Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
Edvard Grieg’s widow Nina invited Nielsen to spend the summer of 1911 at Troldhaugen, her husband’s composing retreat, and it was here that Nielsen began his only violin concerto. It didn’t come quickly; Nielsen mused later on the dilemma inherent in composing a concerto: “It has to be good music and yet always show regard for the development of the solo instrument, putting it in the best possible light. The piece must have substance and be popular and showy without being superficial. These conflicting elements must and shall meet and form a higher unity.” He conducted the premiere the following February with violinist Peder Møller, to general acclaim; critic Robert Henriques called the concert proof that the composer was “on the true road towards the great goals he has set himself.”
The opening Praeludium begins dramatically, with forceful chords framing extended declamatory passages by the soloist, gradually giving way to a lyrical melody that moves through a lengthy series of shapes, gestures, and moods. True to its title, this section operates as an introduction to the broad tonal and aesthetic outlines of the entire piece: a wide-ranging journey led by the soloist, a flexible shifting among harmonies, and an approach to form that resists clear structural outlines but that nonetheless manages a sense of cohesiveness. The effect of this music might best be described as “sculptural” – and not by accident, as an important influence on Nielsen was his wife, sculptress Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen, who said of one of her works: “What I wanted to show in my figure is the forward movement, the sense of life, the fact that nothing stands still.”
Crisp accents introduce the second part of the movement, a robust Allegro cavalleresco. The second movement, an introspective Adagio, begins with woodwind solos before yielding to the expansive explorations of the soloist; its atmosphere suggests the influence of the Norwegian countryside (Nielsen wrote to his wife from Troldhaugen: “In the evening the mountains around here are standing clear with the blue sky as background.”) The final rondo features a rustic theme; in spite of some difficult passagework, the movement overall eschews the kind of pyrotechnics that often finish off a concerto. While the composer’s claim that the music “renounces everything that might dazzle or impress” might be taken with a grain of salt, it’s true that the material is more streamlined and that the solo passages (except for a cadenza) are more fully integrated into the orchestral texture, thus achieving a “higher unity” at the end of the musical journey.
Susan Key is a musicologist and arts educator, and a frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic program books.