Revisit: Nielsen Symphony no. 1 in Gm, op. 7

performed by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi

So… The inevitable Carl Nielsen. This is (likely) the Dane you’re looking for. I’d written multiple articles on works of Nielsen in the past, but they’re kind of like the middle school pictures you look back on with a certain cringing nostalgia.

Nielsen was born on 9 June 1865 on the island of Funen to a poor but musically-inclined family. He played in a military band and studied at the Royal Danish Academy of music, publishing and premiering his op. 1 at the age of 23, and began playing as second violinist in the Royal Danish Orchestra a year later. He later worked at the Royal Academy, until his death in 1931. Wikipedia makes a few statements about him and his work that are worth noting:

Although his symphonies, concertos and choral music are now internationally acclaimed, Nielsen’s career and personal life were marked by many difficulties, often reflected in his music.

Nielsen maintained the reputation of an outsider during his lifetime, both in his own country and internationally. It was only later that his works firmly entered the international repertoire, accelerating in popularity from the 1960s through Leonard Bernstein and others.

To me, Nielsen seems like that composer who’s always mentioned as the composer whose works deserve to be played with a frequency that matches Mahler, Bruckner, Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, etc. He’s the guy who, it seems to many, deserves unquestionably to be in that great inner circle of acclaimed, respected symphonists, but for whom that kind of regard has seemed elusive, at least until recently. Get into a discussion with music people about ‘neglected composers’ or ‘symphonies that should be played more’ and this is likely one of the first names to come up. And that reputation as a world-class composer seems, based on the above Wiki quotes, to be relatively recent.

Let’s get one thing straight, though: relative to Bendix, Hamerik, or some of the Swedes, like Alfvén, Norman, Stenhammar, Carl Nielsen is positively a superstar. He wrote a total of six symphonies, and respected concertos for violin, flute and clarinet, as well as string quartets and other stuff. Today, it’s a revisit of his first.

The op. 7 is dedicated to his wife, Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen (nee Broderson), a famous Danish sculptor. He was 27 when the work was completed, and when the work premiered in 1894 with the Royal Danish Orchestra (as it is now known), the composer himself was at his post, among the second violins. It is also one of only two symphonies of Nielsen’s half-dozen not to have a subtitle, the other being his fifth.

The first movement of the work is marked Allegro orgoglioso, an obscure marking. Orgoglioso sounds richly Italian, and while it may also sound like the name of some delicious braised meat or pasta dish, it actually means ‘proud’ or ‘haughty.’ Those might sound like negative terms, but a listen to the first few bars of the symphony does present a confident, youthful opening. It’s crisp, commanding, a good start for sure. It quickly cools down to make room for woodwinds, but it’s full of contrasts, crunchy strings, growling brass, and the initial impression of a work with such color, such energy and confidence, is… “surely this is a world-famous work on par with like, Dvorak’s ninth, but I just can’t remember what it is.” It’s German-ish, but more Scandinavian-ish… Every listener, I think, would identify this as a work entirely at home among the famous late Romantic masterpieces, not to mention its use of progressive tonality, (not finishing in the key in which it started), (which Wiki refers to as “Nielsen’s hallmark compositional device”) moving to C major, everything about this, really, makes it a breathtaking symphony, and stunning first movement. What can I say about it? It’s got contrast, drama, breathtaking power, beauty, and a youthful, and at times a devil-may-care energy. It’s perfect, and we’re only through the first movement. The propulsive energy and handsome wind-in-your-face spirit of the first movement may produce a bit of a conundrum, in that… how do you top it, wrap it up? No sweat for the young Nielsen. It’s bangin’.

The second movement is what one writer uses some colorful language to say is a thing that makes him cry. In contrast with the bold, powerful first movement, the second movement andante is soft, expressive, equally as breathtaking, but in an entirely different emotional landscape. I’m pulling imagery now out of nowhere, but there’s a kind of commanding, captivating energy to the first movement, like setting sail, the excitement and thrill of setting off, and if that is the case, the second movement is a sunset early on in the voyage, as the land disappears behind you and the sun slips under the horizon, bathing a wide open sea in color as the stars begin to creep out of a darkening sky. I’ve always heard something maritime in this symphony, and while I think maybe Jarvi’s reading of this movement might be a bit fast for my taste; it seems like it could slow down and enjoy things a little more, but it reaches wonderful climaxes, with strings and brass soaring over big timpani rolls, brass singing, the full ensemble really working to produce a warm, melancholy, sentimental mass of sound, but at turns the swells dissipate and it’s tender and soft again. There are echoes of the first movement here, but again, in an entirely different light, just (more) exquisite writing.

The third movement opens somewhat lightly, with a refreshing bounce, but eventually builds back to the commanding heft of the opening movement. There’s a narrative thread I hear running through the movements here. I’m too lazy to go look at the score, which I have around here somewhere, but the first and second movements seem to share some kind of similar gesture or figure, and maybe I’m just fooling myself, but I hear it here too. There’s a similar drive and command that appears here, with equally effective writing, instantly captivating. The movement seems to swell to a big finish, but ends quietly, ushering in the finale.

And don’t we hear something similar here? That opening figure says “I fit into the overall scheme of this work!” and there’s something about it that caps off this work as one fiercely energetic, connected symphony that, despite the change of key to C major, gives it a unified nature, a compact half-hour work full of punch and prowess. The finale carries this immediacy and punch through swells of sound and quiet passages to round out an outstandingly impressive first symphony.

It’s unassuming, perhaps slightly ignored, an op. 7 symphony in Gm, with five more to come from the young Dane, but wait a minute! This is a phenomenal work, and possibly, as the outstanding composer Robert Simpson notes, the first to end in a different key from the one in which it began. It is monumental, historic, powerful, but compact and somehow easy to overlook, for it rather has been for some time. Big things sometimes do come in small packages, and this would be one of them. It’s no Sibelius 5 or 7; we haven’t departed from the German tradition of the symphony in very many ways, but that one little aberration, beginning in Gm and ending in C, something the average listener (including myself) would likely take no note of, was a step of innovation that would continue for decades to come.

Do yourself a favor. If you don’t know this symphony, go give it a listen somewhere. It’s familiar enough as a four-movement, traditionally structured symphony, but with a flair that makes it individual and unique. This article, as a revisit, is just a prelude to more stuff coming up this week, so stay tuned, but I can’t emphasize enough what a wonderfully crafted work this is. Vi ses i morgen.

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