Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), Danish composer, violinist and conductor, is best known today for his symphonies, his solo concertos and his many songs. But if one looks more closely at his list of works one is surprised by a wealth of music for all kinds of ensemble and for all occasions.
It is said that Commotio for organwas Carl Nielsen’s last work. It was indeed his last major work, but typically for his working method, at the same time as Commotio he finished several smaller occasional compositions: Grundtvig Easter Eve for a benefit concert for the Grundtvig Church; Allegro for Two Recorders for a recorder compendium, Song for Five-Part Mixed Choir for the Jubilee of the Danish Cremation Society on 23 March 1931 (From flame your life was given) and The Lay of the Nordic Harp for the male choir Bel Canto’s 25th anniversary. Nielsen was an extremely active participant in Danish musical life and ranged wide, perhaps because of his own background, having grown up in poverty on Funen, and enjoying great success later both nationally and internationally. His music affected both the common people and the elite, from the national hit Jens Vejmand, with which everyone could sing along, to the great symphonies and concertos, which were given repeated performances in Denmark, Sweden and Germany. The organ compositions reflect this same breadth: the commissioned works, the small preludes for use in the church service, and then there is the major work that grew out of inner necessity and desire, Commotio for Organ.
Nielsen had many organist friends and several composition pupils who were organists. Nevertheless we only have organ compositions from the last three years of his life. There might in fact have been an organ work earlier in Nielsen’s life. In 1913, for the first time, he heard the German organist and professor Karl Straube from Leipzig giving a concert in Copenhagen, and it made a great impression. Nielsen wrote to his wife: “I have the urge to write a fantasia for organ and have already begun. It is tremendous how an organ can sound when a great master is handling it”. He followed Straube attentively for some years, and Straube gave three songs by Nielsen their first performance when he visited Copenhagen for the second time in 1914. But Nielsen wrote no fantasia for organ – other tasks came flooding in.
Not until 1929 did he write, at the urging of the organist Johannes Hansen, 29 Little Preludes for use in church services. Nielsen was very ill at that time, so this minor, specific practical task probably suited him very well. For preliminary studies he borrowed some Baroque organ music from the organist Peter Thomsen (1893-1976), organist at the Simeon Church 1918-50, editor of the publication Dansk Kirkemusiker Tidende, and he tried out the possibilities of the organ on the Marcussen & Reuter organ in Christiansborg Palace Chapel. The preludes were enthusiastically reviewed in the daily Nationaltidende, and the reviewer dwelt on the fact that the preludes reflected Nielsen’s musical idiom retrospectively from the symphonies (1894-1925) through the opera Saul and David (1901) to the songs and the clarinet concerto (1928). In length and difficulty the preludes were probably well suited to church service use for most organists; on average they last one minute, and most of them are easy to deal with. But whereas the reviewer on Nationaltidende could hear associations with large parts of Nielsen’s oeuvre, in church circles a different issue was in focus.
At the start of the 1900s there was much debate about a “true sacred music style” and what might be characteristic of such a style. Nielsen’s good friend and partner from A Score of Danish Songs (1915), the organist Thomas Laub (1852-1927), had already started a movement in Danish church life before the turn of the century towards a simpler, more authentic type of sacred song; a tendency which could also be seen in the Germany of the time. Laub crowned his efforts in 1920 with his work Musik og Kirke, in which he advocated sacred song inspired by “the three major forms: the singing of the ancient church, that of the Palestrina period and Lutheran sacred song” (Musik og Kirke, p. 8). Laub sums up the sacred song of the 1800s at the end of the book: “The imagery [in the hymn texts] [...] is pushed into the foreground in the aesthetic song, as if it were the main thing, and the content is covered over” (Musik og Kirke, p. 174) and concluded that sacred art should in all things serve the Word. It is against this background that one must understand the debate in church circles at the time on the concept of sacred music and the same circles’ criticism of Nielsen’s preludes. Nielsen’s composition pupil Povl Hamburger thought for example that numbers 14 and 29 alone were suitable for church use (review in Dansk Musiktidsskrift). Carl Nielsen himself discussed the subject with Peter Thomsen and published a list of numbers that he thought “are unsuitable for church use in our time, that is Nos. 8, 11, 15, 18, 22, 26 and 28”, and numbers which “can be heard in the church, that is Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12, 14, 19, 21, 25 and 29”. Certain numbers were not mentioned, because he did not dare have any opinion about them! Nielsen himself summed up the requirements for organ music in the church on the basis of the discussion with Peter Thomsen by saying that it should have:
1 Linear composition
2 Modulations as required by the motion of the parts
3 A certain ‘spaciousness’, so that the listeners do not get the impression that the music is the speech or reflections of one man.
Nielsen ends his contribution by saying that if he were to compose organ preludes again, he would take pains “to suppress personal taste and aspire to the crystal-clear values that lie latent in the will of the music itself, elevated above all kinds of feelings.” (Contribution to the periodical Vor Ungdom, quoted from John Fellow, Carl Nielsen to his Contemporaries, pp. 599-600). When one looks through the two lists, it is striking that it is the more lyrical preludes that have been put in the “minus” list, while the more polyphonic and homophonic/hymn-like ones have been put on the “plus” list. With his Baroque studies Nielsen had tried to accommodate the church people, yet in his own way he had created a collection of small, Nielsenesque snapshots.
He continued to write preludes; at least two more at the urging of Peter Thomsen, Two Preludes, CNW 98. And a single further prelude, which Nielsen had taken out of the first collection before printing, Melody, CNW 97, is also included here.
But another major work had become pressing, and in it Nielsen followed up on his declared wish to “suppress personal taste and aspire to the crystal-clear values that lie latent in the will of the music itself ... elevated above all kinds of feelings” (see the quote above). The work must have been at the back of his mind for a long time, perhaps ever since Straube’s concerts in Copenhagen in 1913 and 1914. Nielsen went to his refuge Damgaarden near Fredericia to find peace and quiet to finish the organ work and wrote home to his wife: “I am here for 10-12 days to put the finishing touches to a major organ work that I have wanted to try for many years”. To his good friend Vera Michaelsen he wrote: “It is perhaps foolish to create a work for which there may be no use and for which no one has asked, but I suppose we are all foolish when it comes down to it, and yet – – – !” The work was created out of an inner urge and was not a commissioned work, but it was anticipated with the greatest interest by Nielsen’s many organist friends. Commotio is signed 27 February 1931 and a few days later Nielsen wrote to his wife: “Now my big organ piece is quite finished and I am happy about the work because it has been done with greater skill than all my other things; I myself must be the best judge of that, although not of what it is otherwise like in spirit. It is a large work and lasts I think about 22 minutes. Bach’s longest organ work (the Prelude and Fugue in E minor) is 368 bars long, mine is 511, so as far as size is concerned – – ? Bach is unattainable!” Nielsen was pleased with his new work and convinced of its quality. When the cathedral organist in Roskilde, Nielsen’s good friend Emilius Bangert, who premiered Commotio, wrote to comment on the work, voiced objections to the length and made suggestions for shortening it, Nielsen replied with great amiability – but was not persuaded to change anything! He managed to promise the first performance to two of his best friends, and in the end Emilius Bangert premiered Commotio in Aarhus Cathedral, while Peter Thomsen gave the first performance of the work in the Church of the Holy Spirit in Copenhagen. For the first performance in Lübeck Nielsen was asked to write programme notes:
“I do not really know how we should furnish the programme, but in the title I think we must furnish Commotio with a footnote, thus:
Carl Nielsen: Commotio* for Organ, Op. 58
*Motion, also spiritual.
I do not want anything about ‘fantasizing’ in it. After all, the work is so rigorous in its form and part writing that I am incapable of doing anything firmer. – I would like the following. if more explanation is wanted than the title itself (overleaf), which I would really rather see it limited to:
The Latin word Commotio really applies to all music, but the word is used more specifically here as an expression of self-objectivization. – In a major work for the mighty instrument that is called the organ, and whose sound is conditional on the natural element which is called air, the composer must attempt to suppress all personal, lyrical feelings. – The expression becomes great and rigorous and demands a kind of dryness instead of the emotional, and must rather be envisioned with the ear than embraced by the heart.
The work is borne up by two fugues, to which introduction, intervening movements and coda cling like climbing plants to the trunks of the forest; however, the composer thinks that further analysis is superfluous.”
(Quoted from John Fellow, Carl Nielsen to his Contemporaries, vol. 2 p. 640, Gyldendal 1999).
In a letter to his son-in-law Emil Telmányi shortly before the completion of Commotio, he stressed the polyphonic element in the work: “None of my other works has demanded such great concentration as this: an attempt to reconstitute what is truly the only valid organ style, the polyphonic music that is especially suited to this instrument, which for a long time has been regarded as a kind of orchestra, which it absolutely is not. More on this when the occasion arises.”
Commotio consists of two long fugues and a third short fugue, a “final apotheosis” (Nielsen’s designation for the last short coda-like fugue in the pencil draft). The introduction is like a Baroque pedal-point toccata with two long pedal points with figured work in both hands above them. Many places in the work are clearly Baroque-inspired, just as one can see the overall form as inspired by Buxtehude’s preludes, for example. But the musical idiom is entirely Nielsen’s. And in this there may be a parallel to another ‘movement’ of the time, the “organ movement” in Danish organ building, of using the old to create something new, not a copy but a new work from the old. Nielsen’s “Motion” or “Movement” (the meaning of the word Commotio) and the Danish organ-building movement run parallel in the infancy of the organ movement. Nielsen would certainly not have been enough of an organ expert to share the thinking of the organ movement; but he must have heard of the new ideas from his organist friends; evidence of this is the letter to his son-in-law Emil Telmányi (see earlier in this section). Commotio is also amazingly well written for the instrument, both challenging and with a clear view of what is possible and what sounds good; this is impressive when one knows that the composer was not an organist himself. Nielsen has fully understood the capacity of the organ and the organist!
The organ at Nikolaj Kunsthal in Copenhagen is an important instrument in the history of Danish organ building. It was inaugurated on 27 February 1931 (the same day as Nielsen finished Commotio!) after the vicissitudes of an organ debate. Nikolaj was then a church that had been rebuilt at the start of the twentieth century in 1900, not with a view to restoring its former glory, but as a modern replica that was to have other functions than being a church. The inner city had enough churches, and shortly after the fire in the church in 1795 the original congregation has been divided up among other parishes. The organ was the result of a bequest whose implementation was obligatory, but for which there was no real need. It was therefore planned as a concert organ. The first plans from 1925 show a Late Romantic concert organ typical of the time with electro-pneumatic action and many string stops and octave couplings. However, the original plans underwent some changes, and in mid-1927 a sudden change to mechanical action and a more classic disposition was introduced. The French organist, physician, theologian and organ expert Albert Schweitzer had visited Copenhagen the same year. Perhaps his thoughts on an organ reform (published in a book from 1906 on German and French organ building art and organ art) prompted the maker of the Nikolaj organ to think anew? In its final form the organ from 1930 became Denmark’s first ‘organ movement organ’. The previous year the organ builder Poul Gerhard Andersen from the firm of Marcussen & Søn had written about his thoughts on a Danish organ movement in a “Handbook for Organists” – thoughts that he later followed up on in his “Organ Book” from 1955.
The most important thing for the organ movement was the idea of returning to something more authentic, something from before the epoch of the Romantic organ. A review of the organ from April 1931 says among other things that the goal was an organ type “that is suited to the performance of polyphonic music and ... which entirely has its own sound – fundamentally different from that of the orchestra” (Dansk Kirkemusiker Tidende, April 1931, “Et nyt mekanisk Organ i Nicolai Kirkesal” (A new mechanical organ in Nicolai Church), p. 31). Nielsen must have been aware of this debate. At any rate his own comment with similar wording is evidence of this (see the section on Commotio). The builders were not to copy the old organs, but build on their basis. They therefore built a mechanical action and took a starting point in the disposition of the Baroque organ, but added modern stops and were willing to mix in new ideas: “As a special peculiarity of this disposition it must be stated that the seventh is used in a couple of the stops – indeed even the ninth has found a use – despite the fact that neither the seventh nor the ninth exist in classic organ dispositions. This is perhaps the very best proof that the intention has not been to make this organ an imitation of the classic organ type, but a re-creation of the organ on a classic basis” (review in Dansk Kirkemusiker Tidende). The reed stops are mellow, bought in from Germany and voiced by Marcussen. Perhaps the models were the mellow stops of the Compenius organ at Frederiksborg Castle? The other pipework is of Marcussen’s own fabrication, and many of the sounds can also be found in the 1829 organ in the Palace Chapel, a few hundred metres from the Nikolaj Hall. The mechanism is good and sensitive, but very heavy in the coupling, just as in the Palace Chapel.
The reason for choosing the Nikolaj organ for the present recording is as follows: A copy of the first printed edition (1932) of Commotio, owned by the Royal Danish Library, has stopping added that fits with the Nikolaj organ. The former owner of this copy had close connections with two organists who were close to Nielsen: Peter Thomsen and Finn Viderø. Both played Commotio several times for Nielsen in the summer of 1931 – Thomsen in Christiansborg Palace Chapel and Viderø in the Nikolaj Hall. The stopping in the first edition has been followed closely. A description of this and a major analysis can be found in “Registreringer til Carl Nielsens Commotio” on the Royal Danish Academy of Music’s website, www.dkdm.dk.
Festival Prelude for the New Century (Fest-præludium ved Aarhundredeskiftet), CNW 84, was printed for the first time on the front page of the newspaper Politiken on New Year’s Day 1901 (see the preface to the Carl Nielsen Edition, Series II Vol. 12). The work was written for piano but later arranged for organ by among others Finn Viderø. The piece is marked Tempo giusto (suitable tempo) with the addition ff proud, with pomp. The powerful start with grand E major triads underscores the pride and the pomp, and the 3/4 time with its regular crotchet motion in the bass gives the movement a certain march-like sound. It is easy to imagine the movement for a large orchestra with percussion and richly equipped with brasses – or for full organ! For that reason the work has also earlier gained a foothold in the organ repertoire in various transcriptions. For this recording I have chosen Finn Viderø’s transcription.
Carl Nielsen composed no chamber music for organ. One of his earliest works, the small Romance from Op. 2, CNW 61 (1889), has been performed on organ and oboe, but it was published for piano and oboe. Nevertheless there has been a tradition of performing many of Nielsen’s songs with organ, and three of Nielsens favourite songs were actually premiered with the organ.
On this recording is included a small selection from Nielsen’s collection Salmer og Aandelige Sange (Hymns and Spiritual Songs), subtitled “Nearly fifty melodies for homes, church and school”. The first three songs, CNW 165, 185 and 164, were composed in February 1914 and given their first performance the same year by Professor Karl Straube, organ, and Niels Rudolph Gade, baritone. N. R. Gade was the grandchild of the composer Niels Wilhelm Gade and like Straube lived in Leipzig. In a letter of 24 November 1914 Carl Nielsen wrote to his wife Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen about the composition process:
“My dearest. Since you left I’ve written three hymns, of which two belong to the very best and one is probably the most beautiful I have yet composed. I like this melody so much that I have to play it to myself once in a while; it is so natural that when you first hear it you think you must have known it from tenderest childhood. Both the melody and its harmonies came to me straight away and of their own accord. It was so quiet here – the others had gone to bed:
How wonderful to ponder,
How strange to think forlorn,
That heaven’s king up yonder
In byre should be born,
The kingdom’s light and glory,
The living God’s own word,
No home with us His story,
In poverty, unheard!
The second melody, which I also think successful, is this hymn (old Danish hymn):
As I consider time and day
When this my life has ended,
My soul rejoices straightaway
Like birds to sunlight tended,
Oh day so mild,
My strife up‑piled
Will have a blissful morrow!
To pleasant glee
On Jesus’ knee
I go from woe and sorrow.”
How wonderful to ponder, in Danish Forunderligt at sige, CNW 165, has a text by Hans Adolph Brorson, later reworked by N.F.S. Grundtvig. Today the melody is better known with its original Brorson text Mit hjerte altid vanker (My heart is always roaming – no. 125 in the Danish Book of Hymns). Carl Nielsen’s pupil Paul Hellmuth collaborated with Nielsen on the harmonization. Naar jeg betænker Tid and Stund (As I consider time and day), CNW 185, has a text by Niels Pedersen. Et helligt Liv, en salig Død (A holy life, a blessed death), CNW 164, has a text by N.F.S. Grundtvig.
The last three songs have been chosen from the programme for a memorial concert for Carl Nielsen in Roskilde Cathedral on 9 June 1931 with the cathedral precentor Emilius Bangert and the Royal Court Singer Ingeborg Steffensen (see also Musik i Roskilde, historisk årbog fra Roskilde Amt 1996/97, p. 61).
Ak, min rose visner bort (Ah, my rose will fade away), CNW 153, and Frisk op! Endnu engang (Refresh yourself in song), CNW 168, both have texts by Hans Adolph Brorson and were written between 1913 and 1915. Guds Engle i Flok (God’s angels, unite), CNW 170, with a text by N.F.S. Grundtvig, is from the same period and was in 1928 performed in a version for tenor, baritone and organ. That version unfortunately no longer exists.
© Bine Bryndorf, Virum, 12 October 2016
Unless otherwise stated, quotations come from the preface to the Carl Nielsen Edition – Organ Works.