The letter that instigated the nation-wide competition that inspired Adam Oehlenschläger to write the unofficial Danish national anthem

Image of a manuscript letter that instigated the nation-wide competition that inspired Adam Oehlenschläger to write the unofficial Danish national anthem

Contributor: Hannah Persson

Location: The Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen, Denmark

Description: Stowed away at the Royal Danish Library, this 200-year-old letter seems a forgotten rather than hidden national treasure. Yet it may have been the inspiration for the Danish national poet Adam Oehlenschläger’s unofficial national anthem “Der er et yndigt land” [There is a lovely country]. Dated “Lewarde, den 18. Sept. 1818”, signed “Frederik Pz. Hessen”, and addressed to “Selskabet til de skiønne og nyttige Videnskabers Forfremmelse” [the Society for the Promotion of the Beautiful and Useful Sciences], this letter promises a prize of 400 thaler for a competition to compose a new Danish national anthem.

The letter’s author, Prince Frederik of Hesse, was stationed in France in 1818 in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. His troops lamented the lack of an adequately uplifting national song to sing around their campfires. The unofficial Danish anthem at the time was the royalist “Kong Christian stod ved højen mast” [King Christian Stood by the Lofty Mast] (c. 1780), which resembled Britain’s “God Save the Queen” in its celebration of a monarch. It also celebrates important Danish historical events, and highlights the heroics of the Danish navy and its fighting spirit in the wars against Sweden. “Kong Christian” was therefore a particular favorite of the navy, appearing as early as 1781 in a collection of songs for sailors, and was consistently printed in songbooks from 1785 onward, although it did not enjoy official status as national anthem until 1906.

Whereas the British soldiers encountered by the Danish Prince and his troops had the alternative option of “Rule, Britannia”, celebrating the supremacy of the British people and not merely their ruler, no such more national alternatives were available to the Danes. As the prince put it:

… though the Danish language contains a collection of lovely songs that make an impression upon the feeling heart and whose melodies elevate the soul to joyous enthusiasm, it has been felt in the Danish troops, during this long absence from the fatherland and in the close association with other nations’ armies that such a song as a national anthem is lacking [own translation].

He adds in respect of such an anthem that “The poem’s main themes ought to be love for the fatherland and faith in the King…” and should be “… powerful and intoxicating to the soul.” Emphasis is clearly shifting here from King to Kingdom. Whereas “Kong Christian” was especially gory and aggressive, celebrating the bloody history of the Danish navy, the people now called for softer and uniting aesthetics, in these post-war times.

The Society convened on October 10th, 1818 and set January 1st, 1819 as the deadline for submissions. The competition was split in two parts: first a competition for the best poem or lyrics, and secondly a competition for the best composition of accompanying music. A letter from the same manuscript collection documents a total of 59 lyric submissions. Another document (May 14th) proclaims entry no. 59 the winner. The competition was anonymous, and only after a winner was found did the Society open the accompanying documentation revealing the name of the entrant. Shockingly, the winner turned out to be a Miss Juliane Marie Jessen. Letters in the manuscript collection evince that The Society were initially reluctant to publicize the identity of the winner – most likely due to the unwelcome surprise of her gender – but did so after four months of deliberation. The winning lyrics, “Dannemark! Dannemark!” [Denmark, Denmark], were, however, poorly received and, along with their authoress, remain largely unknown to the general Danish public.

As the competition was anonymous, it is impossible to conclusively determine whether Oehlenschläger submitted his poem to the competition or not. Very few of the entries survive and it is therefore hard to say whether Oehlenschläger’s poem was lost or was never submitted. However, Oehlenschläger originally titled his poem “Fædrelandssang” [Song of the Fatherland], and framed the poem with an epigraph from Horace: “Ille terrarum mihi præter omnes Angulus ridet” [That corner of the world smiles for me more than anywhere else]. The epigraph suggests that Oehlenschläger drew his inspiration from the 1819 competition, as it stipulated that a motto was to accompany the sealed envelopes containing the names of the contestants. The original poem consisted of twelve stanzas and was published in Oehlenschläger’s collection of poems, “Samlede digte II” (1823). It is mainly this delay in publication that creates doubt as to Oehlenschläger’s participation in the competition. Whether he participated or not, it is easy to see how he might have been inspired by the great surge created by the event among his peers.

The motto by Horace, along with the many nature descriptions in the poem – beech trees (stanza 1,2) the sea (1,3) – signify allegiance to Danish nature and its people, rather than any one prominent figure. Oehlenschläger also moves away from the celebration of great naval battles that characterizes “Kong Christian”, and brings grandeur and depth to the image of Denmark by comparing Denmark to the great hall of Freya, the Nordic goddess of fertility, thereby connecting Denmark to the rich history of Nordic gods. Both idyllic nature and Nordic mythology were recurring themes in Oehlenschläger’s work, as may be seen in “Guldhornene” [The Golden Horns], and became a defining feature of much Danish Romanticism, as seen in the motifs of artists such as Hermann Ernst Freund and J. Th. Lundbye.

Today, only stanzas 1-3 and 12 are commonly known and sung. The music that accompanies the poem today was composed by Hans Ernst Krøyer, and was quickly adopted into Danish songbooks for students. The song was sung at the opening of “Studenterforeningen” [The students union] in 1840, and its subsequent use at student functions throughout Scandinavia helped spread its popularity. Despite still being an unofficial anthem, it rivals the popularity of “Kong Christian”, and is preferred at sporting events and other large gatherings. It inspires a Romantic patriotism centring on the landscape and history of Denmark: evoking a people in unity, a landscape of fecundity, and a history of peace.

Date: September 18th 1818.

Creator: Prince Frederik of Hesse

Subject: Adam Oehlenschläger

Object type: letter

Format: ink on paper

Language: Danish

Publisher: The Royal Danish Library


Erichsen, Jørgen Poul. “Den kronede danske nationalsang fra 1819 og hvad deraf fulgte en litterær pennefejde med et musikalsk efterspil.” Fund og Forskning Volume 22, 1976.

H. Brix, Analyser og Problemer VI, 1950, p.149.

Ny kgl. Sml. 2385,2o

Oehlenschläger, Adam. “Der er et yndigt land.” Defining a Nation in Song: Danish Patriotic Songs in Songbooks of the Period 1832-1870. Ed. Kuhn, Hanz. C.A.reitzel Forlag AS, København 1990, pp.123-132.

Rix, Robert W. ”The Golden Horns” RÊVE (Romantic Europe: the Virtual Exhibition). European Romanticism in Association, May 18, 2018.