Tuesday 11 December 2018

The Gades: Denmark's musical connection

Danish violinist and composer Jacob Gade (1879 - 1963)
Danish violinist and composer Jacob Gade (1879 - 1963)

George Hamilton

Ever since Strictly Come Dancing put ballroom back into Saturday night, there can't be a music fan who isn't familiar with the waltz, the foxtrot, the cha-cha-cha, or the tango. But would they know that there's a connection between the South American rhythms of the last of those and the country where the Irish soccer team will step out tonight in the first of the final two choruses en route to the World Cup next summer?

Denmark - cool Scandinavia - and the raw Latin passion of the tango don't appear to belong together, but thanks to a man called Jacob Gade, they do.

He was a dance hall violinist from the town of Vejle in Jutland, which has produced a number of notable international footballers too - Allan Simonsen, John Sivebæk, Thomas Gravesen.

By the 1920s, he was leader of the orchestra at the Palads Cinema in Copenhagen, a huge entertainment venue that was set up in the city's former railway station, where they'd play the music to accompany the silent movies.

The enormous success of Douglas Fairbanks' The Mark of Zorro, led to a sequel. In preparation for the arrival of Don Q, Son of Zorro in Copenhagen in 1925, Gade composed a score, and part of it was a tango.

Jealousy was an instant hit, and became a worldwide sensation when it was released by the Boston Pops Orchestra. It was the first orchestral record to sell over a million copies.

Jacob Gade's tango is probably the most famous piece of Danish music ever written, and that despite the fact that it's not recognisable as being Danish at all.

There's an irony here, too, for Denmark's most famous composer is also called Gade, though there's no family connection.

Niels Gade, who died when Jacob was still a youngster, was a violinist with the Royal Danish Orchestra. He came to prominence when he won a prize from the Copenhagen Musical Society for his concert overture Echoes of Ossian.

There was double delight for Gade when the overture was chosen for performance by the orchestra. But when he presented a symphony, they weren't that impressed.

Gade, on his travels, had met Felix Mendelssohn, by now based in Leipzig. Gade sent him his symphony. Mendelssohn liked it, and gave it its premiere there in 1843.

It was to be the start of an all-too-brief friendship. Mendelssohn encouraged the Dane, and appointed him his assistant conductor at the Gewandhausorchester.

When Mendelssohn died, aged only 38, in 1847, Gade took over as principal conductor but didn't hold the position for long. He had to return to Copenhagen when Prussia and Denmark went to war the following year.

This proved to be a seminal event, for Gade's presence back in the Danish capital had a huge impact on the city's artistic life.

He brought major works to the concert stage, conducting the first performances in Denmark of, among others, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Bach's St Matthew Passion.

He enriched the Romantic repertoire with further compositions of his own - there were eight symphonies in all, as well as operas, chamber music, songs, and solos for violin and piano.

Jacob Gade left a legacy, too. The royalties from his big hit fund the Jacob Gade prize, which offers almost €7,000 annually to an up-and-coming Danish musician.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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