The King and the Lord Marshall

Peter Heise (1830-1879), words: C. Richardt (1831-1892)

By Finn Gravesen, writer and editor, 2006

Medievil Danish Don Juan

King Erik Klipping is a bit of womaniser. He has his beautiful queen waiting for him at home, while he goes out and pursues the young charcoal burner girl Aase and he’s also got his eye on Marshal Stig’s faithful wife Ingeborg at the same time. To make matters worse, all this is going on at a time when the country is in the midst of a major political crisis. There couldn’t be a better topic for a romantic author and composer: desire smoulders beneath the surface as revenge inflames men whose deepest feelings have been outraged. Just the sort of stuff Hollywood would have no hesitation in taking up. 

The Middle Ages and folksongs 

The composer Peter Heise and the librettist Christian Richardt were both in the their late forties in 1878 when they completed their tense opera on the murder mystery of King Erik Klipping at Finderup Lade on November 22, 1286. The subject had everything the heart could desire as regards love, drama and vengeance.

The composer wrote to the librettist that he wanted a very sensual rendering of the story, among other things Heise wanted King Erik to be portrayed as “a really passionate, irresistible, sensuous” person. And that’s just what he got. 

Love and drama 

When Marshal Stig goes off to war to defend Denmark and the honour of the king, he asks the king to look after his spouse Ingeborg. We in the audience immediately smell a rat but here the composer restrains the audience with a minuet from the Middle Ages. Otherwise the music in the work is completely in keeping with the times, while at the same time containing references to Danish folksongs. The choir plays a major role - not least in the pompous finale, “The Song of Distress” (“Vaadesangen), about the country that is in distress, meaning without a leader. Heise was normally a composer of songs, but he shows here his ability to successfully carry off the task of writing the libretto for an opera. All the way from Aase’s little songs with their folksong tone and simple accompaniment through to the dramatic songs of the king at Finderup Lade with their aria-like characteristics and use of a huge dramatic orchestra. 

A classic work 

On and off King & Marshal has been a permanent part of the Danish operatic repertoire ever since it was composed. The work is considered today to be one of the few Danish opera classics. 

The very famous Niels Juel Simonsen played Marsk Stig at the premiership in 1878. Det Kongelige Bibliotek.
Niels Juel Simonsen
De sammensvorne rider fra Finnerup Lade efter mordet på Erik Klipping på St. Cæcilia nat, 1286. Painting by Otto Bache, 1882. Oil on canvas, 254 x 377 cm. Det Nationalhistoriske Museum på Frederiksborg, Hillerød. Photo: Kit Weiss
Score Music

Did you know?

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

Are you one of those who hold your ears when someone tells the end? The audience of the opera Drot and Marsk did not. Already half a year before the first performance in September 1878 the libretto came out - ie. the text - to the opera. In this way people could familiarize themselves with the action in advance. The libretto got to be printed in two editions before the premiere.

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Music, 2006

Much like Hartmann and Gade, Heise was masterful when he returned to Denmark’s middle ages. In an outstanding collaboration with librettist Christian Richardt, Heise created a monumental work on a true story from Denmark’s history about the murder of King Eric Klipping in 1286, based on folk songs about marshal Stig Andersen Hvide –known in Danish tradition as Marsk Stig – and Carsten Hauch’s drama of the same name. Not without reason did he call it a tragic ‘song drama’, for Heise appreciated both.
When the text was submitted to the Royal Danish Theatre in 1875, it was noted that it was a particularly fine opera text with a poetic mood and lyrical-romantic detail of real beauty, and that Richardt had successfully created a wonderful linguistic tone with a ring of folk song about it. This view still stands in 2006.

In his music, Heise brilliantly unites the Danish romantic tradition, of which he was one of the finest representatives, folk song pastiche, and huge through-composed scenes with strong dramatic expression into an indivisible whole. His virtuosic control of the orchestra and emotional scenes such as the marshal’s return, when his wife Ingeborg confesses that King Erik has seduced her; the confrontation at Viborg between the King and marshal Stig, where he renounces Eric; and the gripping final scene where the people express their anguish and sadness over the death of the King whilst the monks sing a requiem, makes Drot og Marsk the most important Danish opera of the 19th century. It has been a regular part of the repertoire ever since and has captivated the public for generations.

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