A celebration of Carl Nielsen at 150

Andrew Mellor Tue 9th June 2015

Nielsen’s wide output has been unfairly sidelined for more than half a century. But Andrew Mellor says we might at last be on the brink of a major Nielsen revival

A young Carl Nielsen shows off

A young Carl Nielsen shows off

Nielsen: A Life in Seven Years

  • 1888

    Niels Gade, head of the Copenhagen Conservatory, dismisses his student Nielsen’s Op 1 Suite for Strings as “too messy”

    1893

    Symphonic Fantasy consolidates some now-discernable Nielsen hallmarks: muscular energy, playful tonalities and waltzing broadsides

    1907

    Nielsen writes the song “Jens Vejmand” which becomes a staple of the Danish musical psyche and the tune every Dane sings at school

    1914

    Nielsen resigns his conducting and violin-playing post at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen; problems with his marriage escalate

    1923

    In the year of Gramophone’s founding, Nielsen visits Britain and takes the LSO through his Fourth Symphony

    1925

    Nielsen meets Schoenberg and sees his Sixth Symphony condemned as disorganised and tonally moribund

    1931

    Nielsen’s turn to contrapuntalism reaches its apex with the organ monolith Commotio; he dies later that year in Copenhagen

Consult The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music for some commentary on the works of Carl Nielsen and you’ll run into problems pretty quickly: there isn’t any. Here and elsewhere, one of the most prominent cultural figures of the early 1900s is literally edited out of musical history – too insignificant to warrant a mention.

The truth is we’ve never really known what to do with Nielsen. In any attempt to chart the story of music through Romanticism and beyond, it’s far easier to send the naughty little Dane to his bedroom than attempt to crowbar his curious sonic realm into the narrative. At best we pluck out the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies and explain away their compelling nervous energy and knife-edge tension as fitting symptoms of a troubled, war-strewn age. No mention of their musical contexts – the three outstanding developmental works that built up to them or the intriguing essay in symphonic deconstruction that followed.

But we might be on the brink of change. In this age of incessant rediscovery and renewal, it looks as though the spotlight of revisionism is at last swinging its beam towards Carl Nielsen. There are signs that musicians and audiences outside Scandinavia are finally “getting” his music. The early symphonies are creeping into the concert hall, played for the first time from clean critical editions. Major conductors appear to be testing themselves with Nielsen’s tricky textures and structures. 

True understanding of his entire oeuvre could at last grant Nielsen a genuinely significant place in the international repertoire, the sort of acceptance afforded Leoš Janáček a few decades ago. And if the Janáček comparison feels a little stretched, musically speaking it’s wholly apt. Nielsen, like Janáček, was of rural, working-class stock. To the rigorous discipline of composition he brought a vital, uncompromising accent and a distinctly unschooled edge. In a Denmark awash with undercurrents of rebellious anti-decadence and on the verge of a return to rural cultural roots and invigorating Hellenism at the dawn of the 20th century, they lapped it up.

For the Danes, Nielsen was a gift. He epitomised the democratic ideal of the “country boy made good” in a direct parallel with Hans Christian Andersen (who hailed from the same windswept island as the composer). But his music also embodied a handful of emerging Danish ideals – from health and vigour to cheek and satire. These are the contexts in which we should approach Nielsen’s sometimes difficult but ultimately life-affirming hallmarks: his wild attitude to tonality, his incessant playfulness and joie de vivre, his intense emotional edge and his extraordinary harbouring of musical energy.

'You actually feel this physical strength in the music, it reaches out to you and gets under your skin'

A musical energy, that is, which has an uncannily contemporary ring to it. It grabs hold of you, whether it’s striding inspiringly outwards or fighting against itself with fissile, chaotic force. “It’s physical music,” says conductor Michael Schønwandt, Nielsen’s most prominent Danish exponent. “You actually feel this physical strength in the music, it reaches out to you and gets under your skin.” There’s a sense of that even in photographs of the composer: he seems to leap out from behind the lens – the piercing eyes, the suggestive smile and the electrically charged hair all hemmed in by neat, respectable tailoring.

Wrapped up in that image, in fact, is a vital Nielsen truth. Though disagreement still dogs some of the composer’s most significant works, there’s a gathering consensus around the theory that Nielsen was a man torn in two. Behind the primeval energetic force that underpins so much of his music, argues Daniel Grimley (author of Carl Nielsen and the Idea of Modernism), was a tension created by the juxtaposition of the composer’s rural upbringing against his adult status as a celebrated city sophisticate. Born to labourers on the island of Funen, Nielsen was separated from the mainland of Zealand (and Copenhagen) by a cultural and literal gulf – one he never really traversed and which arguably came to shape his art.

This collision of radically different worlds is heard directly in Nielsen’s music – in the angst that undermines its sense of structure, in its playful nonconformism and in the rogue forms and modulations that invade its material. It can wrong-foot the listener spectacularly, but it also lies behind the music’s most compelling moments of rupture, outburst and momentum. For Grimley, it represents “a rich and playful dialogue that might be interpreted as a musical response to the diversity of the modern world”.

The lack of security in Nielsen’s music is both enchanting and intoxicating. Often he’ll create passages of intense physical strength while also appearing to place them on a tightrope, seconds from structural and intellectual collapse. After the disorientating opening thwacks of the Third Symphony, the music slips on to defined musical tracks before rupturing again – juddering into a wild waltz as soaring brass cut across manically trilling winds. It sounds wonderfully risky, but to get musicological for a moment, it also echoes Grimley’s theory of Nielsen the fractured personality. The effectively rural feel of the movement’s main theme collapses into the urbane waltz – a form that for decades had danced its way through the Germanic Danish music so fashionable in Copenhagen.

It’s one thing to try and analyse these musical gestures in the hope that it might turn disinterest for Nielsen into adoring enthusiasm. In reality the music must speak for itself. Which is why the chronological symphony cycle from New York – the first new cycle for eight years (10 if you discount the most recent Danish cycle) – is so vital. Just as the journey from Beethoven’s early Classical symphonies to the Eroica, the Fifth and beyond is inseparable from our vision of the artist and the man, so the essence of Nielsen’s symphonies is only really understood when you take a completist view of them.

At the heart of that is Nielsen’s career-long battle with conventional tonality. Signs of the composer’s urge to ram major keys down the throats of minor ones are already prevalent in the First Symphony. The finale launches in the ‘wrong’ (major) key before instantly correcting itself (into the minor) within three bars and the following three movements follow suit. Nielsen’s letters and diaries reveal constant frustration with the notion of perceived “rules” surrounding the use of particular keys. The major/minor face-off continues into the Second and Third Symphonies (note the mystical tonal shade of the latter’s Andante pastorale) and spectacularly in the Fourth. Nielsen may have been disturbed by the crescendo of war – he wrote the piece in 1916 – but he really only expresses himself through a continuation of ideals he’s already established. It’s a striking image, when you think of the symphonic chronology of it: the unbridled energy and optimism of Nielsen’s Third Symphony coming up against an overwhelmingly opposing force in the Fourth.

Those ideas seem more relevant now than ever, not least as the fundamental antitheses of life are pitted against one another in the Fourth Symphony. “It’s the most obvious realisation of the eternal fight between good and bad, between darkness and light,” says Schønwandt of the piece. At the end of it you’re left with an overwhelming sense of renewal – a blazing but sudden “new dawn”. When we get to the Fifth, the major/minor battle has graduated into a full-on counterpoint of modulations, a twisting harmonic tunnel-borer egged on by a confrontational improvisation on the snare drum at the apex of Part 1. By the time of the Sixth Symphony, Nielsen seems to have freed himself from the power of “major” and “minor” altogether. Taken as a whole, it’s a symphonic journey that’s arguably more lifelike, tangible and concise than that of any other 20th‑century composer.

Nielsen famously gave voice to his own inextinguishable will to live, but he also reflected on the struggle for life that his music itself would face. He once described his works as akin to “a powerful root rising up through the manure, nourished by it, beaten by nettles in the breeze, minding itself from all the weeds around it but nevertheless suckling the same stuff from the earth”. It’s Nielsen’s view of creative evolution; the Darwinian struggle for musical survival. And how astute an observation it now seems.

Certain advocates have tended to the root since. Herbert Blomstedt’s Decca recordings with the San Francisco Symphony brought Nielsen’s symphonies alive with striking verve, but despite the best efforts of him and others – Bernstein, Horenstein, Vänskä and Elder among them – the composer has never been presented as uncompromisingly as he should be on disc or in concert. As for the brilliantly original vocal, chamber, instrumental and stage works, they mostly languish in obscurity outside Scandinavia.

Alan Gilbert has recorded the complete symphonies and concertos with the New York Philharmonic. “I totally believe in him as a composer and I believe he stands up to Sibelius, without question,” he says. “I firmly believe Nielsen’s time has come.” Audience response to his introductions of the early symphonies in Chicago and Philadelphia, Gilbert claims, has been surprising and encouraging. “In this particular age, when we’re looking for anything that has a truly personal voice, well, Nielsen does that. I think his music speaks to the time.”

Particularly, one suspects, in fractured New York – that city of arrivals, departures and the endless grind of cultural gears. For the big shift in Nielsen’s historic position, from sideshow curiosity to proto-modernist, one could hardly wish for more fertile ground. From this city of diversity, will we at last begin to hear the lone, disenfranchised narrative voices that so often pervade Nielsen’s works as symbols of a true cosmopolitanism – the diverse elemental forces that connect art to the essence of human life?

Maybe. But rather more tangibly, we might be about to witness a shift in the Nielsen performing tradition. “There’s been a kind of dry approach to recording Nielsen’s music in the past; I have the sense that people think this is a cool, Nordic sound and so they should be rather dispassionate about the way they play it,” Gilbert says. “I don’t see it that way at all. I think it’s really full-blooded, passionate, dramatic and ultimately human music. That’s what I’m going for, and that’s what the Philharmonic is good at.” The Danish producers from Dacapo, Gilbert says, were taken aback by the sound of the New York Phil’s first live recording. “They’d never heard anything like it – they found it refreshing and absolutely new.”

Bold words, but welcome ones – whether or not they’re fulfilled. What Nielsen needs more than ever is some renewed sense of controversy – a rigorous interpretative debate to replace the blanket apathy and confusion that have held sway for decades. The side effect is also, essentially, the reward: we get to hear more and more of this beguiling, enchanting and fortifying music.

This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Gramophone

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