Carl Nielsen
Orchestral Music

by Ray Ashley

1.  Orchestral Music

Nielsen's orchestral music has given him much of his worldwide reputation.  For the beginning listener, I would recommend Symphonies no. 3 and 5, the Helios Overture, and the Overture to Maskerade.

The Six Symphonies

Symphony no. 1

(under construction)

Symphony no. 2 (The Four Temperaments)

This symphony shows Nielsen just as he was arriving at his characteristic style, though it is not very modern.  The highlight is the very intense adagio, it shows how Nielsen can paint a melancholic picture without wearing his heart on his sleeve.

Symphony no. 3 (Sinfonia Espansiva)

This was the first exposure I had to Nielsen's music, and I think it is a good work for any listener to start with.  The first movement is absolutely a perfect symphonic work, it slaps you in the face with the opening chords, then takes you on a rip ride through several different theme groups, which mix and blend, as the music gets higher and higher... until you think that it can't go any higher but it just ascends to this great big pinnacle in the sky!

The second movement (did we think we could ever come down) is serene and highlighted by a wordless vocal part for baritone and soprano.  The vocals just melt in there and you won't even notice it at first.  Pure genius.

I find the last two movements to be a little less strong - the third movement is a 2/4 scherzo and the finale is a stately promenade almost reminiscent of Brahms or Elgar at first.  The finale gets better though as it develops, until finally an energy level is reached that is (to me) about 90% what we had in the first movement.  I find it a fitting conclusion -I'm not complaining - but the first movement of the symphony could almost stand alone.

Symphony no. 4 (The Inextinguishable)

You got to love that title.  This symphony is in four connected movements.

The first movement resembles the high points of the Third Symphony.  The second is a pastorale.  The third movement is an adagio that builds to a very intense climax - breaking right into the finale which has some nice fugal action and a tympani duet (drum solo - dude!).  All in all I stil think that this symphony resembles no.'s 3 and 5, without being as great as either.

Symphony no. 5

This is widely considered to be Nielsen's masterpiece.  It is in two movements, each with several subdivisions.

The general theme of the symphony is War and recovery.  Nielsen wrote this in 1922, when Europe was in the aftermath of WWI.  I am not sure if I can do this symphony justice with words, it would be better if I just told you to go out and listen to it a few times.

The climax of the first movement is the improvised snare drum solo which is explicitly not in the same tempo or time as the rest of the orchestra.  It is this violence that shatters the serenety of a pastorale motive (i.e. War breaking upon Europe).

The second movement is based around two massive fugues, and ultimately ends optimistically.

Symphony no. 6 (Sinfonia Semplice)

This symphony can be difficult to listen to and difficult to write about. To the listener, I would recommend saving it for last.

The first movement is a perfect opening act.  It may be as perfect as the opening to the Third Symphony, while still being more modern in its approach.  The third movement is a perfect adagio fugue, mostly for strings.

The second and fourth movements, however, are more difficult, as he is mocking some of the modern trends of music, while in other ways mastering modernity.  Listen and decide for yourself what he was trying to say.

Other Orchestral Works

Nielsen wrote many other works for orchestra, including overtures, symphonic poems, and miscellaneous works.  i will discuss a few of these pieces here.

The opera Maskerade opens with a fine overture that is an excellent concert piece.  This work is a good starting point for any listener, as it is accesable and conveys the Nielsen melodic style very well.  Saul and David does not have an overture, but the prelude to Act 2 is as excellent a concert piece as any of Nielsens other miscellaneous works.

The Helios Overture was written on his trip to Greece with his wife Anne Marie, who was a renowned sculptor.  It depicts a full day of Agean sunshine, from the predawn, to the sunrise, mid day (featuring one of his great fugues) and sunset.

Nielsen wrote a Rhapsodic Overture subtitled "An Imaginary Trip to the Faeroe Islands" in 1927.  Though he did not think much of this piece (it was written on a governent commision for political purposes) I think it is a good example of his late work.  It has impressionist leanings, depicting the voyage across the North Sea to get to the Faeroe Islands, and then the Easter festival that follows arrival.

The Saga Drom (the dream of Gunnar) is a wonderful little gem that depicts the legendary adventures of a Viking while he is asleep.  At one point, there is a free form section where several of the woodwinds play their parts without meter, rhythmically independant from each other. Jascha Horenstein made a fine recording of this which is coupled with his recording of the fifth symphony.

2.  Concertos

Nielsen wrote three conceros for solo instruments and orchestra.  The Violin concerto dates from around the time of the third symphony, while the two woodwind concertos are late works, written afetr the wind quintet.

Violin Concerto

This concerto was written around the time of the third symphony, which explains why I love it so much.  It has a lot of strong melodic material.  It is in two movements.  The virtuoso writing shows that he understood this instrument, as it was his own.

It is a shame that this does not get performed all that often.  I am guessing that this is because there are a lot of violin concerti from around that time, so there is much competition (unlike the two concertos described below).

Flute Concerto

Written in 1926, in two movements.  I have a recording performed by Paul Pazmandi on the Vox label (old LP).  It is a good example of Nielsen in his late period, writen after the 6th Symphony.  The music that came after the 6th is a bit less modern than the symphony was.

This concerto is the one I listen to least often, of the three, but it is probably the most frequently played.  It is often paired with the clarinet concerto (of 1928) on records.

There is a lot of good interplay between the solo flute and some of the instruments in the orchestra like violin and flute.  SOme of the melodic material does not reach out and grab you on first listening, but is beautiful in a subtle way.

Clarinet Concerto

This concerto is a bit darker than the flute concerto, though I think that the material is generlaly stronger.

I'll write more about this soon.  Check back!

3.  Recommended Recordings

The symphonies have been recorded many times, especially in Denmark, but also repeatedly in the UK and US.  Leonard Bernstein made memorable recordings of no 2, 3, 4 and 5.  the recording of the fifth, with the New York Philharmonic is especially powerful, and is highlighted by the brilliant clarinet playing in the second movement.  Herbert Blomsted recorded all six with the San Francisco Symphony.  I own the recordings of 2 - 5, which I would recommend.  I also like Jascha Horenstein's recording of the fifth, though some parts have a tempo a bit slower than I would prefer.

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©2000 Ray Ashley