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