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LUDVIG HOLBERG: Enlightenment Philosopher & Playwright

January 13, 2014

VOX 3 Collective’s upcoming Danish opera Maskarade by composer Carl Nielsen may have been written in the early 20th century, but its origins lie in a 1724 play written by the most popular Danish writer of the 18th century, Ludvig Holberg.


Ludvig Holberg (1684 – 1754)

Ludvig Holberg was a teacher, philosopher, and playwright (among other things). He wrote comedies for the first public theatre in Denmark while also teaching at the University of Copenhagen. Holberg was in a unique position in the world of playwrights, as King Frederick IV loved his plays and allowed them to be shown uncensored. Having the favor of the king gave Holberg a certain license when critiquing society — rather than having to hide his meaning, he was permitted to baldly state his opinions.

His play Mascarade was written at a time when the Enlightenment was in its relatively early stages. Voltaire and Rousseau’s ideas had not yet been popularized (or perhaps even theorized, as Rousseau was a twelve-year-old boy when Mascarade premiered), and yet Holberg felt confident enough in his Enlightenment notions to have one of his play’s characters say “Masquerades…show the people the natural equality that was theirs in the beginning…as long as the masquerade lasts, the servant is as good as his master.”

Whether this talk of equality between peoples was somehow meant for the head of a monarchical system of government (which seems dubious) or for the people of Denmark is unclear, but the mere fact of it occurring in 1724 is remarkable. For those familiar with Amadeus, the controversy surrounding Mozart’s setting of Nozze di Figaro — controversial due to its revolutionary statements regarding class — took place in 1786, more than 60 years after Holberg’s play.

In addition to early revolutionary statements, Mascarade was written to combat ecclesiastical and civic authorities who believed masquerades should be banned, as they encouraged vice, partially (so they believed) as a result of their inherent and aforementioned social leveling. Because Mascarade was shown at a public theatre and Holberg himself was so popular, it helped sway the will of the people and keep masquerades from being banned until the death of Frederick IV in 1730 and the installation of his son, the extremely not-fun Christian VI, who banned all theatre until his death in 1746.

Christian VI

I mean, look at that guy

Remember, at this time, the Scandinavian languages were still changing rapidly.  The writing and speaking of Danish as a language altered significantly over the century and a half period between Holberg’s play Mascarade and Nielsen’s opera Maskarade.  Spelling would continue to evolve in this time, with “aa” becoming “å,” and other fun changes resulting in profits for dictionary publishers.

Holberg continued the tradition of playwrights like Molière, choosing comedy as the medium for his ideas about society. He stated that Molière, “with his rational thinking, has done more to better the world with his comedies than all the serious prattlings of all the world’s old philosophers.” The belief was that if an audience were relaxed and entertained, they would be more open to seeing their own errors and prejudices reflected in the characters on stage, and hopefully then correct them in their own lives.

A large part of Holberg’s popularity also lay in his choosing to write his plays in the vernacular. Most playwrights of the time would write in verse if they were writing in Danish, but Holberg opted to write in the language of the people, something that invariably causes contemporary critics to sneer, but the overall public to love it. Whoever first does this effectively in their own country seems to be then heralded as the founder of that country’s literature (Shakespeare, Dante, and Pushkin being some examples).

Carl Nielsen preserved as much of the original play as he could by hiring Holberg scholar Vilhelm Andersen to write the libretto. The spirit of the play is carried on in the opera, as Nielsen places folk songs on an equal level with a more formal compositional style, making even the music a part of the masquerade and the Enlightenment ideals it fosters.

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