Carl August Nielsen was born on the Danish island of Funen on 9 June 1865, the seventh of 12 children. Though desperately poor in material terms, Nielsen grew up enjoying the love and support of his family, a shared joy in communal music-making (his house-painter father was also a musician in the village band) and an intense appreciation of the wonders of the natural world.
Nielsen initially learned the violin from his father and, in his teens, played in various local bands and orchestras. His earliest compositions date from around this time. In 1884, after four years as a military bandsman in Odense, and with the help of local benefactors, Nielsen was able to attend Copenhagen Conservatory. There he received instruction in musical theory from Orla Rosenhoff, who encouraged Nielsen’s growing interest in composition. In 1888, the 23-year-old enjoyed his first success with his Little Suite for strings, Op. 1. During the following year, Nielsen became a violinist at the Royal Danish Orchestra, a post he was to hold for some 16 years.
This period coincides with the first flush of Nielsen’s compositional maturity, taking in his two operas, the biblical epic Saul and David (1898–1901) and the comic Maskarade (1904–06), as well as the first two symphonies (1890–92 and 1901–2). The unusually deep psychological characterisation displayed in the operas extends to the Second Symphony, a musical response to a collection of folk paintings depicting the four classical temperaments. The climax of this period is undoubtedly the magnificent Third Symphony, ‘Sinfonia espansiva’ (1910–11), which consolidated Nielsen’s position as the most important Danish composer of his time.
From around the time of the First World War, Nielsen’s musical language took on a darker hue. A sense of intense struggle against inimical forces pervades such masterpieces as the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (1914–16, 1921–2, 1924–5).These works are notable for their bold use of what is sometimes called ‘progressive tonality’, where the ultimate key of the work evolves through a process of sustained conflict against other keys. For example, the Fourth Symphony (‘The Inextinguishable’) begins in D minor, a key associated with violence and chaos, which gradually yields to the key of E major, whose appearance is always attended by music of radiant splendour.
Despite the huge intellectual scope of these works, Nielsen never lost touch with his roots and with the people he loved. Throughout his career he continually composed and arranged popular Danish songs and in 1927, four years before his death, he wrote a memoir, My Childhood. Filled with sharp observation and unaffected compassion, yet without any trace of sentimentality, this little book reveals in words the essential human qualities that characterise his music.
Profile © John Pickard
- Clips (11)Latest ClipNielsen: Symphony No. 5
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- Nielsen: Symphony No. 5http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01vxplj.jpg2014-07-09T10:51:00ZProms Music Guide: Nielsen's Symphony No. 5http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/1be1367d-119f-4b08-bdfe-50b95043e544?clipfocus=p022h75gSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 3 mins
Nielsen: Symphony No. 5
- Fairy Taleshttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01zt6lf.jpg2014-05-26T15:53:00ZCharles Hazlewood discusses various fairy tales set to music.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/1be1367d-119f-4b08-bdfe-50b95043e544?clipfocus=p01zt6lkSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 1 hour
- Nielsen: Symphony No. 4http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p020cp0g.jpg2014-05-18T12:00:00ZTom Service and conductor John Storgards explore Nielsen's Fourth Symphony - The Inextinguishable.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/1be1367d-119f-4b08-bdfe-50b95043e544?clipfocus=p01zb5nfSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 56 mins
Nielsen: Symphony No. 4
- Nielsen: Clarinet Concerto (Op. 57)http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01z9k3n.jpg2014-05-17T21:06:00ZStephen Johnson and clarinettist John Bradbury look at Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/1be1367d-119f-4b08-bdfe-50b95043e544?clipfocus=p01z9k3vSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 47 mins
Nielsen: Clarinet Concerto (Op. 57)
- Nielsen: Flute Concerto (FS 119)http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01z9jjj.jpg2014-05-17T20:59:00ZSharon Bezalay and Stephen Johnson investigate Nielsen's Flute Concerto.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/1be1367d-119f-4b08-bdfe-50b95043e544?clipfocus=p01z9jlzSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 50 mins
Nielsen: Flute Concerto (FS 119)
- Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01zk5vk.jpg2014-05-14T14:41:00ZDonald Macleod explores the life and work of Danish composer Carl Nielsen, regarded as one of the most important composers of his generation.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/1be1367d-119f-4b08-bdfe-50b95043e544?clipfocus=p01z2p0hSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 55 mins
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)
- Carl Nielsenhttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01zk549.jpg2014-05-14T14:28:00ZThe life and work of Carl Nielsen, Denmark's most famous composer.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/1be1367d-119f-4b08-bdfe-50b95043e544?clipfocus=p01z2ncrSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 54 mins
- Nielsen: Symphony No. 2http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01xpz6t.jpg2014-04-20T10:09:00ZDavid Fanning compares recordings of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 2 and makes a recommendation.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/1be1367d-119f-4b08-bdfe-50b95043e544?clipfocus=p01xpz6vSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 49 mins
Nielsen: Symphony No. 2
- Nielsen: Symphony No. 4http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01vs8rh.jpg2014-03-19T17:02:00ZDavid Fanning provides a personal recommendation from available recordings of Nielsen's fourth symphony.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/1be1367d-119f-4b08-bdfe-50b95043e544?clipfocus=p01vs8tcSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 43 mins
Nielsen: Symphony No. 4
- Nielsen: Symphony No. 4, 'Inextinguishable' - Preview Cliphttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01g8lp9.jpg2013-10-17T12:09:00ZListen to an excerpt from Nielsen's Symphony No. 4, 'Inextinguishable'.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/1be1367d-119f-4b08-bdfe-50b95043e544?clipfocus=p01jwk0kSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 1 min
Nielsen: Symphony No. 4, 'Inextinguishable' - Preview Clip
- Prom 50 'Loved Nielsen's 5th this evening' (glyn12gh on Twitter)http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p02cfw2b.jpg2012-08-20T23:00:55ZOsmo Vänskä leads the BBC SO in Nielsen's Symphony No 5.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/1be1367d-119f-4b08-bdfe-50b95043e544?clipfocus=p00xn8gvSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 4 mins
Prom 50 'Loved Nielsen's 5th this evening' (glyn12gh on Twitter)
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