Adolf Jensen: Is Bigger Better?

Adolf Jensen, probably early 1870s. Photograph by Leopold Bude, Graz; from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University, Frankfurt am Main. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Adolf Jensen, probably early 1870s.
Photograph by Leopold Bude, Graz; from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University, Frankfurt am Main.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

I was recently looking into some minutiae of British musical life around 1880, and I encountered several references to a composer whose name was quite new to me: Adolf Jensen (1837–1879). At first it seemed an odd stroke of chance that he should turn up in multiple sources around the same time, but I soon realised that it was no coincidence at all.

Although largely neglected today, Jensen was a very popular composer in the second half of the nineteenth century, both in his native Germany and in England. The question to ask is not why his name turned up so frequently at the time, but how such a well-known composer came to be forgotten.

Cambridge’s Music Collections give ample evidence of Jensen’s former popularity and later neglect. Most of his published works are represented here, but almost exclusively in first editions or early reprints. Although there was a brief flurry of new issues shortly after his death, the abrupt end of his publications around 1890 reflects how quickly and how completely his reputation had lapsed by the turn of the century.

At the end of his life, however, Jensen’s work was sufficiently appreciated that the Cambridge University Musical Society presented a memorial concert on 12 February 1879, a scant three weeks after his death. I imagine that this was possible only because the regular performers were already acquainted with his music. Indeed, the writer of the memorial note anticipated the objection that the songs from Jensen’s Opus 1 were too well known:

“Though familiar enough to our audience, no apology is needed on a commemorative occasion such as this for introducing the very first-fruits of the lamented composer’s genius.”

Title page of Jensen's "Idylls for piano" op.43 [MR340.a.80.62]

Title page of Jensen’s “Idylls for piano” op.43 [MR340.a.80.62]

The problem with Jensen’s legacy is primarily one of size. Jensen died of tuberculosis at the young age of forty-two, leaving behind a relatively small oeuvre: sixty-two numbered opuses plus a handful of posthumous works. But music history can forgive a composer for dying young. Jensen’s real problem is that he wrote small pieces. Most of his compositions—and certainly the ones most appreciated by musical Victorians—were either songs or character pieces for piano. These were charming miniatures, highly expressive but not too difficult to play or sing. Jensen’s was the kind of music you would want to keep in the piano bench, ready for an evening’s entertainment.

Even Jensen’s English devotees evinced some ambivalence about his status. Contemporary comments typically portray him as an epigone of Schumann and draw attention to the limited scope of his works, even while admitting that everyone likes them. The memorial note for CUMS describes Jensen as “one of the most gifted composers of the age in his own special line, that of drawing-room music,” but only after noting that he had “produced no big work (such as Opera or Oratorio).” In the first edition of his Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Grove’s entry for Jensen lists the few works for large ensembles and the song cycles, and then lumps all the smaller works together. These last, he writes, “take high rank in his own country, and are much beloved by those who know them here.” But Grove’s summary pronouncement is nothing short of a curse: “His genius is essentially that of a song-writer—full of delicate tender feeling, but no great heights or depths.”

In his own way, however, Jensen was striving towards the sublime. Later in his career he wrote of his wish “to translate Wagner’s ideas of beauty and truth into music in the smaller forms.” Long dogged by his ill health, Jensen lamented the infirmity that impeded his pursuit of larger-scale projects.

Perhaps it is time to listen to Jensen’s music with fresh ears. Even if we finally judge it to be less profound than Schumann’s or Wagner’s, we would do well to discover what his Victorian contemporaries found in it to cherish.


Guest contributor Bruce Durazzi is a music scholar, a student of library and information science and currently an intern in Cambridge’s music collections.

About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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