Carl August Nielsen was born at Sortelung near Nørre Lyndelse on Funen, Denmark, on June 9, 1865, and died in Copenhagen on October 3, 1931. He began work on the Fifth Symphony in February 1921 and completed the score on January 15, 1922, conducting the first performance himself in Copenhagen just a few days later, on January 24. The first North American performance took place on January 3, 1951, with the National Symphony Orchestra, Erik Tuxen conducting. The San Francisco Symphony first played the work in December 1957 under Enrique Jordá. Herbert Blomstedt conducted the most recent performances in October 2006. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, snare drum, tambourine, celesta, and strings. Performance time: about thirty-five minutes.
Carl Nielsen was born into a large family beset by extreme poverty. His father was a house painter who earned extra pennies playing violin and cornet, and his mother sang. Carl discovered at three or so that logs and sticks in the woodpile outside the house yielded different pitches according to their thickness and length. At six, he progressed to his father's three‑quarter–size violin, and soon after, at an aunt's house, he encountered a piano for the first time. That great engine enchanted him. On the violin it was necessary to search for the notes; the piano laid them out, as he said, “in long shining rows before my very eyes; I could not only hear but see them, and I made one big discovery after another.” After a boyhood spent herding geese, he became at fourteen a bandsman in the sixteenth Battalion of the Royal Danish Army, acquiring new instrumental skills. When he was fifteen, a kindly older musician showed him for the first time 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 sixty‑seven‑year‑old elder statesman of Danish music, he got himself admitted to the Copenhagen Conservatory as a scholarship student of violin and piano. After two years at the conservatory he continued theory studies privately, also acquiring a general education, all while supporting himself by playing the violin in the orchestra at the Tivoli Gardens. In 1889, he joined the orchestra of the Royal Chapel, an ensemble with a wider repertory than its name suggests. For many years he would depend financially on his playing and conducting, assuming responsibilities at the Royal Theater, with the orchestra of the Copenhagen Music Society, and with the Music Society Orchestra in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Meanwhile, the catalogue of his compositions grew: symphonies, the operas Saul and David and Maskerade, and a Violin Concerto, all interspersed with piano music, chamber 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 not only loss of energy but, for a time, depression and intellectual disorientation. The music of the later twenties—the Symphony No. 6, the Flute Concerto, and the Clarinet Concerto—does not fall behind the earlier works in originality and fascination, though some critics have found it wanting in concentration and certainty of direction. Toward the end, with the extraordinary Commotio for organ, completed on February 27, 1931, Nielsen again found his stride. And, good musical citizen that he was, he wrote, as needed, cantatas for the centenary of the Merchants' Committee, for the fiftieth anniversary of the Danish Cremation Union, and for the opening of the Copenhagen Municipal Swimming Pool.
He added to his life the burden of the directorship of the Copenhagen Conservatory. Later that year, a new production of Maskerade was mounted at the Royal Theater. At a rehearsal, impatient with a stagehand's slowness, Nielsen himself climbed a rope into the flies to set some matter right. He managed to get to the prima the following week 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, even after a flurry of interest in Germany around the time of the Fourth Symphony, scarcely a name to most musicians abroad.
Nielsen's Second, Third, and Fourth symphonies bear titles. That the Fifth does not is surprising, given the drama that takes place in it. There are two movements, each divided into sharply characterized, distinct sections. The first begins in “tempo giusto,” a direction hardly seen since Handel's day. One could translate it as “the right tempo.” Violas are stuck on two notes, C and A. A certain obsessive quality, a sense of being stuck to certain ideas, is characteristic of the piece altogether. Winds wander about in pairs, strings introduce a more sinuously winding theme, and in the middle of all that, a snare drum insists—though in pianissimo at first—on a simple but distinctive rhythmic figure. “Insists” seems about right to describe its fifty‑seven‑fold statement of that figure. Meanwhile, the lower strings and the timpani are equally committed to a manic repetition of two other notes, F and D. The celesta becomes occupied, and soon infects others, with its own obsession with the note D.
It is a threatening and uneasy sort of music, and almost nothing about it is scarier than the fact that it just goes away, its place taken by a lusciously scored, expressive adagio. A sudden timpani roll is a warning signal. The obsessed snare drummer returns, charged now by Nielsen to improvise in a manner as though determined at all costs to break up the performance. It takes the full, ferocious force of the orchestra to silence him, but even in the epilogue to this movement, with the still small voice of the clarinet heard across a motionless chord in horns and strings, the remembrance of the threat stays with us. What Nielsen has imagined and portrayed here is a profoundly frightening vision of madness and of the invasion of order by disorder.
Nielsen’s music, beginning with the Fourth Symphony, is full of conversations or confrontations, of the kind initiated here by the snare drum. These can be comic, or menacing (as they are here), or ambiguous. We should also look for a moment at the composer’s long-range architectural designs. Nielsen was deeply interested in questioning traditional formal procedures. Contrary to classic procedure from Haydn to Shostakovich, for example, Nielsen often ends a symphony in a key that is not the one in which it began. (His contemporary, Gustav Mahler, often does that too, but to different purpose and with different effect.) The acquisition of the final key is the crux of the symphonic drama. Commentator Robert Simpson cited this as an essential feature of Nielsen’s style, giving it the name “progressive tonality.” Already in the First Symphony, he writes, “[Nielsen’s] boldness is apparent and his handling of keys is new, and it was to become a positive principle with him that a sense of achievement is best conveyed by the firm establishment of a new key.” Nielsen, one should add here, knew that most listeners could not “follow” a harmonic structure and put names to their experiences. But he also knew that listeners can and do respond to the events themselves, to unexpected juxtapositions, to departures and homecomings. It is that faculty, that unconscious memory, that he addresses in his symphonic dramas.
B major is the key into which he leaps for the opening of the second movement, and a long and bold leap it is after the voyage of the first movement. Here we enter the world of the really energetic allegro. It is also and still a world of obsessions, the B from all the strings and the timpani, the return of that ticking D from the first movement. Then there are two fugal sections, one very rapid and on a subject that can’t seem to get past its initial upbeat, the other on a carefully stepping but tranquil and exploring theme. Finally, Nielsen makes a return to something like the opening music. There is one last mania. It provides the entry to the drama’s resolution in grandly triumphal affirmation.
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.
More About the Music
Recordings: Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Decca) or the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra (EMI Classics) | Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic (CBS) | Osmo Vänskä conducting the BBC Scottish Orchestra (BIS)
Reading: Carl Nielsen: Symphonist, by Robert Simpson (Taplinger-Crescendo) | Nielsen: Symphony No. 5, by David Fanning, in the Cambridge Music Handbooks series (Cambridge University Press) | My Childhood, a charming account by the composer of his early musical education (Hutchinson) | Carl Nielsen, by Jack Lawson (Phaidon 20th-Century Composers)