Of Carl Nielsen's six symphonies, only the first and the fifth have no subtitle. No matter, for while the others have grand titles such as The Inextinguishable, and The Four Temperaments, many commentators have dubbed the fifth the greatest symphony of the 20th century.
The mighty 'Inextinguishable' was composed during the years of World War One, and is a celebration of the ideal that, in Nielsen's own words, "music is life, and like it inextinguishable". The Fifth Symphony, however, was completed in 1922 when Europe was coming to terms with the war that had changed the continent, and its people, irrevocably.
Although officially a two-movement work, there are in fact four distinct sections. Technically, it is exceptionally demanding. The viola part is incredibly tiring; the seemingly endless repeated rhythms that underpin the entire texture of the music require a great level of articulation, even when it feels like one's fingers are going to fall off, and one's eyes may never uncross. For the string section as a whole, the driving unison quavers of the second movement proper demands utter accuracy and commitment.
However, despite the work's difficulties, this is incredibly uplifting and life affirming music. I love the beautiful horn, bassoon and string writing in the first movement Adagio - it is truly a cathedral of sound.
The lower brass writing gives the impression of some kind of giant rising up from the depths, and there are incredible wind solos, perhaps most notably in the clarinet. The drive of the unison strings in the second movement gives the effect of some unstoppable juggernaut and indeed, the overall impression of the music is one of great energy and vigour.
Some say that Nielsen straddled the boundaries of Romanticism and Modernism, and there is perhaps no better example of this than the infamous snare drum solo of the Fifth. As the first movement nears its conclusion, the snare enters, violently, brutally. It plays with its own metronome marking, a completely different tempo from the rest of the orchestra, before taking the instruction to improvise freely.
Nielsen directed that the snare drummer should "improvise as if at all costs he wants to stop the progress of the orchestra," and the effect is a complete upset in equilibrium until the massed forces of the orchestra subdue the aggressive snare, submerging it in great waves of sound.
I am so excited to get to know this work (with Thomas Søndergård at the helm) - I truly believe it to be incredible music. Nielsen was a great believer in the strength of the human spirit, of mankind's ability to adapt and overcome.
He understood that there was a natural inclination towards evil, to greed, that there would always be suffering, that wars would happen, but in this symphony, as David Fanning writes, he expresses "a realisation of humane values, in music that is at once boldly original, and deeply rooted in tradition". In this Fifth Symphony, it is hope and optimism who have the last words.
BBC National Orchestra of Wales will perform Nielsen's Symphony No 5 at St David's Hall this Friday (12 April) from 7.30pm.
For tickets and more information, call the orchestra's Audience Line on 0800 052 1812, or St David's Hall box office on 02920 878444. You can also book online.