Knudåge Riisager

1897 - 1974



Knudåge Riisager was born to Danish parents in Port Kunda, Estonia, travelling with his family back to Denmark at the age of three.

After studying political science and music in Copenhagen, Riisager went to Paris to study composition under Albert Roussel and Paul le Flem from 1921-1923. During his stay in Paris Riisager came into contact with the group Les Six and became acquainted with the music of, among others, Igor Stravinsky. Riisager later studied music in Leipzig under Hermann Grabner.

Among his contemporary Danish colleagues, Riisager emerges as perhaps the most internationally minded, and he is known around the world for his ballet music created in collaboration with choreographer Harald Lander.


Critical Acclaim
...Riisager has quite a personal style, throwing in some light dissonance here and there, using bitonality, and definitely having a good sense of musical humor - John Sunier,

Riisager's melodic gifts are strong - John Sunier,


Knudåge Riisager was the cosmopolitan in his generation of Danish composers. His father was employed in the Danish engineering firm F.L. Schmidt and the family was stationed in Riga in Latvia when Riisager was born.

Riisager’s life unfolded in many respects in a kind of duality. On the one hand he took a political science degree and had a career as a civil servant in the central administration (what is today the Ministry of Finance and the Public Auditor’s Office). Alongside this he took on a number of offices on various councils and boards and ended up as principal of the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. On the other hand he was a free creative artist trained in Paris and oriented towards international musical life and the latest currents in art.

His interest in instrumentation and in the capacity of music to tell a story is clear as early as the youthful work Overture to Erasmus Montanus, which is based on Ludvig Holberg’s comedy of the same name.

In 1923 Riisager spent a study period of seven months in Paris. He came home preoccupied with and inspired by all the new currents. A number of original works from the period clearly show inspi­­ra­tion from composers such as Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky and Erik Satie as well as themost important, trend-setting artistic movements of the 1920s.

The orchestral work T-DOXC, for example, is a Futurist tribute to a new aircraft. The choral work Four vocalises uses sound-painting texts and includes elements of Dadaism. With the small chamber-music jewel Sonate Pour Flute, Violon, Clarinette et Violoncello, however, Riisager found his way into a characteristic, light, diverting Neoclassical style. The French inspiration and the Neoclassical appear again in the ballet Benzin (Petrol), the often-played Concertino for trumpet and strings or the successful little piano suite A Happy Trumpet.

Alongside these Neoclassical works one also finds works with more experimental features such as the music for the ballet QarrtsiluniQarrtsiluni is based on a number of Greenlandic motifs and the rhythm and dynamics are the bearing elements of the music. To these we can add the music for the ballet The Lady from the Sea, which employs serial techniques, not to forget Riisager’s last major orchestral work To Apollo,which has almost minimalistic stylistic features. Throughout his career one clearly senses a will to innovate and incorporate new composition techniques.

A constant strand in Riisager’s work as a composer is his collaboration with a number of out­stan­ding choreographers: from Harald Lander, with whom Riisager created what is absolutely his major work, the ballet Etudes, through Birgit Cullberg to Flemming Flindt.

Besides his activities as a civil servant and composer, Riisager was also a particularly busy writer and debater on culture.

Hjarne Fessel 2014


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