The following essay was originally published in the March/April 2005 edition of Accordion World magazine (editor: David Keen) and is presented here by the permission of Accordion World.
(See our review of Accordion World Magazine).
March 2005 is the tenth anniversary of the untimely death from leukaemia of Mogens Ellegaard, which is an appropriate time to look back on his career and achievement. In the spring of 1995 he was due to play a major role in an international accordion festival in Amsterdam in which many international stars were taking part. His death on 28th March, just two weeks before the festival, turned several of the recitals into memorial concerts in his honour. His loss at just 60 years of age hung heavily over the event as the organisers dedicated it to his memory.
There can be no doubt that Ellegaard had a profound influence over the direction of the development of the accordion in the second half of the 20th century. It is fair to say that in spite of its popularity in the first half of the 20th century the accordion was generally shunned by serious musicians. Accordion music was confined to Saturday night variety, shows, dance halls and folk dances. Concert artists would play transcriptions of popular classics or original compositions by Frosini, Pietro Deiro and their Italian-American friends. It was music, which existed on its own and was very rarely performed as part of main concert programmes. Mogens' achievement was the interest he evoked in serious musicians to write for the accordion and the traditions with which it had been associated. 'For me the transcription literature,' he wrote in 1983, '(was) ...a temporary emergency solution'. When inappropriate it produced a negative impact in the classical world and emphasised the lack of quality original repertoire.
I myself spent eight years in Copenhagen at the Danish Royal Academy of Music studying with him between 1974 and 1982 and in that time I think I can say I came to know him well. For part of that time he lived in Sweden in Malmo commuting each week to Copenhagen to teach at the Danish Royal Academy. Later he moved to Ballerup just to the north of Copenhagen. I was privileged to visit him in each of his homes and also to perform with him as a student in several of the local concerts that he gave. He had one major mission in his career, which was to see the accordion firmly established its a serious musical instrument in the mainstream of contemporary composition and classical concert programmes. This was of course a controversial aim shared by only a handful of people and not universally understood by the accordion movement either in Denmark, the UK or elsewhere. Ironically his aim was the same as those with whom he might clash i.e. to create in a period of decline, a future for the instrument. I have to say that I had the highest respect and admiration for what he was seeking to do and came to share his enthusiasm and I might say passion, communicated sometimes with sharp wit but always with good humour.
The accordion was a very big part of his too short life. He started to play the instrument as a child of eight when his parents gave him an accordion whilst he was recovering in hospital from an accident, a story he was fond of telling in a humorous way. He did not set out to become a musician. He studied literature at Schneekloth's College in Copenhagen and graduated with honours. After military service he was given an American Embassy Literary Award for study in the United States and partially supported himself whilst there, playing his accordion in restaurants and popular concerts. At this stage of his life his repertoire was 'accordion mainstream' music i.e. Frosini solos, Deiro overtures and concertos and transcribed mainly 19th century classics. In 1952 as a 'very young hopeful Danish accordionist' as he described himself, he had played in the CIA Coupe Mondiale in Holland. He records that it was David Anzaghi playing in that contest Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue using a free bass accordion that made him decide to make the change to a free bass instrument. 'I stopped', he wrote, 'on the way back through Germany to order a free bass model a la Anzaghi.' At this time he was 17 years of age and it was the instrument he took with him to the USA when he went a few years later. He frequently liked to tell his story of how he explained what a free bass accordion was to American audiences by playing the 'John Brown's Body' theme (the hero of the anti-slavery movement) in the left hand and the Federal anthem theme in the right hand, and then playing the two together. A dramatic demonstration to a US audience fifty years ago of the polyphonic possibilities of a free bass accordion!
His Goal Becomes Set
Mogens returned to Denmark in 1958 and by this time he had developed a very high level of technical skill as an accordion player. He liked to play Frosini's Carnival of Venice variations, the Deiro Concerto in D and many other pieces, which showed off his technical skill. The Danish pianist/composer Vilfrid Kjaer (1906-1969) wrote a concerto for him with orchestra. Kjaer's style was light music according to Mogens in a Swedish article and the accordion concerto he composed was in this vein. At a concert at which Mogens played the Deiro Concerto in D, the young conductor and composer Ole Schmidt (b.1928) was in the audience and when asked by Mogens for his opinion bluntly said that he did not like it but admired his technical skill. This brought forth the challenge from Mogens to Schmidt to do better, and the challenge was accepted. Eight months later, Mogens, as he has written, found himself premiering Ole Schmidt's Symphonic Fantasy and Allegro (Op.20) for accordion and orchestra with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra with the composer conducting. The work was amazingly successful and from that day forward Mogens played it many times not only in Scandinavia but also all over the world with many other orchestras. It was the first concerto written for a free bass accordion and undoubtedly set the course at 23 years of age for the rest of Mogens' career. Ole Schmidt wrote two Toccatas (No. l op 24 and No.2 op 28) and a suite of four solo pieces (which included 'The flight of the meat ball') and a second Concerto for Accordion and Orchestra by 1964. All of these works were successful and helped to encourage others to write for him. In the mid to late 1960's Mogens teamed up with the Swedish composer Torbjörn Lundquist who produced in the course of ten or more years numerous works for free bass accordion, some of them highly virtuosic, some playable by performers of moderate skill and some for beginners, but all of them written to encourage free bass playing at all levels. By the 1980's Mogens had built up a library of works written for him by a whole group of modern Scandinavian composers, Niels Viggo Bentzon, Per Nørgaard, Ib Nørholm, Poul Rovsing Olsen, Vagn Holmboe, Bent Lorentzen, Steen Pade, Arne Nordheim, Leif Kayser and others. The exact number of works commissioned by Mogens and/or dedicated to him by composers who were simply inspired to write for him I do not know, but it is certainly well in excess of a hundred. It would indeed be useful if a complete catalogue were compiled setting out dates of composition, dates of publication and the publisher. This would make the extent of his legacy at least visible.
In a short space 1 do not think I can or should attempt to assess the quality and pick out for readers what I think are the best of these works. Many of them were written for free bass accordions of the '9 row' type and require some small changes now to play on a modern convertor instrument. All serious music has to be tested by time and from the 1980's with 'glasnost' and the fall of the 'iron curtain' in Eastern Europe it has had to compete more and more with the output from Russia, eastern European countries and others around the world. Almost none of the literature for free bass accordion from these sources however pre-dates the early successes of Mogens Ellegaard with Ole Schmidt and Torbjörn Lundquist. All the commissioned works for example of Marcosignori are for standard bass accordion. The commissioned works by the American Accordionists Association in the 1950's were for standard bass accordion. Paul Creston's Concerto for Accordion and Orchestra for example, commissioned by the AAA was written in 1960 for standard bass accordion as were works by Henry Cowell and others written after the early works of Schmidt and Lundquist. There can be no doubt about Ellegaard's premiere status as a pioneer in the commissioning of serious work for the free bass instrument.
One difficulty about assessment is the extraordinarily diverse approaches to contemporary composition of the composers who wrote for him. There is a vast difference for example between Vagn Holmboe's Sonata No.1 for Accordion Op 143a (1979) and Ib Nørholm's Sonata for Accordion Op 41 (1967). The former sonata is a small four movement rather conservative work in strict sonata form whilst the latter is a much more avantgarde serealist work but overlaid with snippets of a waltz and pre-serealist musical language. Similarly with works using orchestra. The Ole Schmidt Symphonic Fantasy and Allegro (1958) might be said to be much in line with the post-traditionalist work of Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) and is totally different to Arne Nordheim's Concerto for Accordion and Orchestra (1975) called Spur which is an advanced avant garde work heavily influenced by French electronic music. Both concertos were extremely successful and were commercially recorded by Ellegaard and played by many other accordionists. The cadenza of Spur is also published (with a few changes) as a solo piece called Flashing and has also been recorded by other artists many times.
In my judgement one of Ellegaard's main achievements in commissioned work was his experimentation with chamber works. Many of these took the accordion for the first time into new and uncharted territory in the process of integrating it into the musical mainstream. He did this from the early days, for example in works with Lundquist for string quartet and accordion - Bewegungen (1967) - and percussion and accordion - Duell (1964). Many of his commissioned works for chamber groups were recorded and also became commercially successful, but the emphasis was the search for new musical perceptions to create a new identity for the accordion.
The turn around in accordion playing with the change that I attribute so largely to Ellegaard is reflected in the playing in the last decade or so in major international competitions. It is now rare for competitors to play transcribed music, as they would have done forty or fifty years ago. Largely through him and by imitation the accordion now has a large literature of its own and top players in international competitions are expected to play it.
It was in the mid 1960's that Ellegaard working with Lars Holm set up his Malmö Accordion Studio. He and Lars Holm taught many children and began to find that there were not enough teachers of free bass accordion adequately trained in either Sweden or Denmark. It was this that led Ellegaard to campaign for the acceptance of the accordion in Danish conservatories and particularly the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen and eventually in two other academies in Odense and Arhus. In 1970 Ellegaard's campaign was successful when he was invited to form a department as a Dozenten at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen. In 1977 Ellegaard became a full professor and by the 1980's was handing the Department in Arhus, which he also established, to a new generation through one of his pupils.
To support his teaching activities he published a tutor book Mogens Ellegaard's Comprehensive Method for the Chromatic Free Bass System (1964) published by Hohner in New York, USA. Although written with the '9 row' instruments of the 1960's and 1970's in mind it remains one of the best methods of its kind written in the English language.
Mogens was indeed a first rate teacher who drew the very best from many of his pupils. He encouraged and inspired by the example of his playing and the very high standards he demanded not just of his pupils but of himself as well. He never expected his pupils to play works that he did not play himself. He worked amazingly hard and with dedication, always with a new project in hand and preparing himself for concert performances. His playing was of the highest possible standard, which inspired composers, pupils and audiences alike.
He gave a number of broadcasts in the UK in the early 1980's through the BBC and each of them was designed to show British audiences the direction he was trying to move the accordion. He gave one programme in which he gave a detailed commentary as he went from one piece to another of the history of the accordion. In this programme he not only played some of the pieces that thrill audiences such as The Flight of the Bumblebee and the Carnival of Venice variations but also with the BBC Concert Orchestra two Concertos for Accordion and Orchestra in the form of Vaclav Trojan's Fairy Tales and Ole Schmidt's Symphonic Fantasy and Allegro with other solos and duets with his wife Marta Bene thrown in it was a tour de force by any standard.
In another programme he concentrated his attention on what he called 'The Accordion Situation in Russia', paying special attention to describing the teaching of young children and the kind of music they would play on free bass accordion. As an example he played the Solotaryev Children's Suite No.1. He finished the programme with a wonderful demonstration of his own technical mastery with a splendid performance of Ivan Jaschkewitch's transcription of Voices of Spring well known now in the west but at that time not heard outside Russia. It was intended to show why as he said the Russians ran away with all the prizes in international competition when they could get visas to get out!
Even a short account of Mogens' career needs to mention the important part played in it by his Hungarian-born second wife Marta Bene. She was a talented accordionist, pianist and a musician in her own right who had studied at the Bela Bartok Conservatory in Budapest. She supported him in the last two decades of his life, not only with a happy home and in his teaching work, but also as a duettist in many concert performances across Europe. Mogens' last CD 'Jeux A Trois' (made in February 1994) is largely a set of accordion duets with percussion and is a most effective recital. In my acquaintance they were two people of like mind and she was his best and most sympathetically helpful critic. They leave one surviving son.
The Development of the Accordion as an Instrument
Mogens Ellegaard was the son of a carpenter, as he was fond of telling people. He did not himself possess a craftsman's skill but he nevertheless had considerable influence on the manufacture of accordions. The free bass instruments of the 1960's and 1970's tended to be heavy and the instruments of most manufacturers were not suitable for children and young people. Mogens saw this as an enormous drawback for the development of skilled playing. If children and very young people did not have an instrument of suitable size and weight they would not in his view develop skill young enough to develop a very high level of skill at a later stage.
He tried to convince many manufacturers in Italy of the need to develop a range of free bass instruments. Most did not see a sufficient market to make it worthwhile except the firm of Pigini. As a result of his early visits to Russia in the mid - 1970's he was the first owner of a Jupiter bayan in the west, and he inspired the firm of Pigini to develop similar models and he became the first owner of a Sirius bayan. This linked the Italian industry's skill in the ergonomics of manufacture and the Russian skill in reed making which has been responsible for the very much better instruments that we now have, compared with thirty to forty years ago. Ellegaard also persuaded the firm of Pigini to manufacture a range of free bass instruments suitable for children and young players, which other firms did not think would prove a profitable market. This is now one reason why Pigini dominates the market for professional free bass convertor instruments.
A Personal View of the Man and his Influence
Mogens Ellegaard undoubtedly deserves a full-length biography by someone with access to all his papers but it is also important for those of us who knew him well to record our personal impressions and memories. Everyone who heard him play on the radio or on the concert platform and whether they liked the accordion or not, was impressed with his astonishing skill and apparent ease of performance. In my experience this came with enormous dedication, hard work and self-belief in the objectives he was pursuing. He practised and learnt new music all his working life in the belief that he had with newly commissioned works a duty to the composer and the audience to give of his best. As a teacher he sought to instil this into his pupils and inspired by example. He demanded the highest possible personal and professional conduct of himself and his pupils.
His personal life was certainly not free from occasional problems. His first marriage ended in divorce and he lost a child in infancy in his second marriage, but he demanded of himself and his pupils that personal problems should as far as humanely possible be kept from affecting one's work as a musician. He was uncompromising in this regard with himself and with pupils.He was undoubtedly an intellectual person with a strong aesthetic sense. His interest in music extended well beyond music for the accordion. He spoke English extremely well and he also spoke German, and his tastes were literary. He had a distinctive voice without noticeable accent. He spoke with wit and charm and could be extremely persuasive when he wanted to be. His greatest achievement is the change of direction he brought about in the composition of music for the accordion and changed perception of it by many serious musicians. He achieved this through his single-mindedness, tenacity and intensity of purpose, which impressed all who had professional contact with him.
New music is often like a great deal of new art controversial. Obviously it may not all be good and some may not even be played after the premiere. Disappointing works should be premiered, he used to say, to keep the process evolving and everyone learning. However, it is due to Mogens Ellegaard that the accordion has become established not only in the leading and other conservatoires in Denmark but also in a number of others in Western Europe as well. He was proud for example that I had established an accordion department at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and that Matti Rantanen and Jon Fauksted (both his pupils) had also established departments at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and the State Academy of Music in Oslo. These and other departments have established the accordion at the centre of serious music making where we can hope it will go on to greater heights in years to come.
Mogens' first priority in his career became the creation of 'a new world' of original music for the accordion. One of the tragedies of his last illness and death in March 1995 was that the event in Amsterdam, in which he was to have taken part, celebrated the new music for accordion in many countries throughout the world. The accordion does now have a whole range of solo, chamber and orchestral works from leading contemporary composers from many countries. By example and imitation this is part of the splendid legacy of his pioneering work.Copyright 2005
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