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Carl Nielsen (1865 - 1931)


Prelude to Act 2 of "Saul & David", Op. 25

Carl Nielsen spent the years from 1890 to 1905 playing second violin in the Royal Theatre orchestra in Copenhagen, and it was during this time that he wrote his two operas. "Saul and David" was the first, based on the biblical story in which the shepherd boy David, who plays the harp so beautifully, slays the Philistine giant Goliath with his sling and stones, and eventually becomes king of the Israelites after the death of King Saul in battle.

The Prelude to Act 2 is quite short, and depicts David in his character as warrior and hints at the king-to-be: the opening war-like trumpet summons gives way to more ceremonial music towards the end. 

Symphony No. 2 in B, Op. 16 "The Four Temperaments"
I. Allegro collerico
II. Allegro comodo e flemmatico
III. Andante malincolico
IV. Allegro sanguineo

Carl August Nielsen was born into a poor family, the 7th of 12 children, in 1865 in rural Denmark on the island of Funen. Though most of his adult life was spent in Copenhagen, he never lost his love of the country life, and this is apparent in much of his music. Carl was an intelligent child with a thirst for knowledge and music. Soon he was playing in the band of Odense, the main town on Funen. Fortunately, generous townspeople recognized his talent and sponsored him to attend the Conservatory in Copenhagen, on the next island, Zealand. Although not a prodigious composer, he wrote six symphonies, two operas, several other stage works, three concertos and much chamber music.

The second symphony was written in 1901, when Nielsen earned a living playing second violin in the orchestra of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. As in much of his mature music Nielsen's use of keys is interesting - this symphony starts in B minor, the second movement is in G major, the slow movement starts in A flat minor but ends in B flat, while the finale starts in D major and ends in A major. Quite a journey.

What are the Four Temperaments? Long before the advent of modern medical science Hippocrates introduced the theory that imbalances in four body fluids (known as humours) gave rise to various symptoms, and caused different temperaments in people. The four humours were phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile, and an excess of each causes the four temperaments - phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric and melancholic respectively. Even if you don't know what these mean, the character of the music in each movement makes the meaning quite clear. The first movement is choleric - argumentative, often changing its mind, cantankerous. The second movement is phlegmatic - calm, cool, almost disinterested. The 'slow movement is melancholic, though personally I find it deeply serious and thoughtful rather than just melancholic. The finale is sanguine - energetic, confident and optimistic. The work was inspired by a set of comic paintings Nielsen saw in a tavern, each graphically depicting one of the temperaments. The following notes are Nielsen's own, and are unusually good for a composer describing his own music.

Symphony No. 4 "Inextinguishable"
In four linked movements : Allegro, Poco allegretto, Poco adagio, Allegro

The finest composer to have come from Denmark, Carl Nielsen is often coupled with fellow Scandinavian Jean Sibelius, who was born in the same year. And indeed they have much in common: both were the first composers from their countries to achieve wide international fame, and both wrote symphonies of originality and power at a time when many composers thought that the symphony – and even tonal music itself – was an exhausted tradition.

Born into a poor family in a rural corner of Denmark, Nielsen left home at fourteen and eventually studied violin and piano at the music conservatory in Copenhagen. At 24 he joined the Royal Danish Orchestra playing second violin, a post he kept for 16 years, while he established himself as a composer. Later he held a conducting post in the Royal Theatre, but eventually he was able to support himself by composing.

All Nielsen's symphonies can be seen as ‘conflict' music, in the way that Beethoven's 5 th symphony is ‘conflict' music: a drama of opposing forces and contrasted tonalities is developed to a conclusion. (It can also be thought of as music which is becoming , as opposed to music which is being .) Nielsen's music is actually very like Beethoven's – it has a classical clarity, an energy and drive, and a passionate intensity which is never over-emotional or self indulgent.

The fourth symphony was written in 1915 and first performed in January 1916. The title, Nielsen says, refers to life itself. He was deeply moved by the spectacle of life in its variety of forms, its apparent purposeful evolution, and especially its ability to survive almost any catastrophe. So though the symphony may be ‘about' struggle and conflict, it is also massively optimistic in its conclusion. We need more music like this in our conflict-torn times!

The first movement explodes into life, like opening a door onto a battle in full cry. The strings are centred on C, the woodwind centred on D minor, and the timpani hammer out a tritone of Eb-A. The chaos subsides and an A major theme on clarinets in thirds suggests calm and order. After a short struggle, this theme rings out on the full orchestra. But there are more disruptive elements to come, including an ominous skipping pattern on the violins, and repeated hammerings on the violas. These create a hugely complex climax, which subsides into a rocking triplet pattern, and leads in turn to a recapitulation of the opening. This time the ‘thirds' theme shines out in E major – the true objective of the symphony.

The tempo relaxes, and a winding violin line leads to the second movement. This is short and offers calming relief, being a folk-like melody scored for woodwind with pizzicato strings. The music eventually unwinds … and the adagio breaks in on a searing high violin theme. This intense melody is searching for a key, and the accompaniment of off-beat chords on strings and timpani only emphasises the lack of a home. The violas and cellos take over the theme and succeed in bringing it to a calm and glowing E major, on solo strings. The remainder of the movement contrasts the passionate and even frenzied searching with reminders of where home is. Eventually the oboe is left hanging among shimmering trills, and the violins burst in with a whirlwind of notes. The rest of the strings join in …

… and after a dramatic pause the finale is launched with terrific drive. Soon a disruptive energy begins to be felt which migrates to the timpani, and two timpanists cause havoc, both players hammering out tritones. The turbulence leads to a climax which subsides into a long quiet passage, at first listless, later thoughtful. The mood becomes darker and again the timpanists go berserk, this time in D minor. Against them the violins insist on a piercing B – the conflict is now at its starkest, a total opposition. Finally the music bursts out of the darkness and the big theme from the first movement is established in the glorious, blazing light of E major.

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