In November 1828 Princess Vilhelmine Marie, the daughter of King Frederik VI, was to marry Prince Frederik Carl Christian (later King Frederik VII). At that time, it was quite common to celebrate royal events such as a weddings with a special performance at the Royal Danish Theatre.
A Royal Wedding
In the end of May 1828 the Royal Danish Theatre invited three famous Danish poets, Adam Oehlenschläger (1779-1850), Johan Ludvig Heiberg (1791-1860) and Caspar Johannes Boye (1791-1853) to submit drafts for an appropriate play for the royal wedding.
Boye, a priest and poet, only promised to write a prologue and so he did. Oehlenschläger, a poet and playwright, and the one who introduced romanticism in Denmark, submitted a proposition for a play. For Heiberg, a poet, playwright, literary critic and literary historian, it took a while and significant considerations to get the writing process started. The play should not just somehow bring the royal wedding into play – a national inspiration and a royal touch were also more than welcome.
Inspiration from Folk Songs
Heiberg discussed topics with several friends, among others with Jonas Collin, the director of the Royal Danish Theatre. Collin thought that using themes from old folk songs might be an option and Heiberg grabbed the idea. He knew where to find inspiration based on Danish folk songs.
He turned to a five-volume book on folk song texts and melodies collected during the years 1812-1814 by historians Werner H.F. Abrahamson, Rasmus Nyerup and Knud Lyne Rahbek.
Finally Heiberg submitted a draft for a play with the title ‘Jeg lagde mit Hofvet til Elver-Høy’ (‘I laid my head down on the Elf Hill), which he had borrowed from a ballad by Peder Syv, a Danish linguist and folklorist from the 17th century.
Heiberg had incorporated the national aspect by basing his comedy draft on the old folk songs. By letting the popular King Christian IV appear in the play, Heiberg assured the royal touch. The plot of the play was inspired by an old legend originally from the area Stevns Herred. According to legend, the Elf King would not accept any Danish king invading his kingdom. However, in the play King Christian IV crosses the border to the realm of the Elf King.
It was not the first time, the king made his entrance onstage, but in The Elf Hill the king’s part is ambiguous. Besides the royal touch, he also personified the national touch, and he was a stark contrast to the mystical and misty world of the Elf King, which he intruded.
The Royal Danish Theatre liked Heiberg’s draft and chose it rather than Oehlenschläger’s proposition.
Heiberg loved the vaudeville, the musical comedy, where traditional folk songs and melodies are combined with new compositions and a contemporary or local topic. Heiberg had travelled quite extensively and he had met this genre in both France and Germany.
Now Heiberg had to find a composer, who would be able to arrange the folk songs and supplement with his own compositions. Heiberg thought of the composer at the Royal Danish Theatre, but instead he chose Friedrich Kuhlau (1786 – 1832).
Kuhlau was a German-Danish composer during the Classical and Romantic periods. He was a central figure of the Danish Golden Age, and during his lifetime he was known primarily as a concert pianist and composer of Danish opera.
Kuhlau, too, knew the folk song collection of Abrahamson, Nyerup and Rahbek and during summer and autumn 1828 Heiberg and he chose the melodies they wanted to use in the play. Kuhlau remixed a little bit and applied them for a symphony orchestra. Furthermore, he composed a few melodies himself among others ‘Jægerkoret – Herlig sommernat’ (‘The Hunters’ Chorus – Marvelous Summer Night’). He created a great part of the dance music as well and finally he composed a very outstanding overture with a number of selected melodies.
A Popular Song about a Popular King
Furthermore, the royal anthem ‘Kong Christian’ is a melody in the plays final chorus, ‘Beskjærm vor Konge, store Gud’ (‘God save the King’). The origin of the anthem is unknown. It was originally accredited to the composer Johann Hartmann, but Kuhlau’s version is the one familiar to every Dane. At the end of the premiere on November 6, 1828 the audience repeated the chorus. The text matched both King Christian IV and the reigning King Frederik VI, that is to say the characteristics of the part of Christian IV evoked associations to the reigning king’s personal qualities.
‘The Elf Hill became the Danish national play, and it was popular from the very beginning. Many famous actors and actresses performed in the play, for example Johanne Luise Pätges (later Mrs. Heiberg, the wife of the author) and Johan Christian Ryge, known as Dr. Ryge, in the part of Christian IV. The play has been performed more than 800 times at the Royal Danish Theatre and many times at local and regional theatres all over Denmark.
‘Kong Christian stod ved højen mast’ (‘King Christian stood by the lofty mast’) is still the Royal anthem as well as it has gained the status of a national anthem.
Listen to samples of Elf Hill
- Ouverture til “Elverhøj” ; side a | Friedrich Kuhlau
- Jægersang af “Elverhøj” ; side a | Friedrich Kuhlau
- Kong Christian stod ved højen Mast | Johann Hartmann (“King Christian stood by the lofty mast”)
by Sabine Schostag, Det Kgl. Bibliotek