Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)

Nielsen's Late Music 

- and a Youthful Quintet

Eight key works in Danish music

Seven major late works by Carl Nielsen are published by Edition·S – music¬sound¬art; Edition·S furthermore offers a little-known major work written by the artist as a promising young man.

Carl Nielsen was born on 9 June 1865 on the large island of Funen in Denmark and in 1884 moved permanently to Copenhagen (the Danish capital), where he died on 3 October 1931. Like the Little Suite in A minor for strings, the String Quintet in G major was written in 1888, and both works scored a major success for the debuting composer when they were premiered in Copenhagen (the former on 8 August 1888, in the Tivoli Gardens, and the latter on 28 April 1889, at the very first concert presented by a newly-formed society for contemporary Danish music, called "Symphonia"; the actual first performance of the Quintet, however, was on 13 January 1889 in a private chamber music society in Copenhagen). Whereas the Little Suite has established itself as a national and international hit, the String Quintet sank into oblivion somehow and first came before the public again very late in Nielsen's life, namely when he abandoned progress on a string quartet that he had promised for a faithful admirer and his ensemble. The composer proposed that they play his "unknown" early Quintet instead; an extra viola player was drafted in, and with gratitude for its "resurrection" the piece was dedicated to the Thorvald Nielsen Quartet in 1931.

The String Quintet is Nielsen's only essay in the genre. The music bears the hallmarks of its talented and clever young composer: energy and stillness; singability and robust joy in instrumental music-making; deft handling of form. The first movement is an Allegro pastorale in 9/8, which is followed by a sustained, melodious Adagio that in turn gives way to a fiery Allegretto scherzando; the finale is an Allegro Molto that accelerates to Presto towards the conclusion. The first two movements, like the final two, share a number of characteristic figures, and it is pure joy to follow the motivic and contrapuntal working throughout this splendid piece of Danish chamber music. With expertise and inspiration drawn from the main Classical-Romantic repertoire, Nielsen at 23 demonstrated his sense of tradition no less than his unmistakable originality.

The String Quintet from 1888 shows us Carl Nielsen in full format, albeit only as a lithe contour and a characteristic profile. Subsequently, the picture was filled in, and in the eyes of many commentators his art reached its culmination in major works from the early 1920s, such as the Fifth Symphony, the secular cantata Springtime on Funen, and the Wind Quintet. It would be a complete misunderstanding, however, to believe that succeeding works deviated from the principal line of development in Nielsen's music. Quite on the contrary: the late works published by Edition SAMFUNDET demonstrate that a greater fundamental coherence unifies Nielsen's life's work than the more superficial differences between individual compositions and groups of works would immediately suggest (the four-movement Sixth Symphony provides a fine example of this dialectic). Note the steadily more remarkable slenderness characterizing his writing in the 1920s; the steadily more virtuosic precision in expression and form, and, finally, the steadily more idiosyncratic employment of Nielsen's individual mode of speech (often bold or rough-hewn, but never without poetry and substance) in order for every single work to join in an ongoing, profound engagement with the fundamental characteristics and values of Classical-Romantic serious music. The last decade of a long and ceaselessly active career in music saw the ageing, but artistically vital master coming into steadily closer renewed contact with himself as a young mega-talent and with the whole basis of a life-long creative effort within the framework of an arch-Danish, indeed arch-European, tradition.

The seven late works published by Edition·S fall into two groups; one is for orchestra and the other is for solo instrument, whereas the two wind concertos can truly be said to have a foot in either camp. Regardless of scoring, however, these seven works can be seen as important stepping-stones along the same path forward for a resiliently inventive master. The extraordinary Clarinet Concerto and the monumental Commotio (for organ) are key works in Carl Nielsen's continued contribution to symphonic music after his sixth and nominally last work in the genre; the three solo pieces (in particular the violin piece and Commotio) and the solo parts in the two wind concertos make great and often novel demands on their performers, artistically as well as technically. Taking into account the singular scope of his previous production, it is not surprising that in the last ten years, at the height of his ability, Nielsen should further exploit his particular flair for a finely balanced play on the dichotomy between abrupt change and sustained flow, notably by further developing his skill with mosaic-like designs, chain-like structures, and interwoven organic-sculptural musical progressions, yet never losing his knack for conciseness.

Perhaps the enigmatic Sixth Symphony (1924-25) was wryly planned as the master's musical gift for himself on his sixtieth birthday: an occasion destined to be celebrated with all manner of festivity but also one that actually came to trigger a number of candid public statements from the great man, usually quite genial. Arguably, the Sixth Symphony can be viewed as Carl Nielsen's central composition. With this magnificent, provocative and richly satisfying orchestral music as a starting point, one can easily reach all the way forwards and all the way backwards through the whole of his life's work. The gamut of material and style runs from popular song and dance to the most refined art music, and the work combines (indeed, manages to combine) the international modernism of the 1920s with the musical language of 19th-century and early 20th-century Denmark. Once again, but never before with such radicalism, such spontaneity and such deliberation, does Nielsen explore the range of reference that traces the great European symphonic development from Viennese Classicism up to and including Mahler, Sibelius and Nielsen himself. In 1952 Robert Simpson rightly pointed out that the first movement alone (1924) could be taken as a rounded, complete work, and in fact it was premiered on its own (uncommonly for Nielsen), on 1 November 1925 in Stockholm (Sweden). In return, Simpson and many other commentators before and since have found it difficult to acknowledge that the finished four-movement work really functions as an integrated and not simply compound symphonic unity. There is no reason why one should feel compelled to share this aesthetic and analytical puzzlement regarding the Sixth Symphony. It is a completely classical symphony, disguised as a completely modern one, and with an exemplary clarity and strength it develops a completely modern symphonicism based upon a penetrating insight into the Classical style. Observe the discretion, but also the almost ostentatious virtuosity, with which Nielsen exploits his familiarity with the finer points of contrapuntalism as well as his extensive experience of the demands and means of music theatre: technique is made to serve expression, and it is precisely this command of expression and form together that allows Nielsen to hold his symphonic ground whilst exploring and exploiting the elasticity of given limits instead of choosing to spectacularly burst them as constricting bonds, or just piously acquiescing to them. Consider, for a moment, the opus 14 by Berlioz (conducted by Nielsen in Copenhagen 1922): it is unlikely that it would have earned its permanent place in the history of music and in the contemporary repertoire, had not its famously "fantastic" elements served to highlight its essential greatness as a symphony. Remember, also, that Nielsen was present during Mengelberg's integral Mahler Festival in Amsterdam 1920. As for Nielsen himself, he was born one day before the world premiere, in Munich, of Tristan and Isolde. In life and afterlife he came to embody the Danish-style perfect anti-Wagnerian, but as a young man and in ripe middle-age, Nielsen too had his fair share of "Tristan experiences". Deep down they echoed within him, and this is in fact reflected in the first movement of the Sixth Symphony. (On the other hand, it will not surprise today's listeners to learn also that the Stravinsky comet passed by Nielsen's world precisely during the two years when the Danish master occupied himself with his important new composition. The Russian-born cosmopolitan visited Copenhagen in the summer of 1924 and around the beginning of December of 1925. During the latter visit he conducted the Royal Danish Orchestra, notably in Petrushka, newly premiered at the Royal Theatre.) A comprehensive discussion of Nielsen's Sixth Symphony should allow itself to at least toy with the idea that perhaps it was also a Romantic work with which this apparently anti-romantic Danish "national" composer so surprised his home-audience at the Royal Danish Orchestra festival concert held in his honour on 11 December 1925 in Copenhagen (a mere three days before the world premiere, in Berlin, of Berg's Wozzeck). Having concluded the boisterous yet perfectly controlled fourth movement in a gallant race against time, Nielsen conducted his new symphony from the ink score, dated 5 December only. "The old fool, he's like a child. Held forth on composition and lofty aspirations, did he? Lofty aspirations in an open-air play, I beg you! Things are not well in his head, not well at all" . Thus Harlequin mocks the departing Prologue in Oehlenschläger's poetic play Sanct Hansaften-Spil (Copenhagen 1803). In Copenhagen 1925, some of Nielsen's festival concert listeners had their doubts, too. One can see why, for the intriguing Sixth Symphony sports an intriguing subtitle, namely Sinfonia Semplice . Usually interpreted as an expression of bitter irony on the composer's part, this declaration of the four-movement work as a "simple symphony" can be calmly taken at face value: it points directly to the heart of the matter. Looking back at Nielsen's late music in its 1920s setting of new possibilities and profound change, one is well advised to ignore the aesthetic debate of the times and concentrate instead on a close examination of the chosen musical material and how it is actually worked: surely that is what matters, that is what counts, and, consequently, that is where we may best learn how Nielsen managed to keep right on track throughout his last decade (dynamic veteran composer toiling on behind the uncomfortable mask of "Increasingly Worried Elderly Master Musician"). At the close of the 20th century it seems that the elegantly complex Sixth Symphony is finally about to take up its rightful position - in the concert repertoire, in the recording catalogues, and within the scope of a broad and up-to-date national and international understanding of Nielsen's music.

Carl Nielsen's two wind concertos keep students and professional musicians busy all over the world today. However modest and mainstream the scoring may look at first sight, the exploration of the potentials of the ensemble is most interesting. The Flute Concerto (1926) was first performed in Paris, a provisional ending immediately being replaced with the one now in force. The presence of a solitary bass trombone is notable, and suave manners tend to give way to brief displays of temper all over the place in this piquant work (much too capricious to qualify as "pastoral" in any comforting sense). The Clarinet Concerto (1928) is considered by many to be simply the best of its kind since Mozart's swan song, KV 622. The formal landscape is richly varied, and the way the material is developed is a model of artistic generosity and technical economy. The clarinet part is a brilliant tour-de-force, not only in the impressive cadenzas, but also in relation to the orchestra and in the fascinating, multi-faceted dialogue with a soloistic side drum (obbligato indeed, and not overly given to polite submission).

The Overture to "Cupid and the Poet" (1930) is Carl Nielsen's last orchestral work. Originally it formed part of his incidental music for an Odense play in honour of his equally great Funen countryman, Hans Christian Andersen. As fully-grown orchestral compositions come, this overture could hardly be shorter. As with the tiniest of Andersen's stories, it could hardly be better, and like Andersen's drop of ditch water it is teeming with highly individual little shapes and patterns of movement. A miniature late-Nielsen handbook, it is the perfect choice for orchestras in need of a witty five-minute prelude, interlude, or encore for their programmes.

Preludio e presto (1927-28) for solo violin started out as a facsimile manuscript printed in the important Danish newspaper Politiken. In this way Carl Nielsen publicly greeted his old friend the Danish violinist and composer Fini Henriques (1867-1940) with warm words and grand lines of music for his sixtieth birthday. It was Nielsen's son-in-law and confidant, however, the Hungarian-born violin virtuoso Emil Telmányi, who prompted Nielsen to invest further work in something the composer had simply improvised as a flourish of "eye music" for a festive occasion. The final result was a unique (and uniquely difficult) two-movement solo work, where Nielsen (originally a trained and capable violinist himself, though without aspirations as a soloist) explores, in a rhapsodic manner yet with strict control, the new world of non-tonal music and the distant corners of the violin's sonic and technical range.

The Three Piano Pieces opus 59 (1928) are not Carl Nielsen's farewell to the piano as an instrument but nevertheless represent the final stage in his life-long development of a personal solo piano idiom. The work contrasts the vivacious and the lingering; drive and restraint; tonality and atonality; gentleness and brutality; the melodic and the percussive. As was the case with the Sixth Symphony, it has taken a long time for this quaintly grand and thoroughly modern 1920s music to be understood properly, but better late than never! It should be noted in passing that in 1990 the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen (b.1952) arranged a virtuosic instrumentation for chamber ensemble of Nielsen's opus 59. Played well, the Three Piano Pieces in their new guise (score and parts available from Edition Wilhelm Hansen) offer a double portrait of two remarkable characters in 20th-century Danish music; performers and listeners alike will take special interest in programmes that include both versions of op. 59.

In a letter Carl Nielsen wrote of Commotio (1930-31), "I myself think it is my most accomplished work" (or did he mean "elaborate" or perhaps "developed"" The Danish word "gennemført? was a clever choice precisely in this musical context). One is tempted to agree, for it was a formidable series of tasks that Nielsen set himself here - and negotiated with flying colours. Conversely, it will quickly become apparent to anyone who wishes to play Commotio that the work sets the performer a series of no less formidable tasks, as an instrumentalist and an interpreter: tasks that have to be addressed anew on every occasion and for each new organ in its particular surroundings, whether in church or not. Commotio is intended for concert use solely. Nielsen himself was no "child of the church"; he was no organist either, and Commotio did not originate in a commission. The whole enterprise must be seen as yet another of Nielsen's surprises to his surrounding world and perhaps to himself as well. Without any doubt, Commotio is the greatest Danish, even Nordic, single work for organ. The veteran composer spent long library hours studying the instrument's early repertoire. He was amply rewarded for his diligence, in as much as Commotio is a splendidly contemporary tribute to the great pre-Classical formal pairing, the prelude and fugue. Buxtehude (Danish-born) and Bach smile in their North German Baroque heaven every time this majestic music begins its long meandering flow onwards through a series of interlocking formal structures vying with each other for the honour of supporting the overall form. Hand in hand with the Clarinet Concerto of 1928, Commotio (longer indeed, with its 511 bars and 23-minute duration, than any single organ work written by the incomparable Leipzig Kantor, as Nielsen himself was quick to point out, though not without self-irony) is arguably the closest we come to a seventh symphony by Nielsen. And so Commotio pays hommage to the world of Baroque keyboard music, but also brings to a glorious conclusion the Danish master's wilful and fruitful engagement with the dualistic sonata-tradition of the Classical-Romantic era. Half a century earlier it was precisely through the violin sonatas of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven as well as Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, that Carl August, spiky-haired little son of a humble house-painter-cum-fiddler in rural Funen, gained entrance into the world of great music and thereby irrevocably stepped into his own world of great new music.

By Svend Ravnkilde
- Copenhagen, November 1, 2000