The Unique And Exhilerating Symphonies Of Danish Composer Carl Nielsen
Carl Nielsen (1865 -1931 ) is Denmark's greatest composer , and best known for his six highly original symphonies , although he wrote other orchestral works , concertos for violin , clarinet , and flute , two operas , chamber music , choral works and and songs etc .
Nielsen was always his own man . He never followed or started any "isms " , and is therefore a difficult composer to pideonhole . He always remained true to himself . And unlike his great Finnish contemporary and friend Jean Sibelius , his music did not really achieve international prominence until years after his death in 1931 . He was greatly honored and frequently performed in his native Denmark and neighboring Sweden during his lifetime , but almost totally unknown in America and other European countries ,with the possible exception of Germany until fairly recently .
The late , great Leonard Bernstein discovered Nielsen's music in the 1960s and became highly enthusiastic about it , performing and recording several of the symphonies and other works with the New York Philharmonic . Only then did the great Danish master's music take hold in America and elsewhere . And since that time , a number of leading conductors such as Simon Rattle , Esa-Pekka Salonen , Neeme Jarvi , Herbert Blomstedt , and others have continued to take up the cause of Nielsen's highly individual music .
Nielsen's six symphonies were composed between the early 1890s and the mid 1920s , and show his development from a fairly traditional late 19th century style influenced somewhat by Brahms to his own unique manner of composing ;he abandoned traditional musical forms and harmony and anticipated later 20th century developments . These symphonies are filled with energy and optimism even when they are full of violence and conflict .
The first is the most traditional of the six but still shows Nielsen's distinctive voice . Though nominally in the key of G minor , the fourth and last movement ends C major . This is one of the most important elements in Nielsen's music , and is sometimes called "Progressive Tonality " , in which a work ends in a different key from the one in which it begins . Hitherto it was taken for granted that a work would end in the original key . All of the six symphonies make use of this technique .
Nielsen's contemporary Gustav Mahler also used progressive tonality in several of his symphonies , but not as consistently as Nielsen . The second of the six Nielsen symphonies has the subtitle "The Four Temperments " . Each of the four movements portrays one of the four personality types of medieval theory which categorize different people ; the Choleric or angry and bitter type of the first movement , the gentle and easy-going "Phlegmatic " type of person , the gloomy and depressed " Melancholy " type , and the optimistic and enthusiastic " Sanguine " type of the last .
Nielsen was inspired to write this symphony after seeing paintings of these four personality types on the walls of a rustic inn in his native Denmark . Each of the four movements lives up vividly to the personality descriptions , ranging from unrestrained anger , a lackadaiscal quality , deep melancholy and vigorous enthisiasm .
The third , also in four movements has the somewhat enigmatic title "Sinfonia Espansiva ", or expansive symphony . This does not mean expansive in the sense of being lengthy , but more like the expression "being in an expansive mood ". The first movement is filled with energy and enthusiasm and has an almost waltzlike character at times ; albeit a rapid and vigorous waltz .
The second movement is quiet and meditative , and features a soprano and baritone who sing worldlessly in a dreamy mood . It's very beautiful ; almost ecstatic . The third movement is a kind of quirky intermezzo with some strange harmonic shifts , and the finale is pure optimism and joy . This reminds one of the statement some one once made about Nielsen's music ; it makes you want to go out and hug some one !
The fourth symphony ,written during the first World War , is called the " Unextinguishable " symphony . This is Nielsen's most dramatic work so far , and is filled with an almost unbearable tension and conflict , although it ends in triumph . The composer was alarmed at the terrible carnage and destruction of the war, and wanted to write a work which would portray the elememntal will to life , and the life force .
He stated that even if the world were destroyed , life would somehow continue , and eventually go back to normal . One of the composer's maxisms was "Music is the sound of life " . The symphony starts out in sheer panic ; the music cannot decide what key it's in . The key shifts moment to moment and sometimes there seems to be none at all . The four movements are continuous , without pauses . There are moments of calm between the manic energy where the music finally settles into a key , and the music gradually moves into the second , a kind of calm intermezzo featuring the woodwind instruments prominently . The slow and brooding third movement leads to the tumultuous finale, which is filled with an almost terrifying conflict ; two antiphonal sets of tympani fight a ferocious duel , battling each other like the loudest thinder you've ever heard . But the symphony ends proudly and defiantly , proving that life is after all , inextinguishable .
The fifth symphony is like nothing else ever written by a composer of symphonies . It has no title , and is in two large movements . Nielsen stated that the work represents a titanic struggle between good and evil , or chaos and order . The forces of inertia and chaos are in conflict with the forces of order and control .
The symphony makes extensive use of what is called "ostinato " in music , or a constantly repeated figure which seems to be "obstinate " . It begins quietly in a kind of music void ; nothing seems to be happening ; the strings keep playing weird noodling figurations . Woodwind instruments take up the ostinato figures . What on earth is going on ? Than a snare drum starts beating out another ostinato and going on and on . The music becomes ominous and threatening . But what is going to happen ? Everything is chaos .
Then suddenly , the snare drum ceases its mindless rat-tat-tat , and a beautiful lyrical melody is intoned by the orchestra ; it's in a recognizable key for once . But something ominous is happening ; all of a sudden the snare drum is directed by the composer to start pounding away at his instrument as if he had gone berserk, with absolutely no regard for what the rest of the orchestrea is playing ! A horrendous conflict ensues and the drummer must improvise his part on the spot . There is total chaos . But the is a tremendous crescendo in the orchestra , and the berserk snare drum is finally overcome .
The movement ends quietly , with the snare drum playing offstage in the distance , and a solo clarinet meditating on the struggle . In the second movement , which is in four sections, order seems to have risen out of the ashes ; the music is filled with Nielsen's characterisitc energy and optimism . Then a fugue starts , with a new theme ; the music has become ominous again and a kind of music hurricane breaks out , finally calming down into what is now a slow , solemn fugue using the same theme . But this leads to a return of the opening music ; now it develops white hot energy and an iron determination to avoid chaos at all costs . But the work ends in a fiercely triumphant and defiant mood , having modulated to the key of e flat major , which had never before occured in the entire symphony . The sudden move to an unprecedented tonality has an almost physically shocking effect !
Perhaps the strangest of the six is the last symphony , called " Sinfonia Semplice " (simple symphony ). But the title is purely ironic ; the symphony is anything but simple . It's also in four movements . At the time it was written , Nielsen was suffering from a heart ailment from which he eventually died in 1931 , and the work seems to be a meditation on the transience of life , albeit totally unsentimental . There is a misture of brooding and sardonic humor . The climax of the first movement has sometimes been called a description of a heart attack !
The brief second movement is pure grotesquerie . Nielsen pokes fun at the atonal music of Schoenberg and his followers . The woodwind instruments make rude noises and a trombone makes loud glissandos imitating yawning . Truly weird . The slow movement is dark and somber ; it's called " Proposta Seria ", or a serious proposition . The finale is perhaps the most bizarre theme and variations ever written . The main theme goes through a chaotic series of grotesque variations . At one point the theme becomes a trivial waltz , and then the brass and percussion instruments batter it with brutal dissonant outburnsts . But the movement ends with a kind of impish glee . Nielsen may be dying , but he's laughing at death . It ends with a giant raspberry from the bassoons !
There are many fine recordings of the Nielsen symphonies , including sets of all six by such eminent conductors as Herbert Blomstedt , Paavo Berglund , Esa-Pekka Salonen , Neeme Jarvi , Michael Schonwandt , and others , as well as single performances of them by Leonard Bernstein , Jean Martinon , Jascha Horenstein , Herbert Von Karajan, Simon Rattle and others . A good place to order is arkivmusic.com . But don't miss these unique and invigorating symphonies .