The George Bragg Library

The Pied Piper of Copenhagen
By George Bragg
Published in The Choral Journal, April 1972

 

There are still PIED PIPERS in the world!

As in the legend, by some magic of ability and circumstances they are able to pipe children along the paths of music, affecting as they go the direction of their nation’s development.

Such a Piper is Mogens W°ldike of the Drengekor, the famous Boys Choir School in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The sprightly gentleman in his 70’s has a working day which includes directing the Danish Radio Orchestra, teaching classes at the University, and fulfilling his duties as Choirmaster at the Cathedral. Artistically, he is an organist of recital quality; yet, basically he is a teacher, a man keenly interested in all that goes on about him.

It is he and his teacher who almost singlehandedly have regenerated vocal music in the State Church of Denmark.

This seems an especial accomplishment when you see the man … diminutive in proportion, immaculate in dress, his quick movements are what betrays the sharpness of mind which has returned, by scholarship and politics, the Church’s music to its present pinnacle of fame.

Hr. W°ldike began with this premise: music in worship should lift the mind and thoughts heavenward, but not the emotions. He determined to show the superior purpose of vocal music in the Renaissance and the Reformation eras over that of the Romantic and, particularly, the Victorian eras.

To illustrate his thesis, in 1924 Hr. W°ldike started a boy choir on a private basis for Cathedral services. Drawing upon the vocal resources only on the island of Copenhagen, a single district within the metropolitan city, he rehearsed the group twice a week for three hours. To his boy choir he added the voices of professional men singers when there were church services. This was the pattern for two years.

So successful was his venture that demands upon the choir increased and sufficient rehearsal time became a problem. The Church, by this time, had seen the importance of what was being done through the restoration of this classical sacred music and, with the State, face the issue squarely.

Rather than shorten the great strides being made by this small group of 45 boys and 20 men, the Church and State proposed to sustain quality and make rehearsal time available.

Copenhagen’s Lord Mayor of Schools allowed two classes of 45 children from the public schools to transfer their academic studies to an old, unused building … St. Anne’s Gymnasium (high school). On a trial basis, these youngsters were to be taught by public school instructors the assigned state curriculum during the usual school hours, from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. six days a week!

Music, which is normally taught in Copenhagen school three times a week, became, for these students at St. Anne’s, classes in ear training and sight reading. Then, each afternoon for two hours they rehearsed under Hr. W°ldike’s direction, unless there was a performance for them, such as services in the Cathedral.

That was 40 years ago. The success of the method is its continuity and the fact that all Cathedral services with the famous Drengekor now are broadcast daily.

The Drengekor’s school is in what the Danes call a "too old" building, but the group includes now some 300 students no longer just from the Copenhagen district. With improved transportation facilities, they now come from all sections of the city. However, all are "day" students which means there are no boarding facilities.

Who attends the Drengekor school is determined entirely by the public school music teachers who once a year select one or two students from each school in the city. By the time a child is in the third grade, if he has exceptional musical ability, he is transferred by the public school administration, with his parent’s consent, to St. Annes’ Gymnasium.

Once assigned to the school, a boy remains until he has completed his high school education. He continues music after his voice changes. At that time he is given music in depth with applied time for keyboard and one other musical instrument. And, he sings in the chorus. Thereby the Drengekor can, on a moment’s notice, muster 120 boys and 85 men, all able to sight read music, for any festival or State occasion.

Academically, the students are prepared for entering the University, although a boy may choose a "practical" course which will train him for some business activity. The entire faculty at St. Anne’s is a remarkable group, having such a sense of purpose that every effort is expanded to make this institution as important to Denmark as it can be.

What Mogens W°ldike has succeeded in doing is converting a private organization, the Drengekor, to a Church-State unit. Now it is set up to handle the job of perpetuation by having a Board of six persons: two from the State, two from the Church, and two from the Drengekor.

At seventy, Hr. W°ldkie officially retired. The Piper has given over his work to his pupil and associate of 25 years, Niels M°ller. The combination of D’Herr W°ldike and M°ller produced the remarkable anthology of some years ago, published by The Haydn Society, Inc. of Hartford, Connecticut, Masterpieces of Music Before 1750; a detailed, highly annotated scholarly work, tracing the development of music from Gregorian Chant to J.S. Bach. The set contains three albums recorded in conjunction with W.W. Norton and Company, Incorporated.

Each selection is background historically, numbers of performers given, and classification of voices and instruments listed. It is a masterpiece of choral art, utilizing Danish soloists and ensembles, including the Schola Gregoriana of Copenhagen, the Madrigal Choir of the Danish State Radio, the Chamber Orchestra and Chorus of the Danish State Radio, as well as the Copenhagen Boys’ and Mens’ Choir, the Drengekor.

It is an incredible work of high artistic standard, a classic in the art of recording, and a "jewel" worthy to be included in any library of the serious musical scholar.

Hr. W°ldike has now become the assistant to the director of the Drengekor, a post he will keep while continuing as conductor of the Danish Radio Orchestra. What he keeps saying now as he looks at St. Anne’s facilities is: "We must build a new school!"

Everyone associated with "Pied Piper" W°ldike feels the project will soon be underway, and the school rebuilt, in the same solid way in which he rebuilt the music of the Church of Denmark.

George Bragg, "The Pied Piper of Copenhagen," Choral Journal 12 (April 1972): 13. ę by the American Choral Directors Association, P.O. Box 6310, Lawton, Oklahoma 73506-0310. U.S.A. Used by permission.

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