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ClassicsOnline Home » NIELSEN, C.: Symphonies, Vol. 3 - Nos. 4, "The Inextinguishable" and 5 (Danish National Radio Symphony, Schonwandt)
The most important Danish composer of the first third of the twentieth century, Carl Nielsen was
prolific in almost all genres. The six Symphonies are essentially tonal, emotionally direct works,
which alternate long lines of melody with passages of blazing energy. Symphony No. 4,
‘The Inextinguishable’, his most dramatic, conveys ‘the elemental will to live’, while in his Symphony
No. 5, written after the 1914–18 war, Nielsen develops new and stronger rhythms and more advanced
harmonies. Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6 (8.570737) and Nos. 2 and 3 (8.570738) are also available.
By David Denton
Carl Nielsen (1865–1931)
Symphony No. 4, Op. 29 ‘The Inextinguishable’ • Symphony No. 5, Op. 50
A leading influence on Scandinavian music of the twentieth 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 Opus 1 Little Suite 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 the 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.
The title of the Fourth Symphony, Det Uudslukkelige (The Inextinguishable), was chosen to express what Nielsen saw as the elemental Will of Life,
explaining that Music, like Life, is inextinguishable, an indication of the right approach to the work rather than of the presence of any programmatic element. The symphony is scored for triple woodwind, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, strings and timpani, with two sets of the last, placed opposite each
other, the second at the side of the orchestra and near the audience. The first of the four movements, linked one to the other, opens forcefully with some ambiguity of key and mode. All grows quieter with a passage for solo cello and the three flutes, followed by the three clarinets, leading, by ascending scales from violas and muted second violins, to a passage marked risoluto e giusto in which strings and woodwind happily join. These nevertheless continue the harmonic ambiguity and instability of what has so far transpired, in a symphony that apparently opens in D minor/major but ends in E major, the tonality at which it aims. An exultant passage for full orchestra, marked pesante e glorioso is followed by the introduction of a new rhythmic element, a leaping figure heard first from the flute. The music continues in what is broadly traditional tripartite form, with a return of the first material to mark the beginning of a triumphant recapitulation section, diminishing into a delightful G major Allegretto interlude for the woodwind band. The violins introduce a third movement with a strong and finely moulded melodic line, seemingly striving towards the key of E major. This strongly felt and intense music is joined to the final movement by a rapid change of mood, as the strings, con anima, come to a sudden rest, before the last Allegro, a movement of struggle and conflict, elements
to which the timpani make a particular contribution. These opposing forces are finally resolved, proclaiming music and the will to life as inextinguishable, although contemporary events in Europe might too easily have suggested only despair.
Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony is scored for piccolo, pairs of woodwind instruments, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, a percussion section of cymbals, triangle, tambourine, side drum, timpani and celesta, and strings. It was the particular use of the side drum that caused some consternation among earlier audiences, in particular at the first performance of the symphony in Sweden in 1924, when there were those who chose to take refuge outside the concert hall.
The work is in two movements. The first, marked Tempo giusto, is opened by the violas with an oscillating accompanying figure to which the bassoons add their own curious melody, echoed by horns and flutes. Again there is harmonic ambiguity. A muted long-drawn violin melody appears, accompanied by the rest of the strings, swelling in importance, as the cellos add a sinister threat to its progress. This menacing mood is accentuated by a new violin theme, prefaced by the side drum and accompanied by the marching rhythm of timpani and plucked lower strings, with the side drum continuing its insistent rhythm. The sinister suggestions of the music are replaced by a G major Adagio, with horns and bassoons joined by divided violas and cellos and swelling to a climax, before the side drum again intrudes with an unsettling element, already suggested by the changing inflexions of the melodic line. The drummer is instructed by the composer to ‘play in his own tempo, as if he must at all costs disturb the music’. After a few bars, the remainder of the cadenza is improvised by the timpanist and the movement ends quietly with a clarinet cadenza, as the side drum fades into the distance. While the second movement will eventually resolve any conflict, it opens with a thematic element in which the interval of a fourth is prominent, with a subsidiary oboe theme offering greater tranquillity. There are again disputes of tonality, in particular in an insistent passage between woodwind and violins, leading to a fugal F minor Presto, introduced by the first violins and interrupted by the timpani and wind. A curious descending section for the flute leads to another fugal passage, marked Andante un poco tranquillo, its subject derived from the opening melody of the movement. In a final section, in which the two important thematic elements from earlier in the movement re-appear, any conflict is finally resolved into a positive E flat major.
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