Niel5 Sym

Severance Hall
October 24 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m. 

October 26 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.

Symphony No. 5, Opus 50

Carl Nielsen  (1865-1931)
composed 1921-22

At a Glance

Nielsen began work on his Fifth Symphony in February 1921.  He completed it on January 15, 1922, and conducted the first performance in Copenhagen nine days later. 

This symphony runs about 35 minutes in performance.  Nielsen scored it for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (second doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, triangle, tambourine, side or snare drum), celesta, and strings.

The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony in February 1951, under Erik Tuxen, who had given the American premiere in Washington D.C. the month before.  The Orchestra’s most recent performances were conducted by Herbert Blomstedt at Severance Hall in April 2006.

About the Music

In the 19th century, many people viewed Germany as the epicenter of classical-symphonic thinking.  The land of Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and eventually Brahms was considered the source, to be aspired to.

In Scandinavia, composers customarily studied in Germany as soon as they had acquired the necessary musical fundamentals in their home countries.  Indeed, the conservatories in Stockholm and Copenhagen were frequently staffed by German musician-instructors — and the better students quickly progressed to Berlin, Leipzig, or Vienna for further study.  The exchange of skills and experience was profitable for all. 

But by the time that Carl Nielsen came of age, in the century’s closing decades, it was widely felt that northern composers should preserve their independence from the great German tradition.  So that, without pursuing a narrow nationalist path on the basis of folk melodies (which some felt the Russians and Czechs were taking to excess), the continent’s Northern musical creators should express a distinctive character of their own. 

While his friend Sibelius took a course of strict study in Berlin, Nielsen, having grounded his studies at the Copenhagen Conservatory, preferred to travel from one city to the next across Europe, visiting Germany, France, and Italy, and sampling and savoring the music he encountered all along the way. 

Nielsen returned to Denmark as Sibelius did to Finland, both determined to put their countries on the musical map by the sheer force of their creative personalities, rather than by waving a flag of national tunes and folk music.  

Nielsen was a man of simple origins, brought up in poverty far from any city, and largely self-taught in music.  Throughout his life, he reached out for new ideas, new experiences, and a greater understanding for the world of feeling and expression.  He was highly active in all musical spheres, as composer, violinist, conductor, and teacher, and he traveled widely.  He rose steadily to a supreme position in Danish musical life and, at the time of the composition of the Fifth Symphony, was conductor of Copenhagen’s long-established concert society, the Musikforeningen, at the head of whose orchestra he presented his new work as soon as it was finished, early in 1922. 

The Greatest Danish Composer

Nielsen is everywhere regarded as the greatest of Danish composers, yet only a few of his works are regularly heard outside of Denmark, and his star shines only fitfully in the bright constellation that includes his fellow-Scandinavians and friends Jean Sibelius and Karl Stenhammar — not to mention the plethora of creative talent that was challenging the ears of Europe and America in the first years of the last century: Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, Scriabin, Schoenberg, Elgar, Roussel, Szymanowski, to mention only a few.  Many of these composers regarded writing symphonies as their prime creative outlet, as did Nielsen, and the inheritance from Beethoven was still the driving impulse behind their conceptions of form and expression.  

Despite the allure of novelty to which all the arts succumbed in those years (and which is a constant challenge to avoid for artists working in every field at any time), Nielsen remained true to his original ideals, which he found in the music of Haydn and Mozart, and in the language of traditional tonality.  He never wrote for the huge orchestras so fashionable around 1910.  And, as with Sibelius’s music, there is a certain austerity in Nielsen’s orchestral palette (in the Fifth Symphony there is no bass clarinet, no english horn, and no harp). 

Above all, Nielsen avoided sensationalism and sentimentality, and strove to write music that presented its own arguments and reached its own solutions.  A Nielsen symphony is a self-contained experience that demands little more than willing concentration and a sympathetic, discerning ear.  

The character of his music is embodied in the titles he gave to three of his six symphonies.  No. 3 is “Expansive,” No. 4 is “Inextinguishable,” and No. 6 is “Simple.”  Contradictory though those three titles may seem, Nielsen felt strongly that music should be wide-ranging, exploratory, searching and self-confident, but always simple (if, at times, deceptively so).  The Fifth has no subtitle, but there are many that a fine performance can suggest — track your own thoughts as you listen.   

The Music of the Fifth Symphony

Nielsen divided this symphony into two movements, the first itself in two parts, the second in four (although the latter is often viewed in two sections, creating a four-section structure for the entire work, analogous to the usual four-movement scheme of a traditional symphony).  

Surprises are so frequent in this work as to become expected, paradoxically, with certain patterns sustained for quite a long time.  There is an obsessive character in some of the music, like a dog with a bone, perhaps illustrated by repeated notes making up a theme, perhaps strong gestures repeated, unaltered, at intervals.  

What makes the opening of the first movement so distinct is a sense of immobility, the harbinger of a big work, and the independence of events.  A long wavering figure on the viola continues for pages, as if deaf to violent interventions from the winds and independent of steadier themes elsewhere.  The timpani pound away at two notes impervious to melodies and cries elsewhere, and a sense of separateness persists to the end of the section.

The second section (marked Adagio non troppo), in contrast, offers a homogeneous orchestra, melodious and warm.  But eventually more insect-like intrusions from the upper winds attempt to disturb the steady flow.  The ultimate gesture of independence arrives when the snare drum, until now conforming to the rhythmic pulse of the movement, strides off on its own, refusing even to be part of the orchestra. The composer instructed the drummer to “improvise, as if at all costs to stop the progress of the music.”  Chaos ensues, but the progress of the music is never actually stopped.  The clarinet eventually sings what seems like a lament for ruin and desolation, now past.

The second movement is held together by the return of its opening at the end, as a simple framing device.  This opening section has a strong symphonic feel, with contrasting themes and textures, and the usual intrusive surprises.  It gives way to a whispering scherzo (Presto), a fugue led off by the first violins and embracing all the strings in turn.  The spirit of Beethoven is alive here.  

The ensuing Andante section is another fugue, mysterious in character and based on a slow version of the movement’s main theme.  It grows into a reprise of the opening Allegro and a final apotheosis that resolves the hazardous journey this music has pursued since the start.

Hugh Macdonald © 2019

Nielsen talks about his Fifth Symphony . . .

 “As the symphony opens, I am out walking in the country — I’m not thinking of anything in particular, in fact I’m not paying much attention to what I see or come across.  What was that now? a flower snapping, a little clod of earth falling?  Was it an animal with bright eyes staring there from a tuft of grass?  (The various motifs are really chaotic, almost accidental — only one of them, the ‘evil’ motif, is used a lot.)  Then suddenly I become aware of myself as a musician:  my thoughts take a definite form, impressions flood forth in me — and now everything is singing pleasantly. . . . Then the ‘evil’ motif intervenes — in the woodwind and strings — and the side drum becomes more and more angry and aggressive; but the nature-theme goes on, peaceful and unaffected, in the brass.  Finally the evil has to give way, a last attempt and then it flees — and with a strophe thereafter in consoling major mode a solo clarinet ends this large idyll-movement, an expression of vegetative (idle, thoughtless) nature.

“The second movement is its counterpole:  if the first movement was passivity, here it is action (or activity) that is conveyed.  So it’s something very primitive I wanted to express:  the division of dark and light, the battle between evil and good.  A title like ‘Dream and Deeds’ could maybe sum up the inner picture I had in front of my eyes when composing.”

—Carl Nielsen