Denmark's official bicentenary celebrations of Hans Christian Andersen are launched in Birmingham tomorrow with the premiere of a new piece by leading Danish composer Per Norgard. Terry Grimley looks at Andersen?s own rags-to-riches life story...

Denmark?s most internationally renowned citizen was born 200 years ago tomorrow into a life of desperate poverty.

The exact place in the town of Odense where Hans Christian Andersen first saw the light of day is unknown, because his parents, a shoemaker and a washerwoman, did not have a permanent address until two years later. For an author who was to give the world some of its classic images of imagination triumphing over poverty and adversity, it could hardly have been better.

Odense, where Andersen?s notional birthplace and childhood home is now a museum, retains an atmosphere of gingerbread fairytale charm. Only a short walk from the Andersen museum is another, devoted to Denmark?s greatest composer, Carl Nielsen, who was born a few miles away, exactly 60 years later, into a similarly humble family.

At the age of seven Andersen was taken for the first time to Odense?s theatre ? a decisive event which fired his imagination and set him on the course which eventually led him to become one of Europe?s most feted writers.

We think of Andersen as the creator of morally instructive children?s stories which have transcended national boundaries to become part of international folklore: The Ugly Duckling,

The Emperor?s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid. But his first attempts at writing were for the stage, and he was also a prolific poet, a novelist and travel writer.

He also wrote four volumes of autobiography and librettos for no fewer than eight operas, including one of Denmark?s most popular, Little Kirsten, with music by his friend J.P.E.Hartmann.

He left Odense at the age of 14, travelling alone to Copenhagen, where he tried to make a living as a singer, actor and dancer at the Royal Theatre. Even as a child his beautiful singing voice (he was nicknamed ?The Funen Nightingale?) brought him some celebrity.

Andersen was fortunate to find influential patrons who took care of him and helped him to make up ground lost by his neglected education. At 21 he wrote his sentimental poem The Dying Child, which became his first international success.

In 1833-4 he travelled extensively through Germany and France to Rome, where he befriended the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, but a few years later he was attacked by another famous Danish contemporary, the philosopher S?ren Kierkegaard, over his novel Kun en Spillemand (Only a Fiddler).

Andersen?s play The Mulatto was a big success at the Royal Theatre and elsewhere in 1840, and in the same year he took off on another tour, during which he met Mendelssohn and Liszt. Three years later he began his lengthy infatuation with the Swedish singer Jenny Lind.

His works began to be published in English from 1845, and two years later he was greeted as a celebrity on his first visit to England and Scotland, during which he met Charles Dickens.

On a second visit to Britain ten years later he stayed with Dickens for a month ? not entirely to his English colleague?s delight: ?He was a bony bore ? and he stayed and stayed and stayed!? complained one of Dickens? daughters.

Andersen?s later years brought many honours, including honorary citizenship of Odense, where his 65th birthday was the subject of great celebrations. He died after a lengthy illness in 1875.

There are more than 200 fairytales by Andersen, which include such familiar titles as The Snow Queen, The Red Shoes, Thumbelina and The Princess and the Pea, as well as those mentioned above. His stories have inspired many musical works, including Stravinsky?s one-act opera The Song of the Nightingale and Dvorak?s opera Rusalka, which is based on The Little Mermaid, and endless theatre adaptations.

Andersen?s life was given the Hollywood treatment in 1952 with the musical film Hans Christian Andersen (music by Frank Loesser) which had Danny Kaye ? hardly a lookalike for the hatchet-faced Andersen ? singing Wonderful Copenhagen. This, together with The Ugly Duckling, was one of the most durable pop hits of the decade.

Naturally, there are many Andersen stories which are littleknown. As his career progressed the ?tales? metamorphosed into ?stories?, becoming more exploratory and adult in tone. The phrase ?told for children? was dropped from the title after the sixth collection.

It is unlikely that many people in the audience at Symphony Hall tomorrow night, when the CBSO gives the world premiere of Per Norgard?s The Will-o?-the Wisps are in Town,will be familiar with this strange and sinister story from 1865 ? a troubled time not only for its author but for Denmark, following a disastrous war with Prussia.

Norgard?s 45-minute piece is one of ten commissioned from Danish composers for the international project Symphonic Fairytales, which forms part of the massive bicentenary celebrations, HCA2005.

Other cities taking part in this series of premieres include New York, Reykjavik, Santiago, Basle, Ho Chi Minh City, Warsaw, Madrid, Oslo, Stockholm ? and Odense. It is evidence, if any were needed, that the poor boy from a small town in a small country went on to become a citizen of the world.