Series paavo jarvi nielsen cycle

Carl Nielsen: a true Nordic thriller

You may have some favourite Grieg. You may adore the odd slice of Sibelius. Perhaps you’re seduced by the beauty of snow-capped mountains and the miracle of the Northern Lights. But when it comes to Carl Nielsen, forget all about those things. Nielsen doesn’t fit the cool, translucent Nordic stereotype all that well. It might be Scandinavian, but his music is altogether hotter, more volatile and certainly more of a rollercoaster ride. Nielsen’s is music of physical strength and direct confrontation, sometimes even more so than Gustav Mahler’s.

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Despite that, Nielsen’s music is inherently Danish. If you’ve ever seen a Danish thriller on TV, you’ll know something about the abrupt, staccato style of the spoken language. Nielsen’s music can be similarly impolite, bursting into life with few pleasantries, rarely stopping for breath. His first four symphonies all launch with an element of disorientating chaos; the work of a composer determined to breathe a new freshness into his art, blowing away the old order and embracing a new energy and diversity in the process.

Nielsen’s musical language felt as simple as it did different in the early 1900s. It came from the vigour of dance, the simplicity of song, the fundamental energies of nature and a general desire to invest the art form with more pointed rhythms and direct harmonies. All those elements can be traced back to the composer’s impoverished origins on the island of Funen. Nielsen’s childhood playing the bugle in the local barracks band and the fiddle at wedding celebrations gave him musical reference points that would remain with him for life. We hear that every time his music breaks out from cacophony into a soaring, bracing melody.

Even in his early symphonies, Nielsen was pushing the envelope. His Second Symphony, four straightforwardly descriptive movements portraying the Four Temperaments of Greek philosophy, was described by one critic as ‘crossing the line’ when it was first performed in 1902. Perhaps that had something to do with the cavorting bass trombone that tears through the first movement of a score bursting with melody and character – a moment of invasion typical of the composer.

By the time of the Third Symphony, Nielsen was a celebrated figure. But that status fought with his humble roots. Do the two worlds collide in the crashing meeting of an urbane waltz with a vigorous, stomping dance in this piece? The symphony opens with 26 accelerating thwacks on a single note, a musical particle-accelerator from which the symphony powers forward as if riding the crest of a wave.

Nielsen seemed never to lose the short, spiky haircut he adopted as a teen. He was a lifelong joker, prankster and optimist – qualities obvious in the cameos, gags and dances of his Sixth Symphony. None of Nielsen’s music sounds like anyone else’s, but this is ‘pure’ Nielsen in every sense. Refreshing, playful, rigorous, touching, invigorating and bursting with cartoon-like character, the Sixth Symphony offers perhaps the most revealing glimpse of an imagination that knew few bounds.

Andrew Mellor

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Nielsen Extracts
  • Symphony No. 2 - I
  • Symphony No. 2 - II
  • Symphony No. 2 - III
  • Symphony No. 3 - I
  • Symphony No. 3 - II
  • Symphony No. 3 - III
  • Symphony No. 6 - I
  • Symphony No. 6 - II
  • Symphony No. 6 - III