Nancy Dalberg grew up on the South Funen estate of Mullerup, which her family had acquired in 1882. She was the daughter of the enterprising chemist and factory-owner Christian Hansen, who became a very prosperous man thanks to his establishment of a technical-chemical laboratory firm. In keeping with the cultural ideals of the day she learned as a child to play the piano, but her wish to continue her studies at the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen was not granted since her father thought that places in the public institutions of education should be given to the less well off. So her musical training was exclusively private.
In 1901 at the age of just 20 she married an officer of the Royal Engineers, Erik Dalberg (1875-1945), who shared his wife’s artistic interests and was himself a keen amateur painter and occasional poet. The Dalbergs, who remained childless, settled down in Copenhagen, but for many years they spent their holidays at Mullerup, where Nancy Dalberg’s mother, Agnes Mathilde Hedemann, liked to gather the whole family around her. Social life on the South Funen country estates around the turn of the century was typified by a lively interest in music, and it was hardly without significance for Nancy Dalberg that she had known the 20-year-older composer Hilda Sehested from the neighbouring estate Broholm since her childhood. During her marriage, Nancy Dalberg continued her piano studies with Professor Ove Christensen, and in 1907, at the Hornung & Møller Hall, she gave a private concert for charity. The programme shows that she had trained in a traditional classical-romantic repertoire, including works by Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin. But when she injured one arm in a fall she stopped playing the piano for some years, and apart from appearing later as an accompanist at one of her composition concerts, she was not active as a concert pianist. In 1909 she began to study music theory and composition with the Norwegian composer and conductor Johan Svendsen, and after his death two years later she briefly continued her studies with the composer and violinist Fini Henriques, until in 1913 she began to take lessons with the composer Carl Nielsen.
From her preserved manuscripts, which are in the Royal Library, Copenhagen, one can see that she underwent thorough training in music theory and composition. This included exercises in harmony and counterpoint as well as instrumentation. It was probably Carl Nielsen who, as part of her training, set her the task of orchestrating a piano arrangement of Mozart’s G minor symphony. At all events, Carl Nielsen’s teaching familiarized her with instrumentation practice and she was thus able to help him with the instrumentation of his works when he was short of time. For example parts of the instrumentation of Nielsen’s Springtime on Funen were done by Nancy Dalberg during a summer stay at Mullerup.
Nancy Dalberg’s compositions comprise songs, chamber music and orchestral works. As a whole her musical output is not large, and was produced within a relatively short period, from about 1914 until the end of the 1930s. But it is worth noting that she was the first woman in Denmark to compose a symphony (C minor, 1917), while the one-movement orchestral work Capriccio (1918) was also composed for a symphony orchestra. Her first string quartet (D minor, no opus number) was presented to the public at a concert in November 1915, but before this there had been a memorable performance in her own home in December 1914. Carl Nielsen received her enthusiastic thanks for his participation in the quartet: “Thank you for the festive evening you arranged for me the other day. It was with a feeling of sheer joy that I sat and heard how my music was given life – especially in the Adagio and Finale. I had not thought such a beautiful performance possible after just one rehearsal. It was an evening I will never forget, and it was quite overwhelming for me to experience such great happiness ... the very fact that you, Mr. Conductor, and the other artists sat here and played something of mine – that was almost like experiencing a fairytale!”
The successful performance helped to encourage the composer, and the next year in her first public composition concert she could present the audience with the D minor quartet, the Scherzo for string orchestra, op. 6 (1914), Andante serioso and Fantasy Piece for Cello and Piano (1915) as well as a selection of her songs. In her catalogue of works there are also Two Orchestral Pieces with the opus number 9 (1918), but they are not new works; originally they formed the second and third movements of her C minor symphony. Perhaps the limited opportunities for having orchestral music performed explain why after 1918 Nancy Dalberg concentrated on composing chamber music and songs. In the 1920s she composed a further two string quartets, both of which were published: String Quartet no. 2 in G minor (opus 14, c. 1922), and String Quartet no. 3 (opus 20, 1927). The latter is dedicated to Carl Nielsen and with its sophisticated tonal idiom shows that Nancy Dalberg, particularly in the area of the string quartet, was moving far beyond her major-minor tonal starting-point. Of the Two Fantasy Pieces for violin and piano dating from 1921, only the second, with the titled Scherzo grazioso, op. 8, was published, in 1927. It is dedicated to the violinist Emil Telmányi, who often – like the famous Breuning-Bache Quartet – played at concerts in Nancy Dalberg’s home and later included some of her works in his repertoire. Arabian Music from the Sahara, for oboe, viola and drum (1928), was an arrangement of Arab themes that Nancy Dalberg had written down when she was staying with her husband in North Africa in the winter of 1922-23. The composing of songs continued throughout Nancy Dalberg’s productive period, and when the bulk of her approximately 40 songs and a few duets were published, they gained fairly wide currency in her time, thanks for example to the concert singers Anders Brems, Else Ammentorp and Ingeborg Steffensen. The songs were mainly composed to texts by contemporary Danish poets like Mads Nielsen, Thor Lange and Hans Hartvig Seedorff, but many poets from the nineteenth century are also represented by a few texts. As a composer Nancy Dalberg in several respects shared the fate of her female colleague Hilda Sehested. Both lived a socially secure life that enabled them to organize concerts of their own works, and both were talented and well trained in composition – as even their harshest critics had to admit. But both also experienced that their “ideal femininity” and composing work were perceived as incompatible. Nancy Dalberg’s composition concert in 1918, for example, evoked the following response: “A lady who writes orchestral works is a great rarity; a lady who attempts a symphony a phenomenon”. It was undoubtedly meant as a compliment when the same reviewer wrote that her symphony was so ably written “that it would have done justice to many of her male colleagues”. But there was no mistaking the implicit looking-down on creative female artists, and this could hardly have failed to have an adverse effect on women’s creative urges. It is not difficult to hear the inspiration from Johan Svendsen and Carl Nielsen in Nancy Dalberg’s music, but one can with equal justice point to other Scandinavian and European composers as her sources of inspiration.