This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Carl Nielsen. We have marked the occasion with a look at his life and work in the Composer of the Month feature of the August issue of BBC Music Magazine, out now. In the meantime, to give you a little headstart, we present six fascinating facts about Denmark’s greatest composer that you may not know…


1. Nielsen was an early-adopter when it came to the selfie… He had some hilarious ones taken to amuse a girl he fancied, Emilie Demant, in the small town of Norkøbing Mors in Jutland. How could she possibly resist?

2. Nielsen, like Sibelius, was an average violinist. Distinctly average, it would seem. Taking up the fiddle as a boy to accompany his father at dances, he used it to make a living while composing and got a job as a second violinist in the Chapel Royal. After 16 years he had still not made it into the firsts.

In 1905, a year before the premiere of his opera Maskarade and when he was by now conducting regularly, he was humiliated to be informed by the management he could either return to the second violins or leave. Thank goodness, the Swedes at the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra were more appreciative.

3. Nielsen’s opinions on other composers could be very catty – Richard Strauss, for instance, was ‘a most unsympathetic person; a social climber who is already trying to play the great man’. Nor was he afraid to be provocative – ‘Beethoven, for all his great compositional power, is really only a lyricist’.

In most cases, though, history has proved him right. ‘Weber will be forgotten after 100 years,' he wrote. 'There is something jelly-like in many of his things that will not withstand time. It is true that he who hits with the best fist will be remembered longest. Beethoven, Michelangelo, Bach, Berlioz, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, Goethe, Ibsen and the like have all given their times a black eye.’

4. Nielsen could never be accused of not trying to fit in. Visiting London in 1923 to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in his Violin Concerto and Fourth Symphony, he had mugged up on English in a Hundred Hours sufficiently to crack a joke: ‘Gentlemen, I am glad to see you. I hope I also will be glad to hear you.’ Splendid. On the same visit, he went to tea with the Danish Queen Alexandra, the Queen Mother, and sat with the top button of his trousers undone throughout the proceedings… making room for some Danish pastries, no doubt.

5. Nielsen was a man of great energy and ‘can do’. He was in his 60s and already suffering from heart disease when he participated in the rehearsals for a new production of Maskarade in Copenhagen. When there was some trouble with the ropes during the dress rehearsal, he offered to hoist himself up into the fly loft by his arms to fix the snags. The following day he had a series of minor heart attacks, but continued to sit through the performance in intense pain. Within months he had died of a final heart attack.

6. Nielsen liked the pub. In fact, he had the inspiration for his Second Symphony, ‘The Four Temperaments’, while sitting in one. We’ll let the great Dane himself explain: ‘On the wall of the room where I was drinking a glass of beer with my wife and some friends hung an extremely comical coloured picture, divided into four sections in which ‘the Temperaments’ were represented and furnished with titles: “The Choleric”, “The Sanguine", "The Melancholic" and "The Phlegmatic".

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'My friends and I were heartily amused by the naivety of the pictures, their exaggerated expression and their comic earnestness. But how strangely things can sometimes turn out! I, who had laughed aloud and mockingly at these pictures, returned constantly to them in my thoughts, and one fine day I realised that these shoddy pictures still contained a kind of core or idea and – just think! – even a musical undercurrent! Some time later, then, I began to work out the first movement of a symphony…’


For a more in-depth look at Carl Nielsen, see the August issue of BBC Music Magazine, out now.


Helen WallaceArtistic and Executive Director, Kings Place

Helen Wallace is the Artistic and Executive Director of Kings Place, a concert hall in King's Cross, London, and the former editor of BBC Music Magazine and The Strad Magazine.