The Masterworks Vol. 1 – Orchestral Music
The Masterworks Vol. 1 – Orchestral Music
Carl Nielsen’s symphonies, concertos and other orchestral works are Scandinavia’s most powerful music. “Music is life, and like it inextinguishable,” said Nielsen - himself born and raised in the Danish countryside as the son of poor folk musician, but later recognized as one of the 20th century’s greatest symphonists. This unique collection consists of prizewinning recordings by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, which has preserved the authentic playing style since Carl Nielsen’s time.
The box set contains: 3 CDs, 1 SACD and 2 DVDs
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by Niels Bo Foltmann
Carl (August) Nielsen was born on 9th June 1865 at Sortelung near Nørre Lyndelse on the island of Funen. His father, who was a painter, also worked as a village musician, and as a boy Carl was already playing in his father’s dance orchestra. At the same time he played in the local amateur orchestra, Braga, whose repertoire, besides entertainment and dance -music, also included the symphonies of Vienna Classicism. At the age of just fourteen he was engaged as a trombonist in the regimental band in Odense. Alongside his work as a military musician he played string quartets with his friends and studied Das wohltemperierte Klavier on his own initiative. From these years came his first real attempts at composition – mainly chamber music works in the Classical style.
Thanks to patrons in Odense, Carl Nielsen had the chance to go to Copenhagen, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Music in 1884-86 with the violin as his main subject and the Joachim pupil Valdemar Tofte as his teacher. He was also taught theory (by J.P.E. Hartmann and Orla Rosenhoff), piano (by Gottfred Matthison-Hansen) and music history (by Niels W. Gade). After his years at the Academy he continued his theoretical studies with Rosenhoff and in 1888 he felt ready to publish his opus 1, the Suite for Strings. The next year he was engaged as second violinist in the Royal Orchestra, a position he kept until 1905. In 1890, as recognition of his talent, he was awarded the grant Det -Anckerske Legat, which enabled him to go on a study trip to different places on the Continent. -During this trip, in 1891, he married the sculptress Anne Marie Brodersen, who remained his wife for the rest of his life, although the marriage underwent serious crises in some periods.
In the 1890s Carl Nielsen consolidated his position as one of the country’s promising young composers with works like the First Symphony op. 7 (1890-92), the J.P. Jacobsen songs op. 4 and 6 (1891), the Violin Sonata op. 9 (1895) and the choral work Hymnus amoris (1896-97). The years around the turn of the century further brought two operas, Saul and David (1898-1901) and Masquerade (1904-06), the last of which quickly gained the status of a Danish national opera. From 1901 he was granted a Government salary, which meant that he was no longer forced to take private pupils to keep up the family finances. A few years afterwards he also signed a general contract with the publisher Wilhelm Hansen, who published more or less all his works until 1924.
Alongside his composing career Carl Nielsen was to hold several important posts in Danish musical life. In the period 1908-14 he conducted at the Royal Theatre, then from 1915 until 1927 he conducted the concerts of the society Musikforeningen. In 1915 he was elected to the board of trustees of the Royal Academy, where he also taught theory and composition from 1915 until 1919. Finally he was on the boards of the Danish Composers’ Society and the Society for the Publication of Danish Music.
From the earliest works on, Carl Nielsen’s compositions were permeated by a Classicist aesthetic which deliberately avoided any element of Late Romanticism. But in the course of the 1910s and 1920s he oriented himself more towards the new currents in European music. Little by little he now worked several modernist elements into his music, but without at any time abandoning his very characteristic personal style. This development is very clear in the last three symphonies, no. 4 (1914-16), no. 5 (1920-22) and no. 6 (1924-25). Alongside the increasingly modernist instrumental works Nielsen worked, with his friend Thomas Laub for example, to reform the Danish national song tradition. This resulted in a number of collections of simple strophic songs where he deliberately tried to perpetuate the ideals of J.A.P. Schulz’ Lieder im Volkston (1784).
Carl Nielsen had a distinctive literary talent which resulted in the childhood memoirs Min fynske barndom (My Childhood on Funen) which is amazingly objective and unsentimental, and the essay collection Levende musik (Living Music), where his anti-Romantic aesthetics were clearly expressed.
In later years Nielsen suffered from a weak heart, and he died on 3rd October 1931 after a heart attack, 66 years old.
Symphony no. 1, op. 7 by Peter Hauge
It is hard to say exactly when Carl Nielsen began work on his first symphony. No complete draft is preserved, only rough drafts and sketches. He probably began as early as 1889-90. This is confirmed by among other things the fact that in the draft and sketches for the F minor quartet (op. 5), which was performed for the first time in Berlin in December 1890, there is a short motif, which was later used in the G minor symphony, Symphony No. 1. -Although Nielsen says in his diary in January 1891 that he has now begun on an andante “in D flat major for the symphony” possibly corresponding to the D flat major second subject in the Allegro orgoglioso, it was probably only when he had returned from his travels abroad in the summer of 1891 that he began the real work on the symphony.
In 1893 Johan Svendsen promised to perform the new work in the coming season, although Nielsen had not finished it. At any rate he had progressed no further than feeling that he had no problem rejecting the second subject of the final movement, since it was “too slender for the first subject”. Despite heart problems that had arisen during the move to Frederiksgade 5 in the autumn of 1893, and a resulting stay in hospital of 20 days, in December Carl Nielsen was able to finish the fair copy of the first three movements, while the fair copy of the final movement was only finished in mid-January of the New Year.
The symphony was given its first performance on 14th March 1894 at “the Koncertpalæ by the whole Royal Orchestra and the best musicians outside the Orchestra under the baton of Johan Svendsen”, as the young composer proudly wrote in his diary. The next day the reviewer on the newspaper Politiken, Charles Kjerulf, wrote an extremely laudatory, enthusiastic and poetic review (please note that Carl Nielsen later changed the names of the movements):
From the first to the last note this work engages ear and mind equally. And yet – not in the sense that there is any breakthrough, that all Carl Nielsen’s powers are here at once crystallized in fixed forms, blocks and bricks of notes, from which with a firm hand and assured architecture an enduring edifice rises.
What this symphony or just this music “represents” or “is supposed to mean”, no one, perhaps least of all Carl Nielsen himself, is likely to say. At all events it “represents” no more than a painting with sea and air alone, but for all that this is also more than enough.
In this music there are the finest effects of light – cloud shadows hastening over flowing water. The sun breaks forth and the sun hides. Waves tower up and subside again. There are the eternally shifting moods of an easily moved human mind, from tears to smiles, from weeping to laughter. Eyes sparkle and eyes become dewy, the heart beats with joy and is crushed by torment. And all this is given enchanting expression in music, bold and yet undemonstrative, flashy and yet refined.
This symphony is a whole marvellous and captivating series of moods, so airy and easily flowing that one almost thinks the mere generic designation is a burden upon it. A work from which there already flashes a summer lightning of talent and which seems to promise a coming storm of genius.
Unquiet and ruthless in harmony and modulation, yet all so wonderfully innocent and unconscious, as if one saw a child play with dynamite. And what is most important: genuine and with no pretence whatsoever from start to finish, an accurate and faithful expression of this quite distinct, unusual young artistic personality.
Quite captivating was the second movement, an Andante sostenuto, as quiet and dreaming as the scent of clover. It was also heard with that indescribable awe which far more clearly than loud applause spread the confirmed opinion over the whole hall; none of our young composers had hitherto written such a valuable and significant piece of new music as this […]
But both in the introductory movement, an Allegro which rightly bore the designation “proud” and in a whimsically formed third movement, Allegro piacevole, which the designation explicitly protected from being perceived as a Scherzo, and then in a Finale appassionata, there was so much spirit and power, so much new and distinctive, fine and fertile, that no one could be in any doubt that Carl Nielsen has here, in the most beautiful and convincing way, honoured the many great promises of the past.
And when this, his G minor symphony, ended so naturally and straightforwardly, as if there was no grain of defiance, in a bright C major chord, the applause thundered out, and the youthful composer, from his modest second violin desk, had to come forward a whole three times to the side of the radiantly happy Johan Svendsen to thank the audience personally for the enthusiastic acclaim. Such a feelingful concert moment is something one only experiences at intervals of many years […]
The quotation suggests that the frequent claim that Charles Kjerulf was extremely critical of Carl Nielsen’s compositions until he heard the performance of the Fourth Symphony in 1916 must be reconsidered. There can be no doubt that Kjerulf was enchanted by the First Symphony.
Common to quite a few of the articles is the fact that they find the motifs of the first movement “a little breathless”, or that they suffer from “a certain shortness of breath”, which shows that even in the First Symphony Carl Nielsen’s style deviates from the more Lied-like themes of many Romantic composers. The second movement appears to have been the one that aroused most attention, while the third movement seems to have been perceived as less personal and more lustreless. The most critical review is however to be found in Dagbladet (the same review appeared in Dagens Nyheder and Nationaltidende), written by Angul Hammerich:
Mr. Carl Nielsen had the honour of making his debut at this place with a new symphony. It has been written with a decidedly radical tendency, somewhat in the style of César Franck’s things. What it otherwise adds or does not add, it would be impossible to have any opinion about, without looking at it in much more detail. At first glance one notes a number of effective ascents, well adapted closes, which attune the restless content to harmonically functioning cadences, and further many peculiarities and non-significant motifs.
Hammerich concludes: “The concert was not a musical evening that came up to expectations”.
In mid-October 1894 Carl Nielsen went to Germany, to among other places Berlin, where along with Alfred Wilhelm Hansen from the publishers Wilhelm Hansen he tried to launch a major campaign in favour of his most recent works. Carl Nielsen also went to Vienna, where he met Brahms and among other things presented him with a copy of the symphony. Unfortunately Brahms apparently never gave any indication of what he thought about the young Danish composer’s work. Nielsen’s very determined promotion, which to some extent aroused the indignation of his old teacher in composition Orla Rosenhoff, was probably the most important reason why the symphony was performed several times in Germany over the next few years. According to Carl Nielsen the German conductor, composer and pianist Jean Louis Nicodé does not appear to have understood much of the work; nevertheless he did show so much interest in it that Carl Nielsen was allowed to conduct the symphony at the first orchestral concert that Nicodé held in Dresden in 1896.
In his diary Carl Nielsen wrote that it was not as great a success in Dresden as it had been in Copenhagen; all the same he listed the number of times he had been called up to the stage. He was further convinced that the symphony’s “concise form and precise mode of expression […] both amazed and appealed to people”, and that “such a piece will be able to do some good and open ears and eyes to all the German gravy and fat among Wagner’s imitators”. In Denmark and Sweden too the work was performed innumerable times during the lifetime of the composer.
A recurring feature of the reviews of the work during Carl Nielsen’s lifetime is an emphasis on the work’s “succinct form” and “precise expression” – which should probably be understood as the concise form and the brief, non-Lied-like phrasing. This was also emphasized in exactly the same words by Nielsen himself in 1896, when he contrasted it with the “German gravy and fat”. The idea is also suggested in a letter the composer wrote to the Swedish conductor, composer and pianist Wilhelm Stenhammar in 1910, where he hoped that the “weak and far too lyrical aspects” could be disregarded. Thus Carl Nielsen is saying indirectly that the important thing is precisely to keep a firm grip on the form and the shorter phrasings. Precisely these important aspects of the work are clarified in a longish review by Julius Rabe in connection with a performance of the symphony in Gothenburg in 1918. Rabe’s discussion is important, because Carl Nielsen replied very positively and even agreed with Rabe’s characterization. The first symphony, which is very rigorously structured according to the classical musical forms, is according to Rabe an expression of “a clear will to form, of an unconditional dissociation from all that does not directly serve the expression through its formal value”. Like Nielsen himself, Rabe in particular involves Wagner in the discussion as an opposite pole where the Wagnerian “gravy and fat” – according to Rabe for example the contentless accompaniment figures like tremoli in the strings – are conspicuously absent from Carl Nielsen’s work. By contrast Nielsen’s counterpoint is in “every detail the bearer of a constructive idea, serving not sonorous sensuality but the tension of the architecture, the logic of development”. What Carl Nielsen considered essential in the symphony (but what he apparently thought in 1910 in the letter to Stenhammar could be done better), was also what was noticed at the premiere in 1894 and what later became a part of his musical personality.
Despite these views there were several conductors who felt prompted to revise the work – not in terms of basic substance or form, but in terms of interpretation. In 1918 Carl Nielsen’s son-in-law Emil Telmányi reviewed in particular the dynamics, articulation and phrasing, very probably in consultation with the composer; and in 1928 the conductor and composer Ebbe Hamerik made similar revisions and reworked a passage in the final movement, also with the approval of Carl Nielsen.
It is thought-provoking that Telmányi and Hamerik for example considered it necessary to make extensive changes and additions in the phrasing, dynamics and articulation. The reason may be that the work was far less thoroughly worked through by the composer than one sees in works published earlier. But Telmányi’s and Hamerik’s revisions may also reflect the considerable changes in performance practice and musical ideals between the time of the first performance in 1894, when Johan Svendsen conducted more or less without additions of any kind, and the end of the 1920s, when the playing style entailed a far higher degree of detail, especially in the notation of articulation and dynamics – a development Carl Nielsen presumably accepted, since on at least one occasion (26th February 1928) he appears to have used Ebbe Hamerik’s revised material.
There can be no doubt that Carl Nielsen respected and accepted Hamerik’s revisions and reworking of a passage in the fourth movement, but there is no basis for thinking that the composer actually preferred the new version to his original one.
Symphony No. 2, op. 16 – The Four Temperaments by Niels Bo Foltmann
The years around the turn of the century were a very fruitful period in Carl Nielsen’s life: the opera Saul and David, the Second Symphony and major occasional works like a cantata for the Students’ Union were created in this period.
He began to work on the Second Symphony, The Four Temperaments, while the work on Saul and David was still in progress. The first movement was finished on 28th December 1901, but after this the composition made slow progress. On 21st August Nielsen wrote to his friend, the pianist Henrik Knudsen that “the original idea was that the Sanguine type [fourth movement] would come sweeping in one day. I still have no idea of the form the beast will take; a couple of attempts I have made can only be called laughable. But I suppose it will come. The Phlegmatic [second movement] now has a fine tail on him, and is thus quite finished and won’t get any better in this round.”
As was often the case, Carl Nielsen only finished his work at the last moment; the fourth movement has the end date 22nd November 1902. Only a week later he personally conducted the first performance of The Four Temperaments in a concert at the society Dansk Koncertforening on 1st December 1902, just three days after he had conducted the premiere of Saul and David at the Royal Theatre. Dansk Koncertforening had been founded in 1900 at the initiative of Nielsen and others with the aim of performing new works by Danish composers.
The symphony was well received by the audience, and the press in general was positive about the work. Yet it was clear that most of the reviewers had a rather ambivalent attitude to Nielsen’s music. His indisputable talent was acknowledged, but there was some incomprehension of his symphonic style, which they described with words like knotty, odd and bizarre. The attitude is clear, for example, from Leopold Rosenfeld’s review in Dannebrog, which said among other things: “Carl Nielsen’s new work should I suppose rather be called a suite of moods for orchestra than designated as what we understand by a symphony. But aside from the name, this new work by the highly fêted composer again bears favourable testimony to its author’s uncommon ability to give expression to characteristic sound painting through a considerable orchestral technique. Whether one really dares call these ingeniously constructed orchestral sounds music is another question again. What is especially captivating about these musical illustrations is the composer’s ability to mix colours, which neglects no opportunity to exercise the listening ear. Sometimes, though, the colours are very brutal and in their crudeness easily cross the aesthetic line.”
Just under a month after the first performance, the manuscript of a piano duet arrangement of The Four Temperaments was available, drawn up by Henrik Knudsen. In January 1903 Carl Nielsen and Henrik Knudsen went on a short trip to Germany to stir up interest in the new symphony and Saul and David. Together they played the symphony for the Director‑General of Music in Dresden, Ernst von Schuch, who does not however seem to have been interested. Later, in Berlin, they showed it to Ferruccio Busoni, with whom Carl Nielsen had made friends as early as 1891. Busoni took an interest in the work and promised to put it on the programme in the series of concerts of new and rarely heard music that he was giving at this time with the Berlin Philharmonic, and it was probably out of gratitude for this that Nielsen dedicated the work to Busoni.
On 5th November 1903 the symphony was performed in Berlin; Busoni left it to the composer himself to conduct his work. Carl Nielsen gave an account in a letter to his wife Anne Marie [2.11.1903]: “Today we rehearsed. I went through the symphony without going into detail, and got the impression that it aroused a good deal of interest from this blasé orchestra. Busoni has told me that his concerts are lambasted on principle by the press. That’s nice! Well, I suppose it will work out.”
[3.11.1903]: “Today I have been rehearsing again. The orchestra is becoming more and more interested in my symphony, I can clearly feel that. The press situation here is said to be so bad that Messrs. Critics only listen to five minutes of a concert and then go home and run it all down. Busoni says that we will all be lambasted, and since my concert only comes half an hour into the programme, I can be quite safe in that sense, since they will then have gone off without hearing a note of it. That’s funny!”
As expected, the symphony was given a very cool reception by the Berlin press, and the concert was by no means the breakthrough for Nielsen on the German music scene that he had hoped for – a setback that he in fact took very much to heart. On the other hand, the symphony had a predominantly positive reception the next year when it was reviewed in the German music periodical Signale für die musikalische Welt.
Despite the rather unsuccessful Berlin performance, The Four Temperaments quickly became one of Carl Nielsen’s best loved orchestral works, and in the period 1905‑28 the composer himself conducted at least 13 performances in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Germany. In the same period the symphony was also performed in London under Sir Henry Wood, in Paris by Frederik Schnedler‑Petersen, and in Leyden, Rotterdam and Riga.
Shortly before his death in 1931 Carl Nielsen was asked to write programme notes for the work in connection with an upcoming performance in Stockholm. This resulted in the following description of the symphony and its origins:
“I had the idea for ‘The Four Temperaments’ many years ago at a country inn in Zealand. On the wall of the room where I was drinking a glass of beer with my wife and some friends hung an extremely comical coloured picture, divided into four sections in which ‘the Temperaments’ were represented and furnished with titles: ‘The Choleric’, ‘The Sanguine’, ‘The Melancholi’ and ‘The Phlegmatic’. The Choleric was on horseback. He had a long sword in his hand, which he was wielding fiercely in thin air; his eyes were bulging out of his head, his hair streamed wildly around his face, which was so distorted by rage and diabolical hate that I could not help bursting out laughing. The other three pictures were in the same style, and my friends and I were heartily amused by the naiveté of the pictures, their exaggerated expression and their comic earnestness. But how strangely things can sometimes turn out! I, who had laughed aloud and mockingly at these pictures, returned constantly to them in my thoughts, and one fine day I realized that these shoddy pictures still contained a kind of core or idea and – just think! – even a musical undercurrent! Some time later, then, I began to work out the first movement of a symphony, but I had to be careful that it did not fence in the empty air, and I hoped of course that my listeners would not laugh so that the irony of fate would smite my soul. I tried to raise the idea of the pictures to a different plane, and now – since that is what is wanted – I will give a modest explanation of my Symphony No. 2, ‘The Four Temperaments’, op. 16.
The first movement, Allegro collerico, immediately sets in fiercely with the following motif (see No. 1), which is developed with a later small motif (No. 2) in the clarinet, and rises to a fanfare that leads into the second subject (No. 3), which sings very espressivo but is soon interrupted again by extremely turbulent figures and rhythmic thrusts. After a fermata the second subject sings ƒ and expresses itself with greater breadth and power, which gradually wanes, then the modulation section begins, working with the motifs described above, now wildly and violently, like a person almost carried away, now in a gentler mood like one who regrets his irascibility. At the end comes a coda (stretto) with intense passages in the strings, and the movement ends with the same character as it began.
The second movement was conceived as the complete opposite of the first. I do not like programme music, but it may still interest my listeners that when I was working out this piece of music, something like this happened: A young man appeared to me. He seems to have been his mother’s only son. The mother was nice and amiable, she was a widow and she loved him. He too was extraordinarily nice, and everyone liked him. He was 17‑18 years old, his eyes were sky‑blue, confident and large. At school he was loved by all, but the teachers were at the same time dismayed and gently resigned; for he had never learned his lessons; but it was impossible to scold him, for everything that exists of idyll and Paradise in nature was reflected in this young man, so one was completely disarmed. Was he merry or serious, was he lively or slow in his movements? He was none of these! His inmost nature was there where the birds sing, where the fish glide silently through the water, where the sun warms and the wind gently brushes ones locks. He was blond; his expression could be described as happy, but not self‑satisfied, rather with a small touch of quiet melancholy, so you felt an urge to be kind to him. When the air shimmered in the heat he usually lay on the pier at the harbour with his legs out over the edge. I have never seen him dance; he was too inactive for that, but he might well rock his hips in a slow waltz rhythm (No. 4) and it is in this character that I have completed the movement Allegro comodo è flemmatico and tried to maintain a state of mind that is as far from energy, ‘Gefühl’ and similar feelings as is really possible.
Only once does it rise to an f (No. 5). What happened? Did a barrel fall in the water from one of the ships in the harbour and disturb the young man as he lay dreaming on the jetty? Who knows? But no matter: a brief moment, and all is calm; the young man falls asleep, nature dozes, and the water is again as smooth as a large mirror (No. 6).
The third movement attempts to express the basic character of a grave, melancholy person, but here as always in the world of music, a title or a programme is only a hint. What the composer wants is less significant than what the music, on its own terms, from its inmost being, demands and requires.
After one and a half bars of introduction the following theme begins (No. 7) and is drawn heavily towards an intense burst of pain ( ƒ ); then the oboe enters with a small, plangent, sighing motif (No. 8) which gradually develops into something immense and ends in a climax of woe and pain. After a short transitional passage comes a milder, resigned episode in E flat major (No. 9). A long, rather static thematic development now follows, and finally the parts enmesh like the strings of a net, and everything fades out; then the first theme suddenly breaks out again in full force, and now all the different motifs sing with interruptions, and the end approaches, falling calm with the following motif (No. 10).
In the finale, Allegro sanguineo, I have tried to evoke the basic character of a person who storms thoughtlessly on in the belief that the whole world belongs to him and that roast pigeons fly into his mouth without work and care (No. 11). There is however a brief minute when he becomes afraid of something, and he gasps for breath for a moment in violent syncopations (No. 12); but this is soon forgotten, and although the music now goes into a minor key, his happy, rather shallow nature is still manifested (No. 13).
Just once, though, it seems that he has encountered something really serious; at least he meditates over something that is alien to his own nature (No. 14), and it seems to affect him, so that while the final march may be happy and bright, it is still more dignified and not as silly and smug as some of his previous bursts of activity (No. 15).”
Symphony No. 3, op. 27 – Sinfonia espansiva by Niels Bo Foltmann
After he had finished the Second Symphony (1902) no fewer than eight years passed before Carl Nielsen again turned to the demanding symphonic genre. In the intervening period he mainly composed theatre music and occasional cantatas, undoubtedly because in 1908-12 he was employed as a conductor at the Royal Theatre, so he only had limited time for composing. It has been said that Carl Nielsen brooded long over the first movement of the Third Symphony. Then at last he got the idea for the main subject one day while he was in a tram, and having no music paper he notated the theme on his sleeve. The first movement was finished on 13th April 1910, after which the work on the symphony had to be put aside for a while so he could write the music for the play Hagbarth and Signe, which was to be finished for an open‑air production in June. At the beginning of July he took up the symphony again, and the second movement was created during a summer holiday at Damgaard near Fredericia. After this the work at the Royal Theatre again led to a break in the composition process, and it was not until well into the autumn that he had the time and energy to go to work on the last two movements, which were composed in very difficult conditions, where Carl Nielsen could by and large only work on the symphony in the nighttime hours after the theatre closed. The third and fourth movements were finished on 14th January and 30th April 1911 respectively.
The symphony was now set aside for just under a year before it was premiered at Carl Nielsen’s ‘Symphony Concert of New Compositions’ in the Odd Fellow Concert Hall in Copenhagen on 28th February 1912, a concert that also featured the first performance of Carl Nielsen’s Violin Concerto, op. 33, composed in 1911, immediately after the Third Symphony. The concert was a great success and represented a turning‑point for the reception of Carl Nielsen’s works in Danish public music criticism. Indeed, one could even speak of Carl Nielsen’s final breakthrough, since his music had hitherto often been regarded as cool, academic and artificial. Characteristic of this change in attitude was Charles Kjerulf’s review in the newspaper Politiken, which said:
“Yesterday evening friends and opponents of Carl Nielsen’s art – but perhaps most of all those who are both – had to rejoice in this work, which was genuinely Carl Nielsenesque in all its strange mixture of naiveté and refinement, humour and lyricism, violence and grace … but which, unlike so much else of Carl Nielsen’s before, was solidly constructed, -balanced and refreshingly free of all irrelevant experimentation. It was at last the fully mature artistic personality that emerged here; the last traces of – if I may say so – the musical ‘awkward age’ had been knocked off, and one had the man and the artist, with his virtues and faults, but such as he happens to be, and such as certainly will not change – on this earth. The first wholly and fully ripe apple from his tree.”
On 28th April 1912, at the urging of Carl Nielsen’s good friend the Dutch composer Julius Röntgen, and just two months after the world premiere, he conducted a successful performance of his Third Symphony in Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Later Carl Nielsen conducted the symphony in Stuttgart, Berlin, Helsinki, Stockholm and Gothenburg, as well as repeatedly in Copenhagen, for example in the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s first symphony concert on 14th January 1927. During Carl Nielsen’s lifetime the symphony was also performed with other conductors in Berlin, Hamburg, London and Gothenburg. At Carl Nielsen’s funeral in Copenhagen Cathedral on 9th October 1931 the slow movement, Andante pastorale, was played.
As was the case with the Second Symphony, Carl Nielsen himself several times wrote the programme notes for the Third Symphony; the last time for a concert in Stockholm in March 1931, where he wrote as follows:
“The work is the result of many kinds of forces. The first movement was meant as a gust of energy and life‑affirmation blown out into the wide world, which we human beings would not only like to get to know in its multiplicity of activities, but also to conquer and make our own. The second movement is the absolute opposite: the purest idyll, and when the human voices are heard at last, it is only to underscore the peaceful mood that one could imagine in Paradise before the Fall of our First Parents, Adam and Eve. The third movement is a thing that cannot really be described, because both evil and good are manifested without any real settling of the issue. By contrast, the finale is perfectly straightforward: a hymn to work and the healthy activity of everyday life. Not a gushing homage to life, but a certain expansive happiness about being able to participate in the work of life and the day and to see activity and ability manifested on all sides around us.”
Originally the Third Symphony had no by-name, but shortly after the first performance Carl Nielsen gave the work the designation Sinfonia espansiva, a by‑name referring to the tempo given for the first movement, Allegro espansivo.
Symphony No. 4, op. 29 – The Inextinguishable by Claus Røllum-Larsen
Carl Nielsen began work on his fourth symphony, The Inextinguishable, in the summer of 1914. He had by then left the burdensome position as conductor at the Royal Theatre with a view to having more time to compose. On 3rd May 1914 he wrote in a letter to his wife, the sculptress Anne Marie:
“I have an idea for a new work which has no programme, but which is to express what we understand by Life Urge or Life Expression – that is, everything that moves, that has the will to life, that cannot be called either bad or good, high or low, large or small, but simply ‘That which is life’ or ‘That which has the will to life’ – you understand, no particular idea of anything ‘magnificent’ or anything ‘fine and delicate’ or warm or cold (violent perhaps) but just life and motion, yet different, very different, but in a context, and sort of constantly flowing, in one great movement in one flow.
I must have a word or a short title that says this; that will be enough.”
From the outset Carl Nielsen had wanted to make the music appear as itself, and thus not only symbolize, but to be an example of the elementary will to life. In order not to be tied down by the traditional types of musical form, he was prepared from an early stage to merge the four movements of the traditional symphony type together in one uninterrupted flow. Liszt’s Sonata in B minor is said to have prompted this idea.
The work on the symphony did not proceed without difficulties, but on 4th May 1915 Nielsen could write to his friend, the Dutch pianist and composer Julius Röntgen, that he
“will soon have a new symphony finished. It is very different from my three others, and it is based on a particular idea: that the most elementary essence of music is light, life and movement, which chop the silence into pieces. In other words it is all that has the will and the urge to life that cannot be kept down. Not in the sense of demeaning my art to mere nature imitation, but of letting it try to express what lies behind. The calls of the birds, the cries of sadness and joy of animals and human beings, their hungry murmurings and shouting, fighting and mating, and whatever all the most elementary things are called.”
On 14th January 1916, the composer noted in his diary that the new symphony was finished. But there now remained the writing-out of the parts, and it was only five days before the concert at the society Musikforeningen that the last proofs of the parts were read. Carl Nielsen himself conducted the first performance of The Inextinguishable on 1st February 1916 in the large concert hall of the Odd Fellow Palæ.
The thoughts Carl Nielsen had expressed in a number of letters formed the basis for the note he had printed in the programme for the first performance. In its entirety it reads:
“The composer, in using the title The Inextinguishable, has attempted to suggest in a single word what only the music itself has the power to express fully: the elementary will to life.
Faced with a task like this – to express life abstractly, where the other arts stand without resources, forced to go roundabout ways, to extract, to symbolize – there and only there is music at home in its primal region, in its element, simply because by being itself it has performed its task. For it is life there, where the others only represent and write about life. Life is indomitable and inextinguishable; the struggle, the wrestling, the generation and the wasting away go on today as yesterday, tomorrow as today, and everything returns.
Once more: music is life, and like it inextinguishable. For that reason the word that the composer has set above his work might seem superfluous; however, he has used it to emphasize the strict musical character of his task. No programme, but a signpost into music’s own domain.”
In general the symphony was positively received by the reviewers. Carl Nielsen’s pupil Emilius Bangert wrote that
“a major work of Danish music – indeed, let us boldly say of European music – has been created here. Allow that the great nature composers – like Reger, Strauss, Saint-Saëns and Debussy – may be more skilled in handling music and more assured devotees of beauty than Carl Nielsen; yet they are as if bound by the thought and emotion of our age. Carl Nielsen has a far deeper feeling for the source, his musical nature grows out of a primal era when man was greater and stronger in both inner and outer power.”
Over the next few years The Inextinguishable was performed several times, also abroad. It is thought-provoking to see how the composer’s programme note still aroused wonder and uncomprehending expressions from many of the reviewers, both Danish and foreign. Several reviewers considered that Nielsen should either have made the thought-content of the work more specific or wholly refrained from writing the accompanying programme note.
As mentioned above, the symphony has an uninterrupted succession of movements, which do however fall into four sections corresponding to the traditional four movements of the symphony type. After the chaotic introduction the cantabile second subject is introduced, and it will prove to be the bearing idea of the work. The first section concludes with a hymnic version in the full orchestra of this subject, followed by a transition to the second section. The character of this contrasts strongly with the first section, almost anticipating the pastoral feel of Carl Nielsen’s wind quintet. The third section is characterized by a broad melodic motion in the strings, which is interrupted by an expressive violin solo. In what follows the situation becomes tenser as the two subjects of the section are pitted against each other. After a violent culmination, the headlong flow falls calmer and a spirited string passage leads over into the fourth section, which is introduced by a broadly singing melody in 3/4 time. This is interrupted several times by duels for the two timpani sets of the orchestra. The music works up to an infernal climax where an imitative passage in the strings passes into the final culmination, an apotheosis where the second subject of the first section crowns the symphony.
With its radical questioning of the Late Romantic symphony type, The Inextinguishable has situated itself as one of Carl Nielsen’s most original and uncompromising works. There can be no doubt that the symphony bears strong marks of having been conceived against the backdrop of the horror and cruelty of the First World War – which affected Carl Nielsen greatly – just as the marital crisis he was undergoing at this time has found expression in the work. But if we are to take the composer at his word, and we have every reason to do so, the symphony depicts, as few other works do, the most elementary forces of life; that is, something eternal. This delving down to the foundations is beautifully expressed in the title of the work.
Symphony No. 5, op. 50 by Michael Fjeldsøe
In the years up to 1920, when Carl Nielsen began work on his Fifth Symphony, he several times harked back to his Fourth Symphony when he had to explain how music was able to paint a picture of the mighty forces of nature. In music as in nature, a small shoot can develop into a large organism, but there are also strong, destructive forces of nature that can sweep the whole away again. Carl Nielsen’s description of this musical force of nature, which he gave in a letter to Julius Röntgen on 15th February 1920, applied to the Fourth Symphony, but can also be read as a description of the starting-point for the Fifth Symphony, which begins from nothing, and which had the working title Vegetatio, that is, something that grows:
“The music should express the manifestation of the most elementary forces of all among human beings, animals, even plants. We can say that if the whole world were destroyed by fire, flood, volcanoes, etc., and all living things were destroyed and died, still Nature would again begin to breed new life, begin to push forward with the strong and fine forces that are in matter itself.”
That is how the Fifth Symphony begins.
Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony was composed in the years 1920-1922. The work on the first movement had begun in October 1920, when Carl Nielsen was also working to complete the music for Helge Rode’s play Moderen (The Mother). At this time he was staying at Damgaard near Fredericia, where he had hired a piano so he could work on “a largish thing I have to do, which is making rapid progress just now”, as he wrote in a letter of 8th October to Johannes Nielsen, the director of the Royal Theatre. This ‘largish thing’ was the Fifth Symphony.
In the spring of 1921 Carl Nielsen spent much of his time at a house called Højbo in Tibberup, near Humlebæk, which had been lent to him by the couple Vera and Carl Johan Michaelsen, to whom he dedicated the symphony. They were very interested in Carl Nielsen’s music and gave him much support in this period. This was where he finished the first movement at the beginning of March 1921. On 4th March he wrote to his wife Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen that the first movement was finished, and on 30th March he reported that the fair copy of the movement was also finished; but he could not get started on the second movement.
“At present I have come to a halt in my symphony and have a rather strong feeling that my old abilities are failing me.”
In the summer of 1921 Carl Nielsen broke off the work on the symphony because he had promised to write a work to a text by Aage Berntsen. This work, Springtime on Funen op. 42, was finished on 30th August 1921, and on 3rd September he wrote to Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen: “Now I am going to go on with my interrupted symphony”. The work continued until the fair copy score of the symphony, after a huge effort, was finished on 15th January 1922.
The symphony was given its first performance with the composer as conductor at the -music society Musikforeningen in Copenhagen on 24th January 1922. Carl Nielsen was aware that the symphony was not easy to play, but the orchestra made careful preparations. Five rehearsals were held instead of the usual three, and there is no doubt that the symphony was the major work of the evening to which everyone was looking forward. On the day the newspaper Politiken had featured both an advance notice with a report from the rehearsals, predicting success, and an interview with the composer, where Nielsen spoke about the symphony, which unlike the previous ones had no title:
“My first symphony was nameless too. But then came “The Four Temperaments”, “Espansiva” and “The Inextinguishable”, actually just different names for the same thing, the only thing that music in the final analysis can express: the resting powers as opposed to the active ones. If I were to find a name for this, my new fifth symphony, it would express something similar. I have been unable to get hold of the one word that is at the same time characteristic and not too pretentious – so I let it be.”
“But the idea or thought that lies behind it?”
“Yes, how should I explain it? I roll a stone up a hill, use the energy I have in me to get the stone up to a high point. And there the stone lies still. The energy is tied up in it – until I give it a kick, and the same energy is released and the stone rolls down again.
But you just mustn’t see this as a programme!
These explanations and instructions for what the music “represents” can only be bad, they distract the listeners and spoil the absolute grasp of the work.
This time I have changed the form and I am content with two parts instead of the usual four movements. I’ve thought so much about this – that in the old symphonic form you usually said most of what you had on your mind in the first allegro. Then came the calm andante, which functioned as a contrast, but then it’s the scherzo, where you get up too high again and spoil the mood for the finale, where the ideas have all too often run out.
I shouldn’t wonder if Beethoven felt that in his “Ninth”, when he got some assistance from the human voice towards the end!
So what I have done this time is divided the symphony into two large, broad parts – the first, which begins slowly and calmly, and the second, more active. I’ve been told that my new symphony isn’t like my earlier ones. I can’t hear it myself. But perhaps it’s true. I do know that it isn’t all that easy to grasp, nor all that easy to play. We’ve had many rehearsals of it. Some people have even thought that now Arnold Schönberg can pack his bags and take a walk with his disharmonies. Mine were worse. I don’t think so.”
This was not meant as an attack on Schönberg, as was evident from the end of the interview, where Carl Nielsen described Schönberg as a thoroughly honest musician whose music he considered excellent insofar as he understood it; and he therefore assumed that what he did not understand was also good. Schönberg was more likely mentioned to prepare the public for the fact that there were places in the Fifth Symphony that sounded unusual and harsh, and which broke with the traditional view of harmony.
And there are indeed places in the Fifth Symphony that were unusual for their time, especially as regards the percussion. In particular, the solo of the snare drum is notable for its radicality: it plays in its own tempo independently of the rest of the orchestra, and the fact that it is explicitly meant to be in audible conflict with the orchestra is evident from Carl Nielsen’s instructions in the score: The drummer plays in his own tempo, as if he must at all costs disturb the music. After a few bars it is up to the drummer to improvise the rest of the cadenza.
That Carl Nielsen meant this seriously can be seen from a letter to Wilhelm Furtwängler, written on Christmas Day 1926, where Carl Nielsen was giving an account of his experiences with the drum solo:
“For in earlier performances it has emerged that the drummer is always afraid of abandoning himself fully from the point […] where he plays in free time. He must be absolutely absorbed [in] wanting to ruin the singing [in] the orchestra with all sorts of figures and now begin π < fƒ > and now ƒƒ > π […] and whatever he can think of. Still, I ask you to agree with the man that sometimes he must hold pauses.”
The first performance was a great success, and the reviews were positive. The reviewers immediately accepted the first movement, while they were more hesitant about the second part of the symphony. August Felsing’s review in the periodical Musik is characteristic: “Intellectual art is what the second part is, and it is a master who speaks. But the pact with the eternal in art which shines forth in the first part is broken here.”
In the years to come the symphony had an impressive number of performances. Within the first six years it was performed in nine places abroad and at further two concerts in Copenhagen: after the first performance Carl Nielsen conducted it in 1922 in Gothenburg and Berlin; in 1924 it was performed in Stockholm (Georg Schnéevoigt), and in both 1923 (F. Snedler-Petersen) and 1925 (Carl Nielsen) it was performed in Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen on the composer’s birthday. In 1926 it was performed in Paris (Emil Telmányi) and Oslo (Carl Nielsen), and in 1927 Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted it at the ISCM Music Days in Frankfurt am Main and in Leipzig. In the same year it was performed in Königsberg (Jascha Horenstein) and finally it was performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam under Pierre Monteux.
Symphony No. 6 – Sinfonia semplice by Thomas Michelsen
Carl Nielsen composed his Sixth Symphony in the years 1924-25, when he was about sixty years old. In the course of 1922 his heart problems had taken a serious turn and he was -diagnosed with angina pectoris. The condition left its mark on his output. In the subsequent period he had to take medical advice and cut down on work activity, and sometimes rest completely. He was also forbidden to smoke and had to spend time at health resorts.
Besides his work on the school songbook Danmark he mainly composed vocal music from mid-1922 until mid-1924. But his summer holiday in 1924, which he spent at his house in Skagen, where despite his illness he learned to drive a car, strengthened and encouraged him, and in August he went to work on his first major work after the Fifth Symphony and the Wind Quintet – the Sixth Symphony.
On 12th August, in a letter to his daughter Anne Marie, he wrote of his vision of the symphony, which at that time he envisaged as being: “quite idyllic in character; that is, quite beyond all time-bound taste and fashion, but simply fine and inward musical abandonment to the tones in the same way as the old a cappella musicians, yet still with the resources of our time – what do I know, when I still only feel it loosely and as an obscure urge to do something along those lines?”
Carl Nielsen was able to enddate the first movement 20th November 1924, and one senses precisely a light, bright mood like the one described here at beginning of the symphony. In a letter of 22nd October to his friend and patron Carl Johan Michaelsen the composer still imagines his symphony as uncomplicated, although he dare not say anything definitive about the result:
“I am coming along well with my new symphony; as far as I can see it will in the main be of a different character from my others: more amiable, flowing or what should I say – yet it is not good to say, since I do not know what currents may arise during the voyage.”
That other currents did arise can be heard in the further course of the symphony. A good month later, on 30th November, he is still making good headway with the work, and on 28th January 1925 he can tell his son-in-law Emil Telmányi that the second movement, the humoresque, is finished. After an interruption, among other things in the form of a combined concert and recreation trip in March, including a stay in the south of France, where Carl Nielsen met Arnold Schoenberg, he wrote on 18th April to Telmányi that the third movement had been finished. In July, though, Carl Nielsen came to a halt in the work on the symphony, and as with many of his other works he only finished his Sixth Symphony at the last moment. That he was still composing at the end of October is evident from a card from Carl Nielsen to Telmányi dated 30th October 1925, and he must have worked on the symphony for more than a month after this, for the final movement was not end-dated until 5th December 1925. After a postponement the premiere took place six days later, on 11th December at the concert hall of the Odd Fellow Palæ in Copenhagen. The concert was the last public celebration of the composer’s sixtieth birthday, which had aroused quite a fuss, and Carl Nielsen himself conducted the Royal Danish Orchestra at this gala concert. On the programme too were his Saga Dream, Pan and Syrinx, the “Oriental March” from Aladdin and his violin concerto with Telmányi as soloist.
A good month before the premiere Carl Nielsen had tried out the first movement of the symphony at a concert at Musikaliska Akademien in Stockholm, but apart from these no other performances conducted by the composer are known. Among performances conducted by others in his lifetime we know only of the first performance in Gothenburg on 3rd February 1926, where Emil Telmányi was in charge, and the first performance in the Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen on 18th June 1927, where the conductor was Frederik --Schnedler-Petersen. The symphony was performed for the first time by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation under Fritz Busch in 1937, a good five years after the death of the composer.
As regards the reception of Carl Nielsen’s last symphony, the biographer Torben Meyer’s assessment – that the symphony “stands as the weakest among Carl Nielsen’s symphonic works” – was the dominant view for a long time. Despite a mainly positive reception in the press, most reviews of the first performance expressed reservations.
Most positive were William Behrend in Berlingske Tidende and Hugo Seligmann in Politiken. Behrend was in fact unreservedly enthusiastic, and like several of his colleagues he considered the instrumentation innovative. Seligmann too dwelled on the chamber-music-like and experimental use of the orchestra, at the same time describing the symphony as an “odd work” that was not “all that easy to get to grips with”. He called the composer “the stark modernist”, but otherwise praised him for his “pure and beautiful sense of music” and his “genuine Danish humour”. Most negative was Gunnar Hauch, who in his comprehensive critique in Nationaltidende called the symphony “the most complicated, singular or rather pigheaded work” by Carl Nielsen, who he thought had become “rampantly egocentric and has lost much of the ‘expansive’ character that also used to captivate his surroundings”. His conclusion was that “here one looks – with a few exceptions – in vain for original, spontaneous inspiration. In addition Carl Nielsen’s orchestra – which has after all rarely been seductively euphonious – sounds this time with greater harshness than before.” The unsigned review in Kristeligt Dagblad states that the symphony does not like its predecessors make up an organic unity, “for the inserted ‘humoresque’ was a piece all its own”. More or less all the reviewers were however agreed that Carl Nielsen had retained a youthful freshness at the age of sixty.
Like several of the other reviewers, Seligmann compared the humoresque to music by another of the leading figures of contemporary music, Igor Stravinsky, who had at that time just had some of his own works performed in Copenhagen. It must be singled out as remarkable that Carl Nielsen himself on the one hand described the symphony as standing “beyond all time-bound taste and fashion” and spoke of writing a simple, old-fashioned symphony, while on the other hand he had in reality worked towards a contemporary style of writing with chamber-music-inspired use of the orchestra, atonal tendencies and several simultaneous rhythmic layers. In an interview in Politiken on the day of the premiere, Carl Nielsen indeed said very tellingly:
“Times change, after all. Where is the new music taking us? What will be left? We don’t know! You will find this in my little humoresque, which is the second movement of the symphony, and in the last movement.”
Besides the discussion of the relationship of the symphony with contemporary modernist tendencies, the programme music issue also arises in connection with the Sixth Symphony. Several of Carl Nielsen’s statements stress unambiguously that the symphony has programmatic features; while he has at the same time claimed the opposite. In an interview in Politiken of 3rd April 1925 the composer confirms that the symphony is an example of absolute music. On 9th December, two days before the premiere, the humoresque is on the other hand expounded as detailed programme music. Carl Nielsen says for example in Nationaltidende:
“The humoresque begins with the three small percussion instruments – glockenspiel, drum and triangle – agreeing to wake up the other, larger instruments, which lie sleeping. These three small creatures don’t have much brain, they’re very childish, sweet, innocent small creatures, and now they begin with their bim-a-lim-a-bim and their gentle bom-bom-bom … they get more and more enthusiastic and in the end manage to alarm the others into playing … the clarinets, the piccolo and the bassoons. But the little innocent instruments don’t care at all for the modern music that is now sounding – they hammer away by themselves: stop, stop, they say … and then soon it’s all up with the modern music. But then a clarinet starts to play, it’s a small childlike melody, and the small instruments keep quiet and listen. The trombone, this big instrument, yawns and says Bah, bah, baby food! The other instruments come in again, there’s a struggle over the music, it sounds a bit out of tune and confused – and in the end it all settles into nothing worth talking about. That’s the humoresque of the symphony.”
Another thing bearing on the discussion of the programmatic features of the symphony is the fact that the work is furnished with a title, Sinfonia semplice. True, the title is not found in any of Carl Nielsen’s manuscripts for the work, but he referred to it in the above-quoted interview in Nationaltidende, where he said of the symphony: “I’ve given it the name ‘Sinfonia semplice’ because it’s mainly in a lighter vein than my other symphonies – there are merry things in it.” In the Politiken interview from the premiere day, he says, explaining why he chose this title:
“It’s […] because in this work I strove for the greatest possible simplicity. This time I’ve composed on the basis of the character of the instruments, have tried to depict them as independent individualities. I regard the various instruments as persons who lie sleeping, and whom I have to awaken to life.”
In that sense the symphony joins the series of late works, from and including the wind quintet, which work towards this goal.
The title of the third movement, Proposta seria, refers in accordance with the structure of the movement to the Italian Baroque designation for a fugue subject, proposta. The last movement is formed as variations on a theme, which after an orchestral introduction is ushered in by the bassoon. On the subject of this finale, which after the two central movements resumes the use of the whole orchestra, Carl Nielsen said according to the violinist and orchestral musician Thorvald Nielsen that the ninth variation with tuba and percussion is death knocking on the door, and that he wanted to defy death with the concluding fanfare of the movement. Here we can glimpse a parallel to Anton Schindler’s well-known story that Beethoven regarded the beginning of his Fifth Symphony as an expression of fate knocking at the door. But like Schindler’s story, Thorvald Nielsen’s cannot be confirmed by any statement from the composer himself.
Orchestral MUSIC by Jørgen I. Jensen
While Carl Nielsen lived his everyday musical life was rooted in the world of the theatre, and especially that of the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. From 1889 until 1905 he was employed as a violinist in the Royal Danish Orchestra – the house orchestra of the national theatre. Even at that time he took on occasional conducting tasks, and in the years from 1908 until 1914 he was a regular conductor at the Royal Theatre. The atmosphere surrounding his activities as a conductor was never completely calm, and several times he went through stormy periods at the theatre, often with much discussion of his activities in the press. He resigned in 1914, but continued to write stage music. Besides his two operas Saul and David (1898–1901) and Masquerade (1905–06), he wrote music for many plays. This was partly because in Copenhagen, until just two years ago, opera and drama belonged in the same theatre and were played on the same stages. It was thus very reasonable to use the large house orchestra for performances of plays.
Masquerade is viewed by many people as the Danish national opera. The libretto was written by the Danish literary scholar Vilhelm Andersen after a comedy by Ludvig Holberg from the eighteenth century. Holberg played – and still plays – a quite central role as a Danish writer of comedies; his statue stands in front of the Royal Theatre. many people thought that it was blasphemy to turn one of his texts into an opera. But the many red lights and full houses after the premiere said something quite different. With this work Carl Nielsen’s music began in earnest to reach out to the general public.
Most of Masquerade was composed in 1905 – in a strange fit of inspiration, a state of weightlessness at which even Carl Nielsen himself expressed surprise many times later. Presumably this came from Vilhelm Andersen’s emphasis on the Dionysian aspect in Holberg. The overture was finished in 22 days, just before the premiere in 1906. At the same time it was a Mozart year – the 150th anniversary of the birth of the master. So the same year Carl Nielsen wrote a significant and later very well-known essay on Mozart, in which he put Mozart before Beethoven, who had otherwise been the great composer-hero of the nineteenth century. This too rubbed off on Masquerade, which takes place in 18th-century Copenhagen. Or it may be that Carl Nielsen’s musical experience with the opera gave him a new view of Mozart.
In the international perspective, one can say that with his work Carl Nielsen truly latched on to a particular Classicist current amidst the widespread Late Romantic attitudes in European music at the turn of the century. Music full of sophistication, playfulness, the sheer joy of music-making, acuity, humour and pointedness had already begun to emerge at the end of the century, and made its mark even more clearly over the next few years. Typically this new – or “young” Classicism (Busoni’s expression) – had its breakthrough in one-movement works, opera overtures or symphonic poems. One thinks of characteristic individual works like Nikolaus von Reznicek’s overture to Donna Anna (1894) or, after Masquerade, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s overture to Il segreto di Susanna (1909). One thinks of Busoni’s comic operas after 1910; and of course – first and foremost – of Richard Strauss, not only Der Rosenkavalier from 1910, but also his witty, sophisticated and shrewd points in some of the early symphonic poems.
In one fell swoop Carl Nielsen’s overture to Masquerade has to open the door to great festivity and high comedy. In the fast movement it has both animated narrative and playful counterpoint, expressing a unity of endless energy and great lightness in the Dionysian rebirth of the century of Enlightenment.
The Dance of the Cockerels from Masquerade is one of Carl Nielsen’s most popular pieces. It belongs to Act Three of the opera, the festivities at the big masked ball which brings all the participants together, high and low, young and old. The dance is in 3/4 time – not like a waltz, perhaps rather like a Polonaise. We hear the proud cockerel strutting around among the clucking hens. In the trio comes an eruptive, stereophonic episode where trumpets, bassoons, flutes and horns cry out to one another – like young cockerels squabbling over the hens.
Oddly enough Carl Nielsen had to write the next work, the prelude to Sir Oluf, and all the other stage music for the piece, at the same time as he was rehearsing Masquerade. The theatre wanted to celebrate the Danish national poet Holger Drachmann’s 60th birthday, and this was to be done with a play by Drachmann himself based on the ballad motif so often used in the Danish tradition about Sir Oluf and his meeting with the elf-maidens, also known from Niels W. Gade’s The Elf King’s Daughter. The rehearsals of the two works also coincided; in his diary we see that for several days Carl Nielsen was rehearsing both works, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The play was not a success, but Carl Nielsen’s music was generally well received – at all events it was mentioned in most of the reviews. Nor can it be denied that Carl Nielsen succeeded in taking a different musical path from Masquerade, for example in some of the harmonies. A reviewer remarked in particular on what he called “the pedal point of the chirpy oboe tone, which reflects the enchantments of Fairyland.”
In the next work, Snefrid, we are back among Carl Nielsen’s earliest works. True, in 1889 he had written a couple of pieces for a production at the Dagmar Theatre, but Snefrid was still to become his first true -theatre music that could also be performed in concerts. The work was written in 1893, just after Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 1 from the previous year. He had so to speak just made his entry on the stage as a composer, achieved his breakthrough, and was only now finding his own style. For that reason there is a kind of lustre of originality over the pieces from Snefrid, especially in the slow -lyrical passages. Of the third of the pieces, the love music, Carl Nielsen wrote in a letter that he had played it for an acquaintance: “he simply blushed at the sensual character of the music ...” However, we can also find words from the up-and-coming young composer saying quite the opposite: he claimed that the high, great music he wanted to write would be the opposite of sensuality. Snefrid is thus the expression of a duality in the period. On the one hand it reached outwards towards the sensual, on the other it aspires upwards towards the high ideals. Once more this matches the attitudes of the contemporary Symbolist poets. The prelude to Snefrid in a piano arrangement was in fact printed in a contemporary literary periodical called Ungt Blod (‘Young Blood’).
Carl Nielsen’s first opera Saul and David has no overture, but it does have an independent prelude to Act Two. The opera combines an intense psychological portrait of the vacillating Saul with a more oratorio-like monumental style. The prelude to Act Two precedes a scene in the King’s hall where David plays for Saul, and where a messenger brings the news of the great giant of the Philistines, Goliath. The prelude announces a world of both internal and external -struggle. The brisk, piercing dissonance for three trumpets attracted attention at the time and was discussed in most of the reviews. It is based on a linear principle on the first three notes, where two thirds that lead to a horn fifth in the second and third trumpet are combined with a simple ascending melody in the first trumpet.
The prelude was performed separately before the premiere of the opera, conducted by Johan Svendsen, who was a warm supporter of the work. At the premiere of the whole opera Carl Nielsen himself conducted.
With the work Rhapsodic Overture. A Fantasy Journey to the Faroe Islands, we are near the end of Carl Nielsen’s life, after the completion of the sixth and last symphony. It is an occasional composition written for a celebration at the Royal Theatre to mark a visit from the Faroe Islands. We hear how the music approaches the remote islands in the Atlantic and arrives at an old melody well known in Denmark as Påskeklokken kimed mildt (‘Gently chimed the Easter bell’). The work is also an example of how Carl Nielsen in his later years touched on many widely differing landscapes, each of which required its own music.
In 1908, a few years after Masquerade, the play Willemoes was written to commemorate the centenary of the death of the Danish naval hero Peter Willemoes at the Battle of Zealand Point. The text was by L.C. Nielsen, with whom Carl Nielsen collaborated several times. One of the melodies that appeared in the play later became a Folk High School song, Havet omkring Danmark (‘The Sea around Denmark’). Carl Nielsen shared the composition of the music with his pupil Emilius Bangert. The only orchestral piece composed solely by Carl Nielsen in the play is the prelude to Act Three. It is meant to refer to Willemoes’ love for a young girl at Tranekær on Langeland, the island which has also, because of Grundtvig’s intense youthful love affair there, assumed a special position in the history of Denmark during the Napoleonic Wars.
The orchestral piece Pan and Syrinx from 1917-18 is one of Carl Nielsen’s most distinctive works, and has always been so regarded. Among other things that have been pointed out is a surprising affinity with musical Impressionism – even with Debussy’s well known piece for solo flute, Syrinx, written five years previously, although Carl Nielsen is unlikely to have known it. But that is only one side of the work. The other is the odd shifts in tempo and the special alternation between transparent chamber-musical passages and tutti sections.
Here, for the first time, Carl Nielsen uses a relatively large array of exotic percussion; in the work he is stepping out on new paths after the conclusion of his Symphony no. 4. The work points forward all the way to works of the 1920s, especially the Flute Concerto of 1926.
The story of Pan and Syrinx comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Pan is attracted to the nymph Syrinx. He pursues her, dancing and bleating. But she is frightened and flees to a woodland lake, where she is transformed into a reed. That is a summary of what Carl Nielsen writes as a text in the score. But he must also have been thinking about the continuation in Ovid, where Pan makes a flute from the reeds, so that he is united with Syrinx through his art. At the end of the piece the high strings lie close to one another in a dissonant block of sound. The individual strings must then gradually stop playing with vibrato. The result is a static sound where the reeds become an instrument, the nymph becomes a thing, and love becomes art.
When Carl Nielsen was making up his mind at the age of 18 to leave his position as a regimental band musician in Odense to go to Copenhagen, he spoke to his mother. She referred to Hans Christian Andersen, who had also come from Funen to Copenhagen and later became world-famous. Carl too could do that. Towards the end of Carl Nielsen’s life the paths of the two Funen men were to cross in the overture to Cupid and the Poet. The play, celebrating the 125th anniversary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen, was written by Sophus Michaëlis. Carl Nielsen himself was satisfied with his work: he wrote to his wife that one should never relax when one had to write occasional or commissioned music. Of Hans Christian Andersen he said that when he thought of Andersen’s tales, it evoked associations of a futuristic – perhaps, to use a later word, surrealistic – painting: “... an old fir tree, a spinning top, yes and the neck of a swan”. In this piece Carl Nielsen is quite in tune with the situation around 1930 and with his own Symphonies 5 and 6. Sophus Michaëlis’ Hans Christian Andersen Gala Play had its premiere on 12th August at the Odense Theatre. Carl Nielsen himself conducted, there in the region of his childhood. The original piece became Carl Nielsen’s last orchestral composition.
In the large-scale overture Helios from 1902 we find ourselves at the beginning of Carl Nielsen’s great musical ‘sunshine period’, which culminated in Symphony No. 3, nine years later. If Nielsen chose the Greek word for the sun, it was because the work was written in Greece, and at that time European culture had once more rediscovered ancient Hellas, as expressed for example by the resumption of the Olympic Games of antiquity.
The Helios has been of great national importance because it was – and is – the first music one hears from the Danish Broadcasting Corporation on the radio after the turn of the year on New Year’s Eve. Especially when the radio was the only broadcasting medium, people were given a sense that with this music they were on their way into a new time. With their dissonances, the horns at the beginning of the work create a feeling of space and promise: far out in space, the year is turning, the light of the sun will grow. There are also points of contact with the earlier great sunrise music in Denmark, Gade’s morning song from The Elf King’s Daughter; as if one sun work is greeting another. The Helios has a magnificent arching form which is even condensed, towards the end of the fast main section, into a bright firework display of a fugue. Carl Nielsen himself described the progress of the work in the following words:
Silence and darkness – then the sun rises
to joyful songs of praise –
wanders its golden way – sinks silently
into the sea