Poul Rovsing Olsen

Poul Rovsing Olsen (November 4, 1922 July 2, 1982) was a Danish composer and ethnomusicologist.

Olsen was born in Copenhagen. He studied with Knud Jeppesen at the Copenhagen Conservatory (1943-6) and with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris (1948-9), then worked in Copenhagen as a music critic.[1] His early works showed the influences of Bela Bartók, Igor Stravinsky and Carl Nielsen, joined in the 1950s by 12-note serialism, but from the 1960s his music began to reflect his work as a musical ethnologist (A L′inconnu for voice and 13 instruments, 1962): he did fieldwork in Greenland and the Persian Gulf and taught at the universities of Lund (1967-9) and Copenhagen (from 1969). His output includes opera, orchestral and chamber music, piano pieces and songs.

His opera Belisa is based on The Love of Don Perlimplín and Belisa in the Garden by Federico García Lorca.[2]



  • Piano Sonata No. 1 (1950)
  • Piano Sonata No. 2 (1952)


  • Variations Symphoniques, Op. 27 (1953)
  • Piano Concerto, Op. 31 (1954)
  • Sinfonia (1958)
  • Au fond de la nuit, Op. 61
  • Lux coelestis (1978)


  • Belisa, premiered at the Royal Opera in Copenhagen in 1966 and recorded by Dacapo Records in 2003.[3]
  • Usher, 1980
  • Collected songs (1941-81) for voice and piano, edited Ulrik Cold, Christen Stubbe Teglbjærg - 1999
To Lagerkvistsange (Two Lagerkvist Songs), Op.15 (1949)
Two Prophetic Songs, Op.16 (1950)
Lyse sange (Light Songs), Op.19 (1951)
To tyske sange (Two German Songs), Op.36 (1955)
Smâ sange (Little Songs), Op.37 (1941)
Tre danske sange (3 Danish Songs), Op.39 (1957)
Deux Melodies, Op.84 (1981)


His major contributions to ethnomusicology included his pioneering work in the music of the Persian Gulf, especially Bahrain. Also his concern with "authors' rights", being a jurist himself, besides the fact that he also was a pianist and a composer. He considered traditional music as a heritage connected though to the persons who performed it therefore always stated the names of performers as he understood that most music of the Middle East was performed with a certain freedom by the performers, and that a good amount of it was created by the performer in what is usually called improvisation, knowing very well that these improvisations were "moments of impromptus compositions" that gave added-value to the original, traditional work. Olsen (or P.R.O. as his name's initials came to symbolize his name) introduced the names of famous performers from Arab States of the Persian Gulf, such as Salem el'Allan, Ahmad Bou Tabanja, Al-'Amiri among others, and Lebanese singer Dunya Yunis, whose tape singing Abu Zeluf was published on the Tangent 2LP set 'The Human Voice in the World of Islam' which Olsen published with another musicologist Jean Jenkins. (Yunis was sampled in Brian Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.[4]) Olsen's invitation of Arab-Luth (`Oud) player Munir Bashir to a music festival in Denmark in the early 1970s, brought this instrumentalist together with an Indian performer where they played duos in a hybrid style. This exquisite and new style brought Bashir into fame all over the Arab world and in many European countries.

He also specialised in the traditional music of Greenland.[5]


  • An aulos in the Danish National Museum 1969
  • Musiketnologi Serie: Berlingske leksikonbibliotek; n.89 1974
  • Acculturation in the Eskimo songs of the Greenlanders 1975
  • Compte rendu d'un voyage au Moyen-Orient 1976
  • Music and musical instruments in the world of Islam Jean L. Jenkins, Poul Rovsing Olsen, Horniman Museum - 1976
  • Dagbogsblade fra indsamlingsrejse til Angmagssalik 1977
  • Music in Bahrain: traditional music of the Arabian Gulf Volume 1 reissued 2002


  1. "Poul Rovsing Olsen | Edition·S". Edition·S music¬sound¬art. Retrieved 2016-07-11.
  2. Mireille Roth-Caccamo Poul Rovsing Olsen: Portrait d'un compositeur danois 1976
  3. Opera. 55: 1007. 2004. Ravel might also have appreciated some of Belisa's music, which has clear Arab inflections. Olsen apparently composed a second opera, Usher, premiered in the year of his death. I can't wait to hear it. This is a clear and confident account of ... Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. http://www.popular-musicology-online.com/issues/04/feld.html, came also to be famous when a jurisdictional clash happened after the "re-mixing" her voice in a record by Brian Eno: "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" were the track 3 was: "Regiment" (Eno, Byrne, Michael "Busta Cherry" Jones / arranged by Eno, Byrne, Jones, Chris Frantz and Robert Fripp) – 3:56 Dunya Yunis,[22] Lebanese mountain singer, from The Human Voice in the World of Islam (Tangent Records TGS131) n.b. Wikipedia article about this album by Eno and Byrne says: "Rather than featuring conventional pop or rock singing, most of the vocals are sampled from other sources, such as commercial recordings of Arabic singers, radio disc jockeys, and an exorcist." One should note that the record "The Human Voice in the World of Islam (Tangent Records TGS131)" from which the voice was sampled for the record, belongs to a collection that cannot be qualified as commercial, as in commercial music; but it surely was a record to be found in the commerce. The collection was done in relation to "the Festival of the World of Islam".
  5. John David White; Jean Christensen (2002). New Music of the Nordic Countries. p. 30. Poul Rovsing Olsen was unique among his contemporaries because of his early and enduring interest in non-western music. Specializing in the traditional musics of Greenland ..
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