A multiplicity of styles and sounds
For the Danish composer Tage Nielsen (1929-2003) writing music was something he also did. Originally a graduate in music and French at the University of Copenhagen, after private studies with Rued Langgaard in composition he achieved unqualified success on two fronts: on the musical front, as witnessed by this release; but also in the development of a diverse, living musical culture in Denmark. For when Tage Nielsen passed away recently, a highly significant figure in Danish musical life left the stage. At the organizational level Tage Nielsen left his mark on the music department of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation in the stormy years around 1960, and later he spent many years as Principal of the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Århus, where he was able to an unprecedented extent to shake up the concepts of province and metropolis and the adjectives usually applied to them. Yet the administrative posts must have stolen time from the composing: Tage Nielsen's list of works is not especially long; on the other hand, in the words of his colleague Karl Aage Rasmussen, he "insisted on giving the works fullness rather than volume" and did so with rare musical meti-culousness. All works by Tage Nielsen exhibit consistency of thought and craftsmanship, with an outstanding feeling for both nuances of sonority and appropriate ‘action'.
Tage Nielsen's music underwent striking changes when modernism arrived in earnest in Denmark in 1960. Having composed Neoclassical, Béla Bartók-inspired music in the 1950s, in keeping with the prevailing spirit of the period, Nielsen then let an atonal, sound-saturated style bear his work forward, for example in the work Two Nocturnes in 1961. Like most others, he continued with such experiments throughout the decade - but ‘experiment' in the truest sense of the word, where the composer has no idea of the outcome, is a word that is only partially adequate; Tage Nielsen's music never renounces the musical rules and devices that have the values of the centuries behind them: contrasts, melodic tensions and units that function together as a unity. Thus, although the music is modern and fresh, it is also music that works in and of itself. In this period the works manifest a radically expressive side where mighty sheets of sound, often in full orchestral format, are held in tension by more agitated developments that alternate between the discreetly modern, pathos and poetry. From 1970 on "quotation" music, where a wide range of different musical elements are adopted as material and formed anew in an independent present-day idiom, also crept into Tage Nielsen's works. A central example of this is the composer's greatest success, in the ticket-sellers' sense of the word: the opera Laughter in the Dark, based on a text by Vladimir Nabokov, with which the 5 opera fragments of this release are associated as a kind of precursor.
Il giardino magico (1967-68)
This orchestral work is, to put it briefly, music with unusually many different musical elements unified in a totality of sound. The title refers to a particular monastery garden, a magical garden in a small Italian mountain village where Tage Nielsen went for walks in the mid-1960s and found inspiration. And although the music is not a ‘picturesque' version of the location, it is not hard to sense how inspiration grew into composition. For in real gardens it is not only the experience of the individual flower or bush that creates the magic, but the gaze out over the composite play of elements. In the same way the individual notes and sounds of Il giardino magico are only parts of greater wholes; not that the parts are unimportant - without them there would be no totality - but they are incomplete without their collectivity.
One could say that the work was composed in expanses consisting of small parts that give the listener an illusion that the music stands still - on the surface - while all the small components, often 30-35 different simultaneous parts, move within. So when one has to describe that is happening in the music, it is necessary to ‘zoom out' from the individual parts and follow the movements in tempo, timbre, character and register formed by the great expanses.
This kind of ‘sheets-of-sound' music had a number of progenitors in the 1960s, with Ligeti and Penderecki as the most famous; but unlike these, who can safely be said to have constantly pursued particular ways of composing them, Tage Nielsen's music is highly varied. Here on the one hand we have passages where the way in which each instrument is doing something different but inconspicuous provides unity; but also places where all the instruments are doing exactly the same thing and thus creating a totality.
Incidentally, this magic garden in the little Italian mountain village was also the scene where Richard Wagner, a good century before, had envisaged Klingsor's enchanted garden in Act Two of Parsifal; and, consciously or unconsciously, reminiscences of the composer's older colleague's peculiarities have crept in: scattered around, one finds incredibly expressive passages where a single part ascends in pitch to give the sound even greater tension - as when Wagner makes his melodies rise a semitone at a time and increases the intensity exponentially with each step.
This is one of Tage Nielsen's absolute masterpieces. In fact it is a piece of pure classical music where the initial notes are developed throughout the work, such that the individual unit is a determined part of the diversity of the work. A passacaglia was originally a Baroque dance with the melody in the bass, and Nielsen does not deny this basis; the introductory, slow, tense chord sequence of the strings - the melody of the passacaglia - is able to define the fundamental character all through the piece. Even in the long central section of the work, where the tempo of the music is mutable in a free narrative style, and where the melody is subjected to a series of interruptions, colourings, inversions etc., it remains intact and as such concludes the work. The music evokes clear associations with the sounds of Expressionist Vienna at the turn of the last century: the compactness of the melodies and the sound-saturation become an expression of a synthesis for Tage Nielsen as a composer, in the sense that the classically simple elegance in melody and form are combined with the expressively inward sonority in a new fully elaborated unity.
The various stages that the music passes through testify to a huge range. Although the work is completely itself all the way through, with a foundation that encompasses all the many changes, the music moves through a large repertoire of dramatic characters where it is difficult not to be impressed by the absolutely intricate detail of the ‘gestures' in the music which can control all these characters: they are excitable, they are claustrophobically tense, and they are delicate and poetic.
Humour takes pride of place in this ‘alternative' piano concert for the orchestra of single instruments known as the sinfonietta. The music is in principle simple, but because of one small rhythmic detail becomes ungraspably complex: the conductor must not conduct the pianist, and the pianist may not look at the conductor. This entails that the elements in the music are constantly shifting in relation to one another, and the points where the parts gather for a culmination lose some of their potency when the pianist has either been there first or comes a few seconds too late. In all its simplicity the music is built up of two layers: the pianist grandly and virtuosically plays something that recalls the flickering supersystematic serialism of the 1950s where all the notes have an equal number of entries, while the other instruments trundle along contouring a steadily descending line of semitones until they arrive at a culmination - and then start up again and again in more or less the same way.
Besides being itself, the work is also an ironic commentary on the slow interactions of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. This extraordinary dimension in the music, this playing with tradition, gives the music a new layer of meaning that is very hard to describe, since instead of being about what is played, it is about what is remembered and known in the mind of the listener.
The title of this work suggests some kind of backward-looking, summarizing character, and in that light Tage Nielsen's music can perhaps be heard in general as a conflictful schism between the controlled composition of musical elements in strict time, and free, lingering music where the individual sounds and timbres are allowed to simply be themselves. For in Retrospect it is precisely these two poles that are thematicized throughout the music; it alternates between passages with a huge, energetic contrapuntal texture and passages of timeless, quiet music where the entries of the instruments have the necessary silence on each side so they can sound as something beautiful in themselves.
It is of course a grand illusion that the quiet sections are free and outside time. Tage Nielsen has taken great pains to create a space of changing times, general pauses and displacements, such that the music is uncountable and therefore has a rubato estremo or perhaps even improvised effect. Just as striking to the ear are the sonority effects on offer in the tight, ‘composed' sections - for example when all the parts in the sinfonietta move in a tissue of different melodic lines - thus creating a unified sound - only to unite afterwards in trills that in fact never culminate but remain textures that expand and contract, rise and fall in tempo.
5 opera fragments (1986-91)
Vladimir Nabokov's novel, and Tage Nielsen's chamber opera, Laughter in the Dark, are about the respectable middle-aged man Albinus, who leaves his wife for a mistress half his age, who like the main character wants to make a name in the world of film in the Berlin of the 1930s. The novel, in short, is a slice of satirical mayhem about desire, deceit and infatuation. The 5 opera fragments are instrumental scenes that try to pin down the life of this decadent Berlin in a far-travelled mixture of musical styles - Expressionism, Romanticism, pop, jazz and cabaret music - in an atmosphere which in Tage Nielsen's own words mainly consists of ironic distance, but where tragedy at the same time lies in wait just around the corner.
The multiplicity of styles is best described by reviewing the five scenic fragments. The first is couched in an aloof, cool modernism with a mix of staccato music, delicately complex sounds and wild gesticulation; the second is a strange cabaret of marches and Vienna Classicism; the third is then by contrast pure ‘ragtime', but with skewed, apparently out-of-tune wind entries that let the listener know that there is more than just the dance-club hubbub under the surface. Albinus' nightmare is the fourth fragment - and fragmented is presumably also the best description of the form of these bad dreams; the music has no overall logical consistency, but makes up for this by being extremely dramatic. The fifth and last fragment is the scene where Albinus dies. It is again highly dramatic, but this time claustrophobically pent-up with a series of spasmodic percussion eruptions before everything gathers for an expiration and a stiffening instant of death.
Henrik Friis, 2004