Harp Guitar Player of the Month

Søffren Degen

by Thomas Nielsen, January, 2017

In memory of Erling Møldrup (1943-October 2016)

Introduction by Gregg Miner

Over the last dozen years, I’ve profiled historical harp guitar players of 9-, 10-, 12-, 14-string (Taraffo) and even 36-string harp guitar players (Dudley).  Equally important to the study of guitars with floating strings – and thus, inclusion within Harpguitars.net – are the “early romantic” guitar players of Europe, whether they utilized only two to four sub-bass strings, or even, as in this case, just one.

Yes, Degen’s instrument was one that truly “meets minimum harp guitar requirements” – but that single floating D string was crucial.  With it, he produced a patented instrument and lasting music.  Moreover, heretofore his story has been accessible for the most part only to Danish researchers and readers.  I’m thus thrilled that Thomas Nielsen, long a reader and supporter of this site, volunteered to author and English article for us.

Søffren Degen's life was, if not exactly tragic, then certainly a heartrending one. He was born in Copenhagen on October 12th 1816 to trading clerk Jens Degen and his wife Anne Margrethe Degen. For reasons unknown, an affinity for the past perhaps, his parents used the archaic spelling Søffren instead of the by now predominant spelling known from his famous contemporary Søren Kierkegaard. If for nothing else then at least it helped to make his name even more set in stone for posterity. I suppose you would have to have a very close knowledge of Danish pronunciation to appreciate how affected this spelling really is – and was, even then.

When Søffren Degen was only two years old, his father committed suicide and left his widow to bring up the child alone. This period in his life is largely undocumented. It wasn't until Anne Margrethe Degen met military musician Andreas Hallager ten years later and moved in with him that records of Degen's life is resumed. Andreas Hallager took Søffren Degen as his own and made it his vocation to teach him music. Danish classical guitarist and music historian Erling Møldrup makes an interesting note that, before meeting Anne Margrethe Degen, Andreas Hallager had a young son, Jens Giulliani Hallager, who had died at the age of 8, and was almost certainly named after Mauro Giuliani, who is also mentioned in these annals of harp guitar music.

As a young boy Søffren Degen was admitted to Guiseppe Siboni's new conservatory to study cello, a choice of instrument which shows in his future compositions, however few they were. Arguably, Degen's best pieces are those where guitar and cello synergise more than his solo guitar pieces. After his studies he didn't find much success with the proper instrument, the cello, nor the lesser acknowledged guitar. Instead he began pursuing a career as a cello playing actor in traveling theaters to complement his otherwise meager earnings.

Søffren Degen
(The Danish Music Museum – Musikhistorisk Museum & The Carl Claudius Collection)

While the guitar was not widely recognised as real art, the instrument was tremendously popular with the bourgeoisie for light distraction; divertissement. This called for music teachers, so Søffren Degen ventured on as a guitar teacher first and a guitarist second, even though his talent for playing the instrument is described as having been quite out of the ordinary.

This didn't last long, however. Quickly the tides turned and the piano forte became the instrument that everybody turned to. In 1808 a very strict import tax had been imposed on all finished goods, incl. musical instruments. The tax was value added and given the relatively high build price of a piano, the Danish piano builders were favoured tremendously. That combined with the newly filed patent of C.C. Hornung for a cast iron frame which dramatically reduced the price of a piano compared to those with wooden frames, fueled a dramatic increase in pianos in Danish homes at the cost of guitars. The consequences were that Degen's life took another rapid plunge, now that the call for guitar teachers had all but disappeared. A resolute man, however, Degen directed his passion towards photography and opened the first daguerreotype studio in Copenhagen with his younger half sister Thora Hallager.

(The Danish Music Museum – Musikhistorisk Museum & The Carl Claudius Collection)

Drawing from the heptacord patent
(The Danish National Archives)

Then – in 1845 Degen was awarded a five year patent for his new heptacord guitar. Already known for his precise and above all powerful articulation on the guitar, his pursuit for a more complex sounding instrument is hardly surprising. He even had the blessing of Napoleon Coste before creating his version of the seven-string guitar. As Erling Møldrup so astutely noted; perhaps he should have asked René Lacôte instead – the man who had built Coste's heptacord and received a prize for it only 6 years earlier. Exactly when Degen had met Coste before the realisation of the heptacord is uncertain. They are known to have become friends a couple of years later while Degen visited Paris. The actual fabrication of the heptacord was left in the hands of Danish luthier Carl Knudsen, who would show an instrument at the Danish Industrial Association's exhibition in 1846. The instrument was described like this in an advertisement:

“...the improvements consist of: The peculiarity of the Shape that puts the resonating Board in new Movement, the position of the Bridge that convey to the resonating Top a greater Power of Vibration, the extended Fretboard that gives the Guitar a Range of four Octaves, the wider and thinner Neck that in no small Amount helps the Player to pursue even the most difficult of Chords with greater Security and Ease”.

Danish master luthier Kenneth Brögger mentions in his records of Carl Knudsen's work that no heptacords from his hands are known to exist today. The plans for Degen's heptacord do, however, exist at the Danish National Archives as do an almost complete collection of sheet music, including many hand written pieces from Napoleon Coste (The Rischel & Birket-Smith Collection at The Danish Music Museum – Musikhistorisk Museum). It is uncertain how Degen's heptacord differed from Coste's Lacôte in design, if indeed it even did.

The same year Søffren Degen received a scholarship from the king to study lutherie in Germany and Austria, partly by recommendation by royal choir master Henrik Rung, who's son Frederik Rung, coincidentally also adorns the harp guitar annals. Degen left with his pregnant fiancee and her friend. Rumour had it that Degen's fiancee had become pregnant, not by Degen but by someone of such high station that Degen was powerless to vindicate himself and ultimately causing them to break up.

Degen found his way back to his daguerreotype studio and received scholarships to study photography abroad, one of them in France. This is when he is known to have met Napoleon Coste and the two of them became lifelong friends and exchanged sheet music until Coste's death. By then Degen had a considerable collection of both printed and typed music, many of them bearing dedications from Coste.

But as history has a way of repeating itself, photographic studios soon popped up all over Copenhagen while the guitar largely disappeared from public and once more, Degen was to see his livelihood disappear. Degen was back at the theaters. It is interesting to note that despite Degen and his sister operating a photo studio, very few photographs exist of Søffren Degen, at least outside private collections.

Degen died in 1885 alone in a loft, largely forgotten in his day but every so often played on the radio today on this his 200th birth year. A young friend of his in his autumn years, Hans Kaarsberg, gave this description in his memoires:

“Even though Degen owned a rather large but low and old House in Smallegade on Frederiksberg, he himself lived in a oblong and utterly horrible Loft. Even though he, when he did go out, was well groomed and well dressed, almost persnickety to behold [...]. Degen cooked himself, frying Plaice in the Window Sill on an old Kerosene Stove. Clad in an ancient, long, grey Dressing Gown, he presided in this rag tag World visibly content: »Here is Peace, here; yes«.

Although Degen played a masterful Violoncel, the Guitar was an remained his favourite Instrument to his Death. This, in some Respects rather poor and antiquated Instrument with its six to eight Strings, became in his Hands a rich and wonderful one. He was the complete Guitar Virtuoso. When he sat by the open Window in my Loft... ...fantasising on my old eight stringed Staufer awaiting my coming home from Lectures, the entire House was at its Feet. When I would cross the Yard, his playing resounded with the Force of a Forte Piano and by every Window, People stood listening. It was in Truth a Marvel.

What I learned from this Master was in particular the Stroke and the Fact that the Guitar is not a sentimental plunking Instrument but played rightly, harbours that most masculine Power, the most Soul filled Character”.

After Kaarsberg had married and settled in the country side as a physician, he went to Copenhagen to invite Søffren Degen to stay with him for a while, only to learn of his friend's recent death. Kaarsberg himself would become a colourful feature in Danish medicine; a regular globetrotter, philanthropist, author and motorcyclist – and, of course, guitar player.

Hans Kaarsberg with guitar lute
(Lokalhistorisk Arkiv Sorø)

The late Erling Møldrup, music scholar and author of “Guitaren – et eksotisk instrument i den danske musik” wherein Søffren Degen is well described, himself recorded Degen's compositions. Exquisite examples of this can be found on the CD “Ricordanza” with cello player Morten Zeuthen. Another fine example of Degen on record, is Den Danske Degen Duo's “Divertissement” where Kristian Buhl-Mortensen diverts with Tove Dahl on recorder.  Youtube has a few examples of Degen compositions, one of which has Lars Hedelius-Strikkertsen performing “Romanse.”  One could certainly hope that he and his Duo Suonante would consider taking up Søffren Degen alongside their Henrik Rung compositions, with their period correct attire and history lectures.

— Thomas Nielsen, Denmark, January 2017

See Gregg’s Blogg for more Danish harp guitar discoveries by Thomas

  Heptacord advertisement in Berlingske Tidende 19th December 1845
(The State and University Library under The Danish Ministry of Culture)

(The Danish
Music Museum – Musikhistorisk Museum & The Carl Claudius Collection - photo: Kamilla Hjortkjær)

Søffren Degen's Staufer?
by Gregg Miner

This eight-string Staufer, catalog #143 in the Danish Music Museum, is said to have belonged to Søffren Degen.  In this case, the provenance comes from the gift letter in the accession record: "Donated by the son on behalf of the father. N. K.  Madsen-Stensgaard, who had been deceased for 20 years at the time of the accession."  So – certainly not impossible, but likely never provable.

The label is that of a genuine J. Anton Staufer (the son) from the 1831-1833 period.  However, the eight-string head and neck (and bridge, obviously) are later replacements.  Was it modified for Degen?

Degen's handwritten  manuscript demonstrates the use of the floating 7th string (low D) throughout, but only a single instance of a low C (appearing in a short introduction, that could have been re-tuned).

References / Books:

  • Kenneth Brögger: “Danske guitarer - og deres byggere”, Forlaget Roset, 2001

  • Hans Kaarsberg: “Memoirer”, Nordisk Forlag, 1921

  • Dorthe Falcon Møller: “Det danske pianoforte frem til 1914”, Forlaget Falcon, 2004

  • Erling Møldrup: “Guitaren - et eksotisk instrument i den danske musik”, Edition Kontrapunkt, 1997

  • “Dansk Biografisk Leksikon”, 3. udgave, Forlaget Gyldendal 1984

References / Archives:

  • Det Kongelige Bibliotek: Musiksamlingen, Rischel & Birket-Smiths samling af guitarnoder (www.kb.dk)

  • Det Kongelige Bibliotek: Musik & Teaterafdelingen (www.kb.dk)

  • Lokalhistorisk Arkiv Sorø (www.soroehistorie.dk)

  • Nationalmuseet: Musikhistorisk Museum / The Danish Music Museum (www.natmus.dk/museerne/musikmuseet)

  • The Danish National Archives (www.sa.dk)

  • The State and University Library under The Danish Ministry of Culture (www.statsbiblioteket.dk)

Special Thanks to Marie Martens, The Danish National Museum

“Romanse” by Søffren Degen in his own hand
(The Royal Danish Library / The Rischel & Birket-Smiths Collection)


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