A Danish national composer and outstanding guitar virtuoso, Henrik Rung grew up on the island of Sealand. He was taught violin and guitar from an early age. One of his teachers was the great guitar virtuoso Søffren Degen. Due to a severe injury to one of his legs Rung spent two years confined to his bed, which gave him the opportunity to develop a legendary virtuosity on the guitar. In the first half of the 19th century the guitar held a central position in European music life. In Copenhagen it was considered a rather bohemian instrument, and Scandinavian artists such as the composer N. W. Gade, the sculptor Betel Thorvaldsen and writers August Strindberg and J. L. Heiberg were all accomplished guitarists, as were international composers like Schubert and Berlioz.
Rung received his musical training from teachers from the Royal Orchestra School; the orchestral context, however, required a change of instrument to the double bass. After his success in the vaudeville Svend Dyrings Hus (Svend Dyrings House) performed at the Royal Theatre in 1837, a travel grant made it possible for him to go to Italy in 1837-1840 in order to study the music of Palestrina at the Vatican. Besides his study in Rome he also spent some months in Paris where he also studied voice and composition. Rung showed some of his compositions to Auber and Meyerbeer. Auber found his works much too melancholy, but Meyerbeer was far more positive.
After his years abroad Rung held a lifelong position as a director of the opera singers at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. Besides this position he had major success as a composer, conductor and guitarist. His compositions are considered very conservative. His major achievement was to create a Danish national tone in his music. Traces of Rung’s work are to be found in the music of Carl Nielsen. His works appear to resemble those of the Spanish guitar composer F. Sor (1778-1839) with whom Rung shared the experience of life in and work for the theatre; in Sor’s case it derived from his ballet compositions, in Rung’s from his 64 operas and vaudevilles. In the music collection of H. Rung in the Royal Library in Copenhagen are to be found most of Sor’s major solo works for classical guitar.
The solo works, chamber music and songs of Rung make up a rare and unique collection of guitar music such as is not to be found elsewhere in the world. The form is mostly in miniature. His music is always very serious and has a deep musical substance and a very distinct sense of musical character. Rung’s melodic material is outstanding and represents the most original element of his contribution. Rung used three different types of guitars (Chitarra, Liuto, Harpa) in order to achieve a more orchestral sound when he used more than one guitar in a composition. The performer should not try to make two or three guitars sound the same, but try to make them sound as different as possible. In some of the compositions there appear to be too many notes in the score. I believe Rung wrote them so that the performer could make his own choice. Most of his chamber music is written for his own children’s musical training. Rung’s music is very romantic, but unlike Schumann, Schubert or late Sor it is written in the Scandinavian tradition. Rung is one of the great 19th century guitar composers. He wrote very serious music for the guitar during his entire life. Luckily most of his huge production of chamber music was composed very late in his life. It is very deep and mature and is a major contribution to the classical guitar repertoire. The music is very simple and demands a developed sense of style from the performer.
Henrik Rung – article by John Bergsagel