Denmark’s Harbor of Music

Denmark fiddler Harald HaugaardDenmark: Tivoli Gardens, open faced sandwiches, brave resistance fighters in World War II, Vikings, clean lines of design in furniture and house wares and crystal, vibrant colors and patterns in textiles — all those things come to mind.

But music?

If you study music in Denmark “It’s hard to get rid of classical music! I think it’s just a part you have to go through,” says violinist and composer Harald Haugaard, laughing. “I wasn’t scared or afraid of classical music at all, and I was brought up with usual violin teaching, and played classical music.

“At the same time, my grandfather was an accordion player, and my mother was a dance caller. So for the first five or ten years I was playing, there were no borders between classical music and folk music. I used what was inside me, stories I wanted to tell, it didn’t matter to me what kind of music it was,” he says. When time came for university studies, Haugaard was accepted into the prestigious Carl Nielsen Academy, to a course to study to become a music teacher. The course work focused on classical music. Soon enough, Haugaard knew this wasn’t the path for him. “I was was spending all my spare time playing folk music, and making money at it too,” he recalls. There was nowhere at the Carl Nielsen Academy, though, or in Denmark, to study folk music at university level. Haugaard went to the head of the Academy with an idea to change that “and he said yes!” Haugaard sought out the old fiddlers, tradition bearers, and sat in the kitchens with them, with coffee and music, aquavit and music, and learned their music and their stories.

What does the folk music of Denmark sound like? Part Celtic, part Scandinavian, part Baltic, and yet with a distinct personality all its own. Think of the location of Denmark, a country surrounded by water, a crossing place between Celtic lands to the west, Baltic and Slavic cultures to the east, Germany to the south, and Nordic lands to the north.

“In the old days, it was much easier to travel on water than on land,” Haugaard points out. “We have influences from all over Europe — visual influences, and architecture, and poetry, and music, and dance. We are a harbor in northern Europe for traditional culture. We have German melodies and polkas and Scottish jigs and reels for inspiration, but when you play a Danish jig or reel it sounds different from a Scottish one, and a a Danish polksa is different from a German or Swedish one.

You could say the music had been traveling until this point, until it got to Denmark and then it’s been changed and modified to the country and the landscape and the people who live here.”

You can hear this in Haugaard’s recordings and concerts. For a number of years he and guitarist Morten Alfred Høirup brought the music of Denmark across the world and won every Danish music award there was going at home, too. When it was time for a change, Haugaard turned his attention to composing, to collaborating on projects with his wife, top folk singer Helene Blum, and to founding a summer fiddle school.

“Helene and I also started our own record company, which sounds crazy,” he says, but allows them artistic freedom and suits the current economy as well. Burning Fields from Haugaard, and Men Med Abne Ojne/But With My Eyes Open from Blum are two recordings on which you may hear their approach to sharing traditions and creating new ideas with the folk music of Denmark.

“I always have the idea that if you want to work with tradition, you have to consider tradition something that is alive. I think it’s important to challenge tradition and see what comes of that,”Haugaard says. “You have to do that in a humble way, but as soon as you have studied it and are there, you can develop the tradition and discover it and explore it.” Studying and exploring and making new the varied influences and distinctive heart of traditional music of Denmark: that is the work of Harald Haugaard and Helene Blum. Should you be seeking a soundtrack for your own explorations of Denmark, you couldn’t ask for a better one.

photograph of Harald Haugaard by Lieve Broussaw, used with permission

Kerry Dexter is one of six writers who contribute to Perceptive Travel’s blog. You’ll most often find her writing about travels in Europe and North America in stories that connect to music, history, and the arts, including An Evening in Belfast and Teaching Irish Music Tradition.

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