Niels Wilhelm Gade

1817 1890

Niels Wilhelm Gade



Composer and violinist Niels Gade was the nineteenth century link between European romanticism and Scandinavia’s twentieth century composers. Through his encounters with the giants of Germanic music he paved the way for his countrymen and the like to be taken seriously on the musical world stage.

Niels Wilhelm Gade was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 22 February 1817 to two musical parents. His father was a cabinetmaker, but later began making stringed instruments. The change of careers however, did nothing to improve the family’s financial situation, which was limited, to say the least. The access to violins allowed the young Gade to experiment musically. At age fifteen he was able to begin formal training, studying violin with F. T. Wexschall of the Royal Danish Orchestra. He performed publicly for the first time on the violin in 1833 and the year after was able to become a junior player in the Royal Danish Orchestra.

He studied theory and composition with Andreas Peter Berggreen. It was from Berggreen that Gade learned Danish folk music and developed an interest in Danish literature. This nationalistic influence would be evident from even the earliest stages of the composer’s career. He debuted his official Opus 1, an overture titledEfterklange af Ossian, in 1840. It was widely praised and won Gade a prize from the Copenhagen Musical Society.

Even after the success of his debut composition, Gade was not able to present his first symphony publicly in Denmark. He instead sent the piece to Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig. Mendelssohn received Gade’sSymphony No. 1 in C minor positively and conducted its premiere in March of 1843 to an enthusiastic audience. Later in 1843, Gade was able to travel to Leipzig and meet Mendelssohn through a government grant. The meeting led to his position as assistant conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and a teaching position at the Leipzig Conservatory. Mendelssohn’s influence on the younger composer was evident, as seen in Gade’s third symphony from 1847. During this time Robert Schumann also became a friend of Gade’s. Mendelssohn died in 1847 and Gade inherited his position as principal conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. It was a short lived position however, as war in 1848 between Denmark and Prussia forced his return to Copenhagen.

Gade was the organist of Holmenkirk in Copenhagen and in 1850 he was appointed director of the Copenhagen Musical Society. Under his leadership the society reached its peak and he would remain in that post until his death almost forty years later. Gade married Emma Sophie Hartmann in 1852. She was the daughter of J. P. E. Hartmann, a respected and important Danish composer of the day. He composed two works for her,Spring Fantasy and his fifth symphony, which was a wedding present. He collaborated with her father on a ballet in 1853,A Folk Saga, for August Bournonville, an influential Danish ballet master and choreographer. In that same year, Gade premiered his most successful large-scale work,Elverskud, which translates to Elf Hill. The cantata is based on the tale of Sir Olaf who was abducted by fairies on his wedding night.

His wife Sophie died after only three years of marriage. He remarried in 1857, to Mathilde Staeger. He was an associate conductor at the Royal Theatre for a short time in 1862. In 1866 he became the director at the Copenhagen Academy of Music where he also taught composition and music history. Over the years he was able to meet and influence rising Scandinavian composers like Edvard Grieg from Norway and Carl Nielsen, a fellow Dane.

Gade’s busy schedule limited his composition to the summer months, but he was a guest conductor with various different orchestras  from time to time. He enjoyed an international reputation that grew through the years. He was commissioned to write the cantatasZion and Psyche for the Birmingham Festival. He remained a resident of Copenhagen for the remainder of his life, where he died on 21 December 1890.

Gade wrote music from his teens up until his death. He wrote eight symphonies, a violin concerto, chamber music, including a string quartet, and piano works like his piano sonata and fantasy pieces. His largest output was his vocal music, cantatas, solo songs, and part songs.

Gade’s 5 Songs were written for four part choir during his time in Leipzig. It was dedicated to Constanze Schleinitz, the wife of an influential man in Leipzig’s musical world. The piece of five songs was premiered in 1846. The setting is based on four texts from Emanuel Geibel and one by Ludwig Tieck. The songs are a sort of depiction of the four seasons.

Tre Tonestykker (Three Tone Pieces) was written by Gade over the course of two weeks in 1851 and published in 1852. According to a letter to Clara Schumann, the composer initially intended to write four pieces for the organ, but the original second movement was left out. He dedicated the piece to his father-in-law and fellow composer J. P. E. Hartmann.

Gade’s opus 43 is his Four Fantasy Pieces for clarinet and piano. Composed in 1864, three of the movements show a clear German influence from Schumann and Mendelssohn. The third though, “Ballad”, is a setting of a Nordic folksong. The piece was one of the most popular by Gade during his lifetime, and was arranged several times, but it was ideally intended for clarinet or violin.

Gade left behind a mountain of work in his symphonies and cantatas, as well as the smaller chamber and vocal works. His works are still performed, but not as widely or often as his successors. It is these successors though, that are perhaps his most important legacy. His time in Leipzig and connections with Mendelssohn and Schumann and his return to Denmark to teach the next generation are what pushed the Scandinavian composers from regional renown to an international or even global reputation. While perhaps not a household name, without Gade there might be no Nielsen or Grieg.

Header image: courtesy of Encyclopaedia Britannica Other images: courtesy of Wissen, Libero and public domain