The Scandinavian composers Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius both were born in 1865. This season we mark the 150th anniversary of their births by presenting a number of their orchestral works across several concerts. Carl Nielsen’s formidable Symphony No. 5 (1922), for decades barely known outside his native Denmark, comprises the first half of tonight’s program. Following intermission, we hear one of the most beloved of all violin concertos – immortal music penned by the 35-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven.
(Born 9 June 1865, Norre-Lyndelse, Denmark; Died 3 October 1931, Copenhagen)
Premiere: 24 January 1922; Copenhagen
Last MSO Performance: MSO Subscription Premiere
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, triangle), celeste, strings
Approximate Duration: 35 minutes
This year marks the sesquicentennial of the birth of composer Carl Nielsen, the central figure in Danish music after the Romantic era. He exerted a decisive influence on 20th-century Danish music and musical aesthetics – through his music, his writing, and his strong personality. A source of inspiration for composers in other Scandinavian countries as well, he absorbed and recast the best features of his native musical heritage. He composed in many genres, including orchestral music, chamber music, piano music, art songs and choral music, simple popular songs, and opera.
The Fifth Symphony dates from 1921-22. Its structure is unusual, set in two movements rather than the customary three or four. Nielsen jokingly explained that it is not difficult to write the first three movements of a symphony, but by the finale most composers have run out of ideas. It was first performed in Copenhagen on 24 January 1922 with the composer conducting. It is one of the two Nielsen’s six symphonies lacking a subtitle. Although Nielsen maintained the symphony is non-programmatic, he once expressed his views on it in a manner that recalls Sisyphus:
I’m rolling a stone up a hill, I’m using the powers in me to bring the stone to the top. The stone lies there so still, powers are wrapped in it, until I give it a kick and the same powers are released and the stone rolls down again. But you mustn’t take that as a program!
The composer asserted he was not conscious of the influence of World War I when composing the symphony, but added that “not one of us is the same as we were before the war.” Sir Simon Rattle has described the Fifth Symphony as being Nielsen’s war symphony. (The composer gave the Fourth Symphony – The Inextinguishable – that distinction.) In fact, the phrase “dark, resting forces, alert forces” can be found on the back cover of the pencil draft score. Nielsen might have considered it an encapsulation of the contrast both between and within the two movements of the symphony. Nielsen also wrote about the presence of an “evil” motif in the first movement:
Then the “evil” motif intervenes – in the woodwind and strings – and the side drum becomes more and more angry and aggressive; but the nature-theme grows on, peaceful and unaffected, in the brass. Finally the evil has to give way, a last attempt and then it flees – and with a strophe thereafter in consoling major mode a solo clarinet ends this large idyll-movement, an expression of vegetative (idle, thoughtless) Nature.
Tempo giusto – Adagio non troppo
The first movement begins uncertainly, with wandering wind melodies over static, softly oscillating string figures. The music turns more sinister (pounding timpani and an insistent snare drum), then dissolves into a spacious, heartfelt Adagio. The snare drum returns, with even greater force, at the climax of the Adagio, nearly upstaging the entire orchestra. The seeming incompatibility between harmonic and melodic elements threatens the music with fracture and collapse. Supported by sustained chords in the horns and strings, an extended clarinet solo – with insistent interjections from the snare drum – brings the movement to a pppp conclusion.
Allegro – Presto – Andante un poco tranquillo – Allegro
The second movement consists of four sections: an exposition, a fast fugue, a slow fugue, and a brief coda. The music begins thunderously and continues with abundant conflict between instruments until a gentle Andante theme is introduced in the slow fugue. Even then, it never loses momentum and never lacks energy. In the coda, various parameters come together to create an uplifting conclusion and the work ends in a glorious blaze of E-flat major – the same key that concluded Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. One writer aptly stated, “[Nielsen’s] entire symphony is a grand adventure – a drama of glimpsed horizons, circuitous routes, and unexpected destinations.”
Though the immediate reception of the press to the work was generally positive, for decades the Fifth Symphony did not win recognition outside Denmark. An international breakthrough came in 1962 when Leonard Bernstein recorded the piece with the New York Philharmonic, helping Nielsen’s music achieve appreciation beyond the borders of his fatherland.
Recommended Recording: Herbert Blomstedt, San Francisco Symphony (London)
Ludwig van Beethoven
(Born 15 December 1770, Bonn, Germany; Died 26 March 1827, Vienna, Austria)
Premiere: 23 December 1806; Vienna
Last MSO Performance: March 2010; Edo de Waart, conductor; Vadim Repin, violin
Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Approximate Duration: 42 minutes
Beethoven spent much of 1804-05 working on Fidelio, his only opera. He had also fallen in love with Josephine von Brunsvik, a young widow with four small children. These two distractions – and perhaps his slow adjustment to the fact that he was going deaf – may be the reason for the decline in his compositional output during these years. By the spring of 1806, however, he had hit his stride again. Among the works he completed that year were the three String Quartets, Op. 59 (dedicated to the Russian ambassador Count Razumovsky), the “Appassionata” Sonata, the Fourth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the 32 Variations on an Original Theme. The Violin Concerto, a work completed in short order, was written toward the year’s end.
Franz Clement, artistic director of the Theater an der Wien and one of Europe’s outstanding violinists, had asked Beethoven to write the concerto for him. It was set to be performed at a concert on 23 December 1806. Due to Beethoven’s foot-dragging, the performance turned out to be virtually a read-through at sight. Thayer, in his Life of Beethoven, cites a contemporary account “that Clement played the solo a vista, without previous rehearsal.” Even if it is a slight exaggeration to say that Clement sight-read his part – we don’t know for certain – these are frightening conditions for the first performance of a demanding new work.
The 26-year-old Clement drew rave reviews for his playing, but the piece itself received at best a lukewarm reception. Beethoven did not give up on the Concerto: It was published in 1808 and dedicated to the composer’s childhood friend Stephan von Breuning. (Beethoven later reworked the solo part for piano, and this was published as Op. 61a. This arrangement did not prove especially successful and is rarely heard today.)
Although there were occasional performances over the next few decades, the Concerto did not catch on. It had to wait until 1844 to come into its own, when a teenaged Joseph Joachim played the piece in London, with Felix Mendelssohn on the podium. Joachim, later a friend of Brahms and the dedicatee of his violin concerto, came essentially to own the work. It was through his persuasive advocacy that the Concerto took its rightful place in the canon. Today, it is one of the most often performed and recorded of all violin concertos.
The Allegro non troppo opens with five soft timpani strokes. On the fifth of those gently resonant beats, woodwinds begin a tranquil melody, marked dolce (sweetly) in the score. The violins’ immediate imitation of the kettledrum notes on a strange pitch clues us in that the pattern of four knocks – sometimes with, sometimes without a resolving fifth note – is more than a colorful incident. This entire, immensely expansive movement will be saturated with it.
The Larghetto movement, set in G major, is a set of variations on a chorale-like theme. The orchestral strings are muted and the motion of the harmonies is minimal. Notice especially the fourth of these variations, a lyrical episode affectively ornamented and accompanied in striking simplicity by clarinets and bassoons. Now the violin seems lost in musing improvisations and sinks almost out of hearing. Finally, a forte statement by the orchestral strings says we have had enough introspection. The soloist responds, and we move into the good-natured finale.
The closing Rondo is back in the home key of D major, set in a lilting 6/8 meter. At times quiet, at other times boisterous, the movement allows time for relaxation – for us listeners, not for the soloist – and for dialogue between the soloist and full orchestra. There’s room, too, for the soloist alone, and the brilliant close seems calculated to earn Clement the bravos history tells us greeted him that late-December evening in 1806.
Recommended Recording: Anne-Sophie Mutter; Kurt Masur, New York Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)
Program notes by J. Mark Baker.