Nielsen was the seventh of twelve children in a poor peasant family in Sortelung (Nørre Lyndelse), south of the city of Odense, Denmark. His father was a house painter and amateur musician. Carl first discovered music by experimenting with the sounds and pitches he heard when striking logs in a pile of firewood behind his home. Nielsen also considered the wistful songs his mother sang and the wedding parties and other festivities at which his father played violin and cornet as other formative musical experiences. Other inspirational sources for his music would become, as David Fanning writes in the New Grove, "the underlying animating forces of nature and human character. They were to become sources of inspiration for his own music, as archetypal embodiments of oneness and conflict respectively".
Carl Nielsen's childhood home
Nielsen learned the violin and piano as a child and wrote his earliest compositions at the age of eight or nine: a lullaby, now lost, and a polka which the composer notated in his autobiography. He also learned how to play brass instruments, which led to a job as a bugler and altotrombonist in the 16th Battalion at nearby Odense. He studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen from the beginning of 1884 until December 1886. Though not an outstanding student there and composing little, he progressed well in violin under Valdemar Tofte and received a solid grounding in music theory from Orla Rosenhoff, who would remain a valued adviser during Nielsen's early years as a professional composer. Contacts with fellow students and cultured families in Copenhagen, some of which would become lifelong friends, would become equally important. The patchy education resulting from his country background left Nielsen insatiably curious about the arts, philosophy and aesthetics; it also left him, Faning writes, "with a highly personal, common man's point of view on those subjects".
Nielsen progressed well enough on the violin to gain a position with the orchestra of the Royal Theater in Copenhagen in September 1889, three years after his graduation from the conservatory. This position would sometimes cause Nielsen considerable frustration but he continued to play there until 1905. In between graduation and attaining this position, he gave violin lessons, made a modest income as a teacher and enjoyed continued support from patrons. Some of Nielsen's string chamber works were performed at this time; these included a Quartet in F which the composer considered his official debut as a professional composer. However, the greatest impression was made by Nielsen's Suite for Strings, which was performed at Tivoli Hall on 8 September 1888. Nielsen would designate this work his Opus 1.
After less than a year at the Royal Theater, Nielsen won a scholarship of 1800 kroner, allowing him the means to travel several months in Europe. During this time he discovered and abandoned Richard Wagner's music dramas, heard many of the leading orchestras and soloists in Europe and sharpened his opinions on both music and the visual arts. While revering the music of Bach and Mozart, he remained ambivalent about much 19th century music. In Paris he met the Danish sculptress Anne Marie Brodersen, who was also traveling on scholarship. They toured Italy together, marrying in Florence on 10 March 1891 before returning to Denmark.
"As well as being a love match," Fanning writes, "it was also a meeting of minds. Anne Marie was a gifted artist.... She was also a strong-willed and modern-minded woman, determined to forge her own career." This determination would strain the Nielsens' marriage, as Anne Marie would go for months on location during the 1890s and 1900s, leaving Carl to raise their three young children while fitting in his duties at the Royal Theater and time to compose. While Carl suggested divorce in March 1905, the Nielsens remained married for the remainder of the composer's life. Carl sublimated his anger and frustration over his marriage in a number of musical works, most notably between 1897 and 1904, a period to which he sometimes referred as his "psychological" period. Fanning writes, "At this time his interest in the driving forces behind human personality crystallized in the opera Saul og David and the Second Symphony ("De fire temperamenter") and the cantatas Hymnus amoris and Søvnen.
At first, he did not gain enough recognition for his works to support him. During the concert which saw the premiere of his first symphony on 14 March 1894 conducted by Johan Svendsen, Nielsen played in the second violin section. However, the same symphony was a great success when played in Berlin in 1896, and from then his fame grew. Nielsen became increasingly in demand to write incidental music for the theater and for cantatas to mark special occasions; these provided a welcome source of additional income. "A reciprocal relationship grew up between his programmatic and symphonic works," Fanning writes; "sometimes he would find stageworthy ideas in his supposedly pure orchestral music; sometimes a text or scenario forced him to invent vivid musical imagery which he could later turn to more abstract use."
Beginning in 1901, Nielsen received a modest state pension—800 kronen at first, growing to 7500 kronen by 1927—to augment his violinist's salary. This allowed him to stop taking private pupils and left more time to compose. From 1903 he also had an annual retainer from his principal publisher, Wilhelm Hansen Edition. Between 1905 and 1914 he served as second conductor at the Royal Theatre. From 1914-26, he conducted the orchestra of "Musikforeningen". In 1916 he took a post teaching at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, and continued to work there until his death, in his last year as director of the institute.
Personally, the strain of dual careers and constant separation from his wife led to more than one extra-marital affair. When the last one came to light, between Nielsen and the governess of his children, the result was an eight-year breach in his marriage. During much of this time Carl and Anne Marie lived apart and the period led to a creative crisis for Nielsen, bringing about a powerful reappraisal of himself as a composer. This, along with World War I and professional developments in his life, would strongly influence his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, arguably his greatest works.
For his son-in-law, the Hungarian violinist Dr. Emil Telmányi, Nielsen wrote his Violin Concerto, Op. 33 (1911).
Nielsen suffered a serious heart attack in 1925 and from that time on he was forced to curtail much of his activity, although he continued to compose until his death. Also during this period he wrote a delightful memoir of his childhood called My Childhood on Funen (Min Fynske Barndom) (1927). He also produced a short book of essays entitled Living Music (1925). Both have been translated into English, and Min Fynske Barndom was made into a docu-drama in 1994. Nielsen died in Copenhagen in 1931.
Like his contemporary, the Finn Jean Sibelius, he studied Renaissance polyphony closely, which accounts for much of the melodic and harmonic "feel" of his music.
Nielsen's works are sometimes referred to by FS numbers, from the 1965 catalog compiled by Dan Fog and Torben Schousboe.
Nielsen's approach to sonata form, as seen in his six symphonies, is one of gradual abandonment. In considering the first movements of each symphony in turn, the first two reveal Nielsen working fairly comfortably within the confines of sonata form as later 19th century composers saw it; the middle two include certain high-level references to sonata form but little of the detail, and the last two inhabit a completely new world of Nielsen's own devising, wherein the structure of the movement can only be understood within the context of the material he is working with. By that point in his output there are no more parallels with any other forms or past traditions of musical construction. The subtitles Nielsen used are only very general signposts of intent, not indicating specific story-telling qualities.
Symphony No. 1
Nielsen's early Symphony No. 1 in G minor (1890–92) already shows his individuality and hints at what Robert Simpson calls "progressive tonality", by which he refers to Nielsen's habit of beginning a work in one key and ending in another. It was written at the same time as, and shares some qualities with, the Holstein songs of Op. 10.
Symphony No. 2
A painting Nielsen saw at an inn, depicting the four temperaments (choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine), inspired him to write Symphony No. 2, "The Four Temperaments" (1901–02). It is in four movements, each illuminating one of the temperaments, but despite this apparent tendency toward being a suite of tone poems, it is a fully integrated symphony. It is not true "program music" but rather a group of general character sketches, and one need not know which temperament Nielsen is considering in order to appreciate the work as a whole.
Perhaps the best known of Nielsen's symphonies is Symphony No. 4, "The Inextinguishable" (1914–16). It is in four connected movements and is the most dramatic Nielsen had written to date. In the last movement two sets of timpani are placed on opposite sides of the stage as a sort of musical duel.
Symphony No. 5
Symphony No. 5, Op. 50 (1921–22) is the second of two of Nielsen's symphonies that lack a subtitle. Like Symphony No. 4, it has very dramatic use of percussion: at the climax of the first movement – which itself consists of two large structures joined to one another – the snare drummer is instructed to improvise "as if at all costs to stop the progress of the orchestra." The second of the two large movements rises out of the ashes of the first, like a train ride into a better, post-World-War-I future. This symphony is the one by which Nielsen's music made its first significant post-war impact outside Scandinavia, when the Danish Radio Symphony, conducted by Erik Tuxen, performed it at the 1950 Edinburgh International Festival, where it caused a sensation.
Symphony No. 6
Even Robert Simpson was at first confused by Nielsen's Symphony No. 6, "Semplice" (1924–25). It is not as obviously dramatic as the previous two and in some ways it strikes listeners as strange. After an anything but "simple", in fact tragic first movement, the second is only scored for nine instruments of the orchestra (piccolo, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, "sneering" trombone, and percussion) and represents Nielsen's commentary on trends in modern musical composition at the time (the mid-1920s). It is by far the most elusive of his symphonies to grasp, yet its very subtle architectural structure coupled with its enigmatic emotional tone make it a challenging, fascinating, and ultimately rewarding listening experience.
Nielsen did not record any of his works (he did not believe in the medium). However, three younger contemporary conductors, Thomas Jensen, Launy Grøndahl, and Erik Tuxen, who had worked with him, did record his symphonies and other orchestral works, and their recordings are therefore considered to be the most 'authentic' Nielsen available.
Symphony No. 5: Erik Tuxen - 1950 (EMI); Thomas Jensen - 1954 (Decca — first LP recording)
Symphony No. 6: Thomas Jensen - 1952 (Tono, a Danish label)
These recordings are all by the Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra, and all have been re-released on CD by Dutton Records (GB), except No. 6 which was transferred to CD by the Danish DANACORD Records.
By this term Nielsen meant an aesthetic approach wherein the instruments, or the players operating them, are given leave to assert their individual intentions, as interpreted by the composer. At the time Nielsen was writing the Fifth Symphony, with its sometimes violent disruption by the snare drum, he also produced the Wind Quintet, Op. 43 for a group of wind players whom he knew well personally. He resolved to write a concerto for each man, but completed only the ones for flute and clarinet. The latter (1928) immortalizes a clarinetist known for being irascible, and uses this character as a means of commenting on the anxious world condition at the time.
Carl Nielsen concerts today
Carl Nielsen's music is frequently performed at a host of venues around Denmark. The Carl Nielsen Society provides an overview of upcoming concerts here.
Fanning, David, ed. Stanley Sadie, "Nielsen, Carl (August)," The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Second Edition (London: Macmilian, 2001), 29 vols. ISBN 0-333-60800-3.
Schousboe, Torben, ed. Stanley Sadie, "Nielsen, Carl (August)," The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: Macmilian, 1980), 20 vols. ISBN 0-333-23111-2.
Sadie, Stanley; Latham, Alison (1994). Carl Nielsen entry in The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN0393037533.
Kennedy, Michael; Bourne, Joyce (1996). Carl Nielsen entry in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, 4th edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN019280037X.