Symphony No. 5
Length: 35 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (2nd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 21, 1967, Werner Torkanowsky conducting
Of the three composers on this program, Carl Nielsen had the earliest and most natural experience of "national" music in the form of Danish popular music. In his autobiography, he clearly recalls his mother singing folk songs, and he joined his father in music for weddings and parties as soon as he acquired some skill on the violin.
Yet Nielsen is also in many ways the least "national" of these three composers, though he was and is a musical hero in Denmark. He composed many songs, lots of incidental music for Danish plays, and cantatas for all manner of patriotic and civic occasions, ranging from the anniversary of Copenhagen University to the opening of a public swimming pool.
But it is for more abstract pieces - six highly idiosyncratic symphonies and concertos for violin, flute, and clarinet - that he is best known. His early work sits fairly comfortably in the Romantic version of Viennese classical traditions, particularly as embodied by Brahms. His later works extend this into a sort of personal neo-classicism.
"Carl Nielsen, Denmark's great son, was a born composer of symphonies, although his work embraced all forms of music," Jean Sibelius wrote to the 1953 Nielsen Festival in Copenhagen. "Through his great intelligence he developed his genius, in order to attain the aims which were - as I see it - clear to him from the beginning. Through his strong personality he founded a school and greatly influenced composers in many countries. One speaks of head and heart; Carl Nielsen had both in the highest degree."
Nielsen may well have been "a born composer of symphonies," but that does not mean they came easily to him. Another tie binding the works on this program is the difficulty they cost their composers. In 1921 Nielsen was suffering the effects of a prolonged separation from his wife, the Danish sculptor Anne Marie Brodersen. He had also begun conducting and teaching more widely than he had in the past.
As a result, he was overextended and facing something of a creative crisis when he started work on his Fifth Symphony. Not surprisingly, it came slowly.
"My friends and acquaintances have all been told that I do not pay calls on anyone any more, as I need peace and quiet for my symphony during the time I am not conducting, and I am thus completely free from dinner parties," Nielsen wrote. "It is the most difficult task I have attempted yet and therefore progresses very slowly indeed."
In fact, Nielsen didn't finish the Fifth Symphony until nine days before he was due to conduct the premiere in Copenhagen, in January 1922. In form it is almost a cubist work, traditional symphonic movements skewed in irregular slabs within two movements which themselves form a sort of macro-movement. The harmonic underpinnings are also revealed in great faceted planes, rather than the traditionally developed hierarchies.
This is obsessive music, with many instruments found hammering away at a single pitch. Most insistent of all is the snare drum. As it reaches for a threatening climax, the opening obsessions abruptly stop; in their place appears a rich romantic Adagio. After this expressive intrusion, the mania resumes. Nielsen instructs the snare drummer to improvise as though determined to break apart the performance. This he is not quite able to do, but it takes full orchestral resources to quell this insurrection, and all that is left for the exhausted close is the quietly mournful voice of a solo clarinet.
The second movement has drive and energy to spare, however. Here the insertions are two fugues, different expressions of musical obsession. After the nerve-wracking threats of the first movement and its ennervated ending, the second comes as a triumphant affirmation of order and purpose.
-- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.