Composers You Should Know: Nancy Dalberg

July 6 marks the 136th birthday of Danish composer Nancy Dalberg (1881-1949).  

Dalberg was a student of Johan Svendsen and Carl Nielsen.  As part of her training with Nielsen, Dalberg was challenged to experiment with orchestration – which led to Nielsen and Dalberg working closely together, including Dalberg helping to orchestrate works for Nielsen when he found himself short on time.  The connection between the composer and student lasted throughout their lifetimes, and has drawn the attention of scholars.  Be sure to read Lisbeth Ahlgren Jensen’s article about their connection, “Carl Nielsen and Nancy Dalberg: Nancy Dalberg as Carl Nielsen’s pupil, assistant and patron” available through the now discontinued journal of Carl Nielsen Studies via The Royal Library’s portal for Danish publications.  

Not a prolific composer, she is remembered as being the first Danish woman composer to compose a symphony.  Though well received at the time of its premiere (1917), the praise Dalberg received of being a “great accomplishment for a woman” is indicative of the limitations that women composers faced at the time, particularly in regard to large scale works.  A likely result of this was Dalberg spending most of her compositional career focused on chamber works, which were a more welcome medium for women composers, and easier to have published and performed.

Her String Quartet No. 2 (1922) has endured, and was recently republished.  Even still, however, the composer’s gender was never far from a discussion of her music. For example, of this String Quartet, music critic Wilhelm Altmann (1862-1951) wrote in Walter Wilson Corbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music:

Nancy Dalberg published this work without giving her forename, and, had I not learned by chance that it was composed by a woman, considering also the austerity and native strength of her music, it would never have occurred to me that it was a woman speaking to us. Her mastery of the technique of composition is remarkable, and she has something definite to say.

Read more about Dalberg’s life and works at Edition S., who also publishes her String Quartet.  

Listen in to some of her works via Spotify:

And her String Quartet No. 2 as recorded by Danish Composers’ Society via Soundcloud: