Carl Nielsen

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The Underrated Visionary Symphonist

Carl August Nielsen (9 June 1865 – 3 October 1931) is widely recognized as Denmark’s greatest composer, and is also remembered as a skilled conductor and violinist.

On this page is Carl Nielsen’s biography and information about his most famous compositions. Carl Nielsen composed six symphonies, among which symphonies 4 and 5 are the most famous, and three concertos, for violin, flute and clarinet, respectively.

Carl Nielsen’s music also includes many songs, two operas and chamber music. On this page there are videos of the very best performances of all his six symphonies and his three concertos. You can also find a number of quotes by Carl Nielsen and a video portrait of him and his music. There is a list of references including one to all his compositions – in many cases with audio samples.

Childhood in Funen

Nielsen was born the seventh of twelve children to a poor peasant family in 1865 at Nørre Lyndelse near Sortelung, south of Odense on the island of Funen. His father, Niels Jørgensen, was a house painter and traditional musician who, with his abilities as a fiddler and cornet player, was in strong demand for local celebrations. Nielsen described his childhood in his autobiography Min Fynske Barndom (My Childhood on Funen). His mother, whom he recalls singing folk songs during his childhood, came from a well-to-do family of sea captains while one of his half-uncles, Hans Andersen, was a talented musician.

The Danish Composer Carl Nielsen Early musical life and first composition

Nielsen initially played in a military band before attending the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen from 1884 until December 1886. He premiered his Op. 1, Suite for Strings, in 1888, at the age of 23. The following year, Nielsen began a 16-year stint as a second violinist in the prestigious Royal Danish Orchestra under the conductor Johan Svendsen, during which he played in Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff and Otello at their Danish premieres. In 1916, he took a post teaching at the Royal Academy and continued to work there until his death.

Although his symphonies, concertos and choral music are now internationally acclaimed, Nielsen’s career and personal life were marked by many difficulties, often reflected in his music.

Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen

The works he composed between 1897 and 1904 are sometimes ascribed to his “psychological” period, resulting mainly from a turbulent marriage with the sculptor Anne Marie Brodersen. Nielsen is especially noted for his six symphonies, his Wind Quintet and his concertos for violin, flute and clarinet. In Denmark, his opera Maskarade and many of his songs have become an integral part of the national heritage. His early music was inspired by composers such as Brahms and Grieg, but he soon developed his own style, first experimenting with progressive tonality and later diverging even more radically from the standards of composition still common at the time. Nielsen’s sixth and final symphony, Sinfonia semplice, was written in 1924–25. He died from a heart attack six years later, and is buried in Vestre Cemetery, Copenhagen.

Slowly getting international recognition

Nielsen maintained the reputation of an outsider during his lifetime, both in his own country and internationally. It was only later that his works firmly entered the international repertoire, accelerating in popularity from the 1960s through Leonard Bernstein and others. In Denmark, Nielsen’s reputation was sealed in 2006 when three of his compositions were listed by the Ministry of Culture amongst the twelve greatest pieces of Danish music. For many years, he appeared on the Danish hundred-kroner banknote. The Carl Nielsen Museum in Odense documents his life and that of his wife. Between 1994 and 2009 the Royal Danish Library, sponsored by the Danish government, completed the Carl Nielsen Edition, freely available online, containing background information and sheet music for all Nielsen’s works, many of which had not been previously published.

Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7, FS 16

This symphony was written between 1891 and 1892 and it was dedicated to his wife, Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen. The work’s première, on 14 March 1894, was performed by Johan Svendsen conducting the Royal Danish Orchestra, with Nielsen himself among the second violins. The symphony’s melodies have a distinctive Danish flavour and are imbued with Nielsen’s personal style. Nielsen scholar Robert Simpson describes the composer’s symphonic debut as “probably the most highly organized first symphony ever written by a young man of twenty-seven.

The symphony has four movements:
Allegro orgoglioso
Allegro comodo — Andante sostenuto — Tempo I
Finale. Allegro con fuoco

In this video the symphony is performed by Sinfónica de Galicia conducted by  Robert Spano.

Symphony No. 2, “The Four Temperaments”, Op. 16, FS 29

This symphony was written in 1901–1902 and dedicated to Ferruccio Busoni. It was first performed in 1 December 1902 for the Danish Concert Association, with Nielsen himself conducting.

As indicated in the subtitle, each of its four movements is a musical sketch of a humor of the four temperaments: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, and sanguine. The composer’s inspiration for the symphony came from a four-part comical picture of the temperaments in a village pub in Zealand during a visit with his wife and friends.

Despite its apparent concept of program music, the work is a fully integrated symphony in traditional symphonic structure with four movements:

Allegro collerico (Choleric)
Allegro comodo e flemmatico (Phlegmatic)
Andante malincolico (Melancholic)
Allegro sanguineo — Marziale (Sanguine)

In this video the symphony is performed by the Estonian Festival Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi.

Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia Espansiva”, Op. 27, FS 60

This was written between 1910 and 1911. The symphony followed Nielsen’s tenure as bandmaster at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen. Nielsen himself conducted the premiere of the work on February 28, 1912 with Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Orchestra.

The character designation of the first movement (Allegro espansivo) serves as the symphony’s subtitle – probably meaning the “outward growth of the mind’s scope”. Uniquely amongst Nielsen’s symphonies, it includes wordless vocal solos for soprano and baritone in the second movement.

The Movements are:
1.    Allegro espansivo
2.    Andante pastorale
3.    Allegretto un poco
4.    Finale: Allegro

In the video the symphony is performed by Danish National Symphony Orchestra with soprano Denise Beck and baryton Lars Møller conducted by Michael Schönwandt.

Here is the classical recording with the Royal Danish Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Song by Ruth Guldbæk (Soprano) and Niels Møller (Tenor).

In this video a live performance of the symphony is once again performed by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra this time conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. The vocals are Erlend Tyrmi, baritone and Ina Kringlebotn, soprano.

Symphony No. 4, “The Inextinguishable”, Op. 29, FS 76

This symphony was completed in 1916. Composed against the backdrop of the First World War, this symphony is among the most dramatic that Nielsen wrote, featuring a “battle” between two sets of timpani.

Nielsen was thinking about a new symphony in 1914, and in May he wrote to his wife (who was in Celle): I have an idea for a new composition, which has no programme but will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestations of life.

Nielsen concentrated on this until 1916, and named his 4th symphony “The Inextinguishable”. The name does not apply to the symphony itself, but rather to “that which is inextinguishable”. In his notes for the symphony, Nielsen refers to “the elemental will to live”.

The symphony is in one continuous movement with the following parts: Allegro — Poco allegretto — Poco adagio quasi andante — Allegro.

In the video the symphony is performed by the Royal Danish Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle.

Here is another fine performance by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Juanjo Mena. The concert took place at Carl Nielsen’s 150th birthday 9 June 2015 in Copenhagen Concert hall (DR Koncerthuset).

Symphony No. 5, Op. 50, FS 97

This was composed between 1920 and 1922. It was first performed in Copenhagen on 24 January 1922 with the composer conducting.

Written in a modern musical language, the symphony draws on the theme of contrast and opposition. It is deeply original, unorthodox, scary and exhilarating.

Being a post-World War I composition it has elements of war. The first movement is a battle between the orchestra and a renegade snare-drummer, who can only be silenced by the full forces of his colleagues in the final bars. The second movement continues the struggle with shivers of anxiety, building through repetitions and detours to the final victorious grand explosion.

Carl Nielsen’s faith in mankind is so uplifting that you are exhilarated at the concert hall when the fifth Symphony has been played.

The two movements are:
1 Tempo giusto (00:05) — Adagio non troppo (09:50)
2 Allegro (18:45) — Presto (23:56) — Andante un poco tranquillo (26:34) — Allegro (30:56)

The New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein made this performance, which in my opinion is a masterpiece. It was recorded in April 1962 in Manhattan Center, New York City.

Here is a live performance with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Herbert Blomstedt.

Here is another live performance with the Dutch Radio Filharmonisch Orkest conducted by Dmitri (Dima) Slobodeniouk.

Symphony No. 6 “Sinfonia semplice”, (no opus number), FS 116

This was completed on December 5, 1925. The first performance was given by the Chapel Royal Orchestra on December 11.

The Copenhagen reviewers were confused by the style of the new Symphony. Nielsen had called it Sinfonia semplice (Simple Symphony). Being hard to grasp, it remains the least performed of all six symphonies. There are four movements:

I. Tempo giusto — Lento, ma non troppo — Tempo I
II. Humoreske. Allegretto — Allegro — Tempo I
III. Proposta seria. Adagio
IV. Tema con variazioni: Allegro — Thema. Allegretto un poco — Variation 1-9 — Fanfare

In this video the symphony is performed by Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi.

Concerto for flute and orchestra, (no opus number), FS 119

This concerto was written in 1926 for Holger Gilbert-Jespersen, who succeeded Paul Hagemann as flutist of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. The concerto, in two movements, was generally well received at its premiere in Paris in October 1926 where Nielsen had introduced a temporary ending. The first complete version was played in Copenhagen the following January. The flute concerto has become part of the international repertoire.

In the video the concerto is performed by solo flutist Ulla Miilmann with Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos.

Concerto for Clarinet and orchestra, op. 57, DF 129

This was written for Danish clarinetist Aage Oxenvad in 1928. It was conceived during the most difficult period in Nielsen’s life.

He was sixty-three, and had achieved considerable renown throughout Scandinavia; yet he was disappointed that his music had not reached a wider audience, he was deeply concerned with the unsettled state of the world, and he knew that his days were numbered.

Perhaps this accounts for the bitter struggle which occurs throughout this concerto—a war between the tonalities of F major and E major. Every time hostilities seem to be at an end, a snare drum incites the combatants to renewed conflict.

Another explanation for this is that the clarinetist for whom he was writing the concerto had a bi-polar disorder. Therefore, the concerto was poking fun at his constant mood swings.

The first public performance took place in Copenhagen on 11 October with the same players, and received a generally positive reception. Politiken wrote:

“… he has liberated the soul of the clarinet, not only the wild animal aspect but also its special brand of ruthless poetry…. This work could hardly have found a more homogeneous interpretation. Oxenvad’s sonority is in tune with the trolls and the giants, and he has soul, a rough and stocky primordial force mixed with naive Danish mildness. Certainly Carl Nielsen must have had his particular clarinet sound in mind while composing this Concerto.”

In the video the concerto is performed by Olli Leppäniemi with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Juanjo Mena.

Here the concerto is performed by Kilian Herold with SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg conducted by François Xavier Roth.

Concerto for Violin and orchestra, op. 33, DF 61

This was written for Hungarian violinist Dr. Emil Telmányi, Nielsen’s son-in-law, in 1911. The concerto has two movements.

He began writing it in the summer of 1911 in Bergen, Norway, where he was spending some time at the invitation of Nina Grieg. It progressed with some difficulty as Nielsen, now back in his native Denmark, commented that the concerto “has to be good music, and yet always make allowances for the activity of the solo instrument in the best light, that is rich in content, popular and dazzling without becoming superficial.” In fact, he did not complete it until mid-December.

The first performance followed on 28 February 1912, the same night as the first performance of Nielsen’s 3rd Symphony. Carl Nielsen himself conducted the Royal Danish Orchestra at the Odd Fellows Mansion in Copenhagen with Peder Møller, Nielsen’s preferred virtuoso, as soloist.

The concerto continued to be received with enthusiasm as it was performed on several occasions over the following years, not only in Denmark but also in Gothenburg and Stockholm, always with Møller as soloist.

The two movements are:
Praeludium: Largo  –  Allegro cavalleresco
Intermezzo: Poco adagio – Rondo: Allegro scherzando

In the video the concerto is performed by violinist Nikolaj Znaider with Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä.

Wind Quintet (Quintet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon) Op. 43

This was composed early in 1922 in Gothenburg, Sweden. The first public performance was on 9 October 1922 in the smaller hall at the Odd Fellows Mansion in Copenhagen. It is considered a staple of the repertoire for wind quintet.

The quintet for winds is one of the composer’s latest works, in which he has attempted to render the characters of the various instruments. At one moment they are all talking, at another they are quite alone. The work consists of three movements: a) Allegro, b) Minuet and c) Prelude – Theme with Variations. The theme for these variations is the melody for one of Carl Nielsen’s spiritual songs, which has here been made the basis of a set of variations, now merry and quirky, now elegiac and serious, ending with the theme in all its simplicity and very quietly expressed. Overall, the piece combines aspects of neo-classicism and modernism.

The video presents a unique performance of Denmark’s best known woodwind quintet CARION recorded in Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

In this video the quintet is performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet.

Suite for String Orchestra, Op. 1, FS 6

Nielsen composed the Suite for String Orchestra when he was only 22 and was still studying composition at the Conservatory. It was first performed on 8 September 1888 at the Tivoli Hall in Copenhagen with the Tivoli Orchestra. It was a great success. Nielsen, who played in the orchestra, was called back several times and the middle movement was played as an encore.

the Suite for Strings is currently one of Nielsen’s most widely performed works, both in Scandinavia and the rest of the world.

The short elegiac first movement is reminiscent of Scandinavian Romanticism as expressed by Grieg and Svendsen.

The Intermezzo, a waltz, gives a hint of the composer’s love of triple time, and features the occasional flat seventh grace notes that would later become so characteristic of Nielsen’s music.

The comparatively expansive Finale opens solemnly with the elegy theme but soon breaks loose into an animated sonata form in which Nielsen reintroduces the opening theme.

Nielsen said that the movements had subtitles: “The Danaids”, “The Dance of the Charites” and “The Bacchus Procession”.

In the videos the suite is performed by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. The three movements are in three separate videos.

Helios Overture, Opus 17

This overture was first performed by the Royal Orchestra, conducted by Johan Svendsen, on 8 October 1903 in the large hall of the Odd Fellows Mansion in Copenhagen.

Besides his well-known six symphonies, Carl Nielsen wrote many short orchestral works, one of the most famous being the Helios Overture. In 1902, Nielsen signed a contract with the publisher Wilhelm Hansen, which allowed him to go to Athens, Greece, to join his wife Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen, who was one of the first sculptors allowed to make copies of the bas-reliefs and statues in the Acropolis Museum.

On the score, Nielsen wrote:

“Silence and darkness,
The sun rises with a joyous song of praise,
It wanders its golden way
and sinks quietly into the sea.”

Though the reviews were mixed. Carl Nielsen performed Helios several times. The last performance was on 12 February 1930 in Gothenburg, Sweden. He also played the overture in Helsinki, Stockholm and Berlin.

Being a great showpiece for orchestra, it has been one of Nielsen’s most famous works ever since.

In the video the overture is performed by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä.

Mascarade, Ouverture

Maskarade is a three-act comic opera by Nielsen, with a libretto in Danish by Vilhelm Andersen based on a beloved play by Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754). It is the story of Leonora and Leander. She is from a respectable family that has fallen on hard times while he is from a wealthier though less reputable family. They both have been told that they will soon enter an arranged marriage but they don’t know who their respective spouses will be. Leonora and Leander meet at a masked ball, fall instantly in love and vow to not marry the persons to whom they have been betrothed (not knowing, of course, that they are intended to wed one another).

Nielsen started composing the opera In May 1904. The Royal Theatre scheduled the opera even before it was finished. In fact, Nielsen only completed the overture on 3 November, a week before the opera’s premiere.

It was first performed on 11 November 1906 at Det Kongelige Teater, Copenhagen. Maskarade has enjoyed enduring popularity in Denmark where it is considered to be the country’s national opera.

As part of the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Carl Nielsen’s birth, the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen staged eleven well-received performances of Maskarade from March to May 2015. The Maskarade Overture has been included in the first of Britain’s Promenade Concerts on 17 July 2015.

Masquerade was a resounding success with an exceptional run of 25 performances over its first four months. Generally considered to be Denmark’s national opera, in its home country it has enjoyed lasting success and popularity, attributable to its many strophic songs, its dances and its underlying “old Copenhagen” atmosphere.

In the video the overture is performed by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Frübeck de Burgos.

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Quotes about Carl Nielsen

The American music critic Alex Ross:

‘Who is the most underrated composer of the 20th century? Carl Nielsen!’

‘The rhythmic power of the music is enormous. And the Fourth Symphony, Det uudslukkelige (The Inextinguishable), is dynamic in a way that only Beethoven is dynamic.’

Quotes by Carl Nielsen

About Mozart:

‘he shall be forgiven for not being an angel, but a mere human being with human desires, hopes, cravings, passions, virtues and faults, and all the things that bring human beings far down and lift them high up.’

About Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier:

‘it was like cutting into a mighty oak tree with a small penknife and never penetrating all the way through the bark. But now and then there were small glimpses when a pair of notes collided, affecting me altogether differently than any other music I knew. In stories about Indians I had read that the savages make fire by rubbing two pieces of wood against each other until they eventually began to glow (…) it kindled my own fire.’

About beginning composing at the age of seventeen:

‘I eagerly began to compose without the slightest theoretical knowledge … without any originality, but fresh and alive’.

About Richard Wagner’s after hearing the entire Ring cycle in Dresden:

‘Dear God, what a giant of our time … a mighty genius (…) The musician who does not find Wagner great is himself very small.’

About Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony:

‘I can write it down from memory … You would think that this score had fallen down from heaven.

About his concert overture Helios, written in Greece in a rush of inspiration:

‘It depicts the sun from its ascent over the dark mountains here in the East until it flickers and shimmers in full splendour at noon and finally disappears bit by bit behind the blue mountains in the West,’

About his 4th symphony:

‘I have an idea for a new work (…) that will express what is meant by craving for life or affirmation of life (…) ‘That which is life’ or ‘That which wants life’ – I must find a word or a short title conveying just that: The Inextinguishable’.

About the first world war:

‘It is so infinitely sad and pointless that life seems to have no value … National pride has become a spiritual syphilis that has devoured our brains, sneering at us with insane hatred through hollow eye sockets. …’ ‘What can we all do to understand and love one another without being evil and harming each other?’

About composing:

‘one should not chase after ‘modernity’…’ you pass a narrow strait’ with ‘a lot of small barbed hooks’, (a kind of mental checkpoint that his music passed through in his mind) ‘If it does not cause some small pleasant pain, I can be fairly sure that there is nothing to it – ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful’.

‘I do not enjoy composing music if I continue to do it in the same way.’

‘Sometimes I have the feeling that I am simply not myself – Carl August Nielsen – but something like an open tube through which a stream of music flows, moved by mild and powerful forces at a certain blissful frequency.’

About his childhood:

‘my childhood home lures me more and more like a long and eager kiss.’

‘I enjoy seeing that world again, and often it pulls so deeply at my heartstrings, phew!’

Espansiva: a Portrait of Carl Nielsen

A BBC TV “Workshop” presentation. Producer and Director: Barrie Gavin (1970 ca.). Script by Robert Simpson

With: New Philharmonia Orchestra, Leader: Emanuel Hurwitz, Solo clarinet: Jack McCaw, Sidedrum: Alfred Dukes, cond. Jascha Horenstein

And: Robert Simpson, Jascha Horenstein, Irmelin Eggert Møller, Anne Marie Telmanyi, Arne Skjold-Rasmussen.

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