Carl Nielsen, Another Neglected White Genius

by George Amberson

Recently I caught the last half of a performance of Carl Nielsen's 3rd symphony on the radio. It sounded good! I first discovered Nielsen when I was 13 years old. I got a copy of Jean Martinon conducting the Chicago Symphony performing the 4th symphony, "The Inextinguishable." I immediately fell in love with it. As I did with the 5th and 3rd symphonies.

Nielsen is a greatly underrated composer. He lived 1865-1931 and was a Dane from the island of Funen whose principal town is Odense.

Nielsen's orchestral music is first rate and emotionally powerful. I'm fond of all six symphonies, the three concerti (violin, flute and clarinet), the Helios Overture, Pan and Syrinx, Saga Drom, the Wind Quintet, Commotio (his last major work, for organ, a worthy piece to take its place next to Bach's organ works) -- and more.

I play the piano -- more or less. I could not earn my living at it but I can make decent music on such things as most of the Well-Tempered Clavichord and the Inventions of Bach, Mozart Sonatas, the easier third of Beethoven's 32 Sonatas -- I could never master the first movement of the Hammerklavier in B-flat for example but I can do a flawed but reasonable job with sufficient practice on No. 6 in F, No. 31 in A-flat, or No. 3 in C (a personal favorite).

One of my finest moments at the keyboard came when I worked at and more or less mastered (well, I made a few minor mistakes here and there) the Chaconne of Nielsen. I performed this at a local concert in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio. The chaconne form consists of a series of short seamlessly connected variations in which a theme is repeated over and over, mainly in the bass. It is basically the same thing as a passacaglia -- and Nielsen's Chaconne is in much the same form as Bach's great C minor Passacaglia (I wouldn't be surprised if that piece was Nielsen's inspiration). There is the same steadily gradual relentless build up, starting from a quiet beginning, till a tremendous climax is reached, then a quiet fading out of serene beauty. This form -- which might be called "orgasmic arch form" or perhaps "organic life-cycle form" -- has also been used to powerful effect by Charles Ives (Housatonic at Stockbridge, 2nd Orchestral Set, the Holidays symphony, the finale of the 4th symphony) and Prokofiev (1st movement of the 3rd symphony and the Battle on the Ice from Alexander Nevsky). In the case of the Chaconne, the climax has the main theme double fortissimo in deep bass octaves with shattering, violent, glitteringly dissonant chords in the treble. Sublime.

Why was Nielsen neglected? BECAUSE he is so good a composer who happens to be Scandinavian Nordic echt-Germanic -- and still worse from the perspective of kosher kultur kontrollers his music breathes a spirit which is very positive and healthy. There is a complete absence of mushy schmaltz and pompous bombast. No pathos, no bathos, no melodrama. Nor is there arbitrary complexity or reliance on empty formalism and emotively sterile intellectualism (as with e.g. Schonberg and much of Stravinsky). This music, as much as any other I ever heard, radiates strength and joy and love -- in a fashion which is idiosyncratically Nordic. Other types of people will have other spirits with other emotive rhythms, other patterns of strength, joy and love.

For his 60th birthday in 1925 there was a national celebration which included a nighttime torchlight parade -- to symbolize the "light" people felt in his music. I could have participated in that march without any trace of hypocrisy since I have felt some of that "light" myself. Nielsen's music was a source of strength and inspiration for me as I grew up in far from felicitous circumstances. But I was unusually open to spiritual influences from the past. Now that times and tastes have changed and rock has taken over as living music it is safe to play Nielsen in cosmopolitan upscale milieus with the Whites safely leashed and collared. The fire is still there but how many ears can still hear it?

Nielsen -- like Charles Ives, Orson Welles and others -- had the power to create art that would inspire, enrich and empower European spirits (especially northern ones?). By preventing such artists from reaching their full flowering -- or at least limiting people's exposure to them -- the soul of a people is suppressed by depriving it of its most profound public expressions. The Jewish loudspeakers instead ooze out a lot of negative garbage and poisonous memes...

Homepage devoted to Nielsen -- has a short biography with pictures

Lots of photographs

CD rom about Nielsen

polka in A -- his first composition as a young boy


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