Nielsen the Inextinguishable

The elusive Dane is at last emerging from the shadow of his Finnish contemporary, Sibelius

Norman Lebrecht

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.

Sibelius did not achieve a symphony until he was 34. When he did, it was tepid, Tchaikovsky-lite, regressive. However, his second symphony won him world fame. Written in 1902 under a bout of exceptional Russian oppression, it was an immediate audience favourite, bringing famous maestros clamouring to the composer’s door. Sibelius followed up with a third symphony of icy clarity, a rejection of Bruckner’s late romanticism and a statement of near-autistic self-correction.

Nielsen, working nights in Copenhagen as an opera conductor to feed his family, struggled to forge a symphonic lineage. Of his six symphonies, the third, “Sinfonia Espansiva”, mirrors Mahler’s ecological preoccupations while the fourth, “The Inextinguishable”, evokes a world at war. A comic opera, Maskarade, got a laugh out of sombre Danes but his symphonies could not match Sibelius’s feel for the spirit of the times. Nielsen lost his way in the end; his sixth symphony is stubbornly obtuse.

He died of heart disease in 1931, aged 66, and his orchestral works did not reach an international audience until Leonard Bernstein performed them with the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s — as an antidote to Sibelian predominance.

Sibelius marked Finland’s independence from the Russians with a final version of the problematic fifth symphony; he was forced out of his home for much of the ensuing civil war. Two further symphonies bear hallmarks of truculent individualism before, in 1926, he fell silent, musically, for the rest of his life. In 1939 he went on radio to beg the world to save Finland from Russian annihilation. Long after his death in 1957, his face remained on the currency, disappearing only when Finland joined the euro in 2002.

The 2015 anniversary year will not change our minds about Sibelius. The symphonies, tone poems and the violin concerto are staple fare, while the “Valse triste” is decadence incarnate. Discovered fragments of an eighth symphony confirm only that no completed symphony exists to be discovered. Sibelius is a known commodity.

Nielsen, on the other hand, is not. In the hands of the right conductor and orchestra, the middle symphonies can be overwhelming; the flute and clarinet concertos are as testing for the performer as they are pleasing for the listener. The wind quintet is unique, unmatched for its twilight colours and consoling themes.

How does one approach the elusive Dane? Think of him as a Nordic Janáček, an artist who elevates the elements of daily life to something approaching nobility. There is a determined rough edge in Nielsen’s textures that has been smoothed out in Sibelius, a feeling for existential torment that is seldom glimpsed in the Finn.

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. Nielsen, however, awaits exploration. Thanks to him, the coming year’s menu looks more than a little tempting.

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