Modernism and popular appeal

Modernism and popular appeal

The war years were a difficult time in Nielsen’s personal life. His tireless efforts to regain the trust and love of his wife bore no fruit, and after many years of deception and betrayal, Anne Marie needed a correspondingly long time to work through her grief. In 1919 the couple separated, and as late as March 1922, nearly eight years after the storm had begun to brew, she wrote to him that ‘I can no longer see any sign of hope for our relationship (…) Now we must make sure to get through life without going to pieces.’

I can no longer see any sign of hope for our relationship (…) Now we must make sure to get through life without going to pieces.

score aduio The Mother (CNW 18) score Aladdin (CNW 17) score audio Chaconne (CNW 86) score audio Theme and variations (CNW 87) score audio Suite (CNW 88)

For Carl Nielsen, art and life were intimately tied together, without in any way relating to each other on a one-to-one basis. In fact, violently conflicting dynamics are an integral part of Carl Nielsen’s story as both a man and an artist. In the years during and after the war he composed some of his most delightful and accessible works, such as the colourfully oriental theatre music to Aladdin, a play by the Danish national poet Oehlenschläger, and the opening music to the play Moderen(The Mother), a celebration of the 1920 reunion between Southern Jutland and Denmark that includes his most beloved instrumental work, Tågen letter(The fog is lifting), a flute solo accompanied by harp. Also the ‘objective’ sound of the piano attracted him once again after having been missing from his oeuvre for many years, resulting in three ambitious solo works – the large-scale Chaconne, another set of variations, and a ‘Luciferian’ piano suite. 

During this period Nielsen’s reputation once again began to blossom, both at home and abroad. The response to his Fourth Symphony firmly established his name among the Danish public as the country’s foremost musical personality. At the theatre, his opera Masqueradewas revived, and when his close friend, the Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar, sought leave as conductor of Gothenburg’s Concert Association in 1918, Nielsen was offered a position as substitute conductor. Here his skills as an orchestral leader were appreciated, and during the following four years he conducted more than forty concerts in Gothenburg, among them only a few that included works of his own.

Carl Nielsen in the composer's room at Vodrofsvej in the 1910's

These years also established Nielsen’s unique position as an innovative hard-core modernist on the one hand, and a beloved composer of popular songs on the other. As early as the autumn of 1914, after the eruption of his marital problems, he resumed work on a project launched by a well-known educator earlier that year: to write songs to selected poems for a ‘Danish Songbook’. Nielsen had asked a number of students to help out, and also the composer responsible for the renewal of Danish church song, Thomas Laub, became involved, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

Laub and Nielsen had been close acquaintances for many years. When Anne Marie and Carl were spending the first half of 1900 in Rome, Laub, too, was staying in the city for a few months, and the two composers engaged in long conversations. Laub wrote home that ‘in this way, we certainly have no choice but to resolve our views on art as well as on life’, and on rainy evenings in February they played ‘nearly all of Mozart’s sonatas for violin and piano’. 

But in terms of their own time they were diametric opposites – Nielsen as a musical innovator and composer of symphonies, Laub as a dogmatic organist dedicated to classical ecclesiastic ideals. Already in December of 1902 Laub had written an honest and straightforward letter to Nielsen, acknowledging that his music spoke ‘a language I do not understand, and what’s worse, one I do not believe in.’ In 1912, Nielsen began to compose hymn tunes, and once again Laub was critical. Nielsen had no church background, he was not ‘a child of the house’, he had not ‘lived amidst congregational song’ and should therefore abandon all hope of striking the proper tone. Although Laub wrote a few songs for the ‘Danish Songbook’, the project was not to his liking either, and in early December 1914 he wrote to Nielsen: ‘What do you say to 10-12-14 Danish songsby the two of us together? They should be conventional songs for ordinary Danishpeople – good lyrics to sing to good and pleasing melodies – i.e. songs for group singing, not choir or concert songs.’

Carl Nielsen, Johannes V. Jensen, Else Jensen, Ludvig Holstein and Petrine Margrethe Holstein on a picknik, 1907

With his melody to Jeppe Aakjær’s socio-critical song about ‘Jens Vejmand’ (1907), Nielsen had written a tune that swept the country, and his melody to Holger Drachmann’s revue song glorifying Denmark, Du danske mand(Sing, Danish men), had turned into a national hit the year before, despite the lyrics’ ironic undertones. Without hesitating, he now agreed to Laub’s proposal, and already by Christmas he had composed several melodies that are sung throughout Denmark to this day – Nu er dagen fuld af sang(Now the day is filled with song), Se dig ud en sommerdag(Have a look one summer’s day) and Der dukker af disen(There, out of the mist). The spring of 1915 saw the publication of En snes danske viser, a collection of 23 new melodies to texts by major past and present Danish poets. In May the two composers invited to an ‘Evening of Danish Song’, attracting enough attention to follow up the collection with another 22 songs in 1917.

Nielsen’s melodies soon became popular, and many of them found their way into the first edition of Folkehøjskolens melodibog(1922), a song collection geared at adult education and co-edited by the composer. Their impact on Denmark’s musical and cultural identity can hardly be underestimated – the latest edition of the songbook (2006) contains no less than 36 songs by Nielsen. The fact that a number of these songs represent the very essence of what it means to be a Dane is the result of their frequent use in ordinary Danish homes, schools and congregations through a hundred years, rather than any particular ‘Danish’ quality. Nevertheless, for many Danes they impart a strong sense of identity and community. Nielsen himself felt that ‘only the people can make art into something national, the artist can’t.’

The entire relationship with Laub was permeated by a stimulating sort of friction. In a correspondence from spring 1924, Laub wrote to Nielsen: ‘You are born and bred to write absolute music, I am made to, forced to, fight for utilitarian music’, by which Laub meant ‘music that serves the Church and the people.’ Although he did not share Nielsen’s belief that people always chose best, there can be no doubt that Nielsen’s songs were ‘utilitarian’, and for the rest of his life he often felt called upon to compose simple songs. At the same time as he worked on his wild, kaleidoscopic and fiendishly difficult Sixth Symphony, and while discussing popular culture with Laub, he wrote evergreen children’s songs such as Jeg ved en lærkerede(I know a lark’s nest) and Solen er så rød mor(The sun is so red, mother). Nielsen left behind over three hundred popular songs, and despite their differences, he wrote in an obituary on Laub’s death in 1927: ‘It was to me an immensely rewarding friendship.’

You are born and bred to write absolute music, I am made to, forced to, fight for utilitarian music

score audio Springtime on Funen (CNW 102)

In 1921 Nielsen composed the bright and playful vocal work Fynsk Forår(Springtime on Funen) within a short period of time. The premiere in Odense in July 1922 with 900 singers and an audience of 8000 was a historic moment for the composer, and perhaps an early impulse for his memoirs written six years later. The music exudes life and glee, full of dance, song and seduction, and the melodies are simple and catchy. It is therefore nothing short of amazing that the composer behind this subtly humorous idyll had recently completed the first movement of one of his fiercest and most ground-breaking works: the Fifth Symphony. Nielsen was fully aware of the contrast, but felt there was no discrepancy. ‘The exact same principles and the same musical sense are required to produce a coherent work, be it large or small,’ he told a newspaper. Simple popular taste was to him something shared by everyone, like a type of collective consciousness.

The premiere of Springtime on Funen in 1922 ©Odense City Museums

score audio Symphony no. 5 (CNW 29)

The Fifth Symphony occupies a special place in Nielsen’s oeuvre. Its two movements represent two violently contrasting worlds in which constructive and destructive forces collide more violently than anything before in his music – order and chaos, dream and discord, lightness and darkness. Given the duality that invariably surfaces in his music, it is tempting once again to draw a connection to a deep-rooted personality trait.

For a long time, peace and tranquillity prevail in the first movement, but a military marching drum lurks beneath the surface. A singing melody seems to promise redemption, but soon peace is disrupted again, this time viscerally, almost frighteningly so. Again and again, an obtrusive turn-motif attempts to smother the peaceful, well-balanced melody, eventually helped by the ever more relentlessly snarling drum. Untameable forces seem to stymie harmony and balance. But this is not merely about the simplicity of a plain tune versus brooding reflection and renewal, or the comfort of childhood versus pain and doubt, but perhaps an embodiment of life’s fundamental contradictions, ideals versus realities that here again and again collide in the course of two monumental movements. The symphony ends in brilliant major, but its path does not lead from battle to victory as in Beethoven – the battle between light and dark remains unsettled.

A fist in the face of a defenceless audience full of news-snobs and thrill-seekers (…) I hate it, but it captivates me.

Despite its unusually violent expressive climate, the symphony was surprisingly well received at its world premiere in Copenhagen on 24 January 1922. In an otherwise well-intentioned letter, Nielsen’s long-time friend Victor Bendix described it as ‘music from the trenches’ and ‘a fist in the face of a defenceless audience full of news-snobs and thrill-seekers (…) I hate it, but it captivates me.’ Shortly after, he performed it himself in Gothenburg, and again the reaction was positive. But in early 1924 the symphony caused a regular scandal in Stockholm: when the dramatic conflicts at the end of the first movement began to erupt, part of the audience headed for the exits, while others started to hiss. Nielsen commented on the incident in a Danish newspaper, commenting. To a Danish newspaper, Nielsen commented that the symphony entailed ‘a certain development, since one cannot remain standing still. But that it might offend (…) is incomprehensible to me.’

A certain development, since one cannot remain standing still. But that it might offend (…) is incomprehensible to me.

Carl Nielsen with Hans Borge and Irmelin at the summerhouse in Skagen

In June of 1918, shortly before commencing his temporary position as a conductor in Gothenburg, Nielsen bought a summerhouse in Skagen. Here he had several artist friends, and had more than once spent a few summer weeks in the area together with Anne Marie. But his actual purpose was to establish a place where they could meet without being surrounded by history. When Anne Marie failed to appear, he gave free rein to his disappointment in a letter written in September: ‘I only bought the house because I hoped that you would come up there. It has been a great disappointment to me that the pretty little house wouldn’t help me as I had thought.’

I only bought the house because I hoped that you would come up there. It has been a great disappointment to me that the pretty little house wouldn’t help me as I had thought.

score audio Quintet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, French Horn and Bassoon (CNW 70)

The Fifth Symphony had been a major strain on Nielsen, both physically and mentally – one week before the premiere he was still working at a furious pace. And yet, shortly after its completion, he gave in to the temptation of composing a wind quintet, ‘a broadly conceived, new and difficult composition’, a work that today is one of most frequently performed works of its kind and perhaps Nielsen’s most famous work worldwide. Following its completion he was not only utterly drained of strength, but also suffered from serious health problems.

At the end of May 1922 he had a heart attack, followed by yet another after the premiere of Fynsk forår(Springtime on Funen) in June, this time even more massive. For a number of years he had sporadically experienced a ‘nervous pain in the heart’, and the diagnosis now confirmed hardening of the coronary artery, angina pectoris. Ordered to remain in bed, he returned to the home that continued to be his refuge when all else failed: the house at Frederiksholms Kanal in Copenhagen. Everything indicates that the disease was the direct cause of Anne Marie’s sudden decision to restore him to favour just a few months after seeing no ‘sign of hope’ for their relationship. The decisive factor must have been her strong awareness of the fact that his continuing creative endeavours now depended on her support. The wounds had not yet healed, but both had matured in the course of all these years, and little by little they resumed their life together to the full extent. After many years of homelessness, this meant nothing less than a new lease on life for Nielsen.

I wonder whether your wife would appreciate a dust cloth, in which case I will make one for her? I also know how to crochet a red border.

Carl Nielsen knitting to keep his heart rate down on a vacation to Jonsered, Sweden in the 1920's

His heart problems, however, had come to stay, and the only cure at the time was to take things easy, something the restless composer did not have much talent for. His doctors forbade him to exert himself in any way – no composing, not even reading. But he was allowed to knit! In a letter of July 1922 to the director of the Conservatory, he asks: ‘I wonder whether your wife would appreciate a dust cloth, in which case I will make one for her? I also know how to crochet a red border.’

Translation by Thilo Reinhard