Hakon Børresen was a prominent personality in Danish musical life throughout the first half of this century. He achieved considerable success as a composer and for 25 years was the Chairman of the Danish Composers' Association and the driving force behind cooperation among Nordic composers. His strength as a composer is a well developed ability to write good melodies and technical mastery of the art of instrumentation. His youth was dominated by the Danish/Norwegian Romantic tradition, and throughout his life he remained loyal to the ideals of Romantic music. He did not follow the modern currents and refused to be driven off course by the rupture with Late Romanticism that was set in motion at the beginning of the century - in Denmark especially by Carl Nielsen. This insistence on a basic Romantic attitude gives his overall output a homogeneous appearance in the best sense. He wrote the music he was good at writing, and which sprang from his Romantic consciousness. As a natural consequence of the musical innovations all over Europe, Børresen's works gradually sank from view, as did the works of a number of other excellent Danish Romantic composers of the period - for example P. E. Lange-Müller, Fini Henriques, August Enna, Ludolf Nielsen, Asger Hamerik, Otto Malling and Louis Glass. The characteristic feature of Børresen and this whole group of Danish composers was that they wrote Late Romantic works typified by craftsmanship and a fine feeling for the possibilities of the large orchestra.
Hakon Børresen was born in Copenhagen on 2nd June 1876. The Norwegian-sounding name came from his grandfather, who had come to Copenhagen from Norway at the beginning of the nineteenth century. His father had been in the army, but was now a wholesaler; the family was fairly prosperous, and as was the custom in the respectable bourgeois homes, the boy was given piano lessons at an early age - later adding violin, cello and music theory. At 19 Hakon Børresen wanted to become a composer, but his father demanded a competent judge's opinion of his abilities before he would support his son's passion. An introduction to Johan Svendsen was obtained. This Norwegian violinist, composer and conductor had come to Copenhagen in 1883 as conductor at the Royal Theatre and leader of the city's philharmonic concerts. In their book Musikkens Mestre (Gjellerup, Copenhagen 1947), E. Jacobsen and Vagn Kappel describe the first meeting between Hakon Børresen and Johan Svendsen in 1895: "So one fine day the 19-year-old Hakon Børresen stood in Svendsen's room at the hotel Kongen af Sverige in Havnegade, where he was amiably received by the cigar-smoking and rather scantily clad composer who, after reading a few pages of the score for the episode Thor kører til Jotunheim, exclaimed: "This looks really amusing"; and as a token of his recognition offered his young artist colleague a cigar. Svendsen agreed to give Børresen lessons in composition "although he didn't normally go in for teaching", and after a few months had passed he paid the father a visit and his opinion swung the balance in favour of his pupil. This meant the matter was decided. Hakon Børresen was allowed to become a musician. Johan Svendsen's own strengths as a composer were an always natural melodic grace and power, and orchestration that was sound in harmony and timbre and highly effective.
For the next 4-5 years Børresen applied himself diligently under the guidance of Svendsen, and his apprentice piece was his First Symphony in C minor, which was performed in 1901 by the Royal Orchestra led by Svendsen. The symphony aroused considerable attention. Børresen was awarded the Ancker scholarship and in 1902 went off to the Continent on a study trip. In the 1870s Svendsen had conducted the Gewandthaus Orchestra in Leipzig, so when Børresen got there he had the opportunity to meet the world-famous conductor Arthur Nikisch. Later Nikisch performed Børresen's Violin Concerto on several occasions in Germany. The trip also went to Paris, where Svendsen mixed with a group of composers around the 50-year-old Vincent d'Indy, a pupil of César Franck. Børresen also visited Brussels, where he met the famous violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe.
All the bourgeoning modernism Børresen encountered failed to budge his firm Romantic foundations. But the many meetings gave him inspiration and matured him as a human being and as an artist. So the first few years after the European journey were productive. In 1903 Børresen wrote an expansive String Sextet, Opus 5, which he dedicated to Edvard Grieg. That Børresen had been in Paris was marked by Opus 6, Polonaise in C major ("pour grand orchestre au maître Jean Boldini"). In 1904 he completed the great virtuoso violin concerto which he had begun in Paris, and wrote his Second Symphony, Opus 7, The Sea. Børresen was fascinated by the sea, and divided his time between an apartment near the church Marmorkirken in Copenhagen and a house in Skagen, North Jutland, where he formed a musical element among the famous Skagen painters around Krøyer and Ancher. There he composed most of his music and wrote occasional works like Prelude to the 500th anniversary of the town of Skagen (1913) and a Marche Funèbre for Krøyer's funeral in 1909. There was a lot of music at Skagen in that period. Carl Nielsen was there, the Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén wrote the piano version of his famous Midsommervaka there, and the Norwegian Edvard Grieg was occasionally there. The rallying-point was Krøyer's studio, with his old grand piano. The piano was left to Børresen, who in turn bequeathed it to the Skagen Museum, where it is still to be found. Later he wrote the following about his fondness for Skagen: "There is peace and quiet here, it's lovely in the summer, but also magnificent in winter. Skagen is on the northernmost point. The sea is the same as it was fifty years ago - the mighty horizon and the great painting of the sky. I cannot help believing that there is a strong connection between painting and music. Krøyer, for example, likes to work to music, and I have often played in his studio while he painted."
The success of his lifetime was the one-act opera Den kongelige gæst (The Royal Guest) of 1919. The plot is based on a short story from 1908 with the same title, by the Danish author and later Nobel Laureate Henrik Pontoppidan (1857-1943). The opera is subtitled "Hymn to Eros" because the guest - Prince Carnival - praises Pan, Eros and joy in an attempt to awake some ardour in the respectable Dr. Høyer and his wife Emmy. The opera is written with a fine feeling for the Danish language and features virtuoso instrumentation. It was premiered at the Royal Theatre on 15th November 1919 under the baton of Georg Höeberg, the grandson of the composer H.C. Lumbye. In the book Takstokkens magi (The Magic of the Baton), Kai Flor writes in the section on Danish conductors: "In the field of contemporary Danish music, a particularly remarkable performance was given to Hakon Børresen's opera Den kongelige gæst, whose lyrical and musical poetry in Georg Höeberg's interpretation won hearts right from the beginning, and which he also led to victory during the Nordic music meeting in Stockholm in 1929". The opera has been performed 134 times at the Royal Theatre, most recently in 1964. Later there have been several concert performances, and the overture is played regularly.
In his second opera, Kaddara, from 1921, with a libretto by C. Norman Hansen, Børresen paints a series of pictures of the folk life of Greenland with a rhythmically convincing tone throughout the variated scenes. This opera was also performed with success at the Royal Theatre, and 25 years later - in 1946 - it was revived at the Theatre for the first visit of the Greenlandic delegation to Copenhagen after the Liberation from Denmark. The opera was staged several times in 1924-25 at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels and at the Komische Oper in Königsberg.
Apart from the two operas Børresen wrote a number of other stage works: music for the ballet Tycho Brahes Drøm (Tycho Brahe's Dream) (1924), Historien om en moder (The Story of a Mother) (1930), Kai Munk's play Cant and Axel Juel's play Knud Lavard (1932). Major orchestral works from this period include his Third Symphony in C major Opus 21 from 1927 and the grand overture Normannerne (The Normans) from 1936.
In 1924 Hakon Børresen became chairman of the Danish Composers' Association and devoted great effort to the work for Danish composers and Nordic cooperation. He became a member of Musikaliska Akademien in Stockholm and an honorary member of the Norwegian Composers' Association. In 1935 he was one of those who took the initiative to found the Music Council in Denmark, and he became the first chairman of the Council. Hakon Børresen died at the age of 78 on 6th October 1954.