From a Songwriter’s Workshop
by Jens Cornelius
Carl Nielsen’s large production of around 300 songs – including a hundred for choirs – comes in many forms. In this collection we hear both choral versions of the best known Carl Nielsen songs and rarer or even unknown choral songs.
The framework is provided by Carl Nielsen’s fine proposal for a new Danish national anthem. In Denmark since the middle of the nineteenth century, two melodies have been used, the royal anthem King Christian stood by the lofty mast and the more ‘civilian’ A fair and lovely land. The original melody for the latter, by H.E. Krøyer from 1835, with its angular rhythms and melodic leaps, is not so singable. In 1923 Carl Nielsen made a striking exception to his principle of not ousting a melody that had already established itself. In this case, however, he thought he had to make the attempt for musical reasons. “It’s a difficult matter, since force of habit is strong, and it is probably true that it is not actually a musical question but something quite different,” he told the press before a people’s choir of a whole 900 singers gave his new melody its first performance. “The nation takes up a song and makes it a national anthem. No power on earth can prevent that; and when that happens it reflects the mood of the times much more than literary or musical taste. I consider that such a melody is more a symbol – like the flag, the cross or what have you – and therefore it does not have to be ‘good’ in and of itself; but ... well, now I am trying myself; so much for human logic!”
Carl Nielsen’s beautiful melody is the essence of his popular national style. Simple and straightforward, based on stepwise motion and with a peaceful character. Perhaps it hits off the style too well and with its gentleness does not live up to the dramatic expression in the poet-king Oehlenschläger’s words about the champions of the past, the assaults on foemen, King and Country. Despite many attempts Carl Nielsen’s melody has therefore never come close to knocking Krøyer’s from its perch – perhaps it will succeed this time, in connection with the 150th anniversary of Nielsen’s birth?
Carl Nielsen’s many well-loved songs from the 1910s and 1920s were as a rule composed as monophonic melodies with piano accompaniment. But the songs already became popular among Danish choirs in Nielsen’s own time, and polyphonic versions began to spread. Carl Nielsen himself did some of the arrangements and had plans to do more. Among the popular songs he himself arranged for choir are There’s a fleet of floating islands, Odd and unknown evening breezes and I take with a smile my burden. The last two originally come from the watershed collection A Score of Danish Songs which Nielsen made in 1915-17 in collaboration with the hymnodist Thomas Laub.
Over the next few years Nielsen’s Danish songs made such a great impression on the population that he was often sent verses and asked to set them to music. This is how one of the most popular of the songs, The Danish song is a fair young maiden, was written in 1925 for an occasional text by Kai Hoffmann.
In the musical life of our time the mixed choir of men’s and women’s voices is the norm. This was not the case in Carl Nielsen’s time, when male choirs were more widespread than today, and when polyphonic music was often written for school choirs.
Some of Nielsen’s earliest choral songs were for male choir. You suffer throughout an age of pain was written in 1887 at the urging of his music theory teacher, Orla Rosenhoff. The verses are by J.P. Jacobsen, who was Carl Nielsen’s favourite poet at the time.
At the time the male voice choir was commonly used not least in cantatas. From his Cantata for the Opening Ceremony of the National Exhibition in Aarhus (1909) Nielsen later took two sections and published them for mixed choir. However, Foaming high, the waters first had to have a new text that did not concentrate so much on the city of Aarhus.
Sing, Danish man is probably the most appropriate of all the songs for male choir. It was written as the opening number for the Tivoli Revue in 1906, and the poet Holger Drachmann’s liberal use of national symbols might today cast some doubt on the seriousness of the song. It was not perceived that way in Nielsen’s time, when Sing, Danish man was one of his most popular songs. He made six arrangements of it, including this one for male choir. Today the song has been judged as dated and has been removed from the High School Song Book, the current canon for “the Danish national treasury of song”.
On the other hand another song for male choir, The Daffodil, has gained currency as a monophonic community song and is established today – with a slightly different text selection – as one of the most well loved Danish hymns, Easter bloom, what wilt thou here.
For the newly founded Copenhagen male choir Bel Canto Carl Nielsen wrote the beautiful Evening in 1908 and the next year supplied the same choir with an absolutely profane drinking song for use after the choir rehearsals, To the Schnapps in ‘Bel Canto’. But male-choir singing declined in Denmark in the course of the twentieth century, among other reasons as a result of an anti-elitist attitude that made the academic male choirs seem self-important and a gender equality policy that replaced the worker’s singing clubs with mixed choirs; a development that Carl Nielsen himself also chose to support.
Some of the songs on this album are entirely unknown today, even to Carl Nielsen fans. The two school songs Flower pollen from profusion and It’s over for a short respite were written in May 1929 as a commission from the school Birkerød Statsskole and supplied within a few days so they were ready for the end of the summer term. Although they are school songs, they are arranged for adult voices, because the pupils could go on to the school leaving exam. Today, with their artful texts by Viggo Stuckenberg, they have passed out of use in the school (although the composer had been promised that “your music will always sound out here – also one day when we no longer have the good fortune and joy to count yourself among us”).
Siskin song for the unusual configuration SSAT is a virtuoso piece to teasing verses by Emil Aarestrup about an absent-minded nerd who has no time for dalliance. But today the title of the song has become an obstacle, for the name of the bird “siskin” is no longer understood as synonymous with an impertinent person. Come, God’s angel, silent Death has an unusual ensemble, ATB, and like Siskin song was written for the Madrigal Choir of the Cecilia Society which, under the leadership of Nielsen’s future conductor colleague (and rival) at the Royal Theatre, Frederik Rung, worked with Italian Renaissance music and urged the composers of the time to write in the old style.
Serenade is related to the seductive serenades in triple time by Carl Nielsen’s older colleague P.E. Lange-Müller, the Nestor of Danish musical life after 1900. Or perhaps it is rather a nod to the lately deceased Peter Heise, the most significant Danish composer of ‘romances’ in the nineteenth century. For Nielsen wrote Serenade in honour of Heise’s widow, who held singing soirées in her home. Carl Nielsen’s Serenade, however, has unmistakable features, including the archaic final cadence, which neither Heise nor Lange-Müller could have written.
Two children’s songs which are among Carl Nielsen’s very best known compositions in Denmark were also made in versions for child’s choir: Look, the sun is red and Two larks in love have nested. The wholly forgotten Children’s song from 1915 is one of the two songs Carl Nielsen wrote in support of Child Welfare Day. And the goodnight song In peace I lay me down to sleep as well as the morning hymn Now sun arises in the east make sense, of course, in a choral version for high voices, but it is less obvious that Nielsen made versions for children’s choir of the song about the homesick cosmopolitan traveller, Odd and unknown evening breezes, and Springtime hedge is green, which is about a love-hungry young man. That Nielsen wrote a version of A fair and lovely land for children’s choir on the other hand shows how keen he was to make an impact with his new national anthem. He left us a whole seven different arrangements plus drafts for even more. And surely many people today would wish that the Danish national anthem had been written by the national composer, Carl Nielsen?
© Jens Cornelius, 2015