Nielsen’s Symphonic Brilliance Unraveling the Legacy of a 20th Century Maestro

ByQuyen Anne

Jul 20, 2023

A new recording of the Danish composer’s symphonies – conducted by Fabio Luisi – captures his exuberant outdoor optimism

The question of who belongs on the roster of “great 20th-century symphonists” is never settled once and for all. One name people still aren’t sure about is Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), the bluff, impassioned Dane who composed six symphonies and whose folk-song arrangements are still sung in schoolrooms and summer camps in Denmark. The Fourth Symphony, the “Inextinguishable”, is a staple of orchestral programmes, as is the Third, the so-called “Sinfonia Expansiva”, plus the radical Fifth. But the First and Second are comparative rarities, and the bizarrely eccentric Sixth Symphony, often judged a failure, is even rarer.

Also, we don’t quite know where to place Nielsen. He never lost touch with his country roots (Nielsen’s pen-portrait of his early years on the island of Funen is the most charming of all composer memoirs) and he confessed to being bewildered by the extreme modernism of composers like Schoenberg. But Nielsen’s exuberant outdoor optimism took on an increasingly radical cast as the symphonies progressed. The music’s sheer joie de vivre carries the discourse into strange regions, where things we think of as separate co-exist. Naïve-seeming country dances are pulled out of shape by “wrong” notes, a solemn string chorale might be disturbed by an intrusive piccolo figure, which carries the music somewhere new. In the unusually dark Fifth symphony, composed just after the First World War, the intruder is a military side-drummer, who tries to overthrow the music’s sturdy unfolding with improvised mayhem.

This new recording from the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under the Italian conductor Fabio Luisi makes a powerful case that Nielsen belongs with the form’s greatest masters. All the detail shines out with lovely transparent clarity, and the balance is always ideal, even in the first two symphonies which are somewhat over-scored.

However it has to be said Luisi often takes the music considerably slower than the composer’s own tempo markings, which will bother some people. It certainly bothered me in the Second movement of the Third Symphony, which is too ponderously slow to be “Andante”, which means literally “walking”.

But mostly I was persuaded that Luisi’s tempos were shrewdly judged. He understands that choosing the right speed is partly a bodily thing – the music has to walk or run in a way that feels right – but there’s also a mental aspect. The chosen speed must allow us to process the music’s twists and turns, and with a composer as quixotic as Nielsen that takes time. By giving the music that time, Luisi reveals its weightiness; and by shrewdly varying the tempo along the way, he infuses it with that feeling of urgent questing that is such an essential aspect of this odd, endearing genius.

“Quirky” is a descriptor that seems to have stuck to Danish composer Carl Nielsen, born 150 years ago on June 9, 1865.

Take A Tour Of Nielsen’s Symphonies

The late music critic Michael Steinberg said Nielsen was a “very great and very quirky composer at the same time.” New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert, who recently wrapped up the orchestra’s Carl Nielsen Project, says there’s something “different and quirky” about the composer’s music.

Sample almost any spot in his symphonies and you’ll find Nielsen up to something just a bit unusual, from harmonies and melodies that don’t quite align to ambiguous phrases, seesawing from major to minor keys. Then there are the more obvious episodes. Nielsen gets his Third Symphony started by hammering the same note 26 times. In his Fifth, he instructs the snare drummer to try to sabotage the entire piece, and in his final symphony, a triangle interrupts like a telephone ringing off the hook.

Still, as unconventional as Nielsen is, there’s much beauty and mystery to be found in his music. Steinberg, author of The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide, who died in 2009, was crazy for Nielsen. In 2001 he sat down to talk to NPR about all six symphonies, pointing to some of their more striking characteristics in his avuncular and illuminating way.

About Carl Nielsen

The son of a house painter and amateur musician, Carl Nielsen was the seventh of 12 children and grew up on Funen, often called Denmark’s “Garden Island.” The power of the natural world and its impact on human nature are traceable inspirations in much of his music.

At age 3 he pounded out melodies on logs in the family woodpile and as a youngster he learned the violin and herded sheep. Early on, Nielsen already displayed a sense of whimsy, as seen in the series of childhood photographs below. Later he played trombone in a military band before enrolling in the Copenhagen Conservatory.

For 16 years Nielsen made his living as an orchestral violinist. His debut as a composer came with his early chamber works in the late 1880s and his Symphony No. 1 premiered in 1894, after which the 28-year-old composer stepped out from the second violins to acknowledge the applause.

Eventually Nielsen would become a national hero, with his portrait gracing the front of the Danish 100 kroner bill. But recognition beyond Denmark would take longer. It was nearly 20 years after his death in 1931 before Nielsen’s music began to attract foreign audiences, thanks to the touring Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the advent of the LP and support from star conductors such as Leonard Bernstein.

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