Carl Nielsen
Keyboard Music

by Ray Ashley

1.  Piano Music

Nielsen was not a performing piano soloist but he wrote a lot of very good piano music.  It may have been better that he was not a professional pianist because he did not rely on 19th century pianistic cliches like a lot of other post romantic piano composers.

He wrote three major works for piano, the Chaconne (1916), Theme and Variations (1916), and Suite op. 45 (1919).  These are all mature masterworks.  The Theme and Variations poses the most challenges to the listener.  The theme that he chose to write variations on is short but undergoes several drastic modulations.  The tonality of the resulting work is therefore in a constant state of flux.  The Chaconne is the most accessible of the three, based loosley on a Bach-style Chaconne and variations.  The Suite is like a six movement piano sonata.  A late masterwork is the short set of thre pieces Op. 59, in which he blurs the line between tonality and atonality.

I will focus, however, on some other music that he wrote, which is no less great.

Five Pieces, Op. 3

Available in the US from Music Masters Publications in Boca Raton, FL.  I bought them through my local music shop.

These pieces were my first exposure to Nielsen's early music, and his piano music in general.  I think that these are his best pieces prior to 1895.  He wrote them while living in Paris.  It is remarkable how good and tuneful these five are, it is as if he knew he had just one shot at getting these short works published so he put all his best tunes into them.  The Mignon is my personal favorite, I have played this on both the Piano and the Warr Guitar.  The Alfedans (Elf Dance) created quite a stir when it was first published.

I can't help but compare these to another compser's "Five Pieces Op. 3" written around the same time.  That composer would be Sergei Rachmaninoff.  I could not think of two more different sets of pieces.  I love both sets, but while Rachmaninoff is showing that he has mastered the Chopin/Liszt style of piano miniature writing, Nielsen shows us that he can create dynamic, new piano music that is not difficult to play, or diffiuclt to understand.  These pieces are revolutionary without being "modern" in a way that is unaccesible to the audience.  In these respects, they have a lot in common with...

Klavermusik for Smaa og Store (Piano Music for Great and Small) Op. 53
Available in the US from Music Masters Publications in Boca Raton, FL.  I bought them through my local music shop.

Sometimes translated as Piano Music for Young and Old, This is a set of 25 piano pieces, one in each key (plus a bonus piece in G major).  The final piece of the set, in E Flat Minor, is also sort of a bonus, 2 for the price of one, because its second half, in E Flat Major, is to me like an extra piece.

These pieces are written for piano, so that all the notes fall within a five finger span on the keyboard.  You would hardly notice this listening to the music, because Nielsen composed these pieces using every available technique to make the music interesting, within the prescribed parameters.  For instance, in many of the pieces, the left hand may cover scale degrees 1 through 5, while the right hand covers scale steps 4 through 8, in different octaves, so that all the notes of the tonality are covered.  Many of the pieces are very chromatic, using all twelve steps of the scale equally, switching between major and minor, and modulating into different keys, while keeping the hand positions on the piano the same.  One especially intriguing piece is no. 18, in C minor (midi file), subtitles "Preludio".  This is a monophonic piece, with one melodic line shared by alternating left and right hands.

At the time that these were written, one favorable critic noted, after some of these were played in recital, that they were as effective as Nielsen's large scale piano works because they showed "The great within the small".  I have noticed that some of these turned up as bumper music on the NPR radio show Weekend Edition Sunday.

I have learned a number of these pieces on the piano and on the 8 string Warr Guitar.  These would also probably be nice on a conventional 6 string classical guitar, though I do not know if anyone has tried this yet.

2.  Organ Music

The works listed below are in print, by Music Masters Publications in Boca Raton, FL.  I bought them through the Organ Historical Society, which sells the scores on the internet.

29 preludes Op. 51

Like the Piano Music for Great and Small there are a lot of these pieces, and they are all short and not too difficult to play.  I hope it is not heresy to say that I have enjoyed playing these on the synthesizer, which has long sustained keyboard sonorites, and the same basic keyboard touch as an organ.  Nielsen stated that these could be played on harmonium as well as organ, so he was a bit flexible.  There are no pedal notes in these pieces.  Some of these would also sound nice on the piano, though I do not know of any professional who has played them this way.

I don't find the set of these to be as universally inspiring as the Op. 53.  Though some of these preludes are slow, meditative interludes which could be placed within the Lutheran church service, others are more animated.  My favorite is No. 22, in E flat major.  It starts out as a straghtforward Bach-type arpeggiated prelude, but becomes more chromatic in its second half.  Throughout the piece Nielsen's characteristic melodic qulaity and neo-classical-meets-modern style is evident  Here is a midi file of the prelude.

Commotio Op. 58

This work stands as Nielsen's final major work.  It was written just a few months before he died in 1931. It is a single movement organ work of mammoth proportions.  It can be broken down into several sections;  Prelude, Fugue 1, Fugue 2, Coda.

I feel that this work could almost be considered as Nielsen's Symphony no. 7, due to its length and the depth of the development of ideas.  I have considered orchestrating this myself, though there are problems associated with that: Nielsen clearly intended this to be an organ work, and in doing so he stated that the Organ is "not some sort of orchestra" as others had treated it in his time.  This attitude is also reflected in the music itself, its use of organdevices such as long pedals, and the very keyboard stylings of the music.

I still think it would be fun to orchestrate or arrange for string quartet or something, if only to bring this masterpiece out of the cathedral and into the concert hall where it could enjoy a wider audience.

3.  Recommended Recordings

Elisabeth Westenholz recorded the complete piano music for BIS records (LP-167/168) which I believe has been released on CD.  I have it on vinyl.  I especially enjoy and appreciate the case that she has given to her interpretations of some of the less technically challenging pieces, like the piano collections I describe above.  She really plays the Klavermusik for Smaa og Store as the masterworks that they are.

The complete piano music is available from Peter Seivewright on two inexpensive CD's on the Naxos label.  I have not heard the CD's so I cannot comment.

I own one LP which contains most of the organ music.  Jorgen Ernst Hansen recorded Commotio with 20 of the preludes op. 51 on the b-side.  This was on the Vox label TV-34193.  I do not know if it istill in print.  I enjoy this recording , especially the rendition of Commotio.

I recently bicked up a used vinyl copy of Elizabeth Westenholz's recording of the complete organ music.  She fit it all on to one LP, Commotio, the 29 preludes, plus 2 preludes written later.  After two listenings, I have to say that I like her recordings of the preludes better than Hansen's.  She generally plays them in a livlier manner, while Hansen sounds more church-like.  Her performance of prelude #11 really caught my attention, though I thought she was a bit too fast on #22.  The rendition of Commotio is good too, but I will refrain from a more detailed analysis until I listen to it more carefully with the score.  If I had to give a quick recommendation I would recommend this record because all the organ music is here in one place.  I am pretty sure this came out on CD, don't know if it is still in print.

Return to Nielsen Home Page  

Return to Ray's Home Page

©2000 Ray Ashley