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The Nielsen Nexus

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Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is perhaps best known for his cycle of six symphonies; other well-known compositions include his incidental music for Aladdin, the operas Saul og David and Maskarade, the concerti for flute, violin and for clarinet, the wind quintet, and the Helios Overture.  My favorite works are his 4th Symphony in d minor and his Helios Overture.


CLICK: This is a web adaptation of a travelling exhibition originally produced  by Danish Music Information Centre 

CLICK: Chronology Work Catalog

Here’s what Dave (MaestroDJS) has to say:

*** In August 1977 Rose Records in Chicago promoted a special offer on the Seraphim LP sets of the complete symphonies and concerti by the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra with Herbert Blomstedt.  *** Each of the 6 symphonies and the 3 concerti had a very different personality, but all bore the stamp of a very individual and striking composer. Blomstedt included several other short orchestral works in his set, most importantly the utterly magnificent and radiantly arch-like Helios Overture, which Nielsen composed while on holiday in Athens, Greece in 1903.  Nielsen wrote of this score: "Silence and darkness -- then the Sun rises with a joyous song of praise -- it wanders its golden way -- and sinks quietly into the sea."

Some facets of the 6 symphonies which immediately impressed themselves on my mind were:

Symphony No. 1 in G Minor (1892):  The surprising C Major chord which begins the work but is immediately pushed aside by the G Minor tonality.  Brahms praised this work.

Symphony No. 2 "The 4 Temperaments" (1902):  The sheer brute strength of the entire first movement.  The choleric temperament roars with rage but also shows streaks of tenderness.  The symphony derives its subtitle from a series of portraits Nielsen had seen in a pub in Zeeland, and he dedicated this work to Ferruccio Busoni.

Symphony No. 3 "Sinfonia espansiva" (1911):  The energetic minor tonality of the first movement which suddenly gives way to major key final chords; then the hauntingly glowing and hazily shifting tonalities of the slow movement.

Symphony No. 4 "The Inextinguishable" (1916):  The relentless forward momentum of the entire work which never stops, even in the slow movements.  The dueling pairs of timpani in the finale are unforgettable and lead to a rousing conclusion.

Symphony No. 5 (1922):  The gentle 2-note viola ostinato upon which the music raises its musical arguments.

Symphony No. 6 "Sinfonia semplice" (1925):  The almost comic simplicity which begins the work but which evolves into some of the most heart-rending tragedy in music.  In few other pieces of music are high comedy and bleak tragedy so intimately interwoven.

Incidentally, in the late 1970s one of the biggest rock hits was We Will Rock You by Queen.  It often blasted forth from dorms, frat houses and apartments around the university.  Boom-boom-clap!  Boom-boom-clap!  Well, those drums were insignificant compared to the cataclysmic pairs of timpani in the finale of Nielsen's Symphony No. 4.  With my stereo cranked up to eleven, it was well and truly The Inextinguishable.  We are the champions, my friends.

Recently I wrote about the underrated Jean Martinon, who made some outstanding recordings during his tenure as conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1963 to 1968.  At that time, Morton Gould also made some superb recordings as guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, most notably of music by Charles Ives.  In 1966 Gould also recorded Nielsen's Symphony No. 2 "The 4 Temperaments" and Clarinet Concerto with soloist Benny Goodman.  Gould was primarily a composer, so it was a pleasant surprise to encounter him in Nielsen.  The symphony is given an exciting performance.  Goodman is best remembered as a jazz performer, but he recorded many classical clarinet works throughout his career, such as Mozart, Weber, Bartók, Stravinsky, Copland etc.  His versatility is outstanding in the Nielsen concerto.  A few years ago I found this vintage LP at 2nd-Hand Tunes on Clark Street in Chicago, along with Gould's Ives recordings.  Also in 1966, Jean Martinon recorded Symphony No. 4 "The Inextinguishable" and Helios Overture with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but I have not heard these performances.

Carl Nielsen is unquestionably and inextinguishably one of the peaks of my record collection.  I also owe to him most of the few Danish words I have learnt along the way, taken from his titles: "Ved en ung Kunstners Baare" (At the Bier of a Young Artist), "En Fantasirejse til Færøerne" (An Imaginary Trip to the Faroe Islands), and above all "Det Uudslukkelige" (The Inextinguishable).  These phrases will probably not prove useful on a visit to Denmark, but you never know.  To quote Nielsen himself: "Musik er Liv, som dette uudslukkelig." ("Music is life, and, like it, inextinguishable.")


It is amazing how many composers in the 20th century, especially symphonists, are influenced by Nielsen. He is perhaps the most Beethovenian of later symphonist, and thus serve as a more ideal model than the more distant Beethoven, I guess.

My favorite Nielsen work is the wind quintet.

Nielsen’s Boyhood Home

I love Funen in the springtime . . . .


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