Carl Nielsen: Songs for choir
01 June 2015
While Sibelius long held a deluded idea of himself as a ‘man of the people’, Nielsen actually was one—in both biological and musical terms. Nearly 300 ‘popular’ songs flowed from Nielsen’s pen: simple, strophic ditties, ‘utility music that serves the framework of community singing’, to quote Jens Cornelius’s essential booklet-note. Young Danes still chirrup these tunes in the classroom; many form the backbone of Den Danske Salme Bog (a sort of Danish New English Hymnal). The fascinating truth about Nielsen’s musical DNA is that he thought these pieces every bit as important as his symphonies and believed that ‘the nucleus is the same in both’.
Certainly, these simple tunes can unlock many a greater truth in Nielsen’s concert works. In that sense they wholly deserve the artistry of Ars Nova Copenhagen, who here sing 20 examples in SATB arrangements by director Michael Bojesen based on the piano accompaniments (three are Nielsen’s own choral settings). It’s open-throated singing that befits the direct intent of the tunes and their typically angular harmonies. Basses take care to tune the downward-stepping bass-lines that can be many a choir’s undoing, while the beautiful tapering of phrase-endings nicely serves the harmonic spice with which Nielsen often twists his stanzas to a close.
There’s a good spread of the naive, the charming, the folksy, the solemn and the humorously down-to-earth, including the touchstone ‘Hvem sidder der bag skærmen’ (‘Jens the road mender’). Like Jens himself—Denmark’s fabled everyman—Ars Nova never draw attention to themselves, though their distinctive Danish vowels and diphthongs are irresistible. Would you want to listen to 20 of these songs so plainly delivered in one sitting? In an anniversary year like this, if you’ve any interest in Nielsen, you should.