Symphonic fuel and cheerful things
Carl Nielsen wrote six unorthodox symphonies. None of them follows the standards of his time for a symphony. And then there is Carl Nielsen’s deeply original musical language – idiosyncratic, straightforward and visionary all at once. That makes his music difficult to place in the usual stylistic and historical categories.
“It’s very difficult to pin Nielsen down”, says Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic. “His music can be exciting and fun, but also bleak and austere. He likes to juxtapose really contrasting images, and sudden switches are characteristic. What’s coming next? I like to read it that he is painting a picture of life.”
Carl Nielsen came from the periphery in two ways: he was a Dane, on the margins of Europe, and as a village child he grew up far from the professional musical life of the capital. He was born on Funen in 1865, the son of a village painter and folk musician, who taught him to play violin and trumpet.
The family could not afford to pay for an education, so at the age of 14 Carl Nielsen got work as a regimental musician. The wages were a few coins and a four-kilo loaf of rye bread. But in the Danish provinces people felt a sense of implied inferiority when local talent went to waste, so benefactors in Odense clubbed together to send the boy to Copenhagen (as had happened to his fellow-townsman Hans Christian Andersen a few generations earlier). Nielsen was admitted to the Academy of Music as a violinist, and in 1889 he won the competition for a permanent position in the Royal Danish Orchestra. In just ten years he had progressed from hopeless poverty to the cultural elite of the capital.
A powerful drive prevented Carl Nielsen from staying in one place too long at a time. In 1905 he resigned from his orchestral post to concentrate on composing. Musically, he sought out new paths right up to his death, even after winning wide recognition at a mature age. His last two symphonies complete the picture of Nielsen’s artistic development, which remained far ahead of his surroundings – cost what it might.
Symphony No. 5
Carl Nielsen’s music is often compared to a force of nature, and the description is nowhere more aptly applied than to his Fifth Symphony, from 1920-22. At the same time, the symphony is a resounding echo of mankind’s own forces, as they had raged in the First World War. The struggle in the Fifth Symphony has a cosmic format. Nielsen refused to acknowledge that it was a war symphony, but did remark: “There is not one of us who is the same now as before the war.”
The symphony is a twofold, polarized work. The music begins in a state of nature – not an idyll, but a primal world, an uncivilized peace. Two subjects, both of which originate in the introductory flow of the violas, hold each other in check. A peaceful theme is played by winds, two by two like the animals in Noah’s ark. Against this stands the opposite pole, a whirling, drilling figure.
The balance of tensions is broken by a drum, but is restored, and halfway into the first movement the world is apparently peaceful again. This opens the way for an Adagio so beautiful and numinous that it is almost ‘religioso’, and the music culminates in a hymn where horns and strings aspire to the heavens.
But the balance of power cannot simply tip towards the light this way. The darkness attacks with the drum as its spearhead, and this time it has enough power to start a Ragnarok. Nielsen asks the snare drummer to play “at his own tempo, as if he wants to disturb the music at any price.” This develops into a mood of destruction where “the snare drummer fantasizes quite freely with all sorts of inventions.”
This fateful struggle – one of the first examples of aleatory music in a symphony – comes out on the side of the light. The drum falls back, but without being defeated, for it is alive as it disappears back into the orchestra while the surroundings subside into peace.
The second part of the symphony is an image of a new world order. The initial attack, with an ambitious theme that makes a manic assault on the challenges, turns out to lack sustaining power and comes to halt like an old engine. When a diabolical fugue takes over, it fragments instead of building up, and the forward thrust collapses. The desperate heroism has failed. Now the main theme of the movement returns, this time played pianissimo. A relaxed polyphony opens the way for a magical journey towards the light. As a conclusion one hears the main subject in its original form, assured of victory. The summit has been reached.
When Carl Nielsen was working on his Fifth Symphony, he enjoyed the status of Denmark’s national composer. His popular songs had given him a wide audience, but in the concert hall he was not unconditionally popular. It was feared that in the name of development he would destroy everything that was admirable. Often the public was still digesting his last experiment when Nielsen once more struck out in a new, threatening direction.
The first performance in 1922 was conducted by Nielsen himself in Copenhagen’s conservative Musikforeningen, and the programme he had prepared for the occasion was, to put it nicely, ‘openminded’: first Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2, then Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 and his stern Easter cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden. And then the new Symphony No. 5!
Once more, the symphony came at a cost to Carl Nielsen. His old supporter, the composer and conductor Victor Bendix, described it indignantly as “this impure trench music, this bold deceit, this fist in the face”. To Nielsen this was the harshest criticism he could receive – worse than at the first performance in Stockholm in 1924, when “a true panic broke out”, as the newspapers reported, and a large part of the audience walked out during the first movement “with horror and anger written on their faces”.
In the 1920s the symphony was played in Berlin and Paris, among other places, and by famous conductors such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Pierre Monteux and Jascha Horenstein. The definitive breakthrough came in 1962, when the symphony was recorded by the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein. Today Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony stands not only as one of his strongest works, but as one of the most original symphonies of the twentieth century.
Symphony No. 6, “Sinfonia semplice”
Symphony No. 6, from 1924-25, was long seen as Nielsen’s ‘crazy’ symphony, stigmatized as meaningless and random. Now, at long last, it has achieved recognition as one of his most forward-looking works – a postmodern symphony written more than half a century before postmodernism! Again Carl Nielsen situates himself outside the normal currents. No one had an ear for this at the first performance in 1925, not even his supporters. Had the master really written a weak symphony?
The title Sinfonia semplice (“Simple Symphony”) is subtle. It refers on the face of it to the naive themes and to the transparent orchestration. Carl Nielsen has also apparently returned to the classical virtues with four separate movements, and in comments in the press he emphasized the lightness and straightforwardness of the symphony. It is “in a lighter vein than my other symphonies – there are cheerful things in it,” he said, and from the newspaper one cannot see whether this was said with or without a sardonic smile.
For there is very strong irony in the music. The naive themes are turned into postulates, and the good humour tilts into sarcasm time and time again. And first and foremost, the symphonic arguments are anything but simple. The music is based on ambivalences and ruptures, and it contradicts itself from start to finish. Nielsen’s contemporaries hoped that it was all just an odd joke.
The first movement appears to set out as a harmless neoclassical symphony, but soon a complexity rears its head that makes the ‘simplicity’ ring false. All good intentions are subverted, and three times Nielsen’s attempts to create a core content by means of a fugue fail. The movement works its way up to a climax that stumbles monumentally into a harshly eerie dissonance. The blighted growth of the simplicity has already been lost, and the ending of the movement is crestfallen – it simply ceases to be.
Then comes Nielsen’s most extremist symphonic movement, Humoresque – a collective improvisation from the breakthrough year of Surrealism, where the instruments are unleashed in a grotesque anarchy. The movement clutches at a straw, offered by the clarinet: a folk fiddler’s melody meant to remedy the state of chaos. Nielsen himself shoots the attempt down, while the trombone provocatively yawns with boredom.
Cut to the symphony’s most rigorous movement, the neo-Baroque Proposta seria (a proposta is the subject of a fugue, here almost dripping with pathos). On top of the shock of the Humoresque, the symphony attempts to comes to its senses with the aid of classical structural technique. Several forays along the way are not realized according to plan, and when the movement eventually falls calm, it is not after a job well done; it is rather the result of resignation.
The fourth movement is the climax of the symphony: a set of variations so disparate that they border on pure collage. From a starting point in a little bassoon melody that sounds like a singing game, Nielsen sends invention and imagination off across the steppes. The variation form is stretched to the limit, and this formal principle, too, loses the capacity to function as a framework. The final rupture comes with a waltz where Nielsen draws lines back to the waltzes in his debut with Suite for Strings and in the admired Symphony No. 3. But this time it all goes wrong – the innocent waltz melody is attacked by chaotic eruptions from the brass, whose double tempo and contrasting gaits make the music cannibalize itself. In the end nothing but the bones are left in a macabre variation for percussion.
The end is proclaimed by an exaggerated fanfare, which is an introduction to – nothing! One receives only the greatest insult the whole symphony has to offer, a drunken man’s polka with idiotic oom-pah-pahs. Shrill sounds in the piccolo and clarinet squeeze out the variation theme one last time, while the bassoons are left on their low note without discovering that the symphony is over.
Carl Nielsen used his final symphony as a deconstruction; an embarrassing disappointment for the host of fans who thought they knew what to admire – but a great stimulant for succeeding generations, who have been supplied by Nielsen’s Sixth with symphonic fuel for many years to come.
© Jens Cornelius, 2014