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.

Le Tombeau de Couperin: Post-Apocalyptic Ravel

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), French composer. (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

 

Listening to Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, it’s easy to get a sense of altered reality. Outwardly, the original six movement suite, written for solo piano, responds to the horrors and devastation of the First World War, a conflict Ravel experienced first hand as a military ambulance driver. Ravel dedicated each movement of the work, written between 1914 and 1917, to the memory of a friend lost on the battlefield.

But, interestingly, we don’t hear the anguish of war in Ravel’s music. There isn’t a hint of the hellish fury of Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies or the dazed shell shock and bleak desolation of Vaughan Williams’ “Pastoral” Symphony. Instead, Le Tombeau de Couperin escapes into an almost childlike world of color and joyful, elegant ambivalence. Like so much of Ravel’s music, there is a sense of detachment which seems to open the door to ultimate, yet indescribable truth. Some critics complained that the music was not sombre enough for its subject matter, to which Ravel replied, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”

Through its hazy, impressionistic prism, Le Tombeau de Couperin also evokes voices of the distant past. Its title references the French Baroque composer François Couperin (1668-1733). In the seventeenth century, Tombeau, which translates literally as “tomb,” referred to “a piece written as a memorial.” Ravel intended to pay homage not only to Couperin, but to the style and ambiance of eighteenth century French keyboard suites. The movements are based on popular Baroque dances. Listen to the rhythm and structure of this Forlane by François Couperin and compare it to Ravel’s Forlane below.

Le Tombeau de Couperin was originally written as a six movement solo keyboard suite. (Listen to Louis Lortie’s excellent performance here). Two years after its completion, Ravel orchestrated the suite, eliminating two movements (the Fugue and the Toccata). Listening to the piano score, the jazzy sophistication of Ravel’s harmonies come across with striking brilliance. But it’s in the final, orchestrated version where the music blossoms with new life through a rich array of colors. The instruments, with their distinct personas, engage in musical conversations and the tonal colors mix in magical new ways.

From the bubbly opening of the Prélude, there’s a dreamlike and illusory quality about the music. It doesn’t go where we expect, and just when we think we’ve arrived at a climax, something firm that we can hold onto, the music dissolves, like a mirage. Throughout the piece, there’s a sense of joy in the rhythm. In the Forlane, notice the buoyant, dance-like quality of the music, especially in the passage beginning at 1:10. The closing Rigaudon is full of jokes and surprises. As in the first movement, we’re pulled in new, unexpected directions.

For me, the Menuet evokes serene beauty, but also a touch of sadness. As the oboe makes its opening statement, listen to the changing colors around this solo voice. Notice the velvety bed of strings, which enters at the end of the first phrase and then passes us along to the next phrase (0:05). Listen carefully to the sudden change of color and parallel harmony beginning at 1:47. I love the way this darker, veiled new world dissolves effortlessly back into the opening theme. At the end of the Menuet, the music pauses at a climactic moment of shimmering sensuality and repose (3:52) before being cut off by the innocent, childlike “laugh” of the woodwind voices, which seem to be saying, “Come on, let’s go.” The final chord fades into a jazzy dreamscape.

One of my favorite recordings of this piece is Charles Dutoit’s 1990 CD with the Montreal Symphony:

1. Prélude:

2. Forlane:

3. Menuet:

4. Rigaudon:

Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony: Nature’s Lament

British troops in the trenches near Thiepval, France in 1916.

 

With a title like A Pastoral Symphony, you might expect Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Third Symphony, completed in 1922, to evoke bubbling brooks and the quiet hedgerows of England’s “green and pleasant land.” But listen, and you’ll hear music which, instead, suggests a melancholy alienation from nature. The music feels strangely hazy and shell-shocked. Its pastures are the battlefields of the First World War, not the bucolic scenes of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony or a Schubert song.

At the age of 41, Vaughan Williams served in the war as an ambulance driver for the Royal Army Medical Corps. This was the moment when the world caught its first, real glimpse of weapons of mass destruction. New, dehumanizing technology included tanks, poison gas, flame throwers and primitive air power. Soldiers were reduced to “killing machines” as trench warfare and the concept of attrition wiped away any pretense of gallant heroism. Vaughan Williams described the Symphony’s genesis, saying,

It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night in the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset. It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted.

A Pastoral Symphony can be heard as nature’s lament. It seems rooted in the magnificent permanence of nature and simultaneously human separation from nature. In the context of music history, it may represent one of the final attempts to connect with the Romantic pasture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Considering Ray Kurzweil’s theory of exponential technological growth, think about the ways in which music permanently changed in the second half of the twentieth century, with influences such as the automobile, the atomic bomb and the computer. Even Mahler’s nine symphonies gradually progressed from bird songs (in the First Symphony) towards dissonance (in the Ninth).

In some ways, Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony shakes up our concept of symphonic form. Most symphonies develop through linear motion, leading to a climax. This music, built on modes, parallel harmony, and the pentatonic scale, floats into more static territory. Each of the Pastoral Symphony’s movements ends by trailing off, denying us a clear sense of resolution.

The first movement (Molto moderato) is a restless sonic landscape of constantly shifting Impressionistic color and harmony. As each event unfolds into the next, our sense of key and tonal center seems to continuously slip away. Everything feels elusive, as if we’re chasing shadows.

Consider the musical colors created as woodwind lines move in and out of the thickly layered string sound (2:58, for example). Also, listen for the oboe and English horn, which evoke the traditional sounds of the pasture.

Listen to the chord at 1:36 and notice the way it stops the music in its tracks. You’ll hear this ominous hint of darkness return throughout the movement, remaining inescapable and unresolved.

In the middle of the second movement, a trumpet cadenza suggests a battlefield bugle call. Vaughan Williams intended it to be played on a valveless, “natural” trumpet.

It’s the final movement which ultimately makes A Pastoral Symphony feel so unsettling. The human voice suddenly emerges at the opening of the movement in the form of the soprano’s wordless, pentatonic lament. As the movement progresses, the music seems to be reaching for a moment of transcendent resolution. But at 7:03, the bottom falls out and we’re again confronted with the soprano’s opening line, this time in the strings. At the end of the movement, we hear the Symphony’s first true moment of resolution. Then the tonal center begins to dissolve. The soprano’s lament returns, fading into eternity.

This performance, with the Hallé Orchestra and conductor Sir Mark Elder, is part of the brand new recording I featured last week:

1. Molto Moderato:

2. Lento moderato-Moderato maestoso:

3. Moderato pesante:

4. Lento: