Carl August Nielsen (June 9, 1865–October 3, 1931) is widely recognized as Denmark’s greatest composer, a skilled conductor, and a violinist. Nielsen was the seventh of twelve children in a poor peasant family in Nørre Lyndelse near Sortelung south of Odense on the Danish island of Funen. His father, Niels Jørgensen, was a house painter and amateur musician who, with his abilities as a fiddler and cornet player, was in strong demand for local celebrations. His mother, whom he recalled singing folk songs during his childhood, was Maren Kirstine Jørgensen, née Johansen, the daughter of a well-to-do family of sea captains whose brother was a composer and performer of popular music. All the children bore the surname Nielsen. Carl 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. As a boy Carl was already playing in his father’s dance orchestra. At the same time he played in the local amateur orchestra, Braga, whose repertoire, besides entertainment and dance music, also included the symphonies of Vienna Classicism. His parents apprenticed him to a shopkeeper from a nearby village at age fourteen. By midsummer the shopkeeper had gone bankrupt, and Carl had to go home to his parents. He also learned how to play brass instruments, which led to a job as a bugler and alto trombonist in the 16th Battalion at nearby Odense that opened up around the time his apprenticeship ended. Carl took up his new positions in the 16th Battalion on the first of November 1879.
Alongside his work as a military musician Nielsen played string quartets with his friends and studied Das Wohltemperierte Klavier on his own initiative. From these years came his first real attempts at composition, mainly chamber music works in the Classical style. While Nielsen did not give up the violin during his time in the military, for his first two years he usually only played it when he went home to appear at dances with his father. In 1881, he began to take his violin playing more seriously and started taking private lessons from Carl Larsen, who was the sexton at Odense Cathedral. One of his overseers, Klaus Berntsen, introduced him to Niels Gade, Denmark’s revered composer who was director of the Royal Conservatory. Nielsen was well received by Gade, and made sure that he could be released at a short notice from the military band. In January 1884, he went to Copenhagen for further studies at the conservatory. He studied at the Royal Conservatory in Copenhagen from the beginning of 1884 until December 1886, progressing well in violin under Joachim pupil Valdemar Tofte, receiving a solid grounding in music theory from J.P.E. Hartmann and Orla Rosenhoff, who would remain a valued adviser during Nielsen’s early years as a professional composer, and studying piano with Gottfred Matthison-Hansen. He also studied music history and composition under Niels Gade. Contacts with fellow students and cultured families in Copenhagen, some of whom would become lifelong friends, would become equally important.
By September 1889, only three years after graduating from the conservatory, Nielsen had progressed well enough on the violin to gain a position with the second violins in the prestigious Royal Danish Orchestra which played at Copenhagen’s Royal Theater, and 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, including a Quartet in F which he considered his official debut as a professional composer. However, the greatest impression was made by the Suite for Strings, which was performed at Tivoli Hall on September 8, 1888. Nielsen would designate this work his Opus 1. After less than a year at the Royal Theater, Nielsen won a scholarship of 1,800 kroner, giving him the means to spend several months traveling in Europe. In Paris, he met the Danish sculptor Anne Marie Brodersen, who was also traveling on a scholarship. They toured Italy together, marrying in St Mark’s English Church, Florence on May 10,1891, before returning to Denmark. They had three children, two daughters and a son: Irmelin; Anne Marie, who graduated from the Copenhagen Academy of Arts and married the Hungarian violinist Emil Telmányi (1892–1988) in 1918; and Hans, who was handicapped as a result of meningitis and spent most of his life away from the family.
At first, Nielsen did not gain enough recognition for his works to be able to support himself. During the concert which saw the premiere of his first symphony on March 14, 1894, conducted by Johan Svendsen, Nielsen played in the second violin section. However, the symphony was a great success when played in Berlin in 1896, contributing significantly to his reputation. Nielsen became increasingly in demand to write incidental music for the theater and cantatas to mark special occasions, both of which provided a welcome source of additional income. During the 1890s Nielsen composed prolifically, and much of his output was put into print, including First Symphony op. 7 (1890-92), the J.P. Jacobsen songs op. 4 and 6 (1891), the violin sonata op. 9 (1895), and the choral work Hymnus amoris (1896-97). Beginning in 1901, Nielsen received a modest state pension—800 kroner at first, growing to 7,500 kroner by 1927—to augment his violinist’s salary. This allowed him to stop taking private pupils and left him more time to compose. By 1903 he had signed a contract with the Wilhelm Hansen publishing firm in Copenhagen, who published more or less all his works until 1924, effectively ending his tenure as violinist with the Royal Theatre. Between 1905 and 1914 he served as second conductor at the Royal Theatre. For his son-in-law, the Hungarian violinist Dr. Emil Telmányi, Nielsen wrote his Violin Concerto, Op. 33 (1911). From 1914 to 1926, he conducted the orchestra of Musikforeningen or the Music Society.
In 1916, Nielsen 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. As a result of his teaching, he has exerted considerable influence on classical music in Denmark. World War I and professional developments in his life would strongly influence his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, arguably his greatest works. After suffering a serious heart attack in 1925, Nielsen was forced to curtail much of his activity, although he continued to compose until his death. In 1927, he wrote My Childhood on Funen (Min Fynske Barndom), a delightful memoir of his childhood . He also produced a short book of essays entitled Living Music (1925). In later years Nielsen suffered from a weak heart and died of heart disease in Copenhagen on October 3, 1931, following another heart attack, at 66 years old, and is buried in Vestre Cemetery.
Romanticism influenced Nielsen’s early musical thinking, though many of his first published works initially had a neo-classical sound in form and harmony. However, he became increasingly modern as he developed his own approach to progressive tonality, moving from one key to another. Typically, he would end on a different key, sometimes as the outcome of a struggle as in his symphonies. He frequently blended melodic passages inspired by folk music with more complicated stylings including counterpoint and modern variations, developing into an “extended” tonal and even atonal language. Like his contemporary, the Finn Jean Sibelius, he studied Renaissance polyphony closely, which accounts for much of the melodic and harmonic content of his music. With music that is highly individual in both content and construction, Nielsen holds an honored place as Denmark’s foremost post-Romantic musical ambassador, and has found considerable acclaim amongst musicians and audiences alike. Also like his colleague Sibelius, Nielsen poured his finest material into the symphonic mold. Thus, Nielsen is best known for his six highly original symphonies. Other well-known pieces are the incidental music for Adam Oehlenschläger’s drama Aladdin; the operas Saul og David and Maskarade; the three concertos for violin, flute, and clarinet, all of which have earned places in the repertory outside Denmark; the Wind Quintet, and the Helios Overture, which depicts the passage of the sun in the sky from dawn to nightfall. Nielsen is also known for simple popular songs, but his later, highly expressive melodic style is a powerful fusion of chromatic and often dissonant harmony, solid contrapuntal structure, concentrated motivic treatment, and bold extensions of tonality with frequent polytonal passages.
My collection includes the following works by Carl Nielsen:
Symphony No. 4, Inextinguishable (1914).
Symphony No. 5.
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources