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Evenly Odd: Carl Nielsen's Distinctive Symphonies

Danish composer Carl Nielsen wrote six exuberant symphonies. i

Danish composer Carl Nielsen wrote six exuberant symphonies. Royal Danish Library hide caption

toggle caption Royal Danish Library
Danish composer Carl Nielsen wrote six exuberant symphonies.

Danish composer Carl Nielsen wrote six exuberant symphonies.

Royal Danish Library

"Quirky" is a descriptor that seems to have stuck to Danish composer Carl Nielsen, born 150 years ago on June 9, 1865.

The late music critic Michael Steinberg said Nielsen was a "very great and very quirky composer at the same time." New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert, who recently wrapped up the orchestra's Carl Nielsen Project, says there's something "different and quirky" about the composer's music.

Sample almost any spot in his symphonies and you'll find Nielsen up to something just a bit unusual, from harmonies and melodies that don't quite align to ambiguous phrases, seesawing from major to minor keys. Then there are the more obvious episodes. Nielsen gets his Third Symphony started by hammering the same note 26 times. In his Fifth, he instructs the snare drummer to try to sabotage the entire piece, and in his final symphony, a triangle interrupts like a telephone ringing off the hook.

Still, as unconventional as Nielsen is, there's much beauty and mystery to be found in his music. Steinberg, author of The Symphony: A Listener's Guide, who died in 2009, was crazy for Nielsen. In 2001 he sat down to talk to NPR about all six symphonies, pointing to some of their more striking characteristics in his avuncular and illuminating way.

About Carl Nielsen

The son of a house painter and amateur musician, Carl Nielsen was the seventh of 12 children and grew up on Funen, often called Denmark's "Garden Island." The power of the natural world and its impact on human nature are traceable inspirations in much of his music.

At age 3 he pounded out melodies on logs in the family woodpile and as a youngster he learned the violin and herded sheep. Early on, Nielsen already displayed a sense of whimsy, as seen in the series of childhood photographs below. Later he played trombone in a military band before enrolling in the Copenhagen Conservatory.

For 16 years Nielsen made his living as an orchestral violinist. His debut as a composer came with his early chamber works in the late 1880s and his Symphony No. 1 premiered in 1894, after which the 28-year-old composer stepped out from the second violins to acknowledge the applause.

Eventually Nielsen would become a national hero, with his portrait gracing the front of the Danish 100 kroner bill. But recognition beyond Denmark would take longer. It was nearly 20 years after his death in 1931 before Nielsen's music began to attract foreign audiences, thanks to the touring Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the advent of the LP and support from star conductors such as Leonard Bernstein.

Tour Nielsen's Symphonies With Michael Steinberg

  • Symphony No. 1 (1892)

    Carl Nielsen as a child.
    Danish Royal Library

    Nielsen quickly found his own voice as a composer, a style that drew on the natural sounds of his childhood in the country and on his ear for forceful ideas. Michael Steinberg says you can tell Carl Nielsen's First Symphony is Nielsen's right from the first notes, where the harmony and the opening tune are not quite lined up.

    Evenly Odd: Carl Nielsen's Distinctive Symphonies
  • Symphony No. 2, "The Four Temperaments"(1902)

    Carl Nielsen as a kid.
    Danish Royal Library

    Nielsen's Second Symphony has a curious subtitle, "The Four Temperaments," which is a reference to the medieval belief that moods, or temperaments, are governed by bodily fluids. Steinberg says the liquid that got Nielsen's symphony started was beer — in a pub with an intriguing painting.

    Evenly Odd: Carl Nielsen's Distinctive Symphonies
  • Symphony No. 3, "Sinfonia espansiva" (1911)

    Carl Nielsen, as a child.
    Danish Royal Library

    Nielsen subtitled his Third Symphony "Sinfonia espansiva." Steinberg says it's at turns gregarious and serene, and a real breakthrough for the composer in terms of greatness. The startling opening ignites with an A hammered no fewer than 26 times in a row. Later, a pair of wordless voices waft through the symphony in a lovely and mysterious way.

    Evenly Odd: Carl Nielsen's Distinctive Symphonies
  • Symphony No. 4,"The Inextinguishable" (1916)

    Carl Nielsen, as a child.
    Royal Danish Library

    Nielsen had yet another subtitle for his Fourth Symphony — "The Inextinguishable." Written during the dark days of World War I, he described the title as expressing "the appearance of the most elementary forces among human beings, animals and even plants. We can say in case all the world were to be devastated by fire, flood or volcanoes and all things were destroyed and dead, nature would still begin to breed new life again, begin to push forward again with all the fine and strong forces inherent in matter. These forces, which are inextinguishable, are what I have tried to present."

    Evenly Odd: Carl Nielsen's Distinctive Symphonies
  • Symphony No. 5 (1922)

    Carl Nielsen, as a child.
    Royal Danish Library

    At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month the fighting finally stopped. It was 1918 and World War I was over. The costs of the war were horrific and enormous. Denmark was a neutral country during the war, but the conflict between the creative and destructive sides of human nature wasn't lost on Nielsen. These are the forces at play in his powerful Fifth Symphony, which conductor Simon Rattle has called Nielsen's "war symphony."

    Evenly Odd: Carl Nielsen's Distinctive Symphonies
  • Symphony No. 6 (1925)

    Carl Nielsen, as a child.
    Royal Danish Library

    Some composers finish their symphonic cycles with grand statements. Think of Beethoven's triumphal Ninth Symphony, or Tchaikovsky's rich and mournful Sixth. Carl Nielsen took a very different path in his own Sixth, though it was a path consistent with his fiercely individual style. Initially Nielsen called the piece "Sinfonia semplice," or Simple Symphony, but Steinberg says it's far from simple. He also calls it the quirkiest and most peculiar of all Nielsen's symphonies.

    Evenly Odd: Carl Nielsen's Distinctive Symphonies

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