Knudåge Riisager was born on 6 March 1897 in Port Kunda in Estonia, and in 1899 the family moved to Frederiksberg, where Riisager lived for the rest of his life. He obtained a degree in economics as cand. polit. in 1921 and worked as an official from 1925 to 1950.
Alongside and in extension of his administrative career, Riisager became prolifically active as a composer, writer about music and organisational figure. Among other things, he was chairman of the Danish Composers’ Society for 25 years as well as principal of The Royal Danish Academy of Music.
Knudåge Riisager studied composition in Paris in the 1920s and became a pioneer of the neo-classical style in Danish music. Riisager’s early chamber music works can be regarded as headstrong miniatures of considerable originality and vitality as well as preliminary studies for later and greater achievements.
His orchestral works from the 1930s and the early 1940s show Riisager both as a composer who was inspired by the neo-Baroque and as an exponent of a characteristically Danish sound.
It was as a writer of ballet music that Riisager’s name became known to a wider audience as one of his generation’s leading composers. Riisager began in 1928 with the scandalous ballet Benzin (“Petrol”), with scenography by Robert Storm Petersen. He followed this later, and with greater success, by such works as Tolv med Posten (“Twelve by the Mail”), Slaraffenland (“Fool’s Paradise”) and Qarrtsiluni. His really great international success came in the wake of the orchestration of Carl Czerny’s piano studies for Riisager & Harald Lander’s ballet Etudes. A later work such as Månerenen (“The Moon Reindeer”) has its own distinctive Nordic sound, clearly revealing the composer’s fascination with Sámi and Greenlandic myths and rituals, which form the basis of the content of the ballet.