Nielsen: Orchestral Music
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is known internationally for his six symphonies. In Denmark his name is further associated with the large number of popular songs and melodies that flowed out to the Danes from his pen throughout most of his life, so that almost every Dane knows a song by Carl Nielsen.
But while he lived his everyday musical life was rooted in yet another context: the world of the theatre, and especially that of the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. From 1889 until 1905 he was employed as a violinist in the Royal Danish Orchestra – the house orchestra of the national theatre. Even at that time he took on occasional conducting tasks, and in the years from 1908 until 1914 he was a regular conductor at the Royal Theatre. The atmosphere surrounding his activities as a conductor was never completely calm, and several times he went through stormy periods at the theatre, often with much discussion of his activities in the press. He resigned in 1914, but continued to write stage music. Besides his two operasSaul and David (1898-1901) and Masquerade (1905-06), he wrote music for many plays. This was partly because in Copenhagen, until just two years ago, opera and drama belonged in the same theatre and were played on the same stages. It was thus very reasonable to use the large house orchestra for performances of plays.
Masquerade is viewed by many people as the Danish national opera. The libretto was written by the Danish literary scholar Vilhelm Andersen after a comedy by Ludvig Holberg from the eighteenth century. Holberg played – and still plays – a quite central role as a Danish writer of comedies; his statue stands in front of the Royal Theatre. many people thought that it was blasphemy to turn one of his texts into an opera. But the many red lights and full houses after the premiere said something quite different. With this work Carl Nielsen’s music began in earnest to reach out to the general public.
Most of Masquerade was composed in 1905 – in a strange fit of inspiration, a state of weightlessness at which even Carl Nielsen himself expressed surprise many times later. Presumably this came from Vilhelm Andersen’s emphasis on the Dionysian aspect in Holberg. The overture was finished in 22 days, just before the premiere in 1906. At the same time it was a Mozart year – the 150th anniversary of the birth of the master. So the same year Carl Nielsen wrote a significant and later very well-known essay on Mozart, in which he put Mozart before Beethoven, who had otherwise been the great composer-hero of the nineteenth century. This too rubbed off on Masquerade, which takes place in 18th-century Copenhagen. Or it may be that Carl Nielsen’s musical experience with the opera gave him a new view of Mozart.
In the international perspective, one can say that with his work Carl Nielsen truly latched on to a particular Classicist current amidst the widespread Late Romantic attitudes in European music at the turn of the century. Music full of sophistication, playfulness, the sheer joy of music-making, acuity, humour and pointedness had already begun to emerge at the end of the century, and made its mark even more clearly over the next few years. Typically this new – or “young” Classicism (Busoni’s expression) – had its breakthrough in one-movement works, opera overtures or symphonic poems. One thinks of characteristic individual works like Nikolaus von Reznicek’s overture to Donna Anna (1894) or, after Masquerade, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s overture to Il segreto di Susanna (1909). One thinks of Busoni’s comic operas after 1910; and of course – first and foremost – of Richard Strauss, not only Der Rosenkavalier from 1910, but also his witty, sophisticated and shrewd points in some of the early symphonic poems.
In one fell swoop Carl Nielsen’s overture to Masquerade has to open the door to great festivity and high comedy. In the fast movement it has both animated narrative and playful counterpoint, expressing a unity of endless energy and great lightness in the Dionysian rebirth of the century of Enlightenment.
The Dance of the Cockerels from Masquerade is one of Carl Nielsen’s most popular pieces. It belongs to Act Three of the opera, the festivities at the big masked ball which brings all the participants together, high and low, young and old. The dance is in 3/4 time – not like a waltz, perhaps rather like a Polonaise. We hear the proud cockerel strutting around among the clucking hens. In the trio comes an eruptive, stereophonic episode where trumpets, bassoons, flutes and horns cry out to one another – like young cockerels squabbling over the hens.
Oddly enough Carl Nielsen had to write the next work, the prelude to Sir Oluf, and all the other stage music for the piece, at the same time as he was rehearsing Masquerade. The theatre wanted to celebrate the Danish national poet Holger Drachmann’s 60th birthday, and this was to be done with a play by Drachmann himself based on the ballad motif so often used in the Danish tradition about Sir Oluf and his meeting with the elf-maidens, also known from Niels W. Gade’s The Elf King’s Daughter. The rehearsals of the two works also coincided; in his diary we see that for several days Carl Nielsen was rehearsing both works, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The play was not a success, but Carl Nielsen’s music was generally well received – at all events it was mentioned in most of the reviews. Nor can it be denied that Carl Nielsen succeeded in taking a different musical path from Masquerade, for example in some of the harmonies. A reviewer remarked in particular on what he called “the pedal point of the chirpy oboe tone, which reflects the enchantments of Fairyland.”
In the next work, Snefrid, we are back among Carl Nielsen’s earliest works. True, in 1889 he had written a couple of pieces for a production at the Dagmar Theatre, but –Snefrid was still to become his first true -theatre music that could also be performed in concerts. The work was written in 1893, just after Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 1 from the previous year. He had so to speak just made his entry on the stage as a composer, achieved his breakthrough, and was only now finding his own style. For that reason there is a kind of lustre of originality over the pieces from Snefrid, especially in the slow -lyrical passages. Of the third of the pieces, the love music, Carl Nielsen wrote in a letter that he had played it for an acquaintance: “he simply blushed at the sensual character of the music …” However, we can also find words from the up-and-coming young composer saying quite the opposite: he claimed that the high, great music he wanted to write would be the opposite of sensuality. Snefrid is thus the expression of a duality in the period. On the one hand it reached outwards towards the sensual, on the other it aspires upwards towards the high ideals. Once more this matches the attitudes of the contemporary Symbolist poets. The prelude to Snefrid in a piano arrangement was in fact printed in a contemporary literary periodical calledUngt Blod (‘Young Blood’).
Carl Nielsen’s first opera Saul and David has no overture, but it does have an independent prelude to Act Two. The opera combines an intense psychological portrait of the vacillating Saul with a more oratorio-like monumental style. The prelude to Act Two precedes a scene in the King’s hall where David plays for Saul, and where a messenger brings the news of the great giant of the Philistines, Goliath. The prelude announces a world of both internal and external -struggle. The brisk, piercing dissonance for three trumpets attracted attention at the time and was discussed in most of the reviews. It is based on a linear principle on the first three notes, where two thirds that lead to a horn fifth in the second and third trumpet are combined with a simple ascending melody in the first trumpet.
The prelude was performed separately before the premiere of the opera, conducted by Johan Svendsen, who was a warm supporter of the work. At the premiere of the whole opera Carl Nielsen himself conducted.
With the work Rhapsodic Overture. A Fantasy Journey to the Faroe Islands, we are near the end of Carl Nielsen’s life, after the completion of the sixth and last symphony. It is an occasional composition written for a celebration at the Royal Theatre to mark a visit from the Faroe Islands. We hear how the music approaches the remote islands in the Atlantic and arrives at an old melody well known in Denmark asPåskeklokken kimed mildt (‘Gently chimed the Easter bell’). The work is also an example of how Carl Nielsen in his later years touched on many widely differing landscapes, each of which required its own music.
In 1908, a few years after Masquerade, the play Willemoes was written to commemorate the centenary of the death of the Danish naval hero Peter Willemoes at the Battle of Zealand Point. The text was by L.C. Nielsen, with whom Carl Nielsen collaborated several times. One of the melodies that appeared in the play later became a Folk High School song, Havet omkring Danmark (‘The Sea around Denmark’). Carl Nielsen shared the composition of the music with his pupil Emilius Bangert. The only orchestral piece composed solely by Carl Nielsen in the play is the prelude to Act Three. It is meant to refer to Willemoes’ love for a young girl at Tranekær on Langeland, the island which has also, because of Grundtvig’s intense youthful love affair there, assumed a special position in the history of Denmark during the Napoleonic Wars.
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.
When Carl Nielsen was making up his mind at the age of 18 to leave his position as a regimental band musician in Odense to go to Copenhagen, he spoke to his mother. She referred to Hans Christian Andersen, who had also come from Funen to Copenhagen and later became world-famous. Carl too could do that. Towards the end of Carl Nielsen’s life the paths of the two Funen men were to cross in the overture to Cupid and the Poet. The play, celebrating the 125th anniversary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen, was written by Sophus Michaëlis. Carl Nielsen himself was satisfied with his work: he wrote to his wife that one should never relax when one had to write occasional or commissioned music. Of Hans Christian Andersen he said that when he thought of Andersen’s tales, it evoked associations of a futuristic – perhaps, to use a later word, surrealistic – painting: “… an old fir tree, a spinning top, yes and the neck of a swan”. In this piece Carl Nielsen is quite in tune with the situation around 1930 and with his own Symphonies 5 and 6. Sophus Michaëlis’ Hans Christian Andersen Gala Play had its premiere on 12th August at the Odense Theatre. Carl Nielsen himself conducted, there in the region of his childhood. The original piece became Carl Nielsen’s last orchestral composition.
In the large-scale overture Helios 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, and at that time European culture had once more rediscovered ancient Hellas, as expressed for example by the resumption of the Olympic Games of antiquity.
The Helios 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 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
Jørgen I. Jensen, 2006
Maskarade (Masquerade), FS 39
2. Act III: Hanedans (Cockerel’s Dance)
3. Herr Oluf han rider (Master Oluf He Rides), FS 37 – Master Oluf Rides, Op. 37: Prelude
Snefrid Suite, FS 17
4. I. Prelude
5. II. Andante quasi sostenuto
6. III. Postlude: Allegro non troppo
7. IV. Snefrid’s Sleep: Andante – Quasi allegretto – Andante
8. V. Funeral Music: Andante sostenuto
9. Saul og David (Saul and David), FS 25, Act II: Prelude
10. Rhapsodic Overture – A Fantasy Journey to the Faroes, Op. 123
11. Willemoes, Op. 44, Act III: Prelude
12. Pan og Syrinx (Pan and Syrinx), Op. 49, FS 87
13. Amor og Digteren (Cupid and the Poet), Op. 54, FS 150
14. Helios Overture, Op. 17
“…this disc is a good reminder of just how experimental Nielsen could be: prepared to try out not just different stylistic devices but even different kinds of persona. Thomas Dausgaard conducts all these works with tremendous gusto, balanced by a fine ear for unusual, suggestive textures, or the comedic vitality that erupts in Maskarade.” – BBC Music Magazine *****
“It comes about as close to the ideal as I ever hope to hear, and it eclipses almost all others in its field. Dacapo’s recording quality is top-drawer.” – Gramophone Magazine
“This is without doubt the finest collection of Nielsen’s short orchestral works currently available. It is perfectly played, brilliantly conducted, and superbly recorded in stereo and SACD formats. You won’t hear a more ebullient performance of the Maskerade Overture anywhere.” – 10/10 Classics Today
“Thomas Dausgaard conducts with style and spirit and the orchestra is first class. For lovers of finely written orchestral music, this disc is a must.” – Limelight *****
“This is outstanding, and unmissable for Nielsen collectors – and not only for the less familiar items, all of which have been recorded before (not badly, either). The Danish Radio Symphony must have played the Saul andDavid and Maskarade excerpts and the Helios Overture more times than they can count. But for Dausgaard they relish every detail, without ever sounding self-conscious. To call the balance in the ‘Cockerels’ Dance’ felicitous would be an understatement; it is revelatory. Nor is affectionate an adequate word for Dausgaard’s interpretations of all the music on this disc; there is love here, and a sense of crusading mission.
The praises of the Rhapsody Overture and Panand Syrinx could be sung just as extravagantly.
As could those over the theatre music excerpts, all of which lead to or from the world of Nielsen’s symphonies. Given playing of such finesse and bite (one virtually takes idiomatic understanding for granted) they all feel like gems in their own right.
Here’s a Nielsen disc that comes about as close to the ideal as one could hope to hear, and it eclipses almost all others in its field. Dacapo’s recording quality is top-drawer, and there is an exemplary essay from Jørgen I Jensen.” –Gramophone Classical Music Guide