Length: c. 5 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance:
Outside of Denmark, audiences know Carl Nielsen primarily for his six symphonies, which continue to occupy an important place in the repertoire seven decades after his death. But in Denmark, Nielsen is also responsible for the Danish national opera, Maskarade. The concept might be difficult for us Americans to understand, because we really don’t have a national opera (Porgy and Bess probably comes closest), but Maskarade occupies a position similar to that of Peter Grimes or Dido and Aeneas in England, Carmen in France, or Fidelio and most of Wagner’s output in Germany.
Maskarade, based on a 1724 play of the same name by Ludvig Holberg, takes place in Copenhagen in the spring of 1723. The story of love and mistaken identity unfolds with a series of glittering masked balls as its backdrop. In his overture to the opera, Nielsen achieves something similar to what Mozart did in The Marriage of Figaro, drawing the listener immediately into the opera’s atmosphere of high spirits and romantic intrigues. Nielsen was a great admirer of Mozart, whose achievements as a composer he outlined in a 1906 essay to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. The other influence that emerges in the Overture (and throughout the opera) is that of Vilhelm Anderson, who crafted the libretto as an example of his theories about the Dionysian dimension of comedy. Accordingly, Nielsen avoided anything sustained that might hint at tragedy in favor of brief, punchy numbers sparkling with wit and filled with humor, of which the Overture is a prime example. As the opera’s hero Henrik puts it in one of his numbers: “In this country where sunlight is so woefully reduced, where it is dark eleven months of the year… can a young cavalier do better than to forget for a while the swamp in which we wade and make his heart light by bathing in the cascade of dance and song and light and fire called masquerade?”
— John Mangum