Sunday, 18 March 2012

Simples. Or not.

Nielsen's final symphony, the Sixth Symphony, bears the subtitle 'Sinfonia semplice' but, as you'll hear if you listen to the piece, it's anything but a simple symphony. Such ironic titles were clearly a part of the composer's dry sense of humour. As mentioned in the previous post, he called a movement from his Piano Suite 'Allegretto innocente' when it was far from innocent in character and the restless opening movement of the Second Violin Sonata is given the droll marking 'Allegro con tepidezza' despite there being nothing remotely tepid about it.

The opening movement is magnificent but you would have to have a brain the size of a planet to find it simple! Time for a fanciful analogy. Listening to this movement is like rock climbing. There's a great deal of effort needed but it is very rewarding and affords glorious views as you climb higher and higher and the sense at the end of a struggle won. There are steep ascents and potential pitfalls but they only serve to give an adrenalin rush to the committed listener and lead to heart-stoppingly stunning passages. The reference to 'heart-stopping' was deliberately chosen as the movement's main climax evokes the composer's own experience of suffering a heart attack. All is well at the very start as a glockenspiel chimes four times, gently, steadily. The violins sing a hopeful-sounding phrase and the woodwinds potter about. A jaunty new violin melody set to a jogging rhythm follows, sounding a neo-Classical note. A further theme follows - a memorable four-note figure on flute (the one thing that can be called 'semplice'), which is answered by a falling idea made from thirds and minor seconds over of a chromatic, wavy accompaniment. This chromatic clouding-over gathers pace threateningly and eventually evicts the jaunty tune. The mists descend poetically and an energetic fugue (full of dotted rhythms) is launched to disperse them, gaining in strength as earlier themes return. The flow of energy then abruptly changes direction, darkening again and gradually swirling upwards towards a furious climax out of which emerges a glorious blaze of major-key radiance as the hopeful-sounding phrase returns (in combination with the flute's theme) like a hymn. This breathtaking passage leads to a fascinating section where a piccolo pipes away at a single note while the strings play an archaic-sounding dance. A new fugue intrudes nervously and into it Nielsen throws further reminders of earlier themes, gathering together in a developmental ferment at the frenzied height of which a cry rings out and the glockenspiel sounds again, irregularly. This is the composer's depiction of his heart attack. Lower strings respond with a passionate song of grief. A high canon floats in on violins, flecked by glockenspiel, beautifully, sadly, and the lamenting resumes no less beautifully, again intensifying until fugal writing re-erupts. This climaxes then melts away. The closing bars are serene yet sad. We have travelled from G major/minor at the start to A flat major at the end. Yes, quite a journey and not a simple one. 

OK, so the listener has climbed all that way to the top of the rock-face and, panting, is looking out towards the second movement. What view greets that listener? An avant-garde circus! (Not what anyone would have expected!) This 'Humoreske' has worried critics since its first performance. It's so disconcertingly unlike the preceding movement, or either of the movements that follow. It's a sharply sarcastic caprice, written just for winds and percussion, made up of parodies of contemporary modernist styles and composers, with Schoenberg and Stravinsky very much Nielsen's main targets. (Koechlin's Les Bandar-Log is an interesting point of comparison). Varèse might also be a target, given the sneering siren-like trombone yawns as the movement's various perky little tunes proceed. The question is 'Can something be criticised for being out of place if it was clearly meant to sound out of place?' What was he getting at? There's no simple answer to that. Was he obliquely comparing the disorder inside his heart with the disorder inside modern music (and suggesting that Schoenberg, Stravinsky & Co. were giving it a heart attack)? Just a thought. Was he echoing Mahler's statement that the symphony must contain the whole world, including things that don't appear to fit at all?

The third movement brings back the strings in style, launching a beautiful fugato. This initial confidence soon collapses onto a strange unwinding rope of melody. Against it winds and then lower strings recall the fugato theme. The  flute launches a new theme and other woodwinds follow. The strings stop them in their tracks and the fugue and the unwinding rope tangle themselves together again to powerful effect. The woodwinds try again and a poetic passage of conflicting impulses results, quickly and mysteriously ending in a sunset glow. A fabulous movement.

Golden glows are not going to be the end-point of this symphony, however. It couldn't be that simple! The Finale is a set of dramatic variations on a quixotic bassoon theme that could only have come from the brain of Carl Nielsen. Variations I and II throw the spotlight on the winds, while the third variation is a strange fugato for the strings. Variations IV and V follow straight on and are tempestuous. Variation VI is a wry waltz and in both it and its successor this charming thing is repeatedly undermined and finally bullied into shutting up. Variation VIII comes close to being a lament and is followed by a dancing variation in which the glockenspiel's two-note ostinato, begun quietly, rises to audibility. The grim final variation brings back the soundworld of the 'Humoreske' (so there is a connection there!), with percussion foregrounded and a growling tuba prowling underneath. A mock fanfare provokes the strings to leap like bonfire flames over the side-drum. A brass chorale sounds over it and everything (Ives-like) shimmies to climax out of which comes a catchy fragment of a dance tune. This dies away and strings lead to the final flare-up, leaving the bassoon to blow a final raspberry as a 'goodbye'. 

That ending is an enigmatic as anything by Shostakovich. If you listen to Shostakovich's own final symphony, the Fifteenth, after listening to Nielsen's Sixth, you might be struck by many similarities. I've no idea whether Shostakovich knew this symphony of Nielsen's but the coincidences of technique and tone (if they are coincidences) are striking. Just re-listen to the very opening of the Sinfonia Semplice and then listen to the opening seconds of the Shostakovich for starters...

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