Nielsen Symphony no. 3, op. 27 “Sinfonia Espansiva”

performed by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi, with Soile Isokoski and Jorma Hynninen

Nielsen’s third symphony premiered on 28 February 1912, in the same concert as the premiere of his violin concerto, this time with the composer on the podium conducting rather than sitting among the second violins, performed by the Royal Danish Orchestra.

It is the only one of Nielsen’s six symphonies to have vocal parts, in the second movement, wordless solos performed by soprano and baritone. The subtitle for the entire work is also the marking for the first movement. I was able to introduce Robert Simpson on the blog last month, who was not only a superb composer himself, but an authority on Nielsen’s symphonies. Somewhat similar to the first symphony’s ‘orgoglioso’ marking, the ‘espansiva’ seems a bit odd, but Simpson says, per Wikipedia, that it refers to the “outward growth of the mind’s scope”, from Simpson’s book Carl Nielsen, Symphonist, p. 46.

I heard this work recently in a performance by the Taipei Symphony. Maestro Gilbert Varga loves giving pre-concert lectures from the podium, before the members have taken their seats, and in trying to explain this term ‘expansiva’, he referenced a mechanical spreader, something powerful that wedges itself in somewhere, and exerts force, expands out to open something up wide. It sounds a bit violent that way, but he conveyed the power and warmth and energy that he feels the piece has and ultimately finished with ‘well, you’ll see.’

The work is in four movements and comes to a total of about 33 minutes. Again, the first movement is marked ‘allegro espansivo’, and is the longest of the symphony. It begins with a rousing, intense, heart-pounding few bars, like the Danish, 20th century version of the opening of Beethoven’s Eroica. That pulsing energy propels the movement forward, and we get the feeling that it’s not going to stop. There’s an urgency, an intensity to the music, and even when the softer second subject enters, and when things cool down to a near silence, the forward motion is maintained. While the opening might have been a little aggressive, the overwhelming tone of the first movement is one of optimism and energy, but with many different faces. I’d say to pay attention to some things here, but if you don’t know what to look for, it’s hard to point them out. We’ll get to that later, I guess. The development and scope and growth of this content and how it’s portrayed, reinvented, and reworked, but is never unidentifiable, is a testament to Nielsen’s compositional craft.

The second movement is ‘expansive’ in a different way, perhaps more the way one might traditionally think of. It opens very quietly, almost distantly, with a flute solo that precedes the entrance of other woodwinds. Strings enter, and the music is suddenly broad, warm, expressive, and pensive. The entry of the wordless human voice comes after a briefly troubled brass passage, first with the baritone, lending a tender, hopeful quality to the music. It’s bright, angelic, shimmery and pristine. In some performances, as with the aforementioned TSO concert, these two voices can be replaced by fourth clarinet and trombone, but if you’ve heard the piece as it was intended by the composer, that human element is missing, and it’s not quite the same. There’s something about it that fits well with the optimism of the first movement, a wordless meditation on the collective human experience, simple beauty, hopeful, straightforward, but powerful. As ethereally as the music built and entered, it likewise fades away, like a quick sunset, bringing us to the darker beginning of the third movement.

Marked allegretto un poco, it seems at first not to be a scherzo, but things get lively quickly. And while it serves the function in the scheme of things that a scherzo would serve, a quick peek at the score shows 2/4, not 3/4. There’s no triple meter, and the piece can’t be reduced to a simple label of what sort of form it’s in. In the structure of the work, I feel it serves a distinct purpose in propelling the piece forward from the broad, more solemn second movement through into the third. And I’ll still say, I hear foreshadowings of what the final movement brings us, the real climax, obviously, in the finale.

Listen to the opening of the finale, this warm, welcoming bright theme, like arriving home, the ‘expansiva’ having served its purpose. The sheer positivity and optimism of this final movement is stunningly beautiful, but not without substance and power. It’s a result, an arrival, as if we weren’t quite sure things would end as positively as we’d hoped, and all parties heave a sigh of relief; it’s the sound of genuine joy, and it’s a result that everything up to this point was pointing toward, hinting at, but only now did it become an assured reality. It’s breathtaking and blissful. The piece ends as you would hope, in commanding triumph. How wonderful is this?

I think it’s interesting to consider the date of such an ebullient piece. It premiered in 1912, having been finished a few months prior. Just a few years earlier, Mahler is writing some of the darkest, most emotional music of his (or anyone’s?) career, Schoenberg had already broken standard tonality with his opp. 10 and 11, and people say that these men were foreshadowing impending cataclysms of the first World War. But then we have something so blatantly, so outrightly optimistic, that it calls that whole prophetic thing into question, unless of course you’re willing to say that Nielsen just wasn’t in the loop in some way. In any case, his optimism isn’t forced or feigned; in fact, it’s nothing short of contagious. It propagates through the orchestra and is palpable in the concert hall. Some say this is one of the greatest things Nielsen ever wrote, and to be sure, it is full of unstoppable, warm power, a handsome, stately work, like the sharp bow of a ship plowing smoothly through waves.

We’ve had a quick little chance to have a look at two symphonies from Carl Nielsen, his first and third. The second is by no means unworthy of mention; we’ll get around to it eventually. I simply feel the first and third to be remarkable compositions, strong arguments that, indeed, while Nielsen’s work might not be a wholesale reinvention of the symphony, they are innovative, fresh, yet approachable and of strong emotional impact and successful with listeners. Go give his work a listen and see if he doesn’t present some of the most satisfying symphonic experiences you’ve had recently. That’s why we do this.

Stay tuned for a few other students of famous people who will make their appearances shortly. Vi ses snart. 


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