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.

Beethoven’s "Eroica", Part 1

Beethoven's manuscript with the dedication to Napoleon crossed out.
Beethoven’s manuscript with the dedication to Napoleon crossed out.

Revolutionary, exhilarating, ferocious, heroic…these are all words which could describe Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major (“Eroica”) Op. 55. The “Eroica” stretches the elegant Classicism of Mozart and Haydn to its breaking point and plants the seeds of Romanticism. This is music of Revolution (the French and American) and the ideals of the common man.

The dawn of Romanticism brought profound changes. The stately private palace gave way to the public concert hall. Orchestras became bigger and louder. Symphonic structures expanded. The heroic struggles of man and the poetry of nature were elevated.

Beethoven originally dedicated this symphony, written in 1804, to Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoleon declared himself Emperor, betraying the ideals of the French Revolution, Beethoven angrily crossed out the dedication on the title page and replaced it with a dedication to heroes (“Eroica”).

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Allegro con brio[/typography]

Let’s start by listening to the first movement, performed by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. The piece begins with a surprise…two thunderous musical “hammer blows.” Pay attention to the underlying pulse as the music develops, growing like a living organism from these opening chords. Can you hear moments where a competing rhythmic groove fights against this established pulse? Do you hear anything which suggests conflict or struggle?

This movement is built on sonata form. You can learn more about this type of musical structure here. As the piece unfolds, pay attention to this overall structure as we move from the exposition (which gets repeated at 3:40) to the development (around 6:49) and back home to the recapitulation.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]A Few Details…[/typography]

Can you imagine how shocking those opening “hammer blow”chords would have been for the first audiences in 1805? Beethoven makes the orchestra growl with a ferocious intensity which had never before been heard. When I play orchestral music by Beethoven, I always get the sense that the classical orchestra is being pushed to its limits. The musical vision almost seems too big and powerful to be contained. Beethoven’s compositional style also reflected the monumentality of the work. His sketches suggest that he struggled relentlessly over each motive. The most minute detail separated the pedestrian from the sublime.

Now that you have an idea of the piece, let’s go back and listen again. From the beginning, you probably felt the music flowing in groups of three (3/4 time). Quickly, however this clear pulse becomes infected with a competing groove, first with jarring accents on the “wrong” beat (around 1:00), then with more overt “hammer blows” (3:00-3:32). The music always makes us feel a little off balance. Go back and listen to the exposition again, paying attention to this rhythmic conflict.

Towards the end of the exposition, the music tells us that something new is about to happen (3:26-3:40). Beethoven heightens our anticipation, but listen to what happens…We abruptly return to the beginning of the exposition. Classical symphonies commonly repeated the exposition, but Beethoven goes out of his way to make this transition as sudden and jarring as possible. Listen to what happens the second time we come to this musical “fork in the road” (6:42-7:09). This time we move further  away from “home” into completely new musical territory. This is the development, the mid section of sonata form where the motives (the DNA of the piece) go through all kinds of exciting and far reaching embellishments and transformations. Listen to the way the opening motive is obsessively repeated in different guises (and keys) throughout this section, simultaneously spinning off new, but related musical material. This is the most unstable part of the piece, where anything can happen. Can you hear the music getting increasingly wound up throughout this section as it searches for a distant and elusive goal?

Listen to the intense passage beginning around 8:44 one more time. This is the moment where the rhythmic conflict we heard in the exposition explodes with a new insistence and completely takes over. This passage ends with a shockingly dissonant chord at 9:26. This harsh new sound is something we might expect to hear in twentieth century music by Stravinsky. It’s the furthest you can get from the elegant, refined sound world of Mozart and Haydn.

Another innovative moment comes with the “false” horn entrance around 11:36. During the first performances, even Beethoven’s most devoted students assumed that this had to be a misprint in the score. It was just too weird. Listen to the way the horn emerges from the eerie tremolo in the strings. A few moments later, after a modulation, a new horn solo appears in the “right” key.

One of the most fundamental aspects of a symphony is the sense that the music is always going somewhere. It’s constantly developing, evolving and searching. From the opening chords on, one musical motive and phrase spins into the next in this unfolding process. Consider the musical “fork in the road” we heard at the end of the exposition. Listen to what happens when we come to this critical junction again in the recapitulation, after 15:04. For the first time the music suddenly seems lost…out of ideas…unsure which direction to take. The motion almost stops. Can you tell how the music finds its way again? Listen to the second violins for a clue.

In the climactic coda, listen to Beethoven’s use of the trumpets and horns and consider the heroic connotations of these instruments. Notice that the rhythmic conflict we’ve heard throughout the movement is there, right to the final notes (17:52).

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Listen Again[/typography]

Now that we’ve focused on some of the details in the music, go back and listen again. Listen freely with an open mind. Have fun and enjoy the ride. You may hear completely new things in the music that you missed the first time. Share your own ideas in the thread below. What does this music mean to you? What emotional impact does it create? Be sure to come back Wednesday for Part 2, where we’ll explore the other three movements.

Baseball and the Symphony

Wrigley field 720

A symphony is a dynamic, unfolding process. Within its formal structure small musical motives develop and evolve, constantly searching for an ultimate goal. On the largest level, the drama of a symphony might remind you of a baseball game. Through a series of exciting and unpredictable musical “plays,” it moves away from home and returns.

To get a sense of this drama, listen to the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 (Molto allegro). Pay attention to the opening motive and how it develops. At the same time, can you perceive a larger formal structure?

Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550…Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

  1. Molto allegro -starts at 0:42
  2. Andante -starts at 8:28
  3. Menuetto. Allegretto-Trio -starts at 22:33
  4. Finale. Allegro assai -starts at 26:10

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Motivic Development[/typography]

Could you hear the restless opening theme develop and search for a resolution? There are short term goals along the way, but the music never really rests until the final note. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the opening theme pop up in unexpected places. For example, listen to the musical conversation between the clarinets and bassoons at 2:11. This motive is the seed from which the entire first movement grows. One musical cell spins to the next and every note seems inevitable. Motivic development is essential to the symphony, as Leonard Bernstein discusses in What Makes Music Symphonic?

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Circling the Bases with Sonata Form[/typography]

This first movement is a great example of a common musical structure called sonata form. Conductor Robert Spano offers a brief and informal introduction to sonata form here. Also watch Leonard Bernstein’s What is Sonata Form? 

Sonata form is made up of three main sections: the exposition, development and recapitulation. In the exposition, motivic material is introduced for the first time. We start out in a “home” key, but then begin to move away. The goal of the rest of the movement is to find a way back home. The development section is the most harmonically unstable. Here, the composer plays around with the motives, embellishing them in many adventurous ways. The recapitulation returns home. It’s the music of the exposition, but this time we must avoid being pulled to a new key.

Now, let’s go back and listen to the first movement again to hear sonata form at work in Mozart’s Symphony. Pay attention to the moment where the music moves aways from the home key of G minor (1:17). You’ll hear a second theme in B-flat major begin at 1:38. How is the mood of this theme different? The entire exposition repeats at 2:42. The development section starts at 4:33. Listen to the sneaky way Mozart slips back into the recapitulation (5:47).

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Fast-Slow-Fast[/typography]

After you listen to the first movement a second time, go on to the other three movements. The classical symphony of Mozart and Haydn typically has a fast first movement, a slow second movement, a Minuet and a fast final movement. This fast-slow-fast structure evolved out of earlier opera overtures. You’ll hear that the second and final movements are built on sonata form. In the opening of the Andante, listen to the way Mozart seems to be searching for the right notes as voices build on top of each other. Here, as in the first movement, there is a sense of the music growing out of a motivic seed. Pay attention to the snappy rhythm that innocently enters in the violins at 9:06. What happens to this motive? Can you hear it begin to “infect” the music and take on a life of it’s own? The final movement is all about the fun of setting up our expectations and then throwing in a jarring surprise. Don’t miss the extraordinary and intense development section at 31:43.

If you would like to learn more about the origins and history of the symphony watch this recent BBC documentary. For a slightly contrasting interpretation of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 you might be interested in hearing this performance by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Andreas Delfs. Recordings can also be found through iTunes and Amazon.