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

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