Søffren Degen (1816-1885): biography

A 19th century guitar virtuoso

Søffren Degen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on October 12th 1816. His father committed suicide before the young Søffren had reached the age of two. Degen’s introduction to music came through his stepfather Andreas Hallager who was a professional composer, conductor and an oboe player. Andreas Hallager had a strong affection for the guitar. Degen gave his first public performance as a 13-year-old student at the conservatory, when he recited a poem by the poet Christian Wilster. The young Søffren Degen considered the guitar as his primary study, but the conservatory did not accept the guitar as a serious instrument for the students, so Degen was trained as a cellist and a composer.

The great Danish composer J. P. E. Hartmann was responsible for most of Degen’s training. Degen was heavily inspired in his compositions by Hartmann. Degen fought all his life for a serious attitude towards the guitar, so that the guitar could be accepted in the higher circles of music society and enter the concert stage as a serious concert instrument. He toured around Europe as a very successful guitar virtuoso, and he supplemented his income with engagements as a cellist and as an actor. Degen is the only Danish guitarist from the 19th century who we know for sure was seriously involved with the main international guitar community. He had very close ties to Napoléon Coste, and two letters from Coste to Degen have survived.

Degen strongly believed in the future of the heptacord guitar (seven-string guitar). He was convinced that it was superior to the usual six-string guitar. Coste might have been his main source of inspiration in this belief. All of Degen’s compositions and transcriptions are written for the heptacord. Degen’s involvement with the international guitar environment is obvious, and the traces of Coste, Mertz and Giuliani in his compositions and transcriptions leave us with the impression of a great 19th century guitar virtuoso. His exceptional instrumental sense is seen, for example, in the strange and interesting composition “ Sorgmarsch” (Funeral March). The surprising and original way of imitating church bells in this composition indicates how far he had reached as a guitar player and composer.

Degen’s greatest contribution to the guitar repertoire is to be found in his unusual compositions and transcriptions for cello and guitar. These are all major concert works. Degen was trained as a cellist and he mastered the cello, as did many other great 19th century guitarists. His transcriptions are based on well-known music by Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and cello virtuosos such as Dotzauer, Flatov and Bochmühl.

Degen was not like his colleague Henrik Rung (1807-1871), a highly important composer with strong influence on the Danish tradition. Degen’s importance is mainly as an instrumentalist and an international figure in the guitar world. Degen’s compositions are well crafted and written in highly romantic style, often program music, and nearly always in a (for the guitar) unusually large-scale form. That large-scale form was no doubt inspired by Coste. Many of Rung’s compositions have a touch of the Danish national Romantic style.

Degen died in 1885 in Copenhagen. A few traces of his work still survive in the guitar world today. It was a student of his, Thorvald Rischel, who gathered one of the world’s most important collections of guitar music, today in the Royal Library in Copenhagen, thanks to which many 19th century guitar works have survived until today.

Thanks to the Royal Library for providing the manuscripts, and to Erling Møldrup for substantial information on Degen.


Jens Bang-Rasmussen