(I have written an updated article on this symphony in the few years since this original article. It can be found here, and I’d suggest reading it at least in addition to if not in place of what is below. For posterity, I’ve kept the original article as is.)
performed by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi
Let me just say I love the fact that Nielsen was playing in the second violins for the premiere of this piece. How cool is that?
We’re getting back around to symphonies, probably for at least the next month or so. I have a few lined up in my head, and we’ll see if I can get around to them all.
This one is a strong contender for the winner of the symphony no. 1 spot in my ‘personal symphony cycle’ (in case you didn’t read the post, it’s here). While I still can’t quite put my finger on what exactly it is that makes certain pieces sound Scandinavian (or… more correctly Northern European; while Sibelius sounds very much in that vein, he’s Finnish, which is geographically Northern European, but culturally NOT Scandinavian. Scandinavians are Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, [and maybe Faeroese? I dunno].) In any case, there’s something about that music that’s powerful, clean, rich, moving, expansive, and sometimes, as one may expect, bitingly cold. Sibelius 6 comes to mind, as does Grieg’s piano concerto, the latter of which we have talked about. Here we are now with a fantastically-structured, tightly-woven, incredibly logical and just downright enjoyable Danish symphony.
There’s a few things about this piece from the get-go that make Nielsen himself seem extremely endearing. It was dedicated to his wife, Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen (nee Broderson), a famous Danish sculptor. He was only 27 when he wrote it (which, while it’s pushing two decades older than Mozart’s first symphony, is still young, and an age I can rather relate to… Also, compare this first symphony to Mozart’s… or don’t. Apples to Oranges). It’s only opus no. 7, and as I said earlier, when the work premiered in 1894 with the Royal Danish Orchestra (as it is now known), the composer himself was among the second violins, not conducting. He sounds like a pretty humble, pretty normal dude. It is also one of only two symphonies of Nielsen’s not to have a subtitle or name or anything given to it, the other being his symphony no 5.
There’s nothing out of the ordinary as far as instrumentation goes, and it is structured in the typical four-movement form, lasting somewhere just over a half hour.
They symphony opens with a very commanding, powerful, almost (dare I use this word to describe serious music?) swashbuckling kind of energy. The first movement is titled Allegro orgoglioso, which is a word I’d never seen before. Orgoglioso sounds delightfully Italian, and while it may also sound like the name of some delicious braised meat or pasta dish, it means ‘proud’ or ‘haughty.’ These words often carry quite a negative connotation, so while I wouldn’t have picked them for this movement before looking up the Italian word, I can understand the description. I would have used something more like stately (even though that communicates a certain slowness that my recording does not have), regal (also a bit slow), pompous (which sounds even worse than ‘proud’ I guess), confident or majestic (which sounds a bit too elevated). I guess proud is good enough. The movement has a strong pulse, and is the longest of the four. It sets the mood for the whole piece (as I suppose a first movement should), as there are glimpses we get of this mood in the rest of the piece. There is a second, more lyrical theme in woodwinds (oboe and flute mostly) that is pretty but carries some tension, and what feels almost like a repeat of the exposition, but perhaps in a change of key. I haven’t looked at the score. Both the key of Gm and the content are described as “stormy” and the middle section bears this out, but not at all in an ominous or dark way. While it manages to hold tension and contrast and structure, it never feels dark or angry or pessimistic. It builds heroically toward the end, with a few contrasting lighter bits in woodwinds reappearing. The last minute is swirling, building, almost dizzying in its storminess. It finishes with a wonderful, climactic, thunder reminiscent almost of Tchaikovsky’s romantic greatness.
The second movement is the typical slow movement of a symphony, but even it has its more exciting moments, resembling the first movement. It is still calm relative to the exciting first movement. The strings are peaceful and quiet, but soon begin to swell as an oboe solo enters and it gets slightly more lively. I cannot get away from allusions to or feelings of the ocean or marine feelings. This one is generally peaceful but comes in swells and I can almost smell the ocean. The middle section is almost stormy, with singing horns and long, loud, timpani trills. It calls to mind Debussy’s Le Mer, (I suppose only bits of the third movement, and even then, quite tenuously) even though nothing about this symphony is (intentionally) impressionist.
The third feels in some passages like a scherzo, some places almost unmistakably so, although at times I feel it a bit awkward. It hasn’t the towering, almost frightening breadth and expansiveness of a Bruckner scherzo, but then again at times, it doesn’t seem like a scherzo at all. Perhaps it’s just a playful third movement with some places in triple meter. It is at times happy and light, at others bordering a bit on clunky, but only to the point that it’s endearing, not miserable or grotesque. This may or may not be the fault of the recording/interpretation I chose, but we’ll get to that in a moment. At some points it feels like it is in two, not three.In just a few places, it reaches the glowing, shimmering glory of almost early-Sibelius-like moments, and there’s prominent bassoon. It still sounds maritime, which I just love but I’m not sure why it sounds that way to me, exactly.
The fourth movement returns, at least in style, to the first movement, but with less pomp and more passion. The one thing we don’t return to in the fourth movement is they key of G minor, which we’ll also get to shortly.
The opening of the movement feels perfectly suited to the rest of the symphony; it is dramatic and rousing with a slightly mysterious contrasting woodwind passage. While it is similar in style and content to the rest of the movement, it is not so similar as to be boring, at least again in my estimation. It too is varied not only in material but orchestration. Each section gets its share of the spotlight with soaring swelling strings, dainty pure woodwinds, and roaring brass at various turns. The movement may possibly also be in some kind of sonata form; regardless, the opening theme returns and the final minute or two are a fitting, towering, commanding end to this excellent symphony.
As for recording, I suppose I have become too accustomed to Järvi’s much brisker tempo in his recording with the Gothenburg Symphony, but listening to the acclaimed recording(s) of Blomstedt, it just seems…. dragging. Granted, I haven’t gotten much past the first few minutes, but this recording I have, despite the criticisms of it, is good enough for me.
Robert Simpson claims that this may be the first symphony displaying Nielsen’s “progressive tonality,” where a symphony begins in one key (Gm) and ends in another, C major. While this idea may be familiar to the more technically familiar listeners of classical music, in symphonies like Beethoven’s fifth, that begins in C minor but ends in C major, this is technically a different “mode” of the same key.
“It should be stressed that in this connection, ‘different key’ means a different tonic, rather than merely a change to a different mode.”
The example is used of Mahler’s second (one of my all-time favorites), which begins in C minor but ends in E flat, an unrelated key; this is progressive tonality. Beethoven’s fifth begins in c minor but ends in C major, which is still considered ‘concentric tonality.’ Nielsen’s symphony here was a few years before Mahler’s second came onto the stage (literally), so Simpson may be right. I’m not sure if there was another symphony to do this before 1894. While it doesn’t seem like such a fanciful, novel idea to begin and end on different keys, I suppose perhaps it was. What I appreciate about it is that is is novel enough to be an interesting, important feature of the symphony, but it is not novel or different for the sole purpose of being novel or different. It does not get in the way of the music.
In summary, Robert Simpson says of Nielsen’s first that it is “probably the most highly organized first symphony ever written by a young man of twenty-seven.”