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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Composers of 1865, Part 1: Carl Nielsen

Keys To Music often used anniversaries as a rationale for some of the topics I chose, and, to be honest, they were often an excuse for me to explore composers or music about which I knew very little. This was certainly the case in 2015 when the sesquicentenary (150th anniversary) of the birth of not one but four important composers was celebrated. The four-part series called "The Composers of 1865" was the result.


It's funny the things you remember. As a student at the Sydney Conservatorium in the 70s, I played viola in the Con orchestra for three years. This was an amazing experience, often making me aware of repertoire I'd never encountered before.

From time to time we played major concertos for student soloists as part of their final assessments and I well remember my first exposures to the music of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. We played both the flute concerto and the clarinet concerto and I always got confused remembering which was which. One had the trombone slides near the end, the other had the prominent part for the side drum. (I've since learned that the flute concerto had the trombone bits, while the clarinet concerto had the side drum bits.)

But beyond that, my exposure to Nielsen's music was almost non-existent for decades. Whether it was the strangeness of Nielsen's style (strange to me, I mean) or whether it was because at the time I was focusing on playing the orchestral viola part, neither concerto made much of an impression and I wasn't at all interested in learning more about this composer.

In 2015, the 150th anniversary of Nielsen's birth, I was reminded that here was yet another huge gap in my knowledge. Over the years I'd heard bits and pieces of his his music, from the symphonies to much smaller-scale pieces, but in this post I want to survey his life and work and share what I discovered about a fascinating composer.

Nielsen's childhood home at Sortelung near Nørre Lyndelse on Funen

Carl August Nielsen was born on 9 June, 1865, in a village on the island of Funen in Denmark. Funen lies between the Jutland peninsula (which connects Denmark to northern Germany) and the island of Zealand (where the city of Copenhagen is situated). He was the seventh of twelve children born to Niels Jørgensen (a house-painter and amateur musician) and his wife Maren Kirstine Johansen. The family's village was about 15 km south of the city of Odense, and Nielsen later wrote an autobiographical description of his childhood on the island called Min fynske barndom (My Childhood on Funen). His formative musical influences in this rural setting were his mother's wistful songs, and the wedding parties in which his father played both the cornet and the violin. Nielsen himself played the violin in these social events once he had sufficiently progressed on the instrument. This early contact with songs and dances was to leave its mark on the boy.

Egeskov Castle, Odense

On a broader plane, Nielsen also developed very early a fascination with the forces of nature and human character; issues of unity and conflict would become constant themes in his music, both technically and dramatically.

On Funen he played in a local amateur orchestra, an experience which revealed classical music to him for the first time. After an aborted apprenticeship as a grocer when he was 14, he decided music would be his career. He joined a military orchestra in Odense, playing brass instruments, and began studying piano, violin and theory.

Carl Nielsen in Odense (1879)

Denmark's defeat in its war with Prussia in the 1860s led to a resurgent spirit of national identity which coincided with Nielsen's childhood. The country sought to renew and refresh the national spirit and part of this involved a concerted effort to foster and develop young talent in every field. In the early 1880s, Nielsen's skills were spotted by dignitaries in Odense and he was sent to Copenhagen, where he successfully auditioned for a place at the National Conservatory. He studied there for three years, from 1884 to 1886.

At the Conservatory Nielsen composed very little, although he had started to compose while he was still in Odense. His Conservatory studies focused on the violin, as well as theory, harmony and counterpoint. He also studied music history under the institution's director, Niels Gade, then Denmark's best-known composer, but despite finding Gade himself a generous and supportive mentor, Nielsen was determined not to emulate the older man's style of composition. He was highly critical of what he called the "smoothed-over Germanic style" of composing then popular in Denmark, the style in which Gade himself wrote. Nielsen saw this as a pale imitation of another nation's music, rather than something uniquely Danish in character.

Niels Gade

In more general terms, Copenhagen opened up to the young Nielsen a world of arts and philosophy which had been denied him until then. He learned as much as he could, met important and influential people, and developed what Grove (the major source for this article) calls "a highly personal, common man's point of view".

Map of Copenhagen (c. 1888)

After graduating from the Conservatory at the end of 1886, Nielsen freelanced around Copenhagen as a violinist and teacher. It was at this time some his earliest known compositions were written, including an unpublished string quartet in F. His earliest works show an indebtedness to Brahms (who was then still alive and highly influential across Europe), while avoiding the "smoothed-over" aspect he disliked in much Danish music at the time.

Among other works from this time is the Little Suite for strings, which made a big impression when performed at the Tivoli in Copenhagen in 1888. In this work we hear the first indications of the mature Nielsen, a slightly ascerbic, individual sound which nevertheless still shows its indebtedness to Brahms, or perhaps even Dvořák. Nielsen himself was happy enough with the piece to designate it as his opus 1. [listen]

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen

In September 1889, a year after the Little Suite was performed at the Tivoli, Nielsen landed his first regular job, as a member of the second violins in the orchestra of the Royal Theatre. This provided his basic income for almost the next 20 years, but he aspired to being more than a rank-and-file violinist. Less than a year after his appointment, he was awarded the Ancker Scholarship, valued at 1800kr. This enabled him to travel for the first time throughout Europe, and the diary he kept from the day of his departure records how vital this travel was for his developing sense of artistic and personal identity.

When he was in Paris he met and fell in love with the Danish sculptor Anne Marie Brodersen. They travelled together to Italy and married in Florence in May 1891. On their return to Copenhagen, where they established their base, Nielsen completed his first symphony, which he'd begun in Berlin. The premiere of the symphony took place in Copenhagen in March 1894 and was a huge success for the 28 year old composer. Nielsen didn't conduct the performance - he played in his usual place in the second violins - but he was called forward several times at the end to acknowledge the applause, and the reviews were glowing. It was a huge step forward in his prestige and public profile. [listen]

Nielsen's marriage to Anne Marie was definitely a love match and the two artists appreciated each other's skills. She was a highly independent woman, determined on forging her own career as much as Nielsen was his. In the decades before and after 1900, the competing demands of their respective careers put considerable pressure on the relationship. Anne Marie often had to spend long periods on location for her sculpting work, leaving Nielsen at home to juggle the demands of three young children while working on his composing and fitting in his work with the opera orchestra. He even suggested divorce in 1905 but they didn't follow this course of action.

The period from 1897 to 1904 is sometimes called Nielsen's "psychological period". During this time the anguish he felt about his marriage was focused on his music, especially reflected in an interest in the driving forces behind human personality. The two major works from this period are the opera Saul and David and the second symphony, which is called The Four Temperaments.

The opera is an astonishing achievement, one of only two operas which Nielsen managed to compose. Based on the well-known Bible story, it attempts to restore balance between Saul, the flawed first King of Israel, and young David who eventually replaces him. Its four acts take only two hours to perform, and the drama is on both an intensely personal, and a grandly national, scale. This is Saul's suicide scene from the fourth act. [listen]

Nielsen with the cast of Saul and David in Stocklholm (January, 1931)

Nielsen's financial situation improved a great deal in the first years of the new century. His salary as a member of the opera orchestra was supplemented in 1901 by a state pension (described by Grove as "modest") of 800kr. This meant he no longer needed to take pupils. Two years later, an agreement with his publisher provided an annual retainer as well.

In 1904 Nielsen and Anne Marie travelled to Greece, this time funded by her award of the Ancker Scholarship. He had already been developing a passion for ancient Greek culture, and the trip led to the creation of a concert overture, Helios, which depicts the rise and fall of the sun over the Aegean Sea. [listen]

The sun over the Aegean Sea

In parallel to these developments as a composer, Nielsen was also developing a parallel career as a conductor, although contemporary reports imply that his skill on the podium was efficient, and sometimes even erratic, rather than brilliant. From 1905 he became second conductor at the opera theatre, and in 1908 this moved from a casual basis to a salaried position.

His music by around 1900/1905 had attracted a loyal audience, although the press often remained negative. The premiere of his second opera, though, was a huge boost to his professional standing. The comic subject matter of Maskarade stands in stark contrast to the tone of Saul and David; indeed, Maskarade is often described as "Denmark's National Opera". [listen]

Written in 1906-07, Maskarade is already light years away from the Brahmsian world of Nielsen's earlier music, but it's still tonal in its focus. There was no indication that he would go the way of Schoenberg and the other Viennese modernists who at this very time were abandoning tonality completely. Still, Nielsen's style was developing a tougher edge, a sort of dark neo-classicism which is rooted very strongly in the Viennese classics (Mozart, especially) but which indulges a more brutal, more self-assured, more modern tone.

Carl Nielsen (c. 1908)

The third symphony and the violin concerto appeared in 1911 when in some respects Nielsen was at the height of his creative powers. In 1912, the premiere of the symphony, called Sinfonia espansiva, led to many performances, and critical acclaim, in a very short period of time. It certainly has one of the most gripping openings to any symphony of its time. [listen]

Unlike the two later wind concertos, the violin concerto hasn't retained a firm place in the repertoire. [listen] But another work featuring the violin - the second violin sonata - was composed in 1912, and this is a pivotal work in Nielsen's development. Grove says it "prepares the way for his tough late style". There's no lack of lyricism or sheer beauty, but there's a shadow over the music which comes from a less-anchored tonality and a more uncompromising approach to stating musical ideas. [listen]

Anne Marie Brodersen and Pegasus – the first model of her Carl Nielsen monument at Grønningen, Copenhagen – in her studio at Frederiksholms Kanal in Copenhagen

Today Nielsen is mostly remembered outside Denmark for his instrumental works - especially the symphonies and concertos - but he also devoted much time and energy to the composition of songs. In fact, nearly half his total output is vocal. A large part of his popularity in Denmark during his lifetime was due to the widespread dissemination of his collection of Strophic Songs, which was deliberately aimed at renewing the national song tradition. [listen]

In 1914, when the post of first conductor at the Royal Theatre became vacant, Nielsen took great offence at not being offered it. He eventually resigned, and for the first time in 25 years was a completely freelance musician. But later that year, quite apart from the start of the first world war (in which Denmark was neutral), the strains of the Nielsen marriage came to a head.

Constant separation and dual careers had put enormous pressure on both parties, but it was Nielsen's infidelities which were the last straw for Anne Marie. She already knew of a child he had fathered during his student years but may not have known of another child who had been born as the result of an affair after they married. It was yet another affair, this time with the governess to their children, which led to a separation which was only repaired eight years later.

The crisis - combining the separation from Anne Marie, the start of the war and his departure from the Royal Theatre - affected Nielsen on every level, especially with regard to his composing. The result was complete self-reappraisal and the creation of the fourth and fifth symphonies, which are arguably his greatest works. The fourth symphony [listen] is known as The Inextinguishable, while the fifth (which has no extra title) is among one of his most frequently performed works today. [listen]

In the period of his separation from Anne Marie, and free from his commitment to the Royal Theatre, Nielsen started to conduct more. He was particularly popular (as both composer and conductor) in Sweden, and made many appearances there. He also became more involved in teaching, and in the administration of the Copenhagen Conservatory, from 1915.

Nielsen's sixth and final symphony was completed in 1925, the year he turned 60. He was at the height of his fame and the birthday was the focus of national celebrations. On the composer's score it bore the title Sinfonia semplice (Simple Symphony), and his stated aim was to write a very different, gentler, more amiable symphony when compared to his earlier ones. It questions the future of music itself, as much European music did after the first world war.

At the first performance, in December 1925, the critics were puzzled by the work, which was met with politeness out of respect for the composer, rather than genuine enthusiasm. [listen]

In the following few years Nielsen suffered from heart disease which gradually restricted his activities. The flute concerto [listen] was written in 1926 and the clarinet concerto [listen] two years later. These are among his best-known and most frequently performed works today.

Carl Nielsen (1917)

Nielsen's final works were profound, including the Three Motets of 1929 [listen] and two works for organ, the 29 Preludes (written in 1930) [listen] and the enormous Commotio (completed in early 1931). Commotio lasts more than 20 minutes and is a tribute to JS Bach, in particular the organ toccatas of the great Baroque master. [listen]

Carl Nielsen was 66 when his heart condition finally killed him on 3 October 1931. His death plunged Denmark into national mourning and he is still revered as that nation's most important composer.

Anne Marie Brodersen at work in her studio in her 70s

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in May, 2015.

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