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Carl Nielsen - Composer

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Carl Nielsen (1865 - 1933) was Denmark's most important composer. He grew up being taught to play the violin by his fiddle-playing father, then played trumpet in the school band and went on to study music in the Royal Conservatory in Copenhagen. He divided his working life between playing violin in the orchestra, conducting and composing. His compositions consisted of many different musical works, including concertos for violin, flute and clarinet.

The Six Symphonies

Carl Nielsen is best remembered for his six symphonies, which became jewels of the early 20th Century. Written over a span of 33 years, the symphonies are remarkably similar to each other, with enough variety to make each one interesting. They share many characteristics.

  • Each symphony is about 30 - 35 minutes long.
  • The orchestration relies heavily on brass instruments.
  • Most of the symphonies use the technique of confusing the listener as to what key the piece is written in. This is done by playing music in more than one key at the same time. It increases the dramatic tension so that the listener subconsciously yearns for a resolution. When this finally arrives, the relief is overpowering.

Symphony No 1 (1892)

Not as heavyweight as the rest, this is still a very respectable first symphony. The dramatic tension technique is not fully developed yet, but it is very recognisably Nielsen.

Symphony No 2 - The Four Temperaments (1902)

This is probably the easiest to understand. It depicts the four temperaments which were thought in medieval times to make up human nature. Each temperament is given in one movement of the symphony.

  • Choleric - prone to outbursts of temper
  • Phlegmatic - stolid and not easily excited
  • Melancholic - sad and depressive
  • Sanguine - cheerful and optimistic

The melancholic third movement is particularly fine, in a style reminiscent of Mahler at his most doleful, or of Wagner's Parsifal.

Symphony No 3 - Sinfonia Espansiva (1911)

It is not exactly clear what Nielsen meant by the term espansiva (expansive). It does not refer to the size of the symphony or the orchestra, as these are similar to the other symphonies. It seems to mean the 'outward growth of the mind's scope', to quote Robert Simpson, an eminent Nielsen scholar.

This symphony is very beautiful. It is the first to really exploit Nielsen's 'two keys at the same time' technique. It also features a peaceful section with two singers - a soprano and a baritone - who sing a tune without words.

Symphony No 4 - The Inextinguishable (1916)

It is not this symphony which is inextinguishable, but the spirit of life itself. The music depicts a battle between the destructive forces of hatred and the burgeoning 'elemental will to live'. There is a constant tug in the music between the forces of order and chaos. One section has a dramatic 'battle of the timpani', where two complete sets of timpani (kettledrums) hammer out chords, drowning out the rest of the orchestra for a time.

This symphony is one of the most popular of the six with audiences. Written during the Great War, Nielsen was undoubtedly influenced by the events of the period.

Symphony No 5 (1922)

Almost as popular as the 4th Symphony, this is another great battle between the forces of order and chaos. A snare drummer is given the task of interrupting the orchestra, playing ad lib, out of time, with the intention of destroying the music. The rest of the orchestra fights back by playing ever more musically while the drummer struggles on. Eventually he is beaten down and the glorious music prevails.

Symphony No 6 (1925)

This is the strangest of the symphonies. At first, Nielsen had intended it to bear the title Sinfonia Semplice ('simple symphony') but he abandoned that idea, as it is far from simple. It starts in a very similar vein to the other symphonies, but soon degenerates into a number of cameos, some sad, some grotesque, some humorous, some just plain silly. Perhaps we can forgive Nielsen, after all those glorious life and death struggles, he chose to end his life's work with a good joke!

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