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ClassicsOnline Home » NIELSEN, C.: Symphonies, Vol. 1 - Nos. 1 and 6, "Sinfonia semplice" (Danish National Radio Symphony, Schonwandt)
The most important Danish composer of the first part of the twentieth century, Carl Nielsen was prolific in almost all genres. Dissociating himself strongly from Late Romanticism, Nielsen orientated himself increasingly towards the new currents in European music without at any time abandoning his very personal and idiosyncratic style. The Six Symphonies, which become increasingly adventurous as the cycle progresses, are essentially tonal, emotionally direct works, which alternate long lines of melody with passages of blazing energy. The exuberant Symphony No. 1 is here coupled with the enigmatic Symphony No. 6, which has been described as “music of clear sunlight and sudden shadows”.
By David Denton
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7 • Symphony No. 6 ‘Sinfonia semplice’, Op. 116
A leading influence on Scandinavian music of the present century, the Danish composer Carl Nielsen was born in 1865, the son of a painter and village musician, in whose band he had his earliest musical experience playing the violin. In 1879, after learning to play the cornet, he joined a military orchestra at Odense and by 1884 had been able, with the help of sponsors, to enter the Royal Danish Conservatory in Copenhagen as a student of violin, piano and theory. After graduation in 1886 his compositions began to win a hearing, with a significant success in 1888 for his Little Suite, Op. 1, for strings. The following year he became a violinist in the royal chapel, broadening still further his musical experience and in particular his knowledge of the music of Wagner, a subject of his serious study in Germany in 1890. Here he began the first of his six symphonies, completed in 1892. His work as a player in the royal chapel continued until 1905, followed by a growing demand for his services as a conductor, particularly of his own works, while a state pension allowed him to turn from teaching, a hitherto necessary means of survival, to concentrate on composition. His second symphony, The Four Temperaments, completed in 1902, characterizes the four humours of early medical theory. A third symphony, the Sinfonia espansiva, followed in 1911, three years after his appointment as conductor at the Royal Theatre, a position he held until 1914. The fourth symphony, The Inextinguishable, was finished in 1916, to be followed in 1922 by a fifth. The last of the six was completed in 1925, six years before Nielsen’s death in Copenhagen in 1931.
Nielsen’s work as a composer includes two operas and a number of orchestral works beside the symphonies, with concertos for violin and for clarinet. To choral works and songs may be added three published string quartets, a wind quintet and three violin sonatas, as well as a relatively small amount of music for the piano, an instrument that he had first taught himself as a young bandsman. His musical language, as demonstrated in the symphonies, is idiosyncratic and individual, essentially tonal, but covering an extended range of keys within a tonal system, with a cogent use of rhythms that adds impetus to an idiom that is, in some ways, a reaction against romanticism, while extending post-romantic harmonic, melodic and rhythmic vocabulary.
Nielsen’s Symphony No. 1, in G minor at the outset but ending, remarkably enough, in C major, was started in Berlin in 1890 and completed in 1892. It was dedicated to his wife, the sculptress Anne Marie Brodersen, whom he had met and married in Paris in 1891. The symphony was first performed, with some success, in 1894 in Copenhagen with the Royal Orchestra under Johan Svendsen, while the composer, as usual, kept his place in the second violin section. It has been suggested that there are traces of the influence of Brahms in the writing, and the spirit of Beethoven, whose Fifth Symphony had made a profound impression on him, cannot be far away. The marking of the first movement, Allegro orgoglioso, is characteristic of a composer who was later to write choleric, phlegmatic and sanguine allegros in his second symphony. Here there is a conflict of key at the start, as C major heralds G minor. Flute and oboe lead to the second subject material, the classical symphonic form continued with a central development and a subsequent recapitulation, ending in a dynamic climax. The Andante is tender and pastoral in character, but mounts in intensity before the serenity of the opening is restored. Something of the same mood recurs in the third movement, a gentle scherzo in E flat, but with reference again to the conflicting keys of G minor and C major in a lyrical Allegro comodo. There is a section that is the counterpart of the usual trio, here entrusted to the brass, before the return of the excitement and tenderness of the opening, with its sinuous figurations. The brass chorale returns before the conclusion. The finale starts with the vigour of the first, the conflict of keys again apparent in the opening. There is delicacy in the start of the central development, rising to a climax with the return of the first material in recapitulation and leading to the final triumph of C major.
Nielsen’s Symphony No. 6, which he suggested calling Sinfonia semplice, was completed in 1925 and again has a certain tonal ambiguity, opening in G major but moving forward to B flat. The composer’s suggested idyllic intentions are soon belied by an element of harsher realism in music of clear sunlight and sudden shadows. A cheerful violin melody leads to a passage of strong polyphony, an element that recurs. A chorale-like passage is followed by the sound of the triangle and by successive woodwind entries and the entry of the strings, preceding a strident climax with a strongly felt melancholy strain from violas and cellos. This subsides into the recapitulation, the opening music of the movement, now with muted violins, but proceeding to an expression of turbulent feelings of great intensity and to a final serenity tinged with melancholy. The capricious Humoreske leaves the field open to the wind and percussion sections of the orchestra with an inconsequential opening in which the side-drum attempts to call the proceedings to order, after which the clarinet, with the help of the bassoons, suggests a more coherent melodic shape, which draws various comments from percussion and trombone. The next movement, with the indicative title Proposta seria, restores the strings to their rightful rôle in a strongly felt Adagio, into which the woodwind at first insert a contrapuntal element. The music sinks into impressionist tranquillity, to be followed, without a break, by the final movement in which the theme is announced by a single bassoon. Nine variations follow, clear enough in their form and imaginative variety. These include a waltz, interrupted by the brass and bass drum, and moments of solemnity before tuba, bassoons and percussion make their ominous contribution in the ninth variation. The last section of the movement brings another treatment of the theme, the strings rushing forward towards the final bars of mock triumph.
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