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Nielsen: Symphony No. 1

Nielsen: Symphony No. 1


991 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2014 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Symphony No. 1 in G minor, op. 7, FS 16
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)
3 flutes (1st doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, violins, violas, cellos, basses

I. Allegro orgoglioso
II. Andante
III. Allegro comodo – Andante sostenuto – Tempo I
IV. Finale: Allegro con fuoco

Composed 1891-2. First performance: March 14, 1894, Copenhagen, Chapel Royal Orchestra cond. Johan Svendsen.

It’s not unusual for a composer to be present at the world premiere of his new piece. It’s not even all that odd for him to participate in the performance—usually as the conductor. The audience at the premiere of Carl Nielsen’s first symphony could be forgiven, though, for wondering why a member of the second violin section was taking a bow at the conclusion of the piece. Upon realizing who it was, they demanded no fewer than three curtain calls from the 27-year-old creator of this work of youthful energy and astonishing structure.

In his review of the premiere, Charles Kjerulf wrote that the symphony “seems to presage a coming storm of genius”, describing it as “unsettled and brutal… and yet nevertheless so wonderfully innocent and unknowing, as if seeing a child playing with dynamite.”

Carl Nielsen began sketching out ideas for his first symphony while traveling throughout Europe as a student on scholarship. During this period, the young composer became acquainted with the ongoing “Brahms-Wagner debate” (also known as the “War of the Romantics”) that dominated German music in the late 19th century. This aesthetic disagreement between supporters of the two composers centered on the role of form and structure in music, with both groups claiming to follow in the footsteps of Beethoven.

Brahms’ supporters in the “Leipzig school” believed that composers should maintain classical forms, writing economically within familiar styles and genres. They felt that there was no need to discard tradition in order to express new ideas. In contrast, Wagner’s followers in the “Weimar school” (also known as the “New German School”) held to Liszt’s assertion that “new wine requires new bottles” and believed that composers should invent new forms derived from new musical materials. This group was particularly drawn to program music (music which describes a specific story, frequently using a literary work as inspiration) and made extensive use of musical “effects” which might not fit into traditional classical forms.

Rather than choose sides in this debate, Nielsen sought to find a third path. He immersed himself in the symphonies of Beethoven, paying particular attention to the fifth. He was fascinated by the powerful way in which Beethoven manipulated small rhythmic motives in this work rather than making the grand melodic gestures typical of Nielsen’s contemporaries. Nielsen later remarked that as he began his own symphony, he chose to emulate this concise precision in rebellion against “German gravy and fat”. The composer managed to find new energy and vigor in classical structure, maintaining a clear sense of expression while rejecting what he considered to be the excesses of romantic emotion.

If Nielsen seems to have sided with Brahms on the question of form, he certainly wasn’t shy about exploring new paths in other areas. In 1905, he commented, “The future will reject our modern keys, minor and major, as inadequate to the expression of the mental and emotional life of a modern human being. The idea of quarter tones, said to be under consideration in Germany, appeals greatly to me. Several times – for example at one point in my first symphony – I have actually felt the lack of a more finely shaded tonal system.”

While quarter tones never did make an appearance in his works, these feelings on harmony led Nielsen to embrace what became known as “progressive tonality”, a structural technique in which a work ends in a different key than it began, with the central drama of the piece deriving from the path taken from one key to another. While other composers were exploring similar ideas (Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, completed two years after this symphony, moves from C minor to E-flat major), Nielsen’s Symphony No. 1, which progresses from G minor to C major, may be the first symphony to end in a key other than the one in which it began.

The symphony’s first movement is entitled “allegro orgoglioso” (“haughtily joyful”), setting a precedent for a career full of obscure Italian tempo markings by the composer. (Unfamiliar with “oroglioso”? No need to be ashamed. At the premiere, the composer was complimented by a misguided audience member on how well the music imitated an organ.) The symphony begins with a sudden rush of energy and urgency that gives us the impression of having stepped into a piece that was already well underway.

The second movement, which Kjerulf found to be “quiet and dreaming as the scent of clover,” features long, sweeping melodic lines and majestic brass figures that belie the composer’s musical origins as a bugler and a trombonist.

Nielsen originally marked the third movement with the oddly defensive tempo direction “non è scherzo” (“not a scherzo”; scherzo is both the Italian word for “joke” and a musical term referring to a quick-moving piece of music with a humorous mood). However, in the published score, he settled for simply “allegro comodo” (“comfortably cheerful”). Nielsen’s tempo marking isn’t his only way of demanding that you take this slightly off-balance music seriously; listen to the way he insistently repeats a dramatic figure five times in a row – and then 16 times more! – approximately a minute and half into the movement… and then again ninety seconds later. This rhythmic figure continues to recur in a way which can’t help but bring to mind shades of Beethoven’s “knock of fate” motive.

The symphony concludes with a powerfully rousing finale that drives the work home to the C major ending that took the musical world so completely by surprise and brought that first Copenhagen audience so quickly to its feet.

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