The Elf King's Daughter

Niels W. Gade (1817-1890)

By Finn Gravesen, writer and editor, 2006

Shining happiness and dark passion 

In The Elf King’s Daughter, the young knight Oluf is to marry but the night before his nuptials he falls victim to the irresistible attraction of the elf people! Under the pretext that he must go off and invite another guest to the festivities, Oluf makes ready to depart to the kingdom of the elves. The valedictory song in which Oluf’s fair bride and the dark-haired elf girl, the cheerful wedding ambiance and the hero’s schism between duty and desire, are contrasted, is one of the piece’s musical climaxes. Oluf’s mysterious horseback ride through a moonlit landscape is a tone painting with an orchestral movement of the highest order. 
In part two, the elf girls dance while the elf king’s daughter seeks to beguile Oluf in almost supernatural tones. Rejected by Oluf, she inflicts a mortal wound on him, and he flees through the woods to a dramatic orchestral accompaniment. Back at the wedding scene, Oluf perishes in front of his bride and all the guests. Here Gade ends the work with surely the most beautiful choral version ever of Ingemann’s “The sun rises in the East” (“I Østen stiger solen op”). 

Inspired by a fraud 

It was actually a hoax which brought composer Niels W. Gade’s romantic creativity to the boil. As a 22-year-old, he became deeply inspired by a collection of medieval Celtic poems, which had just been published in England. Moved by these poems, Gade composed his Ossian Overture (Ossian-ouverture) for a musical competition - and won. The fact that it later turned out that the author of the poems was a cheat and a swindler, who had written the texts himself, does not, however, diminish Gade’s splendid musical achievement. 

Folksongs and legends 

Fifteen years later, in 1854, Gade’s eyes and ears were opened to the world of Danish folksongs and legends. And here again his romantic interests are very much in evidence - the occult, the mysterious and the passionate combined with light, peace of mind and joy. The Elf King’s Daughter is a choral and orchestral work, which recounts an ancient folk tale in words and tones. 

Tones creating pictures 

The tone painting in Gade’s orchestral music is capable of doing something like today’s film music does for screen mega-dramas such as Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. When we close our eyes, we can see everything before us. 

Niels W. Gade conducts at the Music Association in the Casino Theater. It may be Elverskud being performed. Drawing by Edvard Lehmann.
Niels W. Gade, 1890. Det Kongelige Bibliotek.
Score Music

Did you know?

Source: Inger Sørensen: Niels W. Gade. Et dansk verdensnavn. Gyldendal, 2002.Sektion

When the young Niels W. Gade received an admiring letter from the German composer Mendelssohn Bartholdy, it astonished him that he could answer the master in a completely perfect German. Otherwise, Gade was teased for its inadequate handling of the neighboring language. The perfect German was because Gade got his later father-in-law, the Music Association's J.P.E. Hartmann, to write the letter. Hartmann is also here in canon for score music.

The committee's justification

By the committee for Music, 2006

Ever since its first performance in 1854, Gade’s ballad, inspired by Danish legend, has been one of Danish romantic music’s principal works. Gade himself chose folk songs about Sir Oluf and Elverhøj (‘Elves’ Hill’) as a basis; however, he went through as many as four text writers before he was satisfied with the text, which contains both passages from these folk songs and free composition. Elverskud has its roots in the enthusiasm of the 1800s for old Danish legends and folk songs, and Gade followed his teacher A. P. Berggreen’s encouragement to absorb the popular melodies and be inspired by their spirit in order to give his music a national character. 

The robust jubilant mood in the castle courtyard stands in contrast to Sir Oluf’s melancholy, pondering tones that reflect his dilemma: the thoughts of his blonde bride and the dream of the dark-haired elf maid – “It is as if my heart is split in two...in time it may mend” – a Danish version of that Wagner had portrayed in Tannhäuser’s faltering between his love for Venus and the chaste Elisabeth. Sir Oluf’s ride through the moonlit landscape, in which Gade, via his instrumentation, creates fascinating, atmospheric images, Sir Oluf’s meeting with the elf maid and her enchanting song, his dramatic flight with strong orchestral accents that culminates in the work’s absolute high point: Ingemann’s pure “‘I Østen stiger solen op” (In the east the sun rises) in a slow flowing choral arrangement in a brilliant C major. Need we explain why Elverskud is among the most frequently performed Danish choral works over the last 150 years? 

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