Carl August Nielsen was born on 9th June 1865 at Sortelung near Nørre Lyndelse on the island of Funen. His father, who was a painter, also worked as a village musician, and as a boy Carl was already playing in his father's dance orchestra. At the same time he played in the local amateur orchestra, Braga, whose repertoire, besides entertainment and dance music, also included the symphonies of Vienna Classicism. At the age of just fourteen he was engaged as a trombonist in the regimental band in Odense. Alongside his work as a military musician he played string quartets with his friends and studied Das Wohltemperierte Klavier on his own initiative. From these years came his first real attempts at composition - mainly chamber music works in the Classical style.
Thanks to patrons in Odense, Carl Nielsen had the chance to go to Copenhagen, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Music in 1884-86 with the violin as his main subject and the Joachim pupil Valdemar Tofte as his teacher. He was also taught theory (by J.P.E. Hartmann and Orla Rosenhoff), piano (by Gottfred Matthison-Hansen) and music history (by Niels W. Gade).
After his years at the Academy he continued his theoretical studies with Rosenhoff and in 1888 he felt ready to publish his opus 1, the Little Suite for Strings. The next year he was engaged as violinist in the Royal Orchestra, a position he kept until 1905. In 1890, as recognition of his talent, he was awarded the grant Det Ancker'ske Legat, which enabled him to go on a study trip to the Continent. During this trip, in 1891, he married the sculptress Anne Marie Brodersen, who remained his wife for the rest of his life, although the marriage underwent serious crises in some periods.
In the 1890s Carl Nielsen consolidated his position as one of the country's prominent composers with works like the First Symphony op. 7 (1890-92), the J.P. Jacobsen songs op. 4 and 6 (1891), the violin sonata op. 9 (1895) and the choral work Hymnus amoris (1896-97). The years around the turn of the century brought a further two operas, Saul and David (1898-1901) and Maskarade (1904-06), the last of which quickly gained the status of a Danish national opera.
From 1901 he was granted a Government salary, which meant that he was no longer forced to take private pupils to keep up the family finances. A few years afterwards he also signed a general contract with the publisher Wilhelm Hansen, who published more or less all his works until 1924. Alongside his composing career Carl Nielsen was to hold several important posts in Danish musical life. In the period 1908-1914 he conducted at the Royal Theatre, then from 1915 until 1927 he conducted the concerts of the society Musikforeningen. In 1915 he was elected to the board of trustees of the Royal Academy, where he also taught theory and composition from 1915 until 1919. Finally he was on the boards of the Danish Composers' Society and the Society for the Publication of Danish Music.
From the earliest works on, Carl Nielsen's compositions were permeated by a Classicist aesthetic which deliberately avoided any element of Late Romanticism. But in the course of the 1910s and 1920s he oriented himself more towards the new currents in European music. Little by little he now worked several modernist elements into his music, but without at any time abandoning his very characteristic personal style. This development is very clear in the last three symphonies, no. 4 (1914-16), no. 5 (1921-22) and no. 6 (1924-25).
Alongside the increasingly modernist instrumental works Carl Nielsen worked, with his friend Thomas Laub for example, to reform the Danish national song tradition. This resulted in a number of collections of simple strophic songs where he deliberately tried to perpetuate the ideals of J.A.P. Schulz' Lieder im Volkston (1784). Carl Nielsen had a distinctive literary talent which resulted in the childhood memoirs 'Min fynske Barndom' (My Childhood on Funen), which is amazingly objective and unsentimental, and the essay collection 'Levende Musik' (Living Music), where his anti-Romantic aesthetics were clearly expressed. In his later years Carl Nielsen suffered from a weak heart, and he died on October 3rd, 1931 at the age of 66. He continues to be (astonishingly to me) underrated as one of the 20th century's true geniuses, but his legacy cannot be overstated.
|Carl Nielsen's childhood home|
|The great Dane himself, in 1908|
|Someplace I'd rather be-The Carl Nielsen Museum, which is also dedicated to the works of the composer's wife, the sculptor Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen.|
In the large-scale "Helios Overture" from 1902, we find ourselves at the beginning of Carl Nielsen's great musical 'sunshine period', which culminated in Symphony No. 3, nine years later. If Nielsen chose the Greek word for the sun, it was because the work was written in Greece while on a visit to Athens with his wife. They stayed on that occasion in a room that overlooked the Aegean Sea. Strongly descriptive in style, the Helios has a magnificent arching form which is even condensed, towards the end of the fast main section, into a bright firework display of a fugue. Carl Nielsen himself described the progress of the work in the following words:
Silence and darkness - then the sun rises
to joyful songs of praise -
wanders its golden way - sinks silently
into the sea
It opens in total darkness, with a deep pedal on C, but this gradually yields to the first hints of light, with soft horn-calls evoking the coming of dawn, which is symbolized by a noble chorale. As the sun rises, the large orchestra comes more and more into its own with radiating colors (one can almost 'feel' the golden rays caressing the skin I'd say!) as noon approaches, and the music hoists itself into a resplendent E major as the sun attains its zenith. There follows a quieter passage, suggesting the time of siesta. A grand and bustling music then breaks out into a joyous fugue as the sun makes its way into the west, to sink finally again into C and into the warm darkness from which the music first arose...
At that time European culture had once more rediscovered ancient Hellas, as expressed for example by the resumption of the Olympic Games of antiquity. Nielsen completed the Helios on April 23rd, 1903 and dedicated it to his friend, the Germano-Dutch composer Julius Röntgen, who had also been a friend of Brahms and of Grieg. And another significant Scandinavian figure-the Norwegian, Johan Svendsen-conducted the premiere of Helios in Copenhagen on October 8th of the same year.
The Helios Overture has been of great national importance because it was-and is-the first music one hears from the Danish Broadcasting Corporation on the radio after the turn of the year on New Year's Eve. Especially when the radio was the only broadcasting medium, people were given a sense that with this music they were on their way into a new time (with their dissonances, the horns at the beginning of the work create a feeling of space and promise: far out in space, the year is turning, the light of the sun will grow). There are also points of contact with the earlier great sunrise music in Denmark, Gade's morning song from "The Elf King's Daughter"; as if one sun work is greeting another. The Helios Overture is considered by many to be Nielsen's finest (smaller scale) orchestral work.
In some of the drafts from 1892 Carl Nielsen’s first symphony (opus 7 in G minor) is called "Symphony in C". This Symphony was not his first attempt in the genre. As early as 1888 he had started on a symphony in F major, but he never went further than the first movement. So it was performed under the title "Symphonic Rhapsody for Orchestra" in February 1893, under the baton of Victor Bendix, at one of the so-called Popular Concerts in Copenhagen. While Nielsen's musical personality is not in any sense in full bloom here, the orchestral writing is clearly impressive and, imo, 'clearly' Nielsen all the same.
The orchestral piece "Pan and Syrinx" from 1917-18 is one of Carl Nielsen's most distinctive works, and has always been so regarded. Among other things that have been pointed out is a surprising affinity with musical Impressionism - even with Debussy's well known piece for solo flute, Syrinx, written five years previously, although Carl Nielsen is unlikely to have known it. But that is only one side of the work. The other is the odd shifts in tempo and the special alternation between transparent chamber-musical passages and tutti sections. Here, for the first time, Carl Nielsen uses a relatively large array of exotic percussion; in the work he is stepping out on new paths after the conclusion of his Symphony no. 4. The work points forward all the way to works of the 1920s, especially the Flute Concerto of 1926.
The story of Pan and Syrinx comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Pan is attracted to the nymph Syrinx. He pursues her, dancing and bleating. But she is frightened and flees to a woodland lake, where she is transformed into a reed. That is a summary of what Carl Nielsen writes as a text in the score. But he must also have been thinking about the continuation in Ovid, where Pan makes a flute from the reeds, so that he is united with Syrinx through his art. At the end of the piece the high strings lie close to one another in a dissonant block of sound. The individual strings must then gradually stop playing with vibrato. The result is a static sound where the reeds become an instrument, the nymph becomes a thing, and love becomes art.
The "Bohemian-Danish folk tune: Paraphrase for String Orchestra" of 1928 was considered by Nielsen to be an unimportant work (the booklet notes speak of Nielsen referring to his "Rhapsodic Overture: A Fantasy Journey to the Faroe Islands" as "only a piece of jobbery" (!) which I certainly do not agree with. The "Bohemian-Danish folk tune...." is one of my favorite pieces here. I find it to be extremely beautiful, with modal string writing that is on an almost Vaughan Williamsian level, inducing chills and sheer joy for me, anyhow. I must repeat it every time I play it. Just gorgeous, a real confection imo.
-Ok, I am including the booklet notes anyhow so I hope you will all excuse my abrupt end to this post; I have to get to work! If possible I might post the symphonies tonight (the classic Da Capo series is my first choice, but I dunnoo where I have them so we shall see)