Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Carl Nielsen's "My Childhood"

Carl Nielsen about age 14
I recently finished rereading Carl Nielsen’s brief memoirr, My Childhood, which, as the title states, deals entirely with the composer’s formative years. It ends with the author, at age 19, departing for Copenhagen and his studies with Niels Gade. It’s a pocket-sized paperback, only 152 pages, but it cost me almost twenty dollars back in the eighties. It was printed in Denmark, and I suspect it is available only at Nielsen tourist-site gift shops. How it turned up at the Border’s bookstore in White Flint Mall is anyone’s guess.

The book is available at Amazon for about the same price I paid for it, and if you have any interest at all in music, or memoirs, or life in a time and place different from your own (one of the major reasns I read at all), I urge you to order yourself a copy. I read it for the first time when I first bought it, and I had forgotten how full of eccentric characters it is. Some of them would be not be out of place in a story by Chekhov. There is Outzen, a pianist who lives on the charity of a innkeeper and who introduces Carl to the Well-Tempered Clavier. Then there is Jens Søby, a member of the army regiment that Nielsen joined as a bugler at age fourteen. Søby is a man of dubious reputation, destined, he says, to lead a dissolute life, and Nielsen’s mother warns her son not to fall under his influence. But he knows what he is, and he takes pains to shield Carl from the life he has chosen. He also believes in Carl’s talent and Carl’s future. Ultimately, Nielsen writes, he dies in America — “in great misery.”

I can’t do do justice to the wealth of incident or personalities in this modest little volume. Music is central to the story, of course, but it always seems to be in the background, discovered almost incidentally. One day, little Carl is trying to pick out tunes on a violin. Another, he is playing at wedding feasts in his father’s band. Then is he is submitting a string quartet to Gade, hoping to be accepted as a student, and in the next-to-last paragraph, he is “off!”, as he says, setting out on the career some of us love him for.

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