Carl Nielsen


The Danes are probably the world’s worst self-promoters. There is no other probable reason why it should have taken the non-Danish world so long to wake up to the originality, freshness and vitality of Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). Strikingly, his most influential champions have been non-Danes: the American conductor Leonard Bernstein, the Swede Herbert Blomstedt, the Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen, the British composer and author Robert Simpson. This isn’t so much modesty on the Danes’ part, more a kind of stubbornness: ‘If we produce anything good, the world can come and find it,’ as a Copenhagen colleague put it.

Then there’s Jantelov (‘Jante’s Law’), the Danish version of ‘tall poppy syndrome’: basically ten different ways of saying ‘thou shalt not get above thyself’. Maybe that’s the problem: Nielsen grew so tall in relation to the cultural cornfield of his time that his stature became something of an embarrassment. (Contemporary Danish composers are often far readier to talk about Sibelius than their own inconveniently great compatriot.) The fact that he rose so impressively from a socially unpromising background made his rise even harder to deal with. Nielsen was born on the island of Fyn (pronounced something like ‘Foon’) into a very large, very poor rural family. His father was clarinettist in the village band, and almost before he was aware of it young Carl was playing the violin and improvising music. His first surviving ‘work’ is a little dance tune, robustly folkish in character (he knew no other music at this time, apart from hymns) which one could imagine turning up in one of his mature character pieces. In this case the child is unmistakably father to the man.

This brings us neatly to an important feature of his music. Nielsen is often labelled ‘nationalist’; and up to a point he was – for a while. Despite Denmark’s managing to stay out of World War One, the carnage had a devastating effect on him, forcing him to question his humanism, and instilling at least a temporary disgust for nationalism in all its forms. But one should remember that unlike many other late 19th- and early 20th-century musical nationalists – his exact contemporary Sibelius for instance – Nielsen did not come from the cultivated middle classes. He did not have to go out and find his country’s folk culture, as Smetana, Sibelius, Bartók and Vaughan Williams did: it was in his blood. If he wanted a folk tune, all he had to do was write one. In this he was so successful that many modern Danes incorrectly believe that some of his songs are ‘traditional’. Well, you could say that in a sense they are. Nielsen was born into that tradition, and embodied it as thoroughly as anyone.

This also helps explain how certain non-folkish elements in Nielsen’s music still manage to convey a sense of Danish-ness. As anyone who has spent any time talking to Danes will probably have noticed, the natural melodic curve of Danish speech tends to move up and down within relatively narrow intervals – approximately a major or minor third. A remarkable number of Nielsen’s melodic lines do the same. Think of the violins’ line near the start of the Fifth Symphony (1921-2), or the gentle waltz-theme that begins the second movement of the Second Symphony (1901-2), or the achingly sad tune that precedes the last frenetic outburst in the Clarinet Concerto (1928). Folksong grows naturally from the rhythms and melodic contours of native speech, and Nielsen was as saturated in folksong as in folk speech. He may never have noticed this trait in his music, just as most of us are unaware of our mannerisms until they are pointed out. But that doesn’t make it any less deep-rooted.

Of course, as soon as one starts making assertions about a work of art’s national character, the counter-charge rears up: national means narrow. True, the range of influences on Nielsen’s earlier works is surprisingly limited. If one looks at the precociously brilliant First Symphony (1891-2), written in his mid-twenties, one can catch echoes of Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms, possibly Dvoπák and a few Scandinavian forebears, especially the Norwegian Johan Svendsen (1840-1911), but he seems happily ignorant of Wagner, Liszt or Tchaikovsky; indeed late-romanticism in general seems worlds away from this invigorating, unpredictable, tartly lyrical music. But this can only be because he at this stage still knew so little. What else would you expect from a young man who, prior to his surprise admission to Copenhagen’s Royal Conservatory, had gained his musical education largely in village bands and as bugler/trumpeter to the Odense Cavalry?

But from this Nielsen developed a wonderfully unprejudiced attitude to musical style – about as far removed from the German idea of historical ‘rightness’ as possible. Anything was acceptable provided it made sense within his own strongly determined musical schemes. Commentators rightly praise Nielsen for his power of development: his ability to create powerfully compelling symphonic arguments through a highly personal use of Beethovenian thematic/tonal conflict and resolution. But the range of styles is extraordinary for a symphonic composer at that time. In the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, wild, non-tonal, quasi-extempore clarinet and flute lines shriek out above a strutting repeated bass D – F which rather than reinforcing D minor seems to make nonsense of it. Yet a few seconds later we have settled into a (momentarily) serene romantic pastoral, with warbling woodwind and comforting bucolic horn-calls. Later a warm, almost Brahmsian string tune establishes a secure G major, only for security to be wiped off the board by a savagely anarchic side-drum cadenza, in which the player is instructed to improvise ‘in his own tempo, as though determined at all costs to obstruct the music’.

And in his most enigmatic symphony, No 6 (1924-5), Nielsen shows a ‘polystylism’ – to use a cumbersome modern term the plain-speaking Nielsen would probably have detested – that matches anything in Ives or Schnittke. Sneering trombone glissandi in the middle of bitonal woodwind jog-trots, a nervously delicate waltz crushed by vandalistic marching brass and percussion in a different tempo, brutal atonal absurdism from tuba, bassoon, xylophone and bass drum. In the symphony’s finale one may be reminded of WB Yeats’s famous line from The Second Coming: ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.’ Yet somehow – just – the centre does hold. Improbably, the bassoon emerges limping from the chaos of the coda, still hanging onto the final cadential phrases of the finale’s variation theme. Here is evidence of a spirit that won’t be crushed – this despite all that life had recently hurled at Nielsen: marital strife, a chaotic sexual life, a crippling heart-attack and the fallout of the ‘war to end all wars’.  

Although Nielsen’s reputation today rests largely on his symphonies, this is a many-sided composer, a man who loved Mozart more than Beethoven, and who recreated something of the profound playfulness of Mozart’s chamber music in his loveable, witty and subtly ingenious Wind Quintet (1922) – far more effectively, in fact, than any contemporary neo-classicist. In Helios (1903), the slow movement of the Third Symphony (1910-11), Pan and Syrinx (1917) and the opening section of the Imaginary Journey to the Faroe Islands (1927) he shows a gift for nature poetry that is as original as Sibelius. Then in the Little Suite of 1888, or theatre scores like Snefrid (1893), he shows that he can be as effective as Grieg at creating tender, sweetly beguiling Scandinavian miniatures – though a tiny touch of refreshing citrus is always stirred in with the honey. One of the most famous sayings attributed to Nielsen is the deceptively simple ‘Music is the sound of life’. His own music shows that there were few, if any, of life’s sounds that he couldn’t take and transform.

Stephen Johnson