Friday, January 4, 2013

A Danish Composer in an Expansive Mood

The first concert of the New Year features two well-known works - Wagner's Meistersinger Prelude and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with Chee-Yun, the soloist - and one not-so-well-known work but one that grabbed my attention when I was a high school student and just discovering things outside the standard repertoire: Carl Nielsen's 3rd Symphony, which he called his Sinfonia espansiva.

The concerts are Saturday, Jan. 12th at 8pm and Sunday, Jan. 13th at 3pm. I'll be doing a pre-concert talk an hour before each concert in the Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

You can read more about the first half of the concert in this earlier post which also includes a video clip of Stuart Malina previewing the entire concert and includes video clips of performances of both the Wagner and the Tchaikovsky with a "bonus track" of Chee-Yun playing Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen.

Nielsen in 1908
That Carl Nielsen is sometimes described as “The Brahms of the North” might bring him into this Hanslickian context with Tchaikovsky and Wagner, but let’s put that aside. He was, after all, only 16 and in distant Denmark when Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto was finally premiered.

It would be no surprise to most of the rest of the world that Nielsen is described as Denmark’s best-known composer since most concert-goers would be hard pressed to name even one other Danish composer or at least one they’ve heard live in concert. It’s quite likely Carl Nielsen himself might be on that list for many in our audience.

Born to a peasant family on a small island where his father was a house-painter who played the fiddle and cornet for local dance-bands. As a child, Nielsen recalled hearing his father play and his mother sing folk-songs: while sick in bed with the measles, young Carl occupied himself with a little fiddle and, eventually, that lead to him playing in the 2nd Violin Section of the Royal Danish Orchestra after studying at the conservatory in Copenhagen. When the orchestra premiered his first symphony in 1894, the audience was surprised when a young man stood up at the back of the 2nd Violins to take the composer’s bow.

Today, he is primarily remembered as a symphonist – meaning only some of his symphonies are usually performed much today – though he also wrote a fine violin concerto, two operas (with great overtures), much choral and chamber music and, toward the end of his life, began what was to be a series of wind concertos for friends of his in the Copenhagen Wind Quintet: in addition to a quintet, he lived only long enough to compose concertos for the flute and for the clarinet following a heart attack that curtailed his composing. He died a few years later in 1931.

Of his six symphonies, the 4th and 5th are probably best known: the 4th is a powerful work he called “The Inextinguishable,” at best an inadequate translation of the Danish title implying the inextinguishable spirit of mankind in the face of great odds, not hard to understand when you realize it was written during World War I. Its final battle between order and chaos permeates the 5th Symphony also, though it bears no subtitle: in it, an off-stage snare drum leads the onslaught as the world seems to be torn apart, then, in the conclusion, everything is finally put triumphantly back together again.

The earlier 3rd Symphony, which he composed in his mid-40s, is by comparison a bit more tranquil (at times) and might almost be called his “Pastoral” Symphony if he hadn’t already called it Sinfonia espansiva. The opening movement is marked Allegro espansivo, an expansively lively tempo, but since Nielsen was never one to use titles “simply,” his biographer Robert Simpson, in Carl Nielsen, Symphonist, a book unfortunately out-of-print, explains the composer meant it in the sense of the “outward growth of the mind's scope.”

It opens with some very attention-grabbing chords which, on first hearing, made me think of Beethoven’s “Eroica” – except it kept on going and building faster and faster until the theme (also not unlike Beethoven’s “Eroica” but less heroic) enters on top of it.

Opening of Nielsen's
Symphony No. 3

Here is a legendary performance with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Royal Danish Philharmonic in 1965, a recording that was my introduction to Nielsen’s music and which convinced me Nielsen was someone to listen to.
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(For those of you who wish to follow the score, you can download it for free viewing at the International Music Score Library Project.)

The first movement continues, after those chords from 01:09-1:21, with a great swinging tune (legend has it this tune occurred to Nielsen while he was riding a tram-car in Copenhagen and he had to jot it down on a shirt cuff so he'd remember it) which then bustles along before finally winding down to its contrasting, more pastoral second theme at 3:13. One of the things I wonder about, reading of Nielsen’s village background, though who knows what the composer was thinking, is that sudden passage at 4:04 interrupting from the horn section: it reminds me of someone laughing (interesting to watch this performance: it makes Bernstein smile). Then at 4:12 the music begins building back into the bustling of the first theme which keeps expanding and transforming itself. At 5:06, there’s a “closing idea” which, though merely a simple end of a phrase, here, which will become important later.

After a nod to the opening chords (but at the opposite dynamic level), by 5:36 we’re off onto the more traditional idea of a symphonic “development” section, taking the themes apart and varying them in different ways and combinations – at 6:15, he turns that swinging theme into a waltz, then at 6:37 the bustling idea gets turned into a more academic-sounding fugue before, at 7:00, it builds up to a wilder version of the waltz, especially using the second part of the theme (go back to c.2:09) before that “end cap” brings things down and gives us a chance to catch our breath at 8:08. The main theme comes back, much quieter in the winds before turning us over to the 2nd, more pastoral theme at 8:47 in the clarinet with the horns swinging bell-like in the background. At 9:30, we hear some of the bustling starting back up, a few more chuckles from the winds and brass and at 10:01, it’s a more expansive version of the 2nd theme with the main theme in the brass at 10:21 (with occasional interruptions and distractions).

Then something happens: while it still feels developmental, suddenly it starts feeling like it’s going to resolve. There’s a reference to those opening chords at 10:36 but as full chords, not the single repeated “A”s of the opening. But behind the main theme where it now sounds like we’re in what would traditionally be called the “Recapitulation,” we hear the repeated “A”s of the opening chords in the violins at 11:00 beginning an intense build-up of harmonic tension until 12:16 where we resolve everything back to those “A”s, a resolution that makes us feel we’ve arrived at the “home tonality” that is the important part of the old Sonata Allegro drama of most first movements from the days of Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms.

But wait a minute… suddenly, the movement is over! It feels like we’re now ready to begin that Recapitulation, the return to the tonic key which resolves the drama of the digression away from the main tonality (or “key”) that’s been going on for the last six minutes, something finally reached at 12:36 – and it’s over? Those are the last chords?

Yes. There are critics (quite possible Eduard Hanslick among them, if he’d been reviewing this premiere in 1911) who would cry foul – this is not a text-book sonata form, not that other composers, including Haydn and Beethoven, always followed the text-book and someone like Mahler had spent the last 20 years exploding the seams of the old Sonata Form or the symphony in general itself.

First of all, you’ll notice that Nielsen’s Third is never described as his “Symphony No. 3 in D Minor” because the over-all sense of tonality does not apply here. In fact, those opening chords – those unison “A”s – set up the main tonality of the symphony but immediately, in measure 15, he swings you off into D Minor for the main theme. We would expect, traditionally, the second theme then to be in F Major (that’s the general rule) but instead it’s in E-flat Major (a nasty tritone, that old 'devil-in-music' interval, from those opening “A”s) and the whole Exposition, the presentation of the themes and their tonalities, ends in C Major. And it’s only in hind-sight, after an already turbulent Development section, that we probably realize what should’ve been the Recapitulation (the return to… uhm… D Minor?) at (maybe?) 8:48 but it’s with the 2nd Theme and it’s in E-flat… uhm… and it continues to be harmonically unstable… so, what’s going on, here?

Even to a listener in 1911, it was clear, whether they were familiar with Mahler’s symphonies or not, this was not your grandfather’s symphony (grandfather, in this case, being Brahms). We have the themes but they return (unstably) in reverse order – but Haydn used to do that, too, on occasion – but it’s the sense of tonality, the feeling of “where we are” becoming “where are we?” that some listeners might have found confusing. The composer is building on your expectations but even if your expectations – assuming you do not have perfect pitch – are only looking for a satisfying conclusion, you have it! Getting there – the journey – is half the fun. And, perhaps, that’s how “expansive” works, in this case.

Do you need to know that or understand it to enjoy the music? No, just as you don’t need to understand the technical rigamaroll – sorry, “jargon” – behind the Tchaikovsky violin concerto or the magic of counterpoint to appreciate Wagner’s overture (or prelude) on the first half of the program. But if you want to know what makes it tick, then, there you are: people who are interested in cars will go into great details about design and aerodynamics and, of course, engine construction, but as long as I know where to put the key and how to drive it, who cares?

The second movement, the slow movement, is marked “Andante pastorale,” a much more relaxed contrast to the bustle and tension of the 1st movement – that’s usually the job of a 2nd movement, anyway. After a brief introduction in the horns at 12:58, the strings begin a unison theme, very simple, almost folk-like. At 14:43, another idea, starting in the flute, picked up by the other winds until the strings force their way back in as if continuing their first theme but in a more aggressive manner and more fully harmonized, almost like a chorale. At 16:34, the winds return with their idea until the strings interrupt again at 17:02, more insistent. Not sure how “pastoral” this is sounding, but clearly there are two sides to this conversation – strings and winds – and neither seem to be listening to each other: it’s no dialogue.

At 18:09, the winds start up again, still marked “tranquillo” but overlapping more suddenly with some ominous rumblings in the timpani (and if you know the “pastoral” movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique or even Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, you know what that means: storm coming), until the horns and lower strings come in at 18:29 with what will eventually became a significant thematic idea even if it sounds very turbulent, here.

At 19:11 the first theme unfolds into a beautiful gentle undulating passage – wait, what’s that at 19:24? What instrument is that? Well, it’s supposed to be a surprise – it’s a baritone voice singing a wordless melody. And then at 19:49, there’s a soprano added to the mix, like a shepherd singing a folk-song answered from a distance by a shepherdess. It’s really no different than what Berlioz did in his Symphonie fantastique with the English horn answered by the off-stage oboe, but it’s so different sounding here, 80 years later, complete with a babbling-brook-like backdrop in the strings and winds. Magical. And at 22:35, it’s over – without the storm. Ultimately, you're left with the feeling that, clouds aside, you've been lying on your back in a field looking up at the sky on a summer day.

(Incidentally, this movement should’ve been in, what, C major, according to the rules, if A minor is the real tonality: guess what? It starts in C but ends in E-flat, that tritone relationship. Oh, well…)

The third movement should be the traditional scherzo, beginning at 23:11 with some rustic-sounding horns that remind you (vaguely) of the very opening measures and then, like the 2nd movement, proceed with alternating sonorities: this time, winds first, then strings – rather than presenting themes, the one-sided conversation that started the 2nd movement turns into more of a two-sided argument, here, with its bickering strings and nattering woodwinds, maybe not much of a scherzo in the traditional sense (more of an “intermezzo” as Brahms tended to view it in his first three symphonies). The oboes present a second idea at 24:20 which, by 24:50, the strings seems to like better. At 25:10, it sounds like it’s going to break into another fugue but this time the horns' snarl at 25:51 sets things off in a different direction. It’s becoming less and less of an intermezzo, much less a scherzo.

By 26:22, the woodwinds are back to commenting on fragments of the themes and the fugue starts up again, until by 27:27 it’s like we’re listening to a couple of grumpy old men complain about… what, the weather? Finally, it loses steam at 28:07 and the first theme starts up again then resolves gently by 29:32.

Curiously, this movement begins in C-sharp Minor and also ends in the same key (except it turns major with the flutes in the last few measures), but it’s all over the place in between. Still, this is the one movement that does what tonality is supposed to: begin in a key and work its way back, after a dramatic digression, to that same key.

At 29:57, the finale begins – in D Major – with a broad sweeping theme that could be the Danish answer to “Pomp & Circumstance” if Nielsen had a mind to do so – or maybe Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” by way of Brahms’ 1st. Then, at 31:51, it begins sweeping its way into a fugue (again, with the fugue!) At 31:48, the oboe adds an idea over the main theme’s continuation, expanding it quietly, still reaching a climax, until at 33:17, a fragment of theme is turned into something slightly more jaunty that sounds like a second theme. At 34:10, the main theme is altered dramatically but seems to be resolving the tension until… whoa – at 34:31, the tonality slips down a notch and sounds quite majestic before it fades off with some twitterings here and there.

At 35:11, it’s like he’s going to start another fugue for a bit, till 35:37 when it starts chugging along trying to build up steam underneath fragments in the winds of the big theme. Once again, it picks up momentum at 36:44, the violas start off yet another fugue, varying the march-like feeling of the theme until it builds and collapses. Then suddenly, at 37:38, it returns to that grand march style we heard at the opening but the important thing now is it’s not in D Major but – as foreshadowed by the opening movement, in A Major. It’s grandeur all the way till interruptions from the brass at 38:34 set up the final triumph of A Major from 38:46 to the end at 39:14.

And yes, though D major was the main tonality of the last movement when it began, it ends when it resolves to A Major, which is the tonal center the symphony has been urging itself toward since those chords – those unison “A”s – opened the symphony almost 40 minutes earlier.

The room where Nielsen composed his 3rd Symphony
After hearing this last movement especially, it’s not hard to imagine why critics proclaimed Nielsen the “Brahms of the North,” even though Brahms would’ve hated most of what he was doing, here. This sense of tonality – which Brahms liked to play with, too, borrowing more from Schubert and his love of “third relations” (going from, say, D Major to F Major rather than G or A Major the way traditionalists might’ve done in Haydn’s day) – which Mahler also used (Mahler died, incidentally, around the time Nielsen completed this symphony) and referred to as “progressive tonality” – is just one of the things that composers were using in order to find “new ways” of handling “old ideas.”

There’s nothing Nielsen does in this work that would leave a listener (even in 1911) at sea – the themes are all memorable, even whistle-able themes. The structure he places them in is easy enough to follow, even if it’s not always traditional, and still, ultimately, satisfying even if you had no idea what he was doing, otherwise.

But he – and others like him – were pulling apart the fabric of the Tonal Scheme that dominated music for over 200 years since the days of Bach, if not earlier.

It was only a matter of time before this fabric would be completely torn apart by three works written around the same time: Claude Debussy’s “Jeux” (summer of 1912), Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” (spring and summer of 1912) and Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (begun in the summer of 1911, but finished in time for its riotous premiere in 1913, one hundred years ago, now).

The Espansiva's premiere in 1911 - which Nielsen himself conducted along with his then-new Violin Concerto - was an immediate success and helped cement his reputation as the leading Danish composer of his generation. If he were the "Brahms of the North," previous popular Danish composers like Niels Gade and Christian Lumbye were on the lighter side, the "Mendelssohn of the North" and the "Johann Strauss of the North," respectively. Nielsen wanted more fiber in the Dane's musical diet, not just sweet pastries.

To him, the last movement of his 3rd Symphony was, as he wrote about it 16 years later, “a hymn to work and the healthy enjoyment of daily life. Not a pathetic celebration of life but a sort of general joy in being able to participate in the business of everyday living and to see activity and skill unfold all around us.”

- Dick Strawser

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