Nielsen’s Fourth: “The Inextinguishable”

A symphony, by nature, is always developing, unfolding, finding a way forward. It’s an indomitable process, sometimes filled with struggle, often, but not always, expressed through Sonata form. Just consider those famous opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the way they seem to take on a life of their own, evolving organically over the course of four movements to reach a triumphant and transcendent climax.

Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)

In 1914, as Europe descended into the apocalyptic horrors of the First World War, Danish composer Carl Nielsen began to think about the dynamic, inextinguishable power of the life force, the “elemental will to live,” and its relation to music. In a letter to his wife, Nielsen imagined a symphony “which has no programme but will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestations of life, that is: everything that moves, that wants to live … just life and motion, though varied – very varied – yet connected, and as if constantly on the move, in one big movement or stream.”

That work, completed in 1916, became Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, “The Inextinguishable.” It’s set in four movements, but without looking at the score you’ll have a difficult time telling where one movement ends and the next begins. Opening with a sudden flash of raw energy, as if we’re tuning in to a drama already in progress, Nielsen’s Fourth is one long continuous musical development (Jean Sibelius’ symphonies follow a similar direction, most notably his Seventh Symphony). At the same time, it suggests the eternal. The final movement concludes with a triumphant theme marked Glorioso, which we first hear in a quiet, unassuming moment early in the first movement. At the end, we don’t feel as if we’ve reached an ultimate goal, just a notable mile marker in an infinite stream of development.

For some listeners, Nielsen’s Fourth can be heard as a “war symphony.” In the final movement, a ferocious battle takes place between two sets of tympani on both sides of the orchestra (Nielsen’s score calls for the second tympani to be positioned near the audience at the edge of the stage). But these moments go beyond programmatic references to bombs exploding, as Nielsen’s own description of the work and philosophy of music suggest:

Music is Life. As soon as even a single note sounds in the air or through space, it is the result of life and movement; that is why music (and the dance) are the more immediate expressions of the will to life.

The symphony evokes the most primal sources of life and the wellspring of the life-feeling; that is, what lies behind all human, animal and plant life, as we perceive or live it. It is not a musical, programme-like account of the development of a life within a limited stretch of time and space, but an un-programme-like dip right down to the layers of the emotional life that are still half-chaotic and wholly elementary. In other words the opposite of all programme music, despite the fact that this sounds like a programme.

The symphony is not something with a thought-content, except insofar as the structuring of the various sections and the ordering of the musical material are the fruit of deliberation by the composer in the same way as when an engineer sets up dykes and sluices for the water during a flood. It is in a way a completely thoughtless expression of what make the birds cry, the animals roar, bleat, run and fight, and humans moan, groan exult and shout without any explanation. The symphony does not describe all this, but the basic emotion that lies beneath all this. Music can do just this, it is its most profound quality, its true domain … because, by simply being itself, it has performed its task. For it is life, whereas the other arts only represent and paraphrase life. Life is indomitable and inextinguishable; the struggle, the wrestling, the generation and the wasting away go on today as yesterday, tomorrow as today, and everything returns. Once more: music is life, and like it inextinguishable.

As you listen to Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, enjoy the moment and allow yourself to get lost in the sound. At times you may be reminded of the brooding Scandinavian chill of Sibelius…the mysterious play of light on a snow-covered landscape. For example, listen to this passage from the first movement. Amid a gradually building collage of sound, a wandering string line and colorful woodwind interjections are layered on a static bass.

There are moments of rude interruption which disrupt the status quo: the strange, sudden snarl of the violas, or this passage where the flute and bassoon awaken as the strings fade out. The second movement begins as an elegant seemingly predictable dance, which suddenly turns in unusual harmonic directions. In this extraordinary passage in the third movement, the interruption comes in the form of a chant-like motive which breaks out in the woodwinds, eventually building into a climax in the brass. These are the moments which push the Symphony’s relentless development forward and thrust us into new musical landscapes. Change and development occur through disruption.

And now, let’s listen to the entire piece. Here is Herbert Blomstedt’s 1999 recording with the San Francisco Symphony:

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Hear a live performance with Simon Rattle and the Royal Danish Orchestra.
  • Hear Neeme Järvi’s 1993 recording with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.

Five Musical Sunrises

images-35Natural cycles, from the change of seasons to the predictable routine of day turning to night, shape our sense of time. Can you imagine how our perception of time, and subsequently music, would be different without these events?

Nature’s visual grandeur has also been an inspiration to composers, especially the eternal drama of the sunrise. Here are five musical depictions:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Haydn’s “Sunrise” String Quartet[/typography]

Haydn’s String Quartet in B flat major, Op.76, No.4 was not originally intended to evoke a sunrise. For Haydn this quartet, written in 1797 in the final years of his life, was pure music. The ascending opening passage later earned it the nickname, “Sunrise”. This expansive musical line has been called “one of the greatest openings in chamber music.” Listen to the way Haydn draws us into the piece and heightens our expectation. The second theme (1:09) reverses the opening motive with a descending line in the cello. In the development section, beginning at 4:24, notice how Haydn transforms the opening motive, suddenly shifting into minor. Can you hear when Haydn returns “home” at the recapitulation?

The last movement’s “Allegro ma non troppo” marking implies a tempo which isn’t too fast. But Haydn, the master of musical humor and surprise, does something interesting and unexpected with the tempo at the end.

This performance is by the Takács Quartet:

  1. Allegro con spirito (0:00)
  2. Adagio (8:15)
  3. Menuetto. Allegro (14:17)
  4. Finale. Allegro ma non troppo (18:29)

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Prelude to Khovanshchina[/typography]

Modest Mussorgsky’s opera, Khovanshchina, tells the story of a violent and bloody episode in Russian history-the unsuccessful rebellion led by Prince Ivan Khovansky against Peter the Great and the subsequent mass suicide of Khovansky’s followers. Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was part of “The Russian Five,” a group of nationalistic Russian composers who aimed to promote their country’s unique musical identity.

The Prelude to Khovanshchina depicts dawn on the Moscow River. The music was orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Pay attention to the mix of orchestral colors and to the way the piece unfolds. How do these elements suggest a sunrise over calm, glistening water? Listen for the sound of church bells. Also, notice the quick ornamental notes in the melody (1:06), which give the music its distinctly Russian flavor.

Here is a 1997 recording of the Chicago Symphony with Sir Georg Solti:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Nielsen’s Helios Overture[/typography]

Helios was the living sun in Greek mythology. In his Helios Overture, Op. 17, Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) depicts sunrise as a gradual, unfolding process. The moment when night gives way to the first light of dawn is marked by a sliver of light on the edge of the eastern horizon. At the end of the day, the sun sinks back into the western horizon.

In the score Nielsen wrote:

[quote]Silence and darkness, The sun rises with a joyous song of praise, It wanders its golden way and sinks quietly into the sea.[/quote]

This is the Danish Radio Symphony conducted by Herbert Blomstedt:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Morning Mood from Peer Gynt[/typography]

Now let’s hear the famous first movement of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s (1843-1907) Peer Gynt Suite, which also depicts a sunrise. This performance is by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. The flute solo is played by James Galaway, who was principal flute in Berlin at the time of the recording. Listen to the dialogue between instruments. Each voice from the woodwinds to the horns has a distinct persona.

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As a professional orchestral musician, I consider myself lucky to be able to sit in the middle of the orchestra every day, surrounded by a rich collective sound. When I play this piece, I always listen for the magical moment at the end of this movement when the horn chords resolve into the final statement of the flute (3:20). The warm low strings and the shimmering flute create a unique musical mood.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Grand Canyon Suite[/typography]

Finally, let’s listen to a distinctly American musical depiction of a sunrise. The scene is Arizona’s awe-inspiring Grand Canyon. This is the first movement of Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite. Here is some background on the piece, completed in 1931. This is a recording featuring the Detroit Symphony, led by conductor Antal Doráti:

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