Carl August Nielsen was born at Sortelung near Nerre Lyndelse on the island of Funen, Denmark, on June 9, 1865, and died in Copenhagen on October 3, 1931. The Clarinet Concerto, Nielsen's last work for orchestra, was composed in 1928 for the clarinetist Aage Oxenvad, who first performed it in Copenhagen in October of that year. The first and only San Francisco Symphony performances of the concerto, in March 1989, were led by Herbert Blomstedt and featured clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. The score calls for an orchestra of two bassoons, two horns, snare drum, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-four minutes.
Nielsen had begun his life as an explorer when he was three and found out that logs in the woodpile yielded different pitches according to their thickness and length. But home provided real instruments as well. His father, a house painter, played the fiddle and cornet to earn the odd extra penny; his mother sang, and so did most of his eleven brothers and sisters. Carl was six and making progress on his father's three-quarter size violin when he encountered a piano for the first time.
At fourteen, after a boyhood spent herding geese, he became a bandsman in the 16th Battalion of the Royal Danish Army, acquiring new instrumental skill. A kindly older musician showed him the central classics of European music—Mozart, Beethoven, and eventually Bach. With these models before him he began to compose, and in 1884, after examination by Niels W. Gade, the elder statesman of Danish music, he was admitted to the Copenhagen Conservatory as a scholarship student in violin and piano. After two years there he continued theory studies privately, also getting a general education: In a biographical essay appended to Robert Simpson's Carl Nielsen: Symphonist,Torben Meyer lists Nordic and Greek mythology, Plato, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Ludvig Holberg as Nielsen's favorite reading. Meanwhile he supported himself by playing violin in the orchestra at the Tivoli Gardens, joining the Royal Orchestra in 1889. For many years yet, Nielsen would depend financially on his playing and conducting—in Copenhagen at the Royal Theater and with the Music Society Orchestra, and later in Gothenburg, Sweden, with that city's Music Society Orchestra (now the Gothenburg Symphony).
The catalogue of his compositions grew: Symphony No. 1 (1892); Symphony No. 2, The Four Temperaments,and the opera Saul and David (1901); the comic opera Maskerade (1906); Symphony No. 3, Espansiva,and the Violin Concerto (1911); Symphony No. 4, The Inextinguishable,and two major works for piano, the Chaconne and the Theme and Variations (1916); the Suite for Piano (1919); Symphony No. 5 and the Wind Quintet (1922), all interspersed with other chamber and piano music, choral works, and strikingly beautiful songs. The year 1922 marks the beginning of the breakdown of Nielsen's health. Angina pectoris was diagnosed, and with it came loss of energy and, for a time, depression.
He returned to life, frail though he now was and wracked by repeated heart attacks, .but the music of his later years—Prelude and Theme with Variations for Solo Violin (1923); Symphony No. 6 (1925); the Flute Concerto (1926); Preludio e Presto for Solo Violin, the Clarinet Concerto, and Three Pieces for Piano (1928); and Commotio for Organ (1931)—proceeds from a mind bolder and more inquisitive than ever. And good musical citizen that he was, he wrote, as needed, cantatas for the centenary of the Copenhagen Polytechnic High School, for the fiftieth anniversaries of the Young Merchants' Education Association and the Danish Cremation Union, and for the opening of the Copenhagen Municipal Swimming Pool.
In 1931 Nielsen added to his life the burden of the directorship of the Copenhagen Conservatory. That fall a new production of Maskerade was mounted at the Royal Theater. At a rehearsal, impatient with a stagehand's slowness, Nielsen climbed a rope into the flies to set right some matter or other. Walking home with the conductor Egisto Tango, he nearly collapsed in exhaustion. He managed to get to the prima,but felt so ill that he had to leave during Act II. A week later he died, an honored figure at home—his funeral was a great public event, like Verdi's—but to most musicians abroad still only a name. Nielsen's reputation outside Denmark dates from the 1950s, the product of the long-playing record but also of the first international tours of the Danish State Radio Symphony and of Danish conductors, notably Erik Tuxen.
Sibelius and Grieg, the only really well-known composers of their respective countries, have more or less conditioned us to expect some degree of national awareness in music from the North—or perhaps in the music of any composer known as the sole musical representative of his homeland. What stamps Nielsen's music, though, is at once more personal and more universal than patriotism or national epics: there is a celebration of Nature running through his works, but a far greater fascination with human nature. His Second Symphony, composed in 1902, is titled The Four Temperaments, and the masterly Wind Quintet which came twenty years later is not only a general reflection of various moods but an actual study of five specific characters, the members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet for whom the work was written.
Nielsen knew the five wind players well, and in the Quintet he sought to tailor each part to the personality of the respective performer. The work came off so well that he then determined to compose an entire concerto for each of his five friends, these to be even more individually fitted to the personal characteristics of the men who would play them. The very fact that Nielsen thought of doing this in the form of concertos is an indication of his exceptional regard for these musicians, for he had produced only a single concerto before (the Violin Concerto) and considered his own temperament unsuited to concerto-writing. Robert Simpson observes that "Nielsen was never interested in the thought of writing a concerto on the heroic scale; he put into his symphonies most of his weightier substance, and the three concertos are all more intimate in character. Each has its own individual form, and it is significant that the biggest and most imposing work of the three, the Violin Concerto, is in many ways the least important."
Nielsen did not live to complete his five-part concerto project, but drew only two of his full-length portraits, those of Holger Gilbert Jespersen in the Flute Concerto written for him in 1926 (shortly after the completion of the last of the six symphonies) and the clarinetist Aage Oxenvad, who was given his concerto in 1928. Simpson tells us Oxenvad was "of somewhat choleric temperament, irascible but warm at heart, full of personal, subjective problems"; of the concerto he observes that "choleric humor, pathos and kindliness are mingled in conflict, and the objectivity of the work is shown by the inflexible sense of purpose it conveys." Oxenvad's daughter recalls that her father was more than pleased with the concerto and that he recognized it in good humor as an accurate portrait of himself.
The concerto is in a single long movement. The good-natured theme stated at the outset by the low strings recalls Simpson's remark on the "fresh bluntness and keen open-air clarity” of Nielsen's style. The clarinet soon takes up the tune, and then proceeds to take it apart. Before long the snare drum makes its menacing appearance; the conflict between these two instruments had been a major element in the Fifth Symphony, and in the concerto they are juxtaposed in such a way as to heighten the sense of inner conflict. Along the way toward the conclusion which only Nielsen could have foreseen, the clarinet orates, protests, meditates and shows flashes of humor—but always in sharp contrast with what is going on in the orchestra. No matter what mood the clarinet adopts, the snare drum is there to challenge it, until both are thoroughly weary of the combat. The clarinet quietly rides through the final disjointed outbursts of the snare drum and, together with violins in a high register, ends the work in a spirit of tranquil resignation.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
Richard Freed’s note on the Nielsen Clarinet Concerto originally appeared in the program book of the Saint Louis Symphony and is reprinted here by permission.
More About the Music
Recordings: Kjell-Inge Stevensson with Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra (EMI) | Sabine Meyer with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic (Warner Classics) | Richard Stoltzman with Lawrence Leighton Smith and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra (RCA Victor Red Seal Arkiv Reissue)
Reading: Carl Nielsen: Symphonist, by Robert Simpson (Taplinger-Crescendo) | My Childhood, a charming account by the composer of his early musical education (Hutchinson) | Carl Nielsen, by Jack Lawson (Phaidon 20th-Century Composers)
(Last updated March 2014)