Nielsen: Symphony No.4 "The Inextinguishable"

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)
Symphony No.4, 'The Inextinguishable'

1. Allegro
2. Poco allegretto—
3. Poco adagio quasi andante—
4. Con anima—Allegro

Duration: 37'
Publisher: Public domain (also critical edition published by Wilhelm Hansen, via Chester Music in UK)
KSO performed: 2010, 2000

Programme note

In a letter to his wife Anne-Marie in May 1914, Carl Nielsen wrote of his idea for a new symphony. The uncharacteristically jumbled stream of thoughts in this letter reflects his struggle to articulate a new kind of music: “I have an idea for a new composition, which has no programme but will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestations of life, that is: everything that moves, that wants to live ... just life and motion, though varied - very varied - yet connected, and as if constantly on the move, in one big movement or stream. I must have a word or a short title to express this; that will be enough. I cannot quite explain what I want, but what I want is good.”

Nielsen was a countryman by birth. He grew up on the Danish island of Funen, one of twelve children born to parents unconventional enough not to have married before their firstborn arrived. He was a gregarious man who loved nature and dancing. Filled with a high sense of artistic purpose and determined to challenge musical convention, he was equally happy to indulge a love of practical jokes. Anne-Marie Brodersen was an ambitious and talented artist determined to refresh Danish sculpture just as Nielsen was in music. When the two met in 1891 the attraction was instant and mutual, and they were married within months. Their influence on each other’s artistic development was considerable, but a union between two such people was bound to be fiery. Nielsen had something of a roving eye: Anne-Marie knew before they were married that he had an illegitimate son. The extent of Nielsen’s philandering remains unclear, but he fathered at least one other child by another woman, and it is safe to say that marital fidelity was not his strong point. The fact that both were pursuing successful careers that took them away from home for extended periods did not help matters. Anne-Marie’s patience ran out when she discovered that her husband had been committing indiscretions rather too close to home: he had had an affair with the governess of their children. They separated in September 1914, a breach that would eventually be healed, but not for many years. This crisis fuelled the parallel upheaval that had been brewing in his work for some time, and prompted a profound reappraisal of his life and his art which impacts enormously on the style of his Fourth Symphony.

His shaky domestic situation led Nielsen to seek employment abroad. He had hoped to secure a post in Germany, but the outbreak of the First World War put paid to these plans. To Nielsen, as a Scandinavian not directly involved in the conflict, the humanitarian disaster appeared all the more acute. He wrote to a friend: “…it’s as if the world is disintegrating… National feeling, that until now was distinguished as something lofty and beautiful, has become a spiritual syphilis… and it grins hideously through empty eye-sockets with dreadful hatred.”

In March 1915 Nielsen was appointed head of the Copenhagen Music Society. This, along with regular appearances in Sweden as guest conductor for the Gothenburg Orchestral Society, would account for most of his public appearances for the rest of his career. At the same time he joined the governors of the Copenhagen Conservatory, of which he would later become director. Thus, in the year of his 50th birthday, he found himself at the heart of Danish musical life.

By summer he had completed the first part of the new symphony, and as he wrote to a friend,the idea of war had begun to permeate his thinking: “I have an idea about a duel between two kettledrums, something about the war. I’ve also a subsidiary theme in the first movement, it runs in parallel thirds for some time. It is not quite like me, but it came out that way, so it’s going to be like that all the same.” This “subsidiary” theme, which first appears in a sleepy haze but becomes more urgent every time it returns, in fact plays a central part in the overall design of
the symphony.

Most of the summer was taken up with conducting engagements, so when he returned to work in earnest on the symphony he had to proceed at a rate: the premiere had been promised to the Music Society for January 1916 and as their new director he could not let them down. In the event the score was completed only two weeks before the performance. By then he had crystallised his thoughts about the music into his famous explanation:

“The title The Inextinguishable suggests something which only music itself can express fully: the elementary will of life. Only music can give an abstract expression of life, in contrast to the other arts, which must construct models and symbolise. Music solves the problem only by remaining itself, for music is life whereas the other arts only depict life. Life is unquenchable and inextinguishable; yesterday, today and tomorrow, life was, is and will be in struggle, conflict,
procreation and destruction; and everything returns. Music is life, and as such, inextinguishable.”

Although four “movements” can be discerned, The Inextinguishable is essentially one long burst of energy. It is characterised, as is all Nielsen’s music and was his life, by a boundless enthusiasm for life in all its richness, and a tireless appetite for exploration. Late in life, he summed up his philosophy: “The claims of life are stronger than the most sublime art; and even were we to agree that we had achieved the best and most beautiful it is possible to achieve, we should be impelled in the end, thirsting as we do for life and experience than for perfection, to cry out, ‘Give us something else; give us something new; for Heaven’s sake give us something bad, so long as we feel we are alive and active and not just passive admirers of tradition!’”

Note © 2010 by Peter Nagle

Arnold: Larch Trees

New Orleans and Northampton may seem worlds apart in more than geographical terms, but for one moment in 1933 they came together. The occasion was a concert in Bournemouth. The representative of New Orleans was Louis Armstrong, while the Midlands town was represented by a 12-year old boy called Malcolm Arnold. Five years later the spark lit by hearing Satchmo bore fruit when Arnold won a scholarship to study trumpet at the Royal College of Music. In 1941 he joined the London Philharmonic Orchestra as second trumpet. At the same time he registered as a conscientious objector, intending to do his duty in the National Fire Service, but instead was allowed to continue to play with the LPO. In 1943 he was promoted to principal trumpet, aged only 22.

Trumpet playing was not the only musical interest Arnold had: by now he was working hard
to establish himself as a composer too (inspired, he would claim later in life, by a chance
childhood meeting in a Bournemouth tea-room with another jazz great, Duke Ellington). Taking
full advantage of having a professional orchestra at his disposal, Arnold persuaded the LPO to
rehearse a tone poem he had recently written, Larch Trees, in 1943. This was as far as he got with it. By the following year the death of his brother in the R.A.F. had stung him into joining up. He loathed army life, and eventually negotiated a discharge by the rather drastic means of shooting himself in the foot. Larch Trees remained unheard in public until 1984, when the composer Ruth Gipps conducted it at the Guildhall School of Music.

Arnold was a vocal admirer of Sibelius throughout his life, and the Finn’s influence is clearly
audible in Larch Trees, which seems to occupy a similarly bleak landscape to Tapiola. Even at the age of 22 Arnold’s gift for melody was well developed, but here that aspect of his style is conspicuous by its apparent absence. Rather, a theme can be heard struggling to emerge from darkness: a glimpse of humanity and warmth in cold, sinister shadow.

Sibelius: Tapiola

At the beginning of 1927 Sibelius seemed tobe at the height of his creative powers. He had in the previous two years completed four of his greatest works: the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, his incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the extraordinary tone-poem Tapiola. An Eighth Symphony was underway and eagerly awaited by his devotees. For a composer who had
recently celebrated his 60th birthday, it might seem a point at which his reputation would
be settled, his enemies’ attacks would settle down to grudging declarations of respect, and he could enter a serene old age as one of the grand old men of European music.

In fact, serenity and confidence were far from his mind. Sibelius was a nervous wreck and an alcoholic. His wife Aino was accustomed most mornings to find him asleep at his desk
after sitting up all night writing and drinking. She would remove the bottle from his hand
and say nothing. The couple were barely on speaking terms after an embarrassing incident in 1923. In Sweden to conduct a concert of his music, Sibelius had gone missing. He was discovered in a restaurant eating oysters and drinking champagne, oblivious to the time. He was dragged to the concert hall, where the first piece on the programme fell apart and had to be started again. Aino was furious at the disgrace her husband brought on himself. Never keen on leaving the family home anyway, she refused to accompany him abroad again.

In December 1925 Sibelius was attempting to get his drinking under control and hoped to
persuade Aino to come with him to Italy. She would not. Her continued refusal may have been
exacerbated by the fact that an old school friend of Sibelius’s, Walter von Konow, was keen to
gate-crash the trip. Aino seems not to have like Konow. Even Sibelius himself confessed, “in
some ways he wears me out”. Konow had a propensity to seek out the less salubrious parts of
town, and had embarrassed Sibelius many years before on a holiday to the leading Italian art
centres with his chasing after the local peasant boys.

In January 1926 a telegram arrived from the conductor Walter Damrosch of the New York
Philharmonic. He asked Sibelius to write a piece for the orchestra, specifying only that it should
be between fifteen and twenty minutes long. In Italy, alone, Sibelius began work on what would
become Tapiola. Work proceeded well at first, although he was distracted and annoyed when
Konow managed to catch up with him in Rome. However, doubts soon crept into the self-critical
composer’s mind. In August his publisher Breitkopf and Härtel forced the issue and demanded that he deliver the score for typesetting and printing ready for the planned première. He did so
a few weeks later, but as soon as he sent it off he began to worry, and to drink, again. Breitkopf
were not amused when he asked to have the score back so he could make cuts and amendments.
In the event Sibelius made only a few minor adjustments, including the addition of the lines that
stand at the head of the score:

Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

The première went ahead on time in January 1927, but the work’s reception was lukewarm.
It would not begin to catch on until some six years later, when Serge Koussevitsky began to
conduct it. Koussevitsky developed something of an obsession with Sibelius’s music, and
frequently pestered the composer in the hope of becoming the dedicatee and first performer of
the Eighth Symphony that he was rumoured to be writing. He was not alone in this campaign.
Olin Downes, the music critic of the New York Times, took it upon himself to become Sibelius’s
champion. His relentless campaign on behalf of the Finn in the 1930s unleashed an enormous
and bitter ideological war between supporters of conservative and avant-garde trends in music.
The result was that rather than becoming accepted as part of the musical landscape as he entered old age, Sibelius in fact became a controversial and divisive cause. This, crippling self-doubt, depression and alcoholism left him unable to commit to the repeated requests for the new symphony, which was advertised as imminent several times but remained elusive. When Downes visited Sibelius and pressed him on the subject, the composer (who spoke little English and communicated with him in a hotchpotch of French and German) prevaricated and eventually exclaimed, “Ich kann nicht!”

Tapiola is such a terrifying and bleak work that it is difficult to know how it could be followed.
Evidently Sibelius felt the same way: it proved to be his last major composition. A few miniature
pieces and arrangements followed in its wake, but even these dried up and the last 30 years of
his life form a vast creative silence. This seems eerily appropriate after Tapiola. It is in a profound sense a piece in which nothing happens. A wind may disturb the trees and a storm is hinted at, but it is at heart an evocation of something eternal and beyond any human sense of time or event.

Although the Eighth Symphony would never appear, Sibelius apparently worked on it for most of the 1930s. On one of the many occasions he was asked when it would be complete he confessed that it had been “complete” many times. Some time in the 1940s, Aino recalled, Sibelius constructed a huge bonfire and committed much music, probably including the symphony, to the flames. Afterwards, she said, the darkness began to lift and he seemed more at peace with himself.

Wagner: Forest Murmurs

Few composers divide opinion quite as sharply as Richard Wagner. Even in his own lifetime his music and philosophy were the cause of much bitter argument. His legacy to Western music is both fiercely disputed and inescapable, while the feuding and power-seeking that have engulfed his descendants and the opera house he built at Bayreuth would provide material for a plot as
outrageous and extravagant as that of any of his operas.

The four operas (some 15 hours of music) that comprise The Ring of the Nibelung tell an epic
tale of Gods, Men and Fate. To its admirers The Ring is an astounding, groundbreaking
evocation of the ancient Germanic myths that fuses music and theatre into a “Total Work of
Art”. Others would side more with Rossini’s assessment:“good moments but bad quarterhours”.
It is, however, very difficult to be indifferent.

“Bleeding chunks” and potpourris of Wagner’s operas presented in concert are no longer as
fashionable as they once were: rather they tend to be frowned upon as a distortion of the
composer’s intentions. Forest Murmurs is different, in that it is the work of the composer himself. It weaves together passages from Act Two of Siegfried, the third part of the tetralogy. These moments depict birdsong, heard against the background of the gentle rustling of trees in the breeze.

The forest is of course an enchanted one. The eponymous hero has entered it on his way to do battle with the dragon Fafner. A bird seems to be trying to talk to him, but he cannot understand it. He tries to communicate with it, first by fashioning a pipe from a reed, then by sounding his horn. This awakens the dragon. Siegfried battles and kills the creature. As he plunges his sword into the dragon, its blood splashes and burns his hand. He instinctively puts his hand to his mouth, and is amazed to discover that having tasted the dragon’s blood he now understands the birdsong. The bird tells him that he now owns the Ring of the Nibelung and the hoard of gold that the dragon has been guarding. It also tells him of the warrior maiden Brünnhilde, asleep in a ring of fire at the top of the mountain. She waits to be woken by the touch of one fearless enough to cross the fire. Realising that he is this fearless one, Siegfried sets out to meet his destiny.