Friday, June 11, 2010

And I never sent him a card

Wednesday, June 9, was the 145th birthday of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), who has been a favorite of mine ever since heard his Fourth Symphony on radio as a teenager. Nielsen is something of a cult figure - and by that I mean he has deeply devoted fans who constantly complain that he isn't more widely appreciated. As far as we're concerned, his six symphonies are the equal to those of his friend (and exact contemporary) Sibelius,* but they don't command the same amount of airtime on the dwindling number of classical radio stations in this country, and they don't appear as frequently on orchestral programs, at least outside of Scandinavia.

No big deal, I suppose. We still have our recordings, and to hell with everyone else. But music is like religion: We can't just be happy in our beliefs. We feel compelled to convert the world.

Nielsen is one of the few composers whose birthdays I actually observe by going back and listening to their music again. His most famous and frequently performed symphonies are the Third, Fourth and Fifth, but I've devoted the past couple of days to the other three, particularly the Sixth, which I've listened to twice. It's less organic, if that's the proper word, than the big middle symphonies, but it is altogether extraordinary. The second movement, the Humoresque - scored only for piccolo, two clarinets, two bassoons and percussion - comments on the modernist trends of the 1920s. I have read that it anticipates the grotesqueries of Shostakovich, though to me it has always sounded like a parody of Varese. But the passage I keep returning to is the end of the third movement, the Proposta seria, with its repeated, two-note falling exhalation in the winds and horns.

Then there’s also the chamber music to go back to, the two operas, and the songs, with their evocations of Danish folk melodies, which, I understand, are what made him a household presence in his native country.

*Driving to work the other morning, I heard Sibelius' Pohjola's Daughter on the radio, and the difference between these two hyperborean composers suddenly became clear: Nielsen is Brahms. Sibelius is Wagner. - Not in any derivative way, but rather in their handling of the orchestra and their musical materials.

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