Saturday, 17 March 2012

Nielsen: Worth more than a hundred kroner

There are many great Danes - Tycho Brahe, Søren Kierkegaard, Helena Christensen, Hans Christian Anderson, Brigitte Nielsen, Sandi Toksvig, Niels Bohr, Scooby Doo, Jørn Utzon, Peter Schmeichel to name but a few - but to music lovers the greatest Dane is (by common consent) Carl Nielsen (1865-1931).

First, an off-the-top-of-my-head overview of the man's music. His style evolved from being rather like Brahms to being highly individual. Or, to put it another way, from being broadly conservative and Classical-Romantic to being much more Modern. He became one of the pioneers (along with Mahler) of progressive tonality, where a work begins in one key and (after a prolonged harmonic struggle) ends up in a completely different key. Part of the appeal of Nielsen's music, for those of us who like it, is that it appeals to the heart and to the head. Others may find the contrasting aspects of his musical personality disconcerting. Sometimes, for example, you might find yourself enjoying lots of great tunes with all the catchy simplicity of folk song, smelling the fresh air of the island of Funen; at other times you might find yourself facing tough, contrapuntal writing that looms in your face with all the austerity of a slate mine. Yes, Nielsen can be open-hearted and easy-to-love but he can also be stern and less approachable. I love not knowing in advance what you're going to find in a piece by this composer. 

So, where to begin with Nielsen (if you're new to him)? Perhaps the best place would be his immensely good-natured cantata ('lyrical humoresque') Springtime on Funen (Fynsk Forår), one of my favourite pieces not just by Nielsen but by any composer. (There's no complete performance yet on YouTube, but there is an almost complete performance - linked to above). It's got loads of unforgettable fresh tunes, all penned by the composer however much like folk songs they might sound, and exudes warmth and humanity. It opens with a vibrant chorus celebrating the community and continues with an exceptionally beautiful soprano solo, whose melody is cast against luminous scoring (including a magical part for triangle) and whose original harmonies are captivating and ultimately exhilarating. One of Nielsen's loveliest melodies follows in the tenor's love song to Ilsabil. Having lost an Isabel of my own, this tune rather chokes me up.   Anyhow, then it's fun on Funen with the delightful swinging number which follows with its lilting tunefulness and 'tra-la-las' from the chorus. The heart of the piece though is the moving but very far from mawkish baritone solo 'The Blind Musician', with its beautiful melody and gorgeous scoring. Ah! Fun returns with as the children's chorus enters (an adorable section) and they are followed by a deeply lovely chorus of the elderly, an unaccompanied men's chorus. The closing 'dance ballad' provides a whirling finish. 

Perhaps the Second Symphony makes the best entry point into the glories of Nielsen's six symphonies. The piece has the subtitle 'The Four Temperaments', inspired by memories of an amusing painting the composer saw in a pub. Depicting these four traditional personality types, the symphony can be seen as programme music but this aspect of the piece is fully complemented by post-Brahmsian symphonic argument. By this stage in his career, his Brahmsian side was still quite strong but his individuality was now making itself felt. What I love this symphony for is the strength of that symphonic argument, but also for its many, many fabulous tunes. The opening Allegro collerico evokes the choleric temperament - not only its rages but also its gentler, nobler aspects. The rages are expressed in the main subject, which bursts in banging chords around like slammed doors! A transition based on rising thirds (important later) leads to the second subject, a glorious tune expressing the noble side of this type of character. The development section is powerfully worked, with a purposeful fugato and some fine stormy writing. The second movement Allegro comodo e flemmatico explores the phlegmatic personality and takes the form of a relaxed waltz, warm and gently humorous in nature. 'Che sera, sera' indeed. Just listen to the orchestral colouring here, as it's particularly winning. The third movement Andante malincolico touches great depths and is an unwallowing, sympathetic portrait of the melancholic personality. The violins give out the superb first melody, a tune that is quintessential Nielsen (though Mahlerians might like it too!) The sighing second subject on oboe is another memorable melody, with its poignant minor seconds and chromatic inflections. Both tunes form part of a majestic symphonic paragraph. The central passage is quietly contrapuntal, sounding resigned in mood. The brass rise to magnificence at the start of the reprise and there's a powerful climax and a beautiful coda. Finally, the Allegro sanguino introduces us to the sanguine personality, who is introduced with yet another 'instant classic' of a tune and who damns braces with a gusto. The second subject is less hectic and has many a Nielsen fingerprint. The recapitulation follows on straight away, without a development section. The second subject, however, enters an ill-lit maze of minor key harmony, groping for an escape which comes in the form of a stirring march. I never tire of this symphony & hope you'll treat yourself to it too. 

From there you might like to move on and explore the towering masterpiece that is the Fifth Symphony. It has that Beethoven-inspired dynamism which always makes Nielsen's 'big statements' so thrilling. Here it's directed into a dramatic two-movement structure through which the struggle from darkness to light is vividly staged. 

The first movement begins in a near-inert atmosphere with strings moving very quietly between two notes, creating a sort of wave motion, and two bassoons introducing a vague theme below. Harsher gestures hint at the menace to come but the grey mists remain, lit by soft echoes on horns and flutes. Suddenly, like ripples on a still pond, the wave figure creates a melodic shape - a theme. Another follows immediately, like a larger ripple, beginning with the interval of a third on which all the wave-like activity so far has been based, now taking the form of a wonderful yet indecisive-sounding melody. The oscillating figures persist but the wave motion passes to a solo clarinet. With the entry of the percussion, the struggle begins. The side drum turns the wave motion into a brutal march over which the strings sing a worried melody and woodwinds cry out in near hysteria. This passage introduces a whirling three-note figure which is left spinning in the air at its close. (Wonderful!) Earlier elements combine with it and the strings push on with the worried melody. A hush descends and a tense atmosphere is conjured poetically out of which emerges an Adagio section built on a new theme - a major key theme. This brings a golden glow into the movement. This great melody grows ever more beautiful as Nielsen lets his contrapuntal imagination work on it and gorgeous bright tonalities really help this passage sing. The song pauses but begins again, now graced by the wavy theme, and is soon touching on darker harmonies and sonorities as it faces the fury of the side drum, which beats against it wildly. This fiercely-fought battle ends in defeat for the drum and a glorious climax marks the moment of victory. The first battle is won, but not yet the war. The coda shows this by setting a mournful clarinet over a hushed G major chord.

The second movement Allegro erupts with an energetic theme, uncertain in harmony but positive-sounding nonetheless - especially in its leaping continuation. The tension created is palpable and contrasts sharply with the calm oboe-led passage that (briefly) follows. An exciting new paragraph comes after a pause and that is followed by a scurrying, increasingly tense 'development section'. This reaches boiling point and Nielsen keeps it there for some time. Nagging, repetitive notes are used to more the music in inertia. A fugue begins, which feels like a desperate escape bid and is met by renewed hysteria when it fails miserably. A new and more thoughtful fugue is needed if the second battle is to be won. This follows the movement's emotional low point and begins quietly on muted violins. It grows in warmth and becomes extremely beautiful, slowly winning the battle by spreading peace. It becomes apparent as it nears its close that its theme is a version of the movement's opening theme (which you only realise gradually). The latter springs back in at the climax and is recapitulated before the symphony ends triumphantly in E flat major. 

After this gripping, intense symphony, why not try the Flute Concerto? There's absolutely no froth in the piece, but there's plenty of humour in the second of its two movements that always cheers me up. Nielsen is also concerned with such things. Its first movement is closer to the Fifth Symphony in spirit, perhaps, being a drama of themes (all with distinct characters) in search of a home key, but doesn't lack geniality either. There are lots of good tunes to enjoy. 

Nielsen also wrote excellent short orchestral works, of which I'd like to single out Pan and Syrinx. This 'nature scene for orchestra' evokes the tale from Ovid with unerring skill. It opens by establishing a peaceful scene. Against tremolando violins a blissful cello theme falls and rises and a flute melody full of dreamy undulations responds. High, bright tremolandi, percussion and a capricious clarinet figure announce the arrival onto the scene of Pan. The tone-poem tracks the growing terror of Syrinx and Pan's lustful pursuit in music of deep imagination and melodic and colouristic appeal. It's beautiful and exciting. Listen out for Pan's coaxing central song and the its gloriously passionate climax (counterpointed by terror). Terror finally prompts a dramatic flight. The peaceful opening music returns and Syrinx is metamorphosized into a reed whose quivering on the breeze is evoked magically.

For the lightest side of Nielsen's output, please give his Aladdin Suite a go. Here he comes quite close to the Grieg of Peer Gynt. It's tuneful and very colourful. The movement to really listen out for is 'The Market Place in Ispahan' where the market's busy atmosphere is conjured by the overlaying of four contrasting musical ideas. The technique may be compared to Charles Ives, though Holst's Beni Mora is a more appropriate comparison. 

Hopefully, this will give you a flavour of Carl Nielsen's range and genius as a composer. More posts on Nielsen will follow.

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