Personalities | Carl Nielsen | Modern Era | Classical

(Kärl Nel’-sen) 1865–1931
Danish composer

Nielsen was born of working-class parents on the island of Funen; his father was well known locally as a folk fiddle-player. After a period in a military band, he studied the violin and for some years made his living as an orchestral violinist, then as a conductor. At the centre of his output are six symphonies, among the greatest of the century, which dramatize huge aspirations and conflicts with powerful tensions between keys, strongly contrasting melodic ideas and a remarkable sense of ‘concert drama’. In the Fourth Symphony (1916) two kettle-drummers on opposite sides of the platform engage in battle, and in the Fifth (1916) a side-drum improvises ‘as though at all costs to stop the progress of the orchestra’. He also wrote, for the newly established Danish state schools, simple, direct and instantly memorable unison songs, many of which became universally familiar. These two worlds approach each other in the sometimes gruff good humour of his Wind Quintet (1922) and the humane comedy of his opera Maskarade (‘Masquerade’, 1905), and meet in the exquisite lyricism and nostalgia of his cantata Springtime on Funen (1922).

Recommended Recording:
Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 4 & 5, Helios Overture, Danish State Radio SO (cond) Erik Tuxen, Thomas Jensen, Launy Grøndahl (Dutton)

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