Saturday, August 22, 2009

Reading Nielsen's 4th

Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) wrote the fourth of his six symphonies over a period of two years, completing it in 1916. Today it is the most frequently played and recorded of this remarkable symphonist's works. Its title, Det uudslukkelige, has been translated "The Unquenchable" and, more frequently, "The Inextinguishable." This is not an adjective describing the symphony itself, but a reference to what Nielsen called "the elemental will to live," which its music is intended to portray.

Movement I (Allegro) bursts upon us with a thrilling passage that can't quite make up its mind what key it's in. The strings and winds answer each other in a passionate dialogue over a throbbing timpani heartbeat. The excitement simmers down after a minute or so, allowing a bass solo to muse mysteriously while the flutes giggle in response. A pair of clarinets introduce a gentle, noble theme in A major, a theme whose descending contours will become increasingly important as the work progresses. Around 3:30, the initial atmosphere of excitement returns, combined with the clarinet theme. This dies down to a new episode in which the flute, at first encouraged by the bassoon, sets an odd, skipping melody in motion. The strings continue it against an ominously spare background, building up to a passage full of panic and struggle. The clarinet theme comes in as a soothing influence, gradually calming everything down. Clarinets and flutes mull over this theme in somewhat of a canon. Then the opening, thrilling theme returns, now sounding confident rather than defiant. The descending theme makes a brassy, triumphant reappearance, driving all tension away from the music by 11:30-ish, in time for a soft, stringy bridge to Movement II.

Marked Poco allegretto, the second movement serves in the role of a Brahms intermezzo: not the slow movement, yet too gentle to be properly called a scherzo. This movement is given almost entirely to the woodwinds, apart from a central episode featuring pizzicato violins over a string bass - a tone-color experiment almost unique in symphonic literature. Its light, dancelike rhythms and modal harmonies suggest a light, delicate, courtly dance in an olden time. It seems filled with peaceful thoughts and unspoiled pleasures, like a stroll outdoors on a cold, dim, early morning before the world wakes up.

Again without a break, Movement III (Poco adagio quasi andante) begins with violins in unison, singing passionately over a sparse bass line laid down by timpani and doubling trumpets. The string texture gradually thickens towards a more fully harmonized, chorale-like melody, haunted by a brief, repeated flute figure that could represent a birdcall, or perhaps a nagging doubt. The passionate theme, now played by winds over a plugged-string accompaniment, begins to repeatedly interrupt the chorale, an effect all the more upsetting because it comes from such a remote key. The chorale tries to keep going, but is eventually beaten down by a growing fugue based on this interloper, with reiterations of the questioning birdcall increasingly filling the background. An agonized climax subsides to a return of the chorale, still bird-haunted. The movement ends with a plaintive oboe solo over a soft shimmer of strings.

The shimmer ramps up directly to Movement IV (Con anima), introduced by frenetically rushing strings. A big theme soon announces itself with assertive grandeur. About a minute into the movement, this is disrupted by a tonal and rhythmic disturbance. A fugato breaks out, based on the opening rush. Then, around 1:45, two timpanists situated on opposite ends of the stage simultaneously attack. The orchestra tries to fight them down, but the timpani are only temporarily pacified. An uneasy truce is reached around 3:00, giving way to a soft, thinly contrapuntal texture full of repressed passions. One hears first a fugato, then a canon. Around 5:15, the lyrical theme from Movement I stages a comeback.

Just when real peace seems to have been achieved, trouble begins brewing again. The dueling timpani are back at it around 6:00, and all the orchestra can do about it is throw up their hands in helpless anguish. Then another fugato on the opening rush is combined with the first movement's lyrical theme. This grows into huge chorale with all the stops pulled out. Something healing has happened, we realize as the timpani very significantly join in the final confident affirmation.

If you're like me, you may have read a lot of symphonies before you learned that Carl Nielsen even existed. Experiences like this symphony - which I will never forget hearing live at Powell Hall - will make you glad you found out about him. Nielsen convincingly blended modern musical procedures with classical structures and diatonic harmony, to create great and unique works of musical art. They are attractive, exciting to listen to, thought-provoking, and often - as in this symphony - full of a heart-healing affirmation of life.

Here, for your viewing pleasure, is the finale of Nielsen's Fourth performed by the Danish National S. O., conducted by Michael Schonwandt. Keep an eye on those timpanists. They really have a job of it in this movement!N.B. My time estimates in the reading above are not based on the performance in the video, but on a CD from a set of Nielsen's complete symphonies, recorded by the San Francisco Symphony with Herbert Blomstedt conducting. I recommend!

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