Explore the legacy of Danish composers

Explore the legacy of Danish composers

In Denmark's rich history of classical music, while Carl Nielsen and Rued Langgaard often receive widespread international acclaim, several composers have significantly shaped its course in the 20th century: Herman D. Koppel, Vagn Holmboe, and Niels Viggo Bentzon. Their compositions do not only stand out for their individual contributions, but also as vital links leading to the rise of talents like Per Nørgård and Ib Nørholm, both students of Holmboe. Join us in this exploration, celebrating the symphony of voices that prove Danish music is a vast and varied realm, waiting to be discovered.


Herman D. Koppel (1908-1998) was a composer, pianist, and teacher, as well as a prominent member of the Danish movement of artists and musicians called 'Kulturradikalisme' ('Cultural Radicalism,' a Danish version of the German Neue Sachlichkeit). Koppel became the first of a long family dynasty of musicians and artists still influencing the Danish music scene, among these composer Anders Koppel. In his studies at the academy, he met the aging composer Carl Nielsen, for whom he had the pleasure of both playing some of Nielsen's piano works as well as assisting him.

Today he is widely recognised for the Danish evergreen Sangen om Larsen (The song about Larsen) from the vaudeville ‘Melodien der blev væk’ (The Melody That Was Lost) with Bernhard Christensen.

Koppel also composed a range of traditional chamber music and orchestral music, such as his 6th Symphony 'Sinfonia Breve'. The symphony is heavily inspired by Carl Nielsen, especially the late Nielsen in the 5th and 6th symphony. Besides his more traditional compositions, he also composed a range of pieces influenced by 1930s jazz.

In 1952 Koppel wrote a cello concerto for his friend, the Danish-Icelandic cellist Erling Bløndal Bengtsson. Koppel and Bengtsson had a long-lasting friendship, with Koppel frequently working as an accompanist for Bengtsson. This partnership with Bengtsson may have led to Koppel being one of the first in Denmark to write major works for the cello since Emil Hartmann: Cellokoncert, Op. 56. The cello concerto was a major success and one of Koppel’s breakthrough works internationally. Today it’s one of the most frequently played works by Koppel, both in Denmark and abroad.


Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996) was a Danish composer and a professor in composition at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. During his time at the academy, Holmboe also met the aging Carl Nielsen who became a huge inspiration for him. Especially in his 8th symphony ‘Sinfonia Boreale(1951) dedicated to Herbert Häffner. The symphony is inspired by the cold and harsh Nordic landscape with heavy inspiration from both Carl Nielsen’s tonal language and Jean Sibelius’ orchestration which gives the symphony a distinctly recognisable Nordic sound. Holmboe was a highly productive composer with 13 symphonies, 13 instrumental concertos, 19 string quartets and other chamber music works worth exploring.

Discover Holmboe’s symphonies in this playlist:

Prominent Danish composer Per Nørgård began private studies with Vagn Holmboe at age 17 before joining the Royal Danish Academy of Music to study with Holmboe and Herman D. Koppel. Nørgård dedicated no less than 17 of his compositions to Holmboe and his wife, including his Opus 1 ‘Quintet for Flute, Violin, Viola, Violoncello and Piano and his Arresøbilleder (Images of Arreso).


Today, Holmboe is also well-known for his many choir pieces. Both music for a capella, such as his Høbjergning ved havet (Haymaking at the sea) but also his Rekviem for Nietzsche (Requiem for Nietzsche)


Niels Viggo Bentzon (1919-2000) was a Danish composer, pianist, organist, and an all-round provocateur. Bentzon was born into a musical family as grandchild to the famous composers J. E. P. Hartmann and Emma Hartmann (Fr. Palmer) and cousin to composer Jørgen Bentzon. Today, Niels Viggo Bentzon is probably the most listened to Danish composer since he’s known for the jingle to the Danish State Railways (DSB) playing daily at every train station.

Bentzon originally trained as an organist at the Royal Danish Academy of Music but was autodidact as composer. He is probably the most productive composer in Danish music history with 540 registered opuses including his 5th symphony ’Elipsen’, the opera Faust 3, the famous orchestra piece 5 Mobiler, and 8 books of his ‘Well tempered Piano’. The work took him 25 years to finish and selected parts has recently been recorded by pianist Per Salo and published by Edition Wilhelm Hansen:


In his vast amount of compositions his compositional style spanned over a lot of styles from pieces inspired by neoclassicism, Bellà Bartók, 12-tone pieces in the style of Arnold Schoenberg to more abstract and provocative happening/fluxus pieces like his piece 4 happenings.


These composers had a huge impact on Danish classical music in the 20th century in three distinct different ways. Kopppel was among a group of radical composers questioning the lines between popular music, jazz and classical music, Holmboe influenced a whole generation of high-profile international composers such as Per Nørgård, and Niels Viggo Bentzon tested the limits of music itself with his ‘happenings’ while still being grounded in the traditional genres, such as his ‘Well Tempered Piano’.