Biography: Knud Ketting’s web biography about the composer may be cited by source, but not published in large excerpt without permission.
“The ninth of June 1865 was a hard day for my mother, but also a happy one. My parents lived in a little cottage in the middle of a field in Nørre-Lyndelse on Funen. The nearest community is called Sortelung. My mother was alone at home with some of her younger children when she felt the first birth pangs. It was very painful, and she went outside, put her arms around a tree and banged her head against its trunk. This is why I think she must have felt very happy and relieved when at last I made my entry into this world.”
This is how Carl Nielsen starts his boyhood memories, which came out in 1927 under the title “Min fynske Barndom” (My Childhood on Funen). This autobiography is our main source of information concerning Nielsen’s childhood and youth until he left Funen at New Year 1883/84 in order to study in Copenhagen.
The house in Sortelung (= the Black Bog) where Carl Nielsen was born disappeared long ago. No new building has replaced it; but where it used to stand there is today a memorial slab and a flagpole. Carl was born as the seventh of twelve children. His parents were Maren Kirstine Jørgensen, née Johansen (1833-1897) and Niels Jørgensen (1835-1915).
All the children bore the surname Nielsen (patronymic after their father Niels). This was contrary to the decree concerning the fixing of family names issued in 1856 by the newly established Ministry of Church Affairs. But many priests, especially in the countryside, still allowed the traditional use of patronymics for the greater part of another generation.
Niels Jørgensen worked as a labourer on the neighbouring farms and a painter, too. He was therefore generally called by the name of Painter-Niels, even when he went around playing at dances. He was often away for several days on end and at such times Carl’s mother, Maren Kristine, was alone in charge of the household. On one occasion she was left alone with this responsibility for a longer period, as Painter-Niels was conscripted from December 1863 to August 1864 due to the war with Prussia and Austria.
Carl Nielsen’s earliest musical memories related to his mother. It was his mother who handed him the three-quarter size violin hanging on the wall when, as a six-year-old, he had the measles. He then taught himself a few melodies, which he played for his father when he came home. His father listened silently, took the violin, tuned it and handed it back to his son (this is the only glimpse of a music-teaching scene between father and son that posterity has been allowed!).
“I was not very good at bookish subjects, but not one of the worst either. On the other hand I could jump quite high at gym, and I was particularly good at climbing ropes and bars: I could climb up and down several times in a row without using my legs.” This is how Carl Nielsen describes his encounter with school in “Min fynske Barndom”.
Young Carl is believed to have started school on 1 May 1872. He was lucky in that a new assistant teacher, Emil Petersen, was appointed the following year. He got the school up to standard again after a period of decline. “He was a gifted man and I am very thankful to him, also because he taught me later on to play the violin properly from notation.” Carl soon went out to play at dances with his father. He also started composing small tunes, which he noted down as best he could.
Like other labourers’ children, Carl Nielsen had to do varying amounts of paid work from an early age. His earnings were part of the family income; yet the children were usually allowed to keep a small amount for themselves. Carl went out to work for the first time when he was eight or nine years old as a goose-herd at Bramstrup Hall. As he grew older he was able to do increasingly challenging work. Thus, one summer, he came to be employed at a nearby tile-works.
It is not quite clear when exactly Carl Nielsen’s family moved to another house called Petersborg, situated on the parish boundary between Nørre Lyndelse and Nørre Søby. The lease is dated 23 March 1879, but there is good evidence that they had already been living there for a year by that date. Nowadays the house, which is known as “Barndomshjemmet” (Nielsen’s “Childhood Home”), has been made into a museum. It has been moved a few yards to the west due to the resiting of a road.
Carl Nielsen had only a few weeks to relax after his confirmation at the age of 14 before he was sent away. Obviously neither of his parents can have believed he had any future as a musician, as he was apprenticed to a shopkeeper in the village of Ellinge about halfway between Nørre Lyndelse and Nyborg, that is a couple of miles away from his home. But by midsummer the shopkeeper had gone bankrupt and Carl had to go home to his parents.
Carl Nielsen’s apprenticeship had disappeared: “So I returned home to my parents, and as my father had heard that there was an opening for a musician with the Sixteenth Batallion in Odense, we agreed that I should practise the trumpet intensively and register for the audition that was to take place in July or August 1879.”
Luckily all went well and, armed with the admonitions of his mother against possible bad company and dangerous acquaintance with “bad” women, as she put it, Carl took up his new appointment on 1 November 1879.
Nielsen had not given up the violin, but in his first two years in Odense he usually only played it when he went home to appear at dances with his father. In 1881, on returning to Odense after the summer manoeuvres in Jutland, he began playing the violin more systematically. He started to take lessons with Carl Larsen, who had been sexton at Odense Cathedral since 1873.
We do not know with certainty how much Carl Nielsen composed during his time with the military band in Odense. We know from “Min fynske Barndom” that he wrote some trios and quartets for brass instruments, and moreover that at first he had difficulty in coming to terms with the fact that the instruments were tuned differently. All these works are lost, but some ten pieces of chamber music still survive.
Carl Nielsen has told us that a few local men helped him in various ways while he was a military musician in Odense, though we do not have many details about the exact part played by any one of them in particular. The most central figure is Klaus Berntsen, the high school headmaster and MP, who among other things helped Nielsen to get to Copenhagen by giving him an introduction to Niels W. Gade, who was director of the Copenhagen Conservatory of Music. Carl Nielsen went to Copenhagen in May 1883, armed with his violin and a new copy of his String Quartet in D minor, also hoping to pay a visit to the well-known violinist Valdemar Tofte, who was teaching at the Conservatory.
He was well received by both Gade and Tofte, so once back in Odense he made sure that he could be released at short notice from the military band. In December he went to Copenhagen again and took the entrance examination for the Conservatory of Music (later the Royal Danish Academy of Music). Besides Niels W. Gade and Valdemar Tofte the jury included the aging composer J.P.E. Hartmann. The examination was satisfactory, and he was admitted on a scholarship. He spent Christmas at home in Nørre Lyndelse, but on one of the first days of January 1884 he returned to Copenhagen, where he was to live in fortune and misfortune for the rest of his life.
The Copenhagen Conservatory of Music (later the Royal Danish Academy of Music), which the 18-year-old Carl Nielsen was to attend from early 1884, was familiarly called “Gade’s Conservatory” for short, for Niels. W. Gade had been there since its foundation in 1866 and was one of its directors together with J. P. E. Hartmann and H. S. Paulli. In practice it was Gade who was in charge, and his conservative musical taste left its mark on the teaching. If one wanted to know something about contemporary music, one should not expect to learn it from Gade. Carl Nielsen remembered J. P. E. Hartmann, who was at that time in his mid seventies, as more open to new trends.
Thanks to state subsidies for free-place scholarships, studying there was no longer restricted to children of the upper middle class. But there was still a majority of female students, due to the simple fact that there were very few other study opportunities open to women. And since the conservatory was designed both for gifted amateurs and for professionals, there were very many female students who studied singing or the piano, for instance, without ever making professional use of their training.
Nielsen, who had entered with professional intentions, studied violin as his main instrument, and, like all students, he had classes in piano, music history and theory. Systematic composition studies were out of the question, though every now and then he handed in minor assignments to teachers like Niels W. Gade and Orla Rosenhoff.
The composer and music theorist Orla Rosenhoff (1844-1905) taught Nielsen theory, including counterpoint, and is probably the teacher who had the greatest influence on his development in the long run. With the possible exception of old J. P. E. Hartmann, with whom Nielsen only had superficial contact while at the Conservatory, Rosenhoff was the only teacher in positive touch with new musical currents, whether from Wagner or others.
Although Carl Nielsen was not the only student at the Conservatory to come from the provinces, most of them were from Copenhagen and living at home. Among the students from his own year, he seems only to have had close contact with the brother and sister Vilhelm and Margrete Rosenberg. From the year below him he soon became acquainted with violinists Julius Borup and Frederik Schnedler-Petersen and with pianist Johanne Stockmarr, who were to remain his friends for many years.
At the end of 1886 Carl Nielsen, then aged 21, left the Copenhagen Conservatory. He had graduated with a good, but not exactly outstanding, mark (mg). This average mark cannot have been difficult to calculate, since he got the same in all subjects (piano, violin, ensemble, harmony, counterpoint, musical forms and instrumentation). Armed with a diploma which also certified that “Mr. Carl Nielsen’s behaviour during his study years has given satisfaction,” he now had to make his own way on the musical free market. But to make a living solely as a composer was not really realistic.
Even as a student he had deputised for some of the regular contracted players in various Copenhagen orchestras, and he now became a regular member of the Tivoli Concert Hall Orchestra (where the fee for an evening was 4.25 crowns according to his notebook for the years 1888-1890). At the same time he had pupils. But he also continued his own training by taking private lessons with Orla Rosenhoff, who gave him good advice on his new compositions and to whom he was later to dedicate works like his official opus 1, the Suite for Strings, and the cantata Hymnus Amoris. The new works included a String Quartet in G minor (which was revised later, and is the first of four quartets in the “official” series) and a String Quintet in G major. The latter was performed privately at the Chamber Music Society on 13 February 1889, and for the first time in public at the newly-founded Symfonia Association a few months later (28 April). On that occasion Carl Nielsen played second violin.
After graduating Nielsen moved in with the retired wholesaler Jens Georg Nielsen and his wife Marie on the first floor of Slagelsegade 18. They too were from Odense and took care of him like foster parents. On the whole his financial situation was still poor – and this was not an ideal condition for a young man who needed concentration in order to compose. But recognition was soon to come.
Carl Nielsen’s major subject at the Conservatory of Music was the violin, but by the end of his education at the very latest his fellow-students must have realised that composition was his real interest. His official debut as a composer took place after he had left the Conservatory, in the Tivoli Concert Hall on 17 September 1887, where his Andante tranquillo e Scherzo for string orchestra was performed (with himself playing the violin in the orchestra)
Shortly after this he was again noticed as a composer when the Private Chamber Music Society (whose concerts were called “meetings” and as such were not open to the general public) performed his newly composed String Quartet in F major on 25 January 1888.
On 8 September 1888, the orchestra of the Tivoli Concert Hall gave the first performance of Carl Nielsen’s official opus 1, the Suite for Strings, with a week’s delay compared with the original programming because a now long-forgotten English composer took the young Dane’s music off the bill in favour of two of his own works. Balduin Dahl conducted, and he almost dragged Carl Nielsen from the violinists’ group to receive the audience’s ovation. The success was so great that the second movement, a seductive waltz, had to be repeated and afterwards Carl Nielsen went out with his friends to celebrate.
On 16 October the same year Carl Nielsen personally conducted this same piece at the first concert of the season in the Odense Music Society – his debut as conductor. Nielsen would surely have been happy to appear free of charge, but he actually received a fee of 30 crowns.
At the beginning of 1890 the work was printed and published by Wilhelm Hansen. Recent research in connection with the new critical edition of Carl Nielsen’s works has revealed that in the meantime Nielsen had made alterations in the suite, especially in the third movement. At the end of May 1889 Dahl had given Nielsen permission to conduct the suite himself in Tivoli, and this was his conductor’s debut in Copenhagen.
In August 1889 a competition took place for vacancies in the Chapel Royal Orchestra. Carl Nielsen won a place, and from the start of the 1889-90 season he was among the second violins in the orchestra. In those days it was customary to let newly appointed violinists begin as second violins, and in the course of his 16 years as a Chapel Royal musician Nielsen never made it higher than to the first desk of the seconds. It was probably not his intention to play in the orchestra so long. His talent as a violinist did not extend further than a few opportunities as a soloist at the so-called popular concerts, but on the other hand it was not possible for him to make a living by composing.
Among his colleagues at the Chapel Royal were three outstanding oboists, Chr. Schiemann, Peter Brøndum and Olivo Krause. The last two of these became close friends of Nielsen, and he was inspired to write his two Fantasy Pieces for Oboe og Piano, opus 2. Krause (1857-1927) was to have performed both pieces for the first time at one of the Chapel’s chamber music soirées in December 1890, but he was taken ill so that the two works were published by Wilhelm Hansen before Krause and Victor Bendix eventually gave them their christening at the next soirée on 16 March 1891.
Although on paper he was fully trained as a musician, Carl Nielsen knew that as a composer he needed to acquire more knowledge and to widen his horizons. Being badly off economically, he had to resort to the few scholarships that the cultural life of that time could provide. One of the opportunities available was the Ancker Award (Det Ancker’ske Legat), founded with money bequeathed by rentier Carl Andreas Ancker (1828-57).
With leave from the Chapel Royal for the whole season of 1890-91, and with funding from the Ancker Award, Carl Nielsen set out for Germany. While at home he had procured recommendations from Niels W. Gade, with whom he had spent a whole day at his home in Fredensborg. This was to be his last meeting with the old master. In Dresden he attended in September the four operas in Wagner’s Ring, which made a strong impression on him: “the musician who does not think Wagner great is himself very small” – a point of view which he was later to modify rather severely. After a trip to Leipzig Nielsen departed on 18 October for Berlin, where he continued to attend concerts and operas diligently. Among other musical colleagues he met composers Jean Sibelius and Christian Sinding and the famous German violinist Joseph Joachim, who agreed to listen to Nielsen’s newly composed String Quartet in F minor.
On 22 December Carl Nielsen received the news that Gade had died the day before. He writes in his diary: “Darkness and emptiness! Terrible! I am sick with sorrow and can neither eat nor sleep.”
In the following months Nielsen divided his time between Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden, where he looked out for the most interesting concerts and operas. Among other things he attended Johan Svendsen’s Carnival in Paris in Berlin (“the most daring piece of music Svendsen has written”), and in Dresden he heard Victor Bendix’s First Symphony (“a great and well-deserved success”). And at the end of January he left for Paris.
Love and marriage
On Thursday 26 February 1891 Carl Nielsen arrived in Paris. During his first days there he concentrated on the visual arts, especially at the Louvre, together with Danish friends such as cellist Fritz Emil Bendix, brother of composer Victor Bendix. But he also had the opportunity to perform his Five Piano Pieces, opus 3, for the Scandinavian Association, where they were a success.
He also took active part in the local Scandinavian social life, and on 2 March he notes in his diary: “last night a party at Bendix’s place, where I had a good time. Miss Brodersen is really quite pretty. Came home at 2 a.m.” Then things moved on fast: “Cannot remember what I have done today except that in the evening I found her, for whom I all this time have had a whole range of feelings, and we want to spend our whole life together and be happy and nothing can get me to doubt any more” (16 March). “Have not written in my diary for the last fortnight, as I have been intoxicated with happiness. Have seen a lot together with Marie and feel definitely richer in her company” (30 March).
The two young people were too impatient to wait for the necessary documents to come from Denmark, and on 10 April they celebrated their wedding party without any papers together with their Danish friends, in a restaurant where Carl Nielsen and Anne Marie Brodersen had decorated the tables themselves.
“I was born in 1863 at Thygesminde in Stenderup near Kolding. It was a hard childbirth for my mother, she told me later that my head was very big. I grew up in a lovely district, with fertile fields and hedges full of roses and hawthorn. On the roads you could see herd boys looking after the parish cattle, and I used to envy them because they could sleep with the cows. If only I had been in their place I could have lain down and made drawings of them, instead of going to school!”
With these words Anne Marie Brodersen (1863-1945) begins her reminiscences of childhood. Her interest in animals and their anatomy was to last all her life.
In 1882 her interest in drawing and sculpture brought her to Copenhagen, where she studied with sculptor August Saabye. She made her debut at the Charlottenborg spring exhibition in 1884. Later on she studied at the Academy’s School of Arts for Women, and in 1889 she won a bronze medal at the World Exhibition in Paris, where she participated with two animal sculptures. She finished her studies in 1890, and it was thanks to a scholarship from the Academy that she went to Paris for the second time and met Carl Nielsen. Actually she had already met the young composer briefly – she had attended the concert in Tivoli where his Suite for Strings opus 1 was performed for the first time. When they met, the painter and sculptor Jens Ferdinand Willumsen was posing for her. Willumsen was living in Paris at the time. He was to become a close friend of the Nielsens.
Anne Marie and Carl left Paris for Italy, and on 10 May 1891 they were legally married in the English church at Florence. Most of their time in Italy was devoted to study of the visual arts, something which Carl did not resent; on the contrary, one of the paintings even inspired him to compose Hymnus Amoris.
They ran out of money along the way, but fortunately they were helped out by a fellow-countryman. At the end of June they returned to Denmark, where they visited first Anne Marie’s parents at Thygesminde and then Carl’s parents in Nørre Lyndelse , shortly before the latter sold Nielsen’s childhood home and left for America.
Returning to Copenhagen, Carl and Anne Marie, who was by then in an advanced stage of pregnancy, stayed in a hotel near Knippelsbro bridge until in October they acquired a permanent address in Copenhagen in the form of a little attic flat at Nyhavn 5. Space was scarce, but this is what they could afford.
On 9 December 1891 the Nielsen family’s first child was born. She was christened Irmelin Johanne Carl-Nielsen after Irmelin Rose, the fourth song in a set of Five Texts by J. P. Jacobsen (opus 4) which Carl Nielsen was then in the process of composing.
On 4 March 1893 Anne Marie gave birth to another daughter, who was christened Anne Marie Frederikke Carl-Nielsen, nicknamed Søs: “We did not receive this child with joy, since we had both intensely wanted a son,” Nielsen wrote in his diary! The son they had wanted so much was born at last on 5 September 1895 and christened Hans Børge Carl-Nielsen.
In 1886 – one year after the poet’s death – J. P. Jacobsen’s posthumous collection of Poems and Draftscame out. Here freer verse replaced the old, traditional strophic forms in strict metre. Nielsen felt strongly attracted by the dawning symbolism of these poems, and in the first collection of songs to texts by Jacobsen that he wrote in 1891 (opus 4) he emphasized his respect for the texts by entitling the work Music to Five Poems by J. P. Jacobsen. Later on that year he continued with another five Jacobsen songs published as opus 6. Most of the songs in both collections are through-composed rather than strophic and the piano accompaniments are highly original.
In the Ludvig Holstein Songs, opus 10, from 1894, most of the songs are now strophic. Sang bag ploven (Song Behind the Plough) especially points forward to the folk songs which were later to bring Nielsen a popularity few if any other “serious” Danish composers have enjoyed in their lifetime.
Concurrently with the songs Nielsen composed chamber music: his first official chamber music opus is the String Quartet in G minor from 1888, which was published in revised form as opus 13 in 1900. This was followed in 1890 by the String Quartet in F minor (published in 1892 as opus 5), in which his command of form is far more advanced. The Quartet in F Minor was performed for the first time at a chamber music soirée by members of the Chapel Royal on 8 April 1892 and got a good reception. It was the first of Nielsen’s works to be distributed internationally.
Symphonist and opera composer
In some of the drafts from 1892 Carl Nielsen’s first symphony (opus 7 in G minor) is called “Symphony in C.” This Symphony was not his first attempt in the genre. As early as 1888 he had started on a symphony in F major, but he never went further than the first movement. So it was performed under the title Symphonic Rhapsody for Orchestra in February 1893, under the baton of Victor Bendix, at one of the so-called Popular Concerts in Copenhagen.
By then the Opus 7 symphony, on which he had started as early as the autumn of 1890 in Berlin, was quite far advanced. Johan Svendsen had promised to conduct the first performance of this new symphony, and Nielsen managed with some difficulty to get the fair copy ready for its first performance by the Chapel Royal Orchestra on 14 March 1894. This concert was attended by King Christian IX, Queen Louise and the royal family – hardly on account of Nielsen’s first performance, but rather because it was the first symphony concert by the Chapel Royal after an enforced interruption of ten years.
Carl Nielsen was sitting as usual among the second violins. It must have been a great moment for him when, on Svendsen’s request, he left his chair in the orchestra and came to stand on the middle of the podium to receive the audience’s enthusiastic applause. The score, which is dedicated to Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen, was to be published by Wilhelm Hansen later in the year.
In the autumn of 1894 Carl Nielsen again took leave from his violinist’s job in the Chapel Royal Orchestra. This time his motive for going abroad was different: he was no longer travelling to study, but to promote his own music. Anne Marie stayed at home at first and only joined him one and a half months later. Carl had his G minor Symphony in his luggage, and his publisher Alfred Wilhelm Hansen (1854-1923) also went to Berlin to help him.
Among other colleagues Carl Nielsen met Ferrucio Busoni, Richard Strauss (“a most unsympathetic person; a social climber who is already trying to play the great man”), and Brahms. Brahms promised to look more thoroughly at both the Symphony and the F minor String Quartet, and a few years later he sent him greetings through a common acquaintance together with appreciative words about the symphony. Carl Nielsen’s journey had at least one positive result – on 18 March 1896 he conducted his Symphony in Dresden (where he shared the bill with Richard Strauss!) and had a success.
The inspiration for Carl Nielsen’s first great cantata for soloists, choir and orchestra, Hymnus Amoris (1896), is to be found in his honeymoon with Anne Marie. In Padua they had been deeply moved by Titian’s picture of a young man who kills his beloved out of jealousy. They both decided to depict love in all its aspects through their art, but only Carl carried out his plan.
Together with his friend, the folklorist Axel Olrik (1864-1917), he designed a text in which the four ages of life sing the praises of love. Then the philologist J. L. Heiberg (1854-1924) translated the text into Latin. Carl Nielsen had prepared himself by studying the choral style of the old polyphonic masters, and this cantata, which he dedicated to his old theory teacher Orla Rosenhoff, was a great success at its first performance, which he conducted in person at the Music Society on 27 April 1897.
When Carl Nielsen started thinking about composing an opera in 1896, he vacillated at first between two very different subjects: J. P. Jacobsen’s “Marie Grubbe” and the Old Testament narrative about Saul and David. He finally settled for the latter. At the end of 1898 he approached Einar Christiansen to write the libretto, which was complete by January 1899. The composition process took some time, among other reasons because both husband and wife had received study scholarships and had left for Italy in December 1899. This did not completely prevent Carl from composing, however, for the triumphal hymn in Act II after David’s victory over the giant Goliath was written in the garden of a tavern in Pompeii!
After the opera had been accepted by The Royal Theatre, Carl Nielsen took his courage in both hands and asked to conduct it himself. He was allowed to conduct the first three performances. The premiere took place on 28 November 1902, conducted by Nielsen and directed by Julius Lehmann and with Niels Juel Simonsen and Vilhelm Herold in the title roles. After the third performance Frederik Rung, the regular conductor, was to have taken over the musical direction but he fell ill, so Carl Nielsen ended up conducting all nine performances in the course of the season.
Even before “Saul and David” was completed, Carl Nielsen had started work in 1901 on his Second Symphony which, unlike the first, was a piece of programme music, that is to say an evocation of the four temperaments as in pictures he saw hanging in an inn during an excursion to the Zealand countryside. What the composer had to find here was a delicate balance between the constraints of programme music and the absolute musical demands of the symphonic genre.
In December 1901 Carl Nielsen completed his Symphony. His friend Henrik Knudsen made a piano adaptation for four hands, and they both left for Germany to promote it. Busoni in Berlin was responsive – he promised to arrange a performance, and in gratitude Nielsen dedicated his Symphony to him. A year after Nielsen had conducted the first performance of this Symphony for the Danish Concert Association (on 1 December 1902, three days after the first performance of “Saul and David”), he had the opportunity of conducting his new work with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. But whereas in Copenhagen the reviews had been quite appreciative, in Berlin he took a beating – so badly that for once he lost his spirits and had difficulty in starting composing again.
From 1901 onwards Carl Nielsen received a yearly state grant of 800 crowns, and at the beginning of 1903 he signed a regular contract with the publisher Wilhelm Hansen. This allowed him to take leave from his job as a violinist in the Chapel Royal Orchestra and go to Greece to join Anne Marie, who had been granted the Ancker Award and was one of the first sculptors to be allowed to make copies of the bas-reliefs and statues in the Acropolis Museum in Athens.
The local conservatory placed a study room with a piano at Carl Nielsen’s disposal. Here he could sit and compose when he was not on excursions in the surrounding mountains with or without Anne Marie. It was in that small study room that, on 23 April, he finished his concert overture Helios, in which he depicts the movement of the sun through the sky from dawn to dusk. Meanwhile, he had written to Julius Lehmann and tried to persuade him to provide the text of a new choral work to be called Sleep. Lehmann was the theatre director who had been responsible for the production of “Saul and David” and who was later to stage “Masquerade” too. But Lehmann refused, and instead it was Johannes Jørgensen who wrote the textof the new cantata on the basis of Carl Nielsen’s draft.
After a trip to Turkey, Carl and Anne Marie travelled home through Italy and reached Copenhagen at the end of July. On 8 October of the same year, Johan Svendsen conducted the first performance of the Helios overture with the Chapel Royal.
Meanwhile Johannes Jørgensen had completed his text, and by the end of November Nielsen was able to start on the composition of Sleep.
In April 1904 Carl Nielsen had to take over at short notice as deputy conductor at the Royal Theatre. Johan Svendsen was ill and Frederik Rung (1854-1914) was on leave. He continued to replace Svendsen in the following season until March, when he received a letter notifying him that from the start of the next season he was again only to play the violin in the orchestra. He regarded this as so insulting that he tendered his resignation. Accordingly, when he came to conduct “Masquerade” in 1906, it was as a guest composer-conductor. This went so well, however, that when Johan Svendsen finally resigned because of illness in 1908, Carl Nielsen was offered a permanent position as conductor.
When it came to public attention that Vilhelm Andersen, a historian of literature, was working together with Carl Nielsen on an opera based on Ludvig Holberg’s comedy “Mascarade,” the project was regarded by many as sacrilege. Holberg (1684-1754) occupies a central position in the history of Danish Literature, especially as the creator of the classic character comedy in Danish. Several of his comedies belong to the Danish standard repertoire, among them “Mascarade”, intended by the author to be a contribution to the debate on public masquerades in the newly built playhouse in Grønnegade in central Copenhagen.
As the first performance approached, public criticism became so strong that Andersen and Nielsen started fabricating a pacifying prologue, which was to take the sting out of the criticism. Only lack of time saved it from being used at the first performance in the Royal Theatre on 11 November 1906. Carl Nielsen was conducting, and the cast included some of the company’s leading singers.
If the two authors had feared a failure, their misgivings were shown to be groundless by a good-humoured audience. During the rest of the season 1906-07 the work played for as many as twenty performances for full houses, and from the seventh performance onwards Frederik Rung and Carl Nielsen took turns to conduct it.
The press was less unanimous – especially concerning the relation of the libretto to Holberg. About the music there was general agreement. Virtually all reviews emphasized the first act as an unconditional success. Carl Nielsen himself was aware of the lack of balance in his opera, and shortly before his death he wrote in an article for a programme that “the second and third acts should have been compressed into one, and I also intend one day to add a bandage in the form of an orchestra interlude.” But he never managed to get this done.
A great many of Carl Nielsen’s compositions were commissioned, and the more famous he became the more commissions he received. Although we surely do not know of all the jobs which he turned down for one reason or another, it seems that he was not very good at saying no. This led every now and then to situations where he could only deliver commissions by employing extra manpower to do the fair copies and instrumentation (and even in some cases the actual work of composition). At such times his pupils and friends, such as Henrik Knudsen, Julius Röntgen and Emilius Bangert, had to lend a hand.
His commissioned works include almost the whole of his stage music, but also a whole series of cantatas of which a few extracts survive in the concert repertoire or as popular songs. Recent years have seen a number of recordings that give some idea of these aspects of Carl Nielsen’s musical universe. But a great deal of this music still gathers dust in archives.
The printed programme for Carl Nielsen’s concert on 28 February 1912 just mentioned a “Symphony (new).” But even before this symphony – Nielsen’s third – was repeated at the Royal Theatre on 4 May, the composer had found it convenient to turn the performance direction for the first movement into the subtitle of the whole symphony, which then became Sinfonia Espansiva. The Royal Theatre had broken its usual regulations and allowed the Chapel Royal Orchestra to perform the new symphony, under Carl Nielsen’s direction, from the stage. The acoustics proved unsatisfactory, and another performance was arranged for 21 May, this time with the orchestra playing from the pit. Carl Nielsen had already conducted the symphony with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam on 28 April, where both audience and press had given it a positive reception.
This symphony, in which the idyllic pastorale of the second movement includes parts for soprano and baritone (or tenor) voices without text, was written in 1910-11. When it was completed in the last days of April 1911, the composer felt that it was of a calibre that entitled it to a first performance outside Denmark’s borders. Through his friend, court singer Emil Holm, he tried to arrange for a premiere in Stuttgart, but this failed for various reasons. The symphony was nevertheless to be his international breakthrough: in 1913 he conducted it in Stuttgart, Stockholm and Helsinki, and the same year it was published in Leipzig by C. F. Kahnt for a much higher fee than he could have hoped to receive from his usual Danish publisher, Hansen.
At the February 28 concert Nielsen also conducted the premiere of a new violin concerto inspired by the Danish violinist Peder Møller. Møller had returned to Denmark after fifteen years in Paris and for financial reasons had accepted a position in the Chapel Royal. The concerto was started during a summer stay with Nina Grieg at Troldhaugen outside Bergen, where Carl Nielsen was allowed to borrow Grieg’s little working cabin near the water. But the work was not completed there, nor during the following stay at Damgaard in Jutland. Therefore Nielsen had to work through the nights during the autumn for the concerto to be ready for its first performance together with the symphony.
This concerto should really have been dedicated to Peder Møller, who also performed it with great success the following year in Stockholm, Helsinki and Gothenburg , and later on in Paris, Berlin and Oslo among other places. But for some reason or other Nielsen did not do this from the start. His last chance to make amends was on publication of the concerto in 1919, but by then he had a violinist as his son-in-law, Emil Telmányi, who also wanted to perform this technically demanding concerto (and did so for the first time in 1920 under Carl Nielsen’s direction).
Years of crisis
The Carl Nielsen scholar Torben Schousboe (b. 1937) is the only outsider to have had access to all existing material concerning the marital life of Carl Nielsen and Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen. This is how he describes the crisis that set in:
“As time went on, and most clearly in 1914 and during their trip to Norway in January 1915, AMCN realised that CN found it difficult to resist other women’s propositions, especially during her often long stays away from home. In such periods he had to resort to the company of friends and acquaintances; and with his extrovert character and obviously naive judgment of people he was not always able to set a timely limit to human contact… AMCN fully respected CN as an artist, but her confidence in him as a person and a husband was by then vitally threatened. As early as 1905 they had gone through a similar crisis, but it had been overcome. Now, however, AMCN could take no more, and in the years following 1915 both spouses tried gradually to become less dependent on each other… In long periods CN had to stay away from home, which legally was AMCN’s artist’s residence; more than ever Damgaard and Fuglsang became true refuges for him; likewise, it is against this background that we must interpret his conducting activity in Gothenburg between 1918 and 1922. CN and AMCN started separation proceedings in 1916, and on 26 September 1919 the Copenhagen Prefect’s office granted them separation by mutual consent.”
Torben Schousboe’s notes in his edition of Carl Nielsen’s Diaries and Correspondence with Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen (Gyldendal, 1983) include further details about their relationship, including a more detailed reference to Carl Nielsen’s two illegitimate children, his son Carl August Nielsen (b. 1888, originally baptised Hansen after his mother), who had been born in Carl Nielsen’s student years and whom Anne Marie had offered to adopt; and his daughter Rachel Siegmann (b. 1912), about whose existence Anne Marie presumably knew nothing.
There was a professional crisis as well. Although Carl Nielsen had tried to protect himself with a very detailed contract, his position as conductor at the Royal Theatre soon caused him more trouble than satisfaction. Frederik Rung was quite often ill, and he apparently did not much appreciate Nielsen’s interpretations either. This caused friction when they had to take over performances from each other.
At the same time a competitor had emerged – and a competent competitor at that, whose career advanced in much the same way as Nielsen’s had done. Georg Høeberg (1872-1950) had also been a second violinist in the Chapel Royal Orchestra. He too was a composer and conducted at the Royal Theatre for the first time when his opera “Et Bryllup i Katakomberne” (A Wedding in the Catacombs) was produced during the 1908-09 season. But, unlike Nielsen, Høeberg would visit the bed-ridden Rung to go through the relevant scores with him, and then attempt to realize the principal conductor’s intentions.
The management was therefore in a tight corner when, during the 1912-13 season, serious disagreements arose between the bed-ridden Rung and Carl Nielsen. In the light of a certificate from Rung’s doctor, the management eventually felt compelled to take a new production of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” out of Nielsen’s hands and postpone the performance. Høeberg had been appointed acting conductor, and when Rung died in January 1914 it was natural to appoint him permanently. After an attempt at negotiations the management decided to make Nielsen and Høeberg conductors on an equal footing. But “Tristan and Isolde” was given to Høeberg, who, at the end of the dress rehearsal, received the traditional Danish/Scandinavian musical ‘hurrah’, an [impromptu] fanfare in D major, from members of the orchestra.
Carl Nielsen, in frustration over the management’s course of action, resigned with effect from the end of the season. He claimed, without any real basis, that he had heard of Høeberg being appointed on the same footing as him through the press and not directly. He gave his last performance on 30 May 1914, when “La Bohème” was performed as a benefit – though not for Nielsen’s benefit, for he was now without a regular job.
A new prestigious, but economically less beneficial, job opportunity would soon turn up, however. It may be argued, though, that when Nielsen succeeded the late Franz Neruda (1843-1915) as leader of the Copenhagen Music Society in 1915, this venerable institution in Danish concert life had already lost some of its leading status. It had been founded in 1836 and had started its concert activities the following year. In 1850 Niels W. Gade, returned from Germany in 1848 at a time of political crisis in Denmark, took over the leadership – a post he kept until his death in 1890 which gave him colossal influence on Danish musical life.
For his first concert Nielsen wrote the music for In memoriam, a prologue for recitation and orchestra in memory of Neruda, and later on in the season he programmed the first performance of his Fourth Symphony.
Carl Nielsen had begun to formulate ideas for a new symphony before he left the Royal Theatre. At the beginning of May 1914 he wrote to his wife (who was in Celle to sculpt the horse for the equestrian statue of Christian IX):
“I have an idea for a new composition, which has no programme but will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestations of life, that is: everything that moves, that wants to live … just life and motion, though varied – very varied – yet connected, and as if constantly on the move, in one big movement or stream. I must have a word or a short title to express this; that will be enough. I cannot quite explain what I want, but what I want is good.”
The idea of one big work without separate movements is said to have come from Liszt’s great piano sonata in B minor, which his friend Henrik Knudsen had played for him.
The programme on 1 February 1916 at the Music Society was exclusively Danish and included Kunzen’s overture for the opera “Erik Ejegod,” J. P. E. Hartmann’s “Prophecy of the Sybil” and Niels W. Gade’s Holy Nightbefore the interval; Nielsen’s new symphony was the only item in the second half.
He subtitled his symphony The Inextinguishable and provided it with an explanatory foreword which was printed in the programme. It is built up around an apophthegm, which he managed to formulate with some difficulty: “Music is Life, and inextinguishable like it.”
There were certainly several reasons why Carl Nielsen often and willingly conducted in Gothenburg. He needed the money. He also wanted to show his ability as a conductor – and not just of his own works. Besides, in that period he lived most of the time separated from his family, and there were limits to how often and how long he could stay with his Danish friends.
In the autumn of 1918 and again during the 1921-22 season he was engaged as a deputy for Wilhelm Stenhammar, who was one of the Gothenburg orchestra’s two regular conductors. This regular engagement came about on Nielsen’s initiative, after Stenhammar had mentioned that he needed a break. Nielsen also visited the orchestra regularly as a guest conductor in between these longer engagements. Works of his own were regularly included in these programmes; the major compositions could only be played at the symphony concerts, but works such as the overture to “Masquerade” or extracts from “Aladdin” could also be performed at the orchestra’s Popular Concerts.
At the beginning of 1917 Johannes Nielsen, artistic director of the Royal Theatre, had approached Carl Nielsen to ask him to compose music for a new production of Adam Oehlenschläger’s great closet drama “Aladdin” to be staged by Johannes Poulsen (1881-1938). He accepted reluctantly, only to find out afterwards that Poulsen had included the orchestra pit in the set. The orchestra would have to play instead under the huge staircase that was the main element of the scenery. Furthermore, when Poulsen cut a large part of the music at the final rehearsals and made alterations in Nielsen’s carefully considered sequence of dances, it was too much for the composer. After the dress rehearsal, he demanded that his name be removed from the poster and the programme.
Therefore the production, which was played over two evenings, was first shown on 15 and 22 February without mention of the composer. Instead Nielsen put together an orchestral suite which is still played in its totality or in parts. He also organised in 1925 a concert performance of almost the whole score (26 out of 31 numbers) at the Danish Concert Association.
Those few letters from the period of crisis in the Nielsen marriage which are publicly available show clearly that both parties were miserable, and that Carl tried in various ways to make things up. Thus in 1918 he bought a summer house in Skagen called Finis Terrae. His family had spent earlier holidays in Skagen, and Carl perhaps believed that these idyllic times could be restored.
Moreover, his daughters were about to leave the nest. His elder daughter Irmelin had studied musical theory with her father, and from the autumn of 1912 she studied Dalcroze rhythmics first in Hellerau, Germany, and later in Geneva, when the school moved to a neutral country because of the war. Before going to Hellerau Irmelin had fallen in love with Nielsen’s pupil Ove Scavenius (1884-1973). He returned her feelings, but the relationship did not survive physical separation and Carl Nielsen’s passive opposition. Instead she was married on 14 December 1919 to the medical doctor Eggert Møller (1893-1978), who was later appointed professor at the University of Copenhagen and director of the National Hospital’s general clinic for the public.
Anne Marie, called Søs, had followed in her mother’s footsteps and attended the Copenhagen Academy of Arts, from which she graduated in 1916 after being forced to spend two years at a boarding school in England (because her parents had discovered that she was in love with a fellow-student two years older than herself). She was later awarded the Academy’s little gold medal for a painting that she had kept secret from her parents until the day it was to be handed in. She was married in 1918 to the Hungarian violinist Emil Telmányi (1892-1988).
Telmányi first visited Copenhagen in 1912 together with the Polish pianist Ignaz Friedman. He became acquainted with Carl Nielsen’s A major violin sonata through music publisher Alfred Wilhelm Hansen. The following summer he was a guest of Carl Nielsen, who played his second violin sonata for him together with Henrik Knudsen. In the following years, Telmányi’s interest concentrated increasingly on Carl Nielsen’s daughter Anne Marie, which clearly worried Nielsen. At any rate, one of the family’s resolute friends, opera singer Elisabeth Dons (1864-1942), had to intervene on the young people’s behalf before he gave them permission to marry.
The marriage took place on 6 February 1918, and Carl Nielsen’s wedding present was the dedication of his recently completed orchestral piece Pan and Syrinx. Telmányi was later to make a decisive contribution to the promotion of Nielsen’s music, first of all as a violinist but later increasingly as a conductor, and finally as a collaborator on the revised versions of some of Nielsen’s works. The two solo pieces Prelude and Themewith Variations (1923) and Preludio e Presto (1928) were both composed for Telmányi.
The brother of the two Nielsen sisters, Hans Børge, had been handicapped since the age of four due to the after-effects of meningitis, and he spent most of his life away from his family after normal schooling had proved impossible. The family saw him mostly during holidays and at celebrations, as well as family events such as major birthdays and important first performances. When he died in 1956 he was living at Taps, 10 kilometres south of Kolding.
Even before completing the stage music for Helge Rode’s festival play “The Mother,” with which the Royal Theatre was to celebrate the reunion of Southern Jutland with Denmark, Carl Nielsen started thinking about a new symphony. The initial phase of work took place in the autumn of 1920, partly at Damgaard and partly at Villa Højbo in Tibberup near Humlebæk in the north of Zealand. There the Michaelsen family had fitted up a study for their musician friends, which Nielsen made great use of after his separation from his wife.
Yet another occasional piece was to disturb the composition of the fifth symphony. This was the choral cantata Springtime on Funen, a commissioned work which had to be fitted in after Nielsen had completed the first part of the symphony in March 1921.
This Danish cantata classic originated in a competition held by the Danish Choir Association for a text about Danish nature, history or folk life which Carl Nielsen was to set to music. The winner was Aage Berntsen (1885-1952), a medical doctor and writer who was the son of educationalist Klaus Berntsen. The latter had been instrumental in bringing Carl to study in Copenhagen. Aage Berntsen had submitted two texts to the competition (the other one was about the murder of St Canute), so it was lucky that the winning alternative was so close to Carl Nielsen’s background on Funen.
Then, in July 1922, a thousand choristers gathered in Odense and on 8 July, at a concert in the covered market under Georg Høeberg’s authoritative direction, the lyrical humoresque about spring on Funen was performed for the first time. The acoustics were not ideal. Nevertheless the piece aroused great enthusiasm in the local press.
After the first performance of Springtime on Funen, a heart attack forced Carl Nielsen to take to his bed at Damgaard. For a long time all he could do was knit and read. Gradually, however, he became well enough to tinker with some Danish songs. After Telmányi’s arrival he started working with him on a revision of the “Masquerade” score in preparation for a projected production in Antwerp (which by the way came to nothing). Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen had visited him briefly at Damgaard immediately after his heart attack, but returned soon after to Copenhagen and was worried about him – a worry that brought them closer to each other. By the end of the year they were reconciled. They celebrated their reunion with a one week trip to Berlin at the beginning of January 1923. The family was again united, and this proved to be lasting.
“… a whole pile of works”
With his usual optimism the composer had put the first performance of his new symphony on the programme for a concert in the Music Society on 24 January 1922. This meant that he had to restrict his social activities in Gothenburg, where he was engaged as a conductor: “All my friends and acquaintances here understand that I cannot pay visits to anyone since I need peace to work on my symphony when I am not conducting, and in that way I have completely avoided dinner parties…” Even so, the fair copy of the score was only completed nine days before the concert!
This symphony in two parts was so radical in its style that it necessarily split or at least confused the audience and the reviewers. Thus Gustav Hetsch wrote in Nationaltidende that “the treasure of Danish symphonies and Carl Nielsen’s own output have been enriched by a strange and highly original work,” while in a letter to Carl Nielsen his friend and colleague, composer Victor Bendix, called this symphony a “bloody, clenched fist in the face of an unsuspecting snob audience” – which could possibly be interpreted as a compliment were it not for the fact that his letter also called this work “filthy music from trenches”!
The original source of inspiration for Nielsen’s Wind Quintet was a telephone call he made during the autumn of 1921 to his friend, the pianist Christian Christiansen, while the latter was rehearsing Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante with four members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. Christiansen answered the phone but the other musicians went on playing. Nielsen heard them and asked whether he could come over and listen. There he realised how Mozart – especially in the last movement, a series of variations – emphasizes and plays with each instrument’s characteristics. Shortly after that he told Svend Christian Felumb (1898-1972), the ensemble’s oboist, that he would like to write a quintet for them.
On 1 February 1922 he went to Gothenburg on a conducting contract. There he started work on the wind quintet. In March he was in Bremen to conduct some of his own works, and also in Copenhagen to conduct Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique at a concert at the Music Society where Felumb played the big solo for cor anglais behind the stage. In the middle of the night after that concert Nielsen phoned Felumb to ask him whether it was possible for an oboist to change to the cor anglais in the middle of a piece. Felumb answered yes, and ever since oboists all over the world have cursed him for having to shift to the cor anglais in the expressive prelude and back to the oboe for the last movement in these variations over Nielsen’s own hymn melody Min Jesus, lad mit Hjerte faa.
Back in Gothenburg Nielsen continued working on the quintet, which was complete by the end of April. It was played for the first time in private, at the home of his friends, the Mannheimer family, on Lisa Mannheimer’s birthday on Sunday 30 April. The first public performance naturally took place on 9 October 1922 in Copenhagen with the ensemble for whom it was written, that is to say Felumb, flautist Paul Hagemann (1882-1967), clarinettist Aage Oxenvad, horn player Hans Sørensen (1893-1944) and bassoonist Knud Lassen.
The inactivity at Damgaard which the doctor had ordered Carl Nielsen to observe after his heart attack at the beginning of July 1922 got on his nerves, and prompted the composer to reflect on the state of art as well as his personal situation. At the end of August he wrote to his wife, among other things:
“Nowadays, conditions are such in the world that there is almost no need for art. I have by now a whole pile of works which I cannot get published much less be paid for: 1) a symphony, 2) a string quartet, 3) a wind quintet, 4) the music for “Aladdin,” 5) choral pieces, 6) “Pan and Syrinx,” and so on. Don’t you find this depressing? Germany, which before the war was every musician’s or composer’s hope, has been knocked off its feet for a generation.”
This letter demonstrates Carl Nielsen – like most people surely – could be assailed by pessimism and for a shorter or longer time see only the dark side of things. In this case for a shorter time, since almost immediately after this letter he staked his chances on Germany, more precisely on Berlin. Apparently Germany was not seriously knocked off its feet after all. And as far as getting his scores published is concerned, it has to be said that the fifth symphony had only been premiered earlier that same year, and that the wind quintet had not yet had its first performance. It had only been played in private in Gothenburg. But one can share his surprise at the fact that Wilhelm Hansen had not felt it necessary to publish Pan and Syrinx or the orchestral excerpts from “Aladdin,” though they were both performed with a certain regularity, nor his F major String Quartet which had been composed as early as 1906 (instead it was published by Peters in Leipzig in 1923).
As it had emerged that Wilhelm Hansen was no longer prepared to publish everything he himself regarded as important, he had started negotiations with Peters in 1920. In 1923 the German publisher also issued the Piano Suite, opus 45, as well as the String Quartet, and two years later they printed the Prelude and Theme with Variations, opus 48, for solo violin. The Wind Quintet waspublished by Wilhelm Hansen in 1923 and Pan and Syrinx in 1925, but Nielsen was nevertheless to break with the man who had been his first, and for many years his only, publisher.
Art and consciousness
Carl Nielsen’s fiftieth birthday had mainly been celebrated among friends and relatives. His sixtieth birthday on 9 June 1925 was a very different and highly public event. In the morning there was brass band music in the back garden at Frederiksholms Kanal. All day long there was a flood of telegrams, flowers and deputations. In the end it was almost too much. Maren, the ever-resolute housekeeper, simply closed the door on the Swedish minister who had come to bring a decoration. He could only deliver it because Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen met him by chance in the street, in a somewhat crestfallen state.
In the evening there was a gala concert at Tivoli. Carl Nielsen personally conducted two works, the Fifth Symphony and the Springtime on Funen, thereby fully demonstrating the broad scope of his music. Afterwards several hundred people gathered at Restaurant Nimb in the Tivoli Gardens for a supper.
The numerous celebrations marking Carl Nielsen’s sixtieth birthday do not seem to have been an unmitigated pleasure. For they forced him to formulate explicitly some thoughts that he seems to have been brooding over for some time. He did so in the columns of the daily newspaper Politiken on 9 November 1925. Here he said:
“If I could live my life again, I would chase any thoughts of Art out of my head and be apprenticed to a merchant or pursue some other useful trade the results of which could be visible in the end…. What use is it to me that the whole world acknowledges me, but hurries away and leaves me alone with my wares until everything breaks down and I discover to my disgrace that I have lived as a foolish dreamer and believed that the more I worked and exerted myself in my art, the better position I would achieve. No, it is no enviable fate to be an artist. We are dependent upon the most capricious fluctuations in the public’s taste, and even if their taste is sympathetic to us … what difference does it make? We hear applause and shouts of bravo, but that almost makes matters worse. And our publishers – well, they would rather see the back of us.”
This last statement reflected Nielsen’s precarious relationship with the publishing house of Wilhelm Hansen, and led to a direct rupture when he refused to disavow it publicly. Afterwards his works were published by the newly founded Borup Music Edition (in which his friend Carl Johan Michaelsen had an interest) or by the Society for the Publication of Danish Music.
On the occasion of Carl Nielsen’s sixtieth birthday his first book was published. Over the years he had had articles published in various Danish newspapers and journals, and some of the best were now gathered together and provided with a foreword and two new essays. This volume was given the title Living Music.
In August 1924 Carl Nielsen had started working on his sixth symphony – which turned out to be his last one – in his summer house in Skagen. He went on composing at Damgaard and by the end of October he could write to Carl Johan Michaelsen that he was in full swing:
“As far as I can see, it will on the whole be different from my other symphonies: more amiable and smooth, or how shall I put it, but it is impossible to tell as I do not know at all what currents I may run into during the voyage.”
There would be currents, indeed. The first movement was finished at the end of November when he was back in Copenhagen, and the second movement was composed over Christmas. After a concert in the Music Society at the end of January he left for the French Riviera with his wife. There they met among others the sculptor and painter J. F. Willumsen, whom they had known since their youth, and the composer Arnold Schönberg.
Back in Copenhagen Nielsen composed the third movement, but had to put the symphony aside in order to work on a commission for incidental music to “Ebbe Skammelsen,” which was to be produced at the Open Air Theatre in the Deer Park in an adaptation for the stage by Harald Bergstedt. He first completed this score immediately before his sixtieth birthday on 9 June. Only on going to Damgaard in the middle of July was he able to resume working on his symphony, which by now apparently was giving him trouble.
He also had to spend some time in Stockholm where, together with Johan Halvorsen and Robert Kajanus, he was on the jury for a competition for Swedish composers. So, what with one thing and the other, the last movement was only completed on 5 December 1925, and the first performance took place at a gala concert by the Chapel Royal Orchestra on 11 December. However, he had already performed the first movement unofficially in Stockholm on 1 November with the Swedish Royal Orchestra at a festive celebration of the Royal Academy of Music.
The Copenhagen reviewers were obviously confused by the style of the new Symphony. Nielsen had called it Sinfonia semplice. It was indeed simple, or rather, simpler than his earlier symphonies. But its irony was not – and is not – simple either to express or to grasp, and it has remained the least performed of all six symphonies.
As a sequel to the Wind Quintet Carl Nielsen intended to compose a concerto for each of the five wind instruments. The first he started on was the Concerto for Flute, written for Holger Gilbert-Jespersen (1890-1975). Gilbert-Jespersen had succeeded Paul Hagemann in the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. During the summer of 1926 Nielsen’s ill-health had prevented him composing anything but popular songs, but in August he went south as a member of a committee which was to base itself in Munich and listen to radio sets, so that they could advise whether the new radio transmitter in Kalundborg should be fitted with a thermionic valve or an automatic transmitter.
He took with him manuscript paper for his Flute Concerto, and from Munich he continued via Florence to San Gimignano in Tuscany, where Søs and Emil Telmányi were having a holiday. There he was able to borrow a room with a piano. Back in Florence he went on composing intensively until a stomach complaint interrupted him for a few weeks in September. The new concerto was on the programme of a Carl Nielsen concert that had been planned for Paris on 21 October but Gilbert-Jespersen, who had been sent the solo part in instalments as Nielsen proceeded, had in all decency to have some time to study it. The orchestra parts also had to be written out, so Nielsen was simply forced to give the Concerto a temporary ending at the point he had reached.
Emil Telmányi came to conduct the Flute Concerto, which enjoyed a positive reception in Paris. When, later on, it was performed in Oslo on 8 November (also with Gilbert-Jespersen as soloist), Carl Nielsen took over as conductor. But he still had not yet written a real ending. This was first ready long after the final date according to the manuscript, when the Copenhagen public had its first opportunity to hear the Concerto at the Music Society on 25 January 1927.
Carl Nielsen said about this Concerto that “the composer has had to follow the mild character of the instrument if he did not want to run the risk of being called a barbarian.” And he apparently succeeded, for this Concerto has slowly but surely become part of the international repertoire.
“This is just too much! I have received enthusiastic letters from almost every single one of our known poets and writers, so I do not understand it. I have done nothing but write straightforward impressions of my life as a boy and a young man.”
With these words Carl Nielsen summed up the very positive reception his boyhood reminiscences, “My Childhood on Funen,” met with on their publication in October 1927. The book was written at the suggestion of his daughter Irmelin, who had for a long time asked her father to note down the impressions from his childhood that she had heard him relate from time to time. In March 1927 he started writing.
After this success Carl Nielsen became a member of the Writers’ Association and was encouraged to continue writing his memoirs. He declined however – that would imply too much “I,” he said. So posterity has to be satisfied with his unique evocation of nature on Funen, of plain, direct people, of his musical consciousness, of an almost superhuman lack of social resignation – and all of this seen through the flattering, dim light of later years.
Carl Nielsen’s friend Carl Johan Michaelsen had to urge him several times before he started composing a second concerto for a member of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. This time it revolved around clarinettist Aage Oxenvad. Nielsen started composing in the spring of 1928. On 15 August he completed the score at Damgaard. Emil Telmányi had already started on an arrangement for piano for the benefit of Oxenvad, who grumbled that Nielsen must be able to play the clarinet since he had systematically used the notes that are most difficult to play.
The Concerto was performed for the first time on 14 September at a private concert in Carl Johan Michaelsen’s summer villa Højtofte, in Humlebæk, north of Copenhagen. The soloist was Oxenvad, to whom the Concerto is dedicated. Twenty-two members of the Chapel Royal were conducted by Emil Telmányi. The first public performance took place in Copenhagen on 11 October with the same players, and received a generally positive reception. Politiken wrote:
“… he has liberated the soul of the clarinet, not only the wild animal aspect but also its special brand of ruthless poetry…. This work could hardly have found a more homogeneous interpretation. Oxenvad’s sonority is in tune with the trolls and the giants, and he has soul, a rough and stocky primordial force mixed with naive Danish mildness. Certainly Carl Nielsen must have had his particular clarinet sound in mind while composing this Concerto.”
Though he received warning signals both from both his body and his family, Carl Nielsen found it difficult – not to say impossible – to slow down his rhythm of work. If we look at the year 1928, for instance, we see that he began it by composing two of the three Piano Pieces, opus 59 (posthumous). These pieces are dated 15 January and 1 March respectively. The composition of this set of piano pieces was interrupted so that Nielsen could work on the Preludio e Presto for solo violin and the Clarinet Concerto. When these were finished he wrote the third and last piece for piano, which was completed at Damgaard on 6 November. By 14 April Christian Christiansen had already performed the first two pieces at the same concert in the Association for New Music which saw the first performance by Emil Telmányi of the piece for solo violin.
As time went on Nielsen spent more and more time away from Copenhagen. Thus he wrote from Damgaard to his former pupil Nancy Dalberg in May 1928:
“In Copenhagen it has become really difficult to be allowed to be the master of one’s own time. It is a terrible privilege to become older and therefore renowned in one’s profession, in other words, to become a professional authority! Terrible if one does not wish to behave as a fierce and unsympathetic boor – I have never loved living in Copenhagen and it is becoming worse and worse, though I must admit that it is in many ways a lovely city. If I were a foreigner I would prefer Copenhagen to almost any other city I know. But I am your archetypal ‘Danish Man’.”
On 2 November 1928 Carl Nielsen conducted a concert in Odense with a programme that included his music to “Aladdin.” After the concert H. Steenstrup Holbeck, specialist in H. C. Andersen and headmaster of Odense Cathedral School, approached him to ask whether he would be willing to compose a cantata for the celebration of the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth. Nielsen could not quite envisage a cantata and was allowed instead to sketch the plot of a little festival play to which Sophus Michaëlis then wrote the text.
To start with all sorts of other obligations stood in the way. He had to deliver a cantata for the celebration of the centenary of the Technical High School on 30 August 1929. And for the inauguration of the first Arts Festival in the Copenhagen Forum on 12 October 1929 he had to write a Hymn to Art for soloists, choir and brass orchestra on a text by Michaëlis, which he also conducted in person. Besides, he conducted several concerts with both his own music and that of others in the course of the festival, which was the first of its kind. Its declared purpose was to give the public a survey of the last fifty years’ output in poetry, painting, sculpture and music.
Nielsen wrote most of the music for Andersen’s anniversary play, which was entitled “Amor and the Poet,” in April and May 1930, interrupted by a visit to Gothenburg for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the city’s symphony orchestra. After only three days of orchestra and stage rehearsals, the first performance of the play took place at Odense Theatre on 12 July. Nielsen, who conducted personally, was given an ovation and a laurel wreath.
In the spring of 1928 Nielsen attended a programme in the concert hall of the Glyptothek with the Palestrina Ensemble under the direction of Mogens Wöldike, who had founded this group six years earlier in order to perform Renaissance vocal polyphony. Nielsen expressed special interest in the motet Vox in Rama audita est by Clemens non Papa (ca. 1510-1555). Wöldike, who had studied musical theory with Nielsen, asked him to compose something for his Ensemble and suggested several texts. Yet it was Nielsen himself who, with the help of his wife Anne Marie, chose three Psalms of David, which he used in the Latin version on the same grounds that had led him to use a Latin text for Hymnus Amoris.
Nielsen renewed his acquaintance with the polyphony of the old masters, which he had previously studied in connection with Hymnus Amoris and “Saul and David.” Since then he had taken an interest in early music only once, when he had orchestrated and arranged the oratorio Jephtha by Giacomo Carissimi (1605-74) for a concert in the Music Society in 1922.
The three motets, which bear the opus number 55 and are dedicated to Mogens Wöldike and the Palestrina Ensemble, were composed over the summer at Damgaard and in Skagen. The first performance took place at the Glyptothek on 11 April 1930: “it is as if this master of ours, every time he sets to work, seeks a new subject, a new genre, and – as a kind of renewed trial of strength – increases his creative urge and artistic powers,” wrote Berlingske Tidende.
Organ music plays a quantitatively very small part in Nielsen’s output. He started composing for the instrument very late and created only one major work for it. The inspiration was not religious but far more his fascination with Renaissance and Baroque polyphony. But there was also an external motivation for it. In response to a challenge from Johannes Hansen, who was married to Thorvald Aagaard’s sister Inger, Nielsen wrote a collection of short preludes for the organ or harmonium in 1929. They were published the following year as his opus 51. In order to get into the style he had borrowed a series of older works for organ by Peter Thomsen, who was organist at Simeons Kirke. Through Mogens Wöldike he had been given access to the organ of the chapel in Christiansborg Castle, where he could sit and explore for himself the instrument’s potentialities.
Immediately after he had been appointed director of the Royal Danish Academy of Music at New Year 1931, succeeding his old friend, violinist Anton Svendsen, he left for Stockholm where “Saul and David” was being produced. Then duty called him back to Copenhagen. He could not leave for Damgaard until 17 February, where he worked concentratedly both on a short commissioned work for the fifthieth anniversary of the Cremation Society and on the completion of a big new work for the organ, which he called Commotio.
On 2 March he wrote to his wife: “Now my big organ work is completely finished, and I am happy with the result because it has been done with greater expertise than all my other works; I am sure I can judge that myself, but not how it will work out in spirit for it is very long and lasts about 22 minutes, I think. Bach’s longest piece for the organ (Prelude and Fugue in E minor) has 368 measures, mine has 511, so as far as length is concerned … ? Bach cannot be equalled! Yesterday I also completed the piece for the Cremation jubilee.”
On 24 April Peter Thomsen played this work in the chapel of Christiansborg for a circle of Nielsen’s friends, among whom were Emilius Bangert, who was to play it at the official first performance in Aarhus Cathedral on 14 August. Carl Nielsen interrupted his holiday to go to Aarhus.
Apart from that Nielsen spent that summer at Damgaard and in Skagen, where he sat for painter Sigurd Swane. His family begged him to go on a health cure but he insisted on going back to Copenhagen, where duty called him both at the Conservatory and at the Composers’ Association. But there were reasons other than duty, for he was taking part in the Royal Theatre’s rehearsals for a new production of “Masquerade.” There had been some trouble with some of the ropes during the dress rehearsal, and Nielsen had playfully hoisted himself up by the arms and fixed them. The following day he had a series of minor heart attacks but nevertheless overcame considerable discomfort, managing to sit through the whole of the first performance.
His condition did not improve in the days that followed, and on 1 October he was hospitalized on Eggert Møller’s initiative at the National Hospital. There, in the evening, on a crystal set with two headphones, Nielsen was able to listen to a concert of his own music given by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. He should have been conducting it, but Emil Reesen had substituted for him and conducted the Radio Symphony Orchestra.
On the following day Emil Telmányi visited him and gathered that Nielsen had not appreciated Peder Møller’s performance of the Violin Concerto any more than Telmányi had; Møller had apparently been nervous or on bad form. In the course of the day Carl Nielsen’s condition worsened, and in the evening the whole immediate family gathered around his bed (with the exception of his son Hans Børge). He was sleeping most of the time, but woke up for a short moment and mumbled:
“You are standing here as if you were waiting for something.”
At ten minutes past midnight he passed away. The news spread swiftly. One of Denmark’s greatest sons was no more.
So many people wished to attend Carl Nielsen’s funeral that for lack of space it had to be moved from Holmens Kirke to Vor Frue Kirke (Our Lady’s Church), the Copenhagen Cathedral. The service took place on 9 October 1931 at 2 p.m. The invited guests were seated downstairs, while the others who wished to attend filled the side galleries. Many could not find a seat at all. Mogens Wöldike played the organ. All the music, including the hymns, was by Nielsen.
In Vestre Kirkegaard the coffin was lowered into the ground to music from the final chorale of the Wind Quintet played by the Chapel Royal’s Wind Quintet, and afterwards members of the Students’ Singers’ Association under the direction of Johan Hye-Knudsen sang Carl Nielsen’s Aftenstemning. Then Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen made a very personal speech in which she said:
“I want to thank both his older and his younger musical friends. All of them have enriched him, all of them have given him something. There is much for which to be grateful. And then I want to thank him for the nature that was his. It never stagnated, was always on the move, it was running water. He enriched those around him. Lastly I want to thank the Danish nation because it has sung his songs!”
Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen survived her husband by fifteen years. She too is buried in the grave in Vestre Kirkegaard, together with their son Hans-Børge and their daughter Anne Marie Telmányi.
Danish songs and hymns
“The primeval is the most difficult, and the state of mind I am talking about here is a gift unobtainable for many. The drunkard cannot easily feel at home with spring water, nor the harlot with morning prayer, nor the gambler with a game of forfeits, and yet all of them were quite uncorrupted at birth; but they have forgotten, so that it is difficult to recover the primeval.”
The primeval which Carl Nielsen is talking about here (in connection with the publication of Thomas Laub ‘s Twelve Ballads and Songs, which came out in 1921), is the fact that the poems,
“are treated musically in such a way that elaborate composition goes hand in hand with the deepest possible popular stamp, and the noblest melody with a quite simple harmonisation, intelligible to all… One of the secrets behind these seductive and undemanding melodies is that they never claim a prominent role but constantly, as if with loving care, embellish the poems while subordinating themselves to them.”
What Nielsen says here about Laub’s songs also applies very much to his own output, which after the turn of the century consists almost exclusively of strophic songs with a simple accompaniment. A couple of striking examples from the period before he began collaborating with Laub are Holger Drachmann’s Du danske Mand(written for the Tivoli summer revue in 1906) and Jeppe Aakjær ‘s Jens Vejmand (published in 1907). The latter became a national bestseller and one of the first of Nielsen’s compositions to be recorded. Nielsen’s music publisher Wilhelm Hansen also benefited from the song’s success. It formed part of the first volume of Strophic Songs, opus 21, but was soon published separately and sold like hot cakes. A warm friendship arose between Nielsen and Aakjær, while he had a much more businesslike relationship with Drachmann, with whom he had further contact in connection with stage music.
When the organist and composer Thomas Laub invited Nielsen in 1914 to collaborate with him on a collection of tunes to Danish poems of good literary quality, he initiated a joint effort on the “Danish song” that was to have a great impact on popular Danish musical practice right up to our own time. Laub, who had already spearheaded major reforms in hymnody and ballad singing, believed that working with Nielsen would make it possible to extend these reforms to the field of singing practice in general. Laub was very interested in the history of style, being inspired in this respect by the German composer Johann Abraham Peter Schultz (1747-1800) and his song publications Lieder im Volkston from the 1780s. Schultz directed the Royal Orchestra in Copenhagen from 1787 to 1795, and this resulted in some of his songs acquiring a popularity in Denmark so great that they still belong to the basic song repertoire.
In 1915 Thomas Laub’s and Carl Nielsen’s collaboration resulted in a publication entitled A Score of Danish Songs. As a “preface” they used an extract from J. A. P. Schultz’s own introduction to the Lieder im Volkston: “In all these songs I have striven to sing in more of a popular than an art-song style, so that laymen also can sing and remember them. Therefore I have chosen from the work of our best poets only such texts as are particularly suitable for popular singing of this kind, and gone to much trouble to achieve the greatest possible simplicity and clarity in the melodies, indeed by all possible means to give them a familiar feeling; … this feeling is actually the secret of all folksong… The main obligation of the ballad composer who is true to his calling is to make good poetry well known.”
For Nielsen this collection – and his collaboration with Laub – implied more focus on the historical context of music (not least the permanent value of older texts, for until then he had exclusively set contemporary poetry), and on the functional potential of his own music in a more popular vein. The two composers continued their project with another set of twenty songs in 1917; these are stylistically very close to the 1915 book, and this time there is no preface.
Nielsen contributed a total of 23 songs to the two books. The best of them (from the 1917 collection especially: Tidt er jeg glad (I am often Happy) and Se dig ud en Sommerdag (Behold you on a Summer’s Day)) provided a new benchmark for the artistic possibilities of popular song. Succeeding generations of composers have, as a result, been aware of their heritage in verse and song from earlier times.
In the spring of 1914 Folk High School principal Johan Borup (1853-1946) approached Carl Nielsen about new melodies for some texts which he had compiled in a songbook for his school. Nielsen asked both Thomas Laub and some of his pupils to collaborate, and provided fifteen melodies himself. Most of these had been previously published: thus, he persuaded Wilhelm Hansen to authorize the reproduction of some of the melodies from A Score of Danish Songs, arguing that they would become more widely known.
The collaboration with Thomas Laub, which had started with Borup’s Songbook and the two volumes of Danish Songs, was to culminate in 1922 with the publication of the Folk High School Melody Book. Initially it was composer Thorvald Aagaard (1877-1937) who had been given the complicated task of providing the first harmonised collection of melodies for the Folk High School Songbook (which was first published in 1894). Aagaard came from the same part of the country as Nielsen and had been his pupil. Besides, he had studied music history with Laub and was now an organist and Folk High School teacher at Ryslinge on Funen. He had also contributed to Borup’s songbook and, realising the scope of his new commitment, involved Laub and his pupil Oluf Ring (1874-1946) as well as Nielsen.
Nielsen contributed in all 50 melodies and/or arrangements to the Folk High School Melody Book. He enjoyed this work. In a letter to Folk High School principal Harald Balslev (1867-1952), who was chairman of the committee that edited the Folk High School Melody Book, he wrote: “It is strange that, when I am writing these plain and simple melodies, it is as if it was not me who composed them; it is as if – what shall I say – the people from my boyhood on Funen or, as it were, the whole Danish people demanded something through me. But these are perhaps too big words when the matter is so plain and simple, at least to me.”
Carl Nielsen collaborated on the Folk High School Melody Book until it reached its third edition (1928). It was Oluf Ring, the youngest member of the team and the one who lived longest, who then carried on the work together with Nielsen’s pupil Mogens Wöldike. Nielsen’s contributions seem to be of lasting value, however. The 18th edition of the book appeared in 2006, including many new melodies as well as 36 by Nielsen.
In his art songs he wrote before the turn of the century, Nielsen had set contemporary Danish poetry to music – poems he had selected himself. J. P. Jacobsen had, in particular, occupied a central position in his early work even prior to his first published collection, opus 4, composed in 1891. Ludvig Holstein must also be mentioned here (Songs, opus 10, 1894, and music for the play “Tove”, 1908). After that Nielsen concentrated for a long period on the big musical forms; songs first regained a serious place in his output after he left the Royal Theatre in 1914.
Danish poets still dominated Nielsen’s later vocal compositions, but now he concentrated mostly on older writers like Oehlenschläger, Blicher, Hans Christian Andersen and Grundtvig. Irrespective of whether he was writing hymns or songs, it was now seldom to texts selected by himself, but to poems handed to him by the editors of the various collections in which he participated. In these cases they either lacked a melody for a given text or did not find the existing melody satisfying.
Carl Nielsen was not religious in the conventional sense of the word. This did not prevent him from writing music for a number of hymns (Salmer og aandelige Sange, composed 1913-1915, published 1919). His friend the organist, composer and reformer of church music, Thomas Laub, had reproached him:
“A composer of hymns must be A Child of the House, by which I do not mean that he has a patent on faith – his faith can be weak, it can be wrong – but he must feel at home, that is to say he must have lived with congregational singing preferably from childhood, he must know it from its uses …”, he wrote to Nielsen.
Carl Nielsen’s work with national song did not end with the publication of the first edition of The Folk High School Melody Book in 1922. He continued to collaborate on the second edition (a supplement which, together with the first edition, became the third edition in 1928). He also kept on working with songs in other contexts. In the spring of 1923 Denmark – A Songbook for School and Home was published under the editorship of Albert Jørgensen. Then Ernst Kaper, Copenhagen City Commissioner for Education, asked Carl Nielsen for a melody book for equal voices, that is to say for children’s choirs. By this time Nielsen had to watch his health and decided therefore to take on a collaborator. He chose a friend of his youth, Hakon Andersen (1875-1959), organist, singing teacher, and composer.
The first edition of the melody volume of the Denmark Songbook included altogether 278 tunes. Forty-four of them were by Carl Nielsen, a few of them in unison but most for two or three voices. Nineteen of these melodies had never been published before. This melody book was successful and a new, revised edition (1926/27) included several more Nielsen songs.
In 1924 Carl Nielsen plucked up the courage to tackle one of Denmark’s national gems, Det er et yndigt Land. Oehlenschläger’s text had been set to music in 1823 by Hans Ernst Krøyer (1798-1879). Nielsen could not complain about the launching of his new setting: it was first performed at the Royal Theatre on 1 June 1924 at a national rally of the Danish Choir Association accompanied by the Chapel Royal under the direction of Georg Høeberg . But Nielsen did not manage to repeat here the success of his Springtime on Funen from two years earlier. A number of reviewers were negative (“How can Mr Nielsen think that he can deprive a nation of its national melody, inherited through generations and canonised a long time ago?”). Moreover, Thomas Laub felt hurt because he had composed another new melody relatively shortly before, and thought Nielsen should have given it a chance. And neither Laub nor Nielsen managed to replace Krøyer’s melody, even though the latter’s angular rhythm may not seem to fit Denmark’s gently rolling hilly landscape very well.