Carl Nielsen – his life and music

Carl Nielsen, 1928 - Foto: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, Charles Carlsson

Carl Nielsen, 1928Foto: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, Charles Carlsson

The composer Carl August Nielsen (9. June 1865 – 2. October 1931) is considered Denmarks greatest composer. He was born in a poor agricultural worker’s home in Nørre Lyndelse, south of Odense, the biggest town at the island Fyn (Funen). The childhood has been described by he himself in the wonderful memoirs ”My childhood at Fyn” (1927). A number of the 11 siblings died young, and the family never had enough money.

The father was a house painter and he made extra money as a village fiddler – and he taught his children to play violin. Carl’s talent was exceptional and he learned to perform the big masters such as Mozart and Beethoven.  

In a local music society, he for the first time became acquainted with the classical orchestra music, and in 1879 he won a competition for a post in the regimental band of Odense, where he played the signal horn and the alto trombone. Here, he taught himself to play several instruments and in 1884, he was accepted (a free place) as a violin student at The Music Conservatory of Copenhagen. Three years later, he passed the examination and in 1889 he competed for and won a seat in the Royal Danish Chapel [the opera orchestra of Copenhagen]. 

I 1890 he received a grant, making it possible to go on a study tour to Germany and France. In Paris, he met the danish sculptress Anne Marie Brodersen and a month later, they married in Firenze. Later on they had two daughters (the youngest, Anne Marie, married the violin virtuoso Emil Telmányi). 

In 1905 Carl Nielsen left the position as an orchestra-violinist, and three years later he was pronounced second conductor at The Royal Theatre, a position he kept until 1914. From 1915 and on he was chief-conductor of The Music Association in Copenhagen, and at the same time he was teaching musical theory at The Music Conservatory and was a member of the governing body. Nine months before his death in 1931, he was appointed director of The Music Conservatory. 

As a composer, Carl Nielsen was influenced by Brahms, Dvořák and Grieg in his first works – for example in the official debut, the charming ”Little suite for Strings”, opus 1 from 1888. But quickly he developed his very own compositional style – completely different, but as personal as Janáček’s. Once, you have heard it, you recognize the style in all of his works – it has done away with the romantics, the keys change in an untraditional way, it is not modernistic, but rather lyrical – based on several repetitions of short motives – grand and at the same time simple. 

Nielsen composed six symphonies – with number 3, 4 and 5 as the masterpieces. The first symphony was created in 1892, no. 2 “The Four Temperaments” in 1902, no. 3 “Espansiva” (1911), no. 4 “The Inextinguishable” (1916), no. 5 (1922) and no. 6 “Sinfonia Semplice” (1925). Contrary to Jean Sibelius’ “nordic” heavy romanticism, Nielsens symphonies have had difficulties becoming accepted.  

But since 1965, when Leonard Bernstein conducted the 3. Symphony “Espansiva” at a concert where he received the big danish musical prize – The Leonie Sonning Music Prize - Nielsens symphonies made their way all over the world. Bernstein recorded all six of them – plus Nielsens three excellent instrumental solo concertos for violin (1911), flute (1927) and clarinet (1928).  

Furthermore the complete symphonies are recorded by a.o. Herbert Blomstedt and The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Danish Radio National Orchestra and latest one more time by The New York Philharmonic Orchestra (this time with Alan Gilbert conducting). 

Among Nielsens other orchestral works are the concert ouverture ”A Saga Dream” (1908), music for the play”Aladdin” (1919), ”A journey in fantasy to the Faroe Islands” (1927) and ”Bohemian-Danish Folk Tune” (1928). The ”Bohemian-Danish Folk Tune” was commissioned by the Danish Radio to honour the visit of the czech conductor Jaroslav Krupka. The music is based on a czech folk melody and the old danish song ”Queen Dagmar” (this bohemian princess married the danish king Valdemar (1171-1241) and the song tells of her death). 

Furthermore Nielsen composed several cantatas such as ”Hymnus Amoris” (a celebration of love) and ”Springtime at Fyn” (1921) – both for soli, choir and orchestra. 

As an opera composer, Nielsen is only known in Denmark. He wrote two operas: the light, funny ”Masquerade” (1906) based on a play by Ludvig Holberg from the 18th century – about how the dance and free pleasures of the masquerade interferes with the life of a bourgeois Copenhagen-family. Furthermore Nielsen from 1898-1901 wrote the opera ”Saul and David” over the well-known biblical theme. 

Carl Nielsen’s chamber music includes a.o. six string quartets, two violin sonates, ”Serenato in Vano” for 3 winds and 2 strings plus an excellent wind quintet (1922). Also several piano pieces – also for children – and organ music (”Commotio” being the best). 

In addition Nielsen put music to app. 350 hymns and danish songs – music, which has won the hearts of the danes and made several of the songs so popular, that the danes know them by heart – a.o., the song about ”Jens Vejmand” – an old stone mason, whom the life and the hard work have worn out and who on his grave only get a wooden board and never a stone. Nielsen did not compose Lieder in the traditional sense. 

Nielsens importance for the next danish generation of composers was great –Herman D. Koppel, Vagn Holmboe and others. 

Most of Carl Nielsen’s music is available on records and on the internet. The scores have just (2014) been published in a new critical edition and the original autographs are kept at the Royal Danish Library. 

Autor:  Steen Frederiksen

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