In 1920, the citizens of Schleswig in southern Jutland voted to reunite with Denmark after 56 years of German rule. In celebration of this reunification, Denmark's Royal Opera Theatre commissioned the author Helge Rode to write a festive play entitled Moderen (The Mother), and Carl Nielsen accepted a commission to set the work to music. The festival play premiered in January 1921.
Rode's play is a fairy-tale allegory that concerns the return of a kidnapped son. Nielsen's famous melody for flute and harp, "Tågen letter" (The Fog is Lifting), accompanies the first scene, wherein the King witnesses through the rising fog a poignant scene: a mother parting from her son. A wall of ice rises between them. The King, depressed by what he has seen, sends his Bard and his Fool out into the world, ordering them to return in one year with joyful news. The Bard thinks of the beautiful Princess Tove, whose praises he sings in the light, spirited song, "Min pige er så lys som rav" ("My girl is fair as amber"), portraying her as a beautiful personification of Denmark. The Fool, however, expresses his cynicism in the song "Dengang ørnen var flyveklar" ("The day the eagle was ready to fly"). The music here is sharp, edgy, with occasional moments of dissonance, and its refrain snarls, "Strong is the eagle, broad are its wings: hatred is strongest!"
Nielsen's prelude to the fourth scene hints at a dirge: long, mournful cadences from the strings and muted wailing from the horns are permeated with unsettling, characteristically Nielsenesque melodic twists and turns. At the wall of ice, the Bard sings the achingly poignant "Så bitter var mit hjerte" ("So bitter was my heart"), describing the lonely and frozen country around him and calling for the return of spring. In response, the West Wind, with a great fanfare, blows down the wall of ice, and the lost son appears. The travelers and the reunited family return to the King's court, where they take part in a glorious procession, accompanied by Nielsen's "March". Fiery and patriotic in spirit, its tone both ceremonious and joyous, this march is loved in Denmark for its dash and pageantry. The procession is joined by people representing different regions of Denmark, symbolically welcoming the mother and son into their circle. The entire company sings the reverent, anthem-like song, "Som en rejselysten flåde" ("Like a venturous fleet at anchor").
Rode's play is a somewhat stilted affair today and is no longer performed. Nielsen's incidental music, however, has outlasted its vehicle. Though the songs are popular primarily in Denmark, many of the instrumental pieces written for Moderen are regularly performed and recorded internationally -- particularly the haunting "Tågen letter," which has become a staple part of flute repertoire.