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TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

22. Esrum-Hellerup: An Unknown Composer



One of the surprise entries in The New Grove Dictionary (1980, 6: 252) was the Danish flautist, conductor and composer, Dag Henrik Esrum-Hellerup (1803-1891). As so little is known of this fascinating man - he was a last minute inclusion and the Grove contributor had scant access to, indeed knowledge of, either life or music - I am appending this brief note about him. (I am indebted here to Stijj Øle-Pauker's excellent new biography, Esrum-Hellerup: Hofkammermusicus, Copenhagen, 1996, for much of the following information.)

Esrum-Hellerup was born in Århus, the son of a rail-crossing keeper, sometime in 1803. After early lessons on the ophicleide, an instrument for which he seems to have shown little aptitude, he turned to the flute, studying with Kuhlau. He rapidly acquired a reputation as an accomplished flautist, whilst at the same time producing his first important compositions. His rise to fame as a composer was meteoric: he was toasted by Smetana ('an undisputed genius'), Wagner ('Hats off, gentlemen, to the Danish Wagner!') and Brahms, who urged him to consider the novels of Henry Fielding for an opera plot. His decline in popularity was equally rapid, and by the time of his death - through choking on a fish-bone whilst attending a performance of Parsifal at Graested in September 1891 - he was all-but-forgotten.

Much of his music is lost, including the once much-admired opera, Alys og Elvertøg, but several works have recently come to light amongst the papers of the Danish musicologist, Bo Notyal. These include the satirical ballet, Eidas Yelnats - based on the life of the legendary Latvian mischief-maker (a kind of Danish Till Eulenspiegl) - and an early Ophicleide Concerto. But it is the remarkable late compositions, written when he was living in obscurity in the coastal village of Ebeltoft, that have caught the public's imagination, works such as 'In C-flat' and 'Klappy-Musik'. These pieces mark him out as a minimalist before his time, so much so that since his rediscovery he has become an icon of the avantgarde. If Satie is the Father of Minimalism, then Esrum-Hellerup is surely the Grandfather. His major work of the period is the opera Disraeli in Egypt; indeed the ballet sequence in Act 3, in which Disraeli dances a pasodoble with Akhnaten's wife, has become a popular favourite, reaching No. 8 in the Top 10 Classical Recordings. His final work, 'Kukkuk', takes his minimalism to its furthest point. The entire piece consists of just two notes - the 'kukkuk' of the title - repeated ad infinitum. It leaves us to ponder what he would have done after that. One note?… Silence?… The latter is perhaps the only possible solution. No wonder he gave up composing.


Copyright © 20 April 2000, Trevor Hold, Peterborough, UK


Readers may not know that 'Esrum-Hellerup' was the spoof entry
in Grove's Dictionary (1980) inserted by Robert Layton ( 'Bo Notyal')
much to the disgust of Stanley Sadie ('Eidas Yelnats'), who
immediately cut it from subsequent editions.


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