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Carl Nielsen: His feeling for existential torment is seldom seen in Sibelius

The Nordic countries have produced two important composers in the last 150 years. Unluckily, both were born in the same year, condemning them to share jubilees and centenaries for all time. Chronology can be cruel to composers, especially the losers.

Carl Nielsen, born on June 9, 1865, flickers in the shadow of Jean Sibelius, born on December 8. Sibelius is an epochal figure. His music defined a nation and his craggy face personified it at times of existential crisis. His symphonies are formally immaculate, neat as a Bergman film set. The second and fifth symphonies won instant and lasting popularity. For half of the last century, the leading composers in Britain and America outdid one another in vain efforts to emulate Sibelius.

Nielsen, by contrast, has no imitators. Few musicians anywhere can whistle his tunes. Aside from masterpieces for wind instruments, none of his works makes an irresistible case for regular performance.

That said — and I'm about to outrage five million Finns — Nielsen is, as a man and a composer, more interesting than Sibelius. He is more authentic, more expressive, easier to approach and appreciate.

Economics determined their disparate destinies. Sibelius was a rich man in a poor land, Nielsen a struggler in lush pastures. The Finn was born into a middle-class home within commuting distance of Helsinki (the rail link was laid three years before he was born). Nielsen was the seventh child of subsistence peasants on the island of Funen, a long boat ride from anywhere except Hans Christian Andersen's cottage. He described taking milk from his mother's breast as a boy of five. His memoirs, published in 1927, are an exquisite evocation of lost simplicities.

Sibelius grew up with attention deficit disorder and signs of an addictive personality. A dunce at school, he cut classes to play in a Helsinki orchestra. Sent to university to study law, he switched to music and toured its great capitals.

Nielsen worked the fields, played music at night and, at 14, was drummed into the army as a bugler. He was 18 before he saw a city. A scholarship lad at Copenhagen's Conservatoire, he yearned for Funen "where a joyous symphony issues from the birds' nests every time a mother feeds her young".

The two young men met on a study year in Berlin and recognised a potential rivalry. They struck up a diplomatic friendship, wary on Sibelius's side, warmer on Nielsen's. Sibelius moved on to Vienna, where a bout of homesickness awoke him to Finnish folklore and a concert of Bruckner's third symphony taught him form and structure. He composed "Kullervo", "En Saga" and the Karelia overture in 1892, followed by the political anthem, "Finlandia". A grateful nation awarded him a lifelong pension. He built a homestead 30 miles north of Helsinki and never needed to work again. A contemporary novel caricatures him as indolent, often drunk.

Nielsen, at 27, wrote a symphony. It broke all symphonic rules by starting in one key and finishing in another. Ahead of Mahler and Schoenberg, Nielsen recognised that tonality was on the verge of exhaustion, in need of reconfiguration. While avoiding dissonance, he pursued what the English composer Robert Simpson saw as an "evolving tonality", an organic alternative to the established format.

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David Ashbridge
December 21st, 2014
4:12 AM
Dear God, this is desperate stuff. If this pile of tripe had been written as an undergraduate essay on the subject of Sibelius and Nielsen, it would have failed a basic assessment process. That it has been written by a journalist purporting to like classical music just simply beggars belief. Both Sibelius and Nielsen are great composers and both presented unique and effective solutions to the compositional problems they encountered. Why should anyone have to chose between them, let alone denigrate one of them to promote the other? It makes no difference that one of them wrote some tunes that are easier to remember, although that is frankly nothing more than personal opinion. In a wider context, compositional competence does not boil down to a popularity contest based on audience memory. NL “Sibelius did not achieve a symphony until he was 34.” As if his age matters. It is also irrelevant whether a composer writes in a particular form or not. What matters is how a composer understands and uses the language of music to either rework existing forms or invent new ones. Merely writing in a form is no guide whatever as to the value of the end result. NL "His [Sibelius]symphonies are formally immaculate" Just what does this mean and how are we to judge? Who anywhere or at anytime has decided what is formally immaculate and what is not. Oh, hang on, Norman Lebrecht has decided for us. Discussion over. NL “The age of Sibelius is over. No composer in the 21st century looks to him as a role model, least of all in Finland where two generations of creative musicians have asserted a fertile, polytonal independence. Sibelius is dead.” My response to this is taken from, Carl Nielsen: Inheritance and Legacy Programme for the Carl Nielsen Symposium, 3-5 November 2011 Glenda Goss, Helsinki: Sibelius, a Towering National Composer – an Outsider’s Perceptions During his lifetime Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) was turned into a national icon and invested with the essence of a pure Finnish identity. Even today, over half a century after his death, Sibelius’s importance for Finnish self-conception remains enormous. Although this impact eludes accurate measure, it has clearly extended beyond the world of music and into the wider Finnish society. NL "Sibelius grew up with attention deficit disorder and signs of an addictive personality. A dunce at school, he cut classes to play in a Helsinki orchestra. Sent to university to study law, he switched to music and toured its great capitals." Evidently, quality of wits is better than quantity. Sibelius clearly made good use of those wits he had which most certainly served him well. NL "Nielsen, at 27, wrote a symphony. It broke all symphonic rules by starting in one key and finishing in another." Progressive tonality was nothing new in 1892. Nor was Nielsen's the first example of a symphony that starts in one key and ends in another. I will mention only a few works of the many I could cite which display this compositional technique. Schubert: Wanderer Fantasy Schumann: String Quartet in A minor, op.41, no.1 (1842) Brahms: Schicksalslied (1871) Chopin: Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4 Liszt: Dante Symphony (1855) Starts in D minor and ends in B major Alkan: 'Les quatre âges' (1847) Starts in D major and ends in G sharp minor Any chance you could provide a relevant source which lists these "symphonic rules?" NL "The Nordic countries have produced two important composers in the last 150 years". [Sibelius and Nielsen] Just a quick list of other important Scandinavian composers. Plenty more besides these as well: Alfvén, Stenhammar, Svendsen, Langgaard, Lindberg, Melartin, Rangström, Atterberg NL "The 2015 anniversary year will not change our minds about Sibelius. The symphonies, tone poems and the violin concerto are staple fare..." Well, some of the symphonies, some of the tone poems and the violin concerto might well be staple fare, but certainly not every Sibelius symphony is that well known or understood. Number 6 is possibly the least understood and well known of Sibelius's symphonies, even though it is a truly remarkable work. No. 4, probably the greatest of Sibelius's symphonies, not performed as much in the concert hall as it should be. (Given what has been written by NL already, I will forego the idea of asking him to explain Sibelius's 4th Symphony). The same goes for the tone poems, some of which are rarities in the concert hall and on record. How many recent performances have you come across of Night ride and Sunrise Op. 55, In Memoriam Op. 59, The Bard Op. 64, Luonnotar Op. 70? One? Two? Any? Sibelius also wrote some other smaller works for soloist and orchestra, far less well known than the violin concerto. Two Serenades, for violin and orchestra, Op. 69, Two pieces for violin or cello and orchestra, Op. 77, Six Humoresques, violin and orchestra, Suite for Violin and Orchestra in D minor, Op. 117 (1929) These works receive the occasional outing. But leaving the repertoire issue aside, why do our minds need changing about Sibelius? He is a great composer who left behind a legacy of highly original works which can be enjoyed and studied. There is also space in most people's minds to be able to appreciate another great composer of highly original works which likewise can be enjoyed and studied. We don't need to turf Sibelius out to make space for Nielsen. NL "There is a determined rough edge in Nielsen's textures that has been smoothed out in Sibelius" This is pathetic. Not only is it totally wrong and irrelevant, the two composers had different methods of composition, different approaches to orchestration and different concept of textures. Nielsen is a great composer who certainly deserves better representation in the concert hall, on record, and in books about his life and music, but it is not to be achieved by attempting to damn another great composer. The music of Sibelius will certainly withstand the nonsense written here by NL, but more importantly, Nielsen and his legacy deserve much better than the kind of squalid endorsement recently published in standpointmag.

Robert Page
December 18th, 2014
8:12 PM
Norman Lebrecht has once again proven that he is a complete idiot when it comes to music.

Martin Malmgren
December 18th, 2014
2:12 PM
Hold on a moment - no composer in the 21st century looks to Sibelius as a role model, least of all in Finland? Really? This little quote by Magnus Lindberg from an interview in the 90's seems very fitting here, in the context of Sibelius and his legacy: “Q: You have often mention Sibelius in connection with some of your works. Do you feel a particular affinity for his music?” “I have often said that is is a pity Sibelius was Finnish! His music has been deeply misunderstood. While his language was far from modern, his thinking, as far as form and the treatment of materials is concerned, was ahead of its time. While Varése is credited with opening the way for a new sonorities, Sibelius had himself pursued a profound reassessment of the formal and structural problems of composition. I do not think it is fair that he has been considered as a conservative, even if the surface of his music remains highly dependent on traditional tonal thinking. In his last symphonic works the development and thematic work are particularly interesting. Each theme gives rise to another, according to genuine cycles of metamorphosis. The work – the whole work – is in perpetual evolution. At the same time, this method of proceeding via successive associations is bound up with a narrative conception. His harmonies, while tonal, have a resonant, almost spectral quality. You find an attention to sonority in Sibelius works which is actually not so far removed from that which would appear long after in the work of Gérard Grisey or Tristan Murail, who were both very interested in Sibelius’ music ten years ago. I wonder if they still are. In any case, the Seventh Symphony, in particular, was truly a cult work at that time! For me, the crucial aspect of his work remains his conception of continuity. In Tapiola, above all, the way genuine processes are created using very limited materials is pretty exceptional. Few composers, before or after him, have pursued this direction.” Lindberg or Lebrecht? In this case, I can’t think of anyone I know who would agree with the latter.

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