Léonie Sonning Prize 1966

Birgit Nilsson

1966_birgit _nilsson

The prize concert

The soprano Birgit Nilsson received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize of DKK 50,000 at the official opening of The Festival of Danish Ballet and Music on 15 May 1966 in Copenhagen City Hall.

The prize was presented by the principal of The Royal Danish Academy of Music, the composer Knudåge Riisager.

The programme

Giuseppe Verdi: Overture to Nabucco
Giacomo Puccini: Tosca’s prayer
Giuseppe Verdi: from The Force of Destiny: Leonora’s prayer: Pace, pace mio dio
Carl Nielsen: Masquerade overture

Birgit Nilsson, soprano
The Royal Danish Orchestra
Conductor: Johan Hye-Knudsen


The written motivation does not exist.

Opera performance in connection with the prize-giving ceremony

On 17 May 1966, Birgit Nilsson sang the title role in Beethoven’s opera ‘Fidelio’ at The Royal Theatre, conducted by John Frandsen.

Birgit Nilsson and Denmark

As in 1959 and 1965, it was the principal of The Royal Danish Academy of Music, the composer Knudåge Riisager, who handed over the music prize. He began by expressing his pleasure at the recipient this time was a Scandinavian artist, "Birgit Nilsson who – as we all know – has, with her beautiful voice, added yet another pearl to the string of the queens of song that reflect the history of the art of singing, such as Angelica Catalani, Henriette Sontag, Maria Malibran, Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti, Kristina Nilsson, Nellie Melba, Amelita Galli-Curci, Lotte Lehmann, Kirsten Flagstad, Elisabeth Schumann – and many more besides."

After saying this, he took the words of Johanne Louise Heiberg about Jenny Lind and applied them to Birgit Nilsson: "Her very soul shone intensely through her appearance and movements [...] one sat back so as to enjoy to the full the enchanting sound and the expressive performance."

Birgit Nilsson then went up to the rostrum at Copenhagen City Hall and expressed her thanks:

"It is difficult for me at such a great moment to find words to express what I feel this evening – it is easier for me to clothe my words in music. It is not an easy thing in this world to become an international name. But it is perhaps even harder to be recognised by those ‘back home’. We all know the saying about the prophet and his own country. When I say ‘back home’ I mean Copenhagen – for here I feel very much at home."

On Tuesday, 17 May, she sang Leonora in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio on the main stage of The Royal Theatre – along with Willy Hartmann and Frans Andersson – accompanied by The Royal Danish Orchestra, conducted by John Frandsen. The quite large fee – the DKK 20,000 she received for her performance – she donated to grants for young Danish singers – I recall my own struggle, she said. But the handing over of the music prize did not take place that evening. For the Italian president was on an official visit and wanted to attend the opera, and it was not felt that a prize-giving ceremony was suitable on such an occasion. So she had already received the music prize a couple of days earlier.

After the opera, enthusiasm was of course enormous and almost without end – and this was more for Birgit Nilsson than the actual production, which Gregers Dirckinck-Holmfeld characterised as my childhood puppet theatre, the most horrendous stage picture and an overture that sounded like arms being broken. Hansgeorg Lenz, agreed in Information among the miserable Danish performance and was sorry that a concert performance had not been arranged instead of, for example, Tristan and Isolde. Birgit Nilsson was obliged throughout to moderate her magnificent voice to the Danish level, Lenz wrote, "but she also mastered the emotional climaxes of the role [...] indeed, she made the whole ensemble truly rejoice when she finally sang right through the chorus and surrounding soloists on the stage and in the orchestra."

Selected Music by Birgit Nilsson

The daily press

wrote, among other things:

"[...] merely the ‘comments’ of her eyes placed her Fidelio [in the performance at The Royal Theatre] at a high international level [...] ‘Fidelio’ is Beethoven’s hymn to the endless power of marital love, and it was precisely this that Birgit Nilsson, in a gripping but artistically extremely disciplined performance, managed to express. In pure singing terms, one was delighted at the way in which, in true chamber music style, she submitted herself to the many ensemble scenes without ever eclipsing in untimely fashion the others with the sheer magnificence of her soprano voice."

(Hans Vogt, Aktuelt, 18 May 1966)

"[...] That the evening – after a tame first act – even so turned out as a success, the size of which was in reasonable proportion to the famous occasion that a visit by Birgit Nilsson is, was due to the marvellous ability of the Swedish singer to glide into an ensemble and slowly elevate it so as to dazzle with her vocal ability. With exquisite musicality, the guest listened to the others in the ensemble, held back whenever phrase of expression called for it, and inspired an ever more intense interpretation of Beethoven’s dramatically speaking uneven, but musically highly nuanced score [...]"

(Jens Brincker, Berlingske Tidende, 18 May 1966)