Remembering Victor Borge
“I only know two pieces; one is 'Clair de Lune' and the other one isn't.” – Victor Borge
Despite the line, Victor Borge certainly knew many pieces—both as a pianist and as a conductor—but this style of self-effacing comedy was part of “The Clown Prince of Denmark” persona that brought him worldwide fame.
Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on January 3, 1909, as Børge Rosenbaum, he began piano lessons at the age of two and gave his first recital at the age of eight. After years of study to become a classical concert pianist, his career started to shift. Musician Guide explained his move to musical comedy:
In 1932, he returned to Denmark to pursue a full-time career in music, but as chance would have it, he was destined for other things. Although his piano playing was critically praised, he suffered from debilitating attacks of stage fright. To counteract this potentially career-threatening problem, Borge started engaging the audience in informal comedy routines and bantering between pieces. His quick wit and keen sense of the absurd was highly appealing to his listeners, and this aspect of his performances came to overshadow his playing. By the late 1930s, Borge had become one of the most successful nightclub acts in Denmark, as well as appearing in six films, commanding the highest salary of any Danish entertainer.
Borge started touring extensively in Europe, and frequently targeted Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi party with his jokes. He was playing a concert in Sweden when the Nazis overtook Denmark during World War II. Being Jewish, he escaped to Finland and traveled to America on the USS American Legion, one of the last neutral ships that made it out of Europe prior to the war.
Throughout the rest of the 1940s, Borge gained increasing fame though radio programs, including The Rudy Vallee Show and Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music, before landing his own radio—and later, television—programs.
He continued to appear on television and in movies while performing his musical comedy around the world until he died on December 23, 2000, in Greenwich, Connecticut, at the age of 91.
One part of his legacy is the founding of the Beethoven Foundation in New York City along with Kimball International executive Tony Habig, and Carnegie Hall director Julius Bloom in 1979. The three founders established the organization to help “young Americans to enter international competitions” and to provide a “bridge from the academic to the international concert stage.”
Thanks to Victor Borge’s vision, the American Pianists Association is here today, and immensely proud to continue his legacy!