Peter Heise was one of the most important Danish romantic composers. He is mainly known for composing music for Danish popular songs for the Folk High School Songbook, a string of romances for voice and piano (i.e. Danish Lieder) and the national opera Drot og Marsk (King and Marshal), but is often overlooked as an international composer.
Even though his opera production was relatively small, the main work Drot og Marsk has been called “the best opera of the 17th Century”. The opera was composed in the years 1876-77 to a libretto by Christian Richardt and had its premiere at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen in 1878 and was quickly established as part of the theatre’s regular repertoire. The opera focuses on the assassination of King Erik Glipping in 1286 and the ménage á trois between the King, his marshal Stig Andersen and Stig’s wife, Ingeborg. Drot og Marsk is amongst the most frequently performed Danish operas.
In contrast Heise composed several hundred romances and songs. The development of the Danish lieder began in the 1790s by J.P.A. Schultz and was continued by C.F.E. Weyse and Niels W. Gade. Many other composers contributed, but Heise refined the genre and the romance tradition culminated in the ending of 1800 with the composer P.E. Lange-Müller. Heise’s genius lies in the fact that he managed to build up his songs in clear courses with neatly formed melodies and a respect for the strophic form.
Heise was a cheerful, but modest man, who lived a financially independent life in the provinces, and died far too early at the age of 49. A lot of his works remained unpublished and none of them had any opus numbers or composition dates. Despite his phlegmatic attitude he was renowned as the most significant vocal composer of his time.