostile feelings to an aggressive string accompaniment, far from the calm and friendliness of the song. Once again the ambivalence. There’s courting, there’s dancing, non-stop - and in the end the right couples end up together, accompanied by glorious music of great gusto. 


Holberg was such an important part of the middle class cultural scene in Copenhagen that many people considered the very idea of setting one of the great playwright’s plays to music as sacriligious. Nonetheless it became apparent on the evening of the première on November 11 1906 that Holberg had not in any way suffered from being set to opera - on the contrary, his comedy had gained a life-enhancing, utterly up-to-date counterpart from the exercise! The critics had to surrender. The opera’s success was assured. And the piece has been performed several hundred times in the century that has passed since its première.

Maskarade from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, in September 2005. Photo: Bill Cooper.
MASKARADE_ROH, Covent Garden,
Morten Hee Andersen, Jens Jørn Spottag, Peter Plaugborg in Masquerade at The Royal Theater 2017-18. Photo: Natascha Thiara Rydvald.
Score Music

Did you know?

Source: Jørgen I. Jensen: Carl Nielsen: Danskeren, Nordisk Forlag, 1991.

An autumn day in 1931 Carl Nielsen was present during a test at Maskarade, as it suddenly turned out that there was disorder in some string work. The engineer did not have the strength, so the 66-year-old composer climbed resolutely into the rope work and arranged it himself. The climb hit hard on his already bad heart - so hard he died about a week later. The funeral was a national event.

The committee's justification

By the committee for Music, 2006

Maskarade does not really need any introduction. Most are simply swept away by the music from the very first notes of the overture. The melodic intensity and apparently endless invention are maintained throughout the entire work. Vilhelm Andersen’s interpretation of Holberg’s text coupled with the music delves into more layers than Holberg himself. Firstly, there is the comedy, the intrigue, the old order, succeeded by the new. Secondly, the masquerade is also a symbol of the music itself; the music and the way it enters the Danish soul when everything is about to fall into dullness, imagination and attractiveness.

Thirdly, the masquerade is also a symbolic expression of freedom and equality, of democracy – a word that is rarely perceived as being musical. And finally, the masquerade is that which ends when the unmasking comes at the end. Maskarade is about living while you can and dare to. All this profoundness is caught up by the most wonderful festival and comic melodies in a marvel of an opera. 100 years after its premiere, it appears that interest is growing in the opera and its qualities abroad, with performances in the last year at the Bregenz Festival in Austria and Covent Garden in London.

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