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Carl Nielsen and the Idea of Modernism

Carl Nielsen and the Idea of Modernism

Daniel M. Grimley
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 338
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  • Book Info
    Carl Nielsen and the Idea of Modernism
    Book Description:

    Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is one of the most playful, life-affirming and awkward voices in twentieth-century music. His work resists easy stylistic categorisation or containment, yet its melodic richness and harmonic vitality are immediately appealing and engaging. Nielsen's symphonies, concertos and operas are an increasingly prominent feature of the international repertoire, and his songs remain perennially popular at home in Denmark. But his work has only rarely attracted sustained critical attention within the scholarly community; he remains arguably the most underrated composer of his international generation. This book offers a critical re-evaluation of Carl Nielsen's music and his rich literary and artistic contexts. Drawing extensively on contemporary writing and criticism, as well as the research of the newly completed Carl Nielsen Edition, the book presents a series of case studies centred on key works in Carl Nielsen's output, particularly his comic opera Maskarade, the Third Symphony (Sinfonia Espansiva), and his final symphony, the Sinfonia Semplice. Topics covered include his relationship with symbolism and fin-de-siècle decadence, vitalism, counterpoint, and the Danish landscape. Running throughout the book is a critical engagement with the idea of musical modernism - a term which, for Nielsen, was fraught with anxiety and yet provided a constant creative stimulus. DANIEL M. GRIMLEY holds a University Lectureship in Music at Oxford, and is the Tutorial Fellow in Music at Merton College and Lecturer in Music, Landscape at University College. His previous books include Grieg: Music, Landscape and Norwegian Identity (Boydell, 2006) and the Cambridge Companion to Sibelius (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-929-9
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. List of Music Examples
    (pp. vi-vii)
  5. List of Tables
    (pp. vii-viii)
  6. Preface
    (pp. ix-xv)
  7. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  8. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-xvii)
  9. Carl Nielsen Chronology
    (pp. xviii-xx)
  10. 1 Introduction: Carl Nielsen at the Edge
    (pp. 1-22)

    Critically contemplating a composer’s iconography – the visual trace they leave in our collective imagination – can be a challenging but worthwhile task. Carl Nielsen is a compelling case study. Two photographs of the composer stick obstinately in my mind. The first is a portrait of an early middle-aged man, elegantly dressed in a pale linen suit with gold watch chain and walking cane, gazing nonchalantly towards the camera with a searching look in his eyes – an expression that suggests powerful, intense inner concentration. The second is a snapshot of the composer as a young boy in an almost...

  11. 2 Thresholds
    (pp. 23-60)

    In the introduction I argued for a complex, ambivalent sense of Nielsen’s modernism and its relationship with problematic notions of Danishness – one which embraces both Jørgen I. Jensen’s passive image of the ‘biperson’ and the more discursive modernist model of the ‘double man’. Fredric Jameson’s analysis of modernity pointed to the essentially dualist nature of such categories, the ‘dialectic of the break and the period’, which characterises the idea of modernity and introduced the idea of modernism as a narrative strategy, the ‘trope of “for the first time” which also reorganises our perceptions around the premise of a new...

  12. 3 Hellenics
    (pp. 61-95)

    The opening page of Nielsen’s concert overture Helios (1903) is one of the most magical dawn sequences in music (Ex. 3.1). Long pedal notes in the lower strings suggest a seemingly infinite sense of musical time and space, of floating weightlessly in the musical ether: the pause over each second bar momentarily suspends the perception of regular clock time before the work has properly begun, so that the piece literally begins in a state of timelessness. The hairpin dynamics, rising almost imperceptibly from pianississimo and falling back again, reflect the vibrating amplitude of the bowed open string: it is as...

  13. 4 Energetics
    (pp. 96-131)

    In a note for a performance of his Third Symphony, the Sinfonia espansiva, in Stockholm in the final year of his life (1931), Nielsen sketched a brief outline of the work that Swedish listeners were about to hear. ‘The symphony is a result of many kinds of forces’, Nielsen explained. ‘The first movement is intended to be a burst of energy and acceptance of life out into the wider world, which we humans not only want to know in its diverse activity, but also wish to conquer and appropriate.’ The finale, meanwhile, is a ‘hymn to work and to the...

  14. 5 Funen Dreams
    (pp. 132-177)

    One of the recurring tropes in Nielsen reception, both at home and abroad, is his association with the Danish landscape. Repeatedly presented as a true and faithful son of the soil, Nielsen is held to have captured some elemental quality of the Danish landscape in sound, just as the landscape seems somehow to have determined the texture and grain of much of his musical work. The pastoral cantata, Fynsk Foraar (‘Springtime on Funen’), is emblematic in this respect. It is here that Nielsen’s evocation of the Danish countryside, and the island of Funen where he was born, appears most powerful...

  15. 6 Counterpoints
    (pp. 178-236)

    Nielsen’s third symphony represents a critical turning point in his career. As the preceding chapters have suggested, it is arguably the work in which Nielsen most convincingly synthesised or held in balance the conflicting notions of Danishness that had underpinned and motivated his music hitherto: the opening movement’s energetic breakthrough of a new Nordic-Hellenist symphonic modernism, first unveiled in the Helios overture and celebrated in the Bacchic carnivalesque world of Maskarade; the second movement’s unfolding of a mythic Danish Arcadia, the singing fjords of Johannes V. Jensen’s great summer; and the finale’s earthy apotheosis of Jeppe Aakjær’s figure of the...

  16. 7 Cosmic Variations
    (pp. 237-288)

    The argument that has underpinned much of this book has been the idea of Nielsen as a modernist composer. The definition of modernism upon which this claim rests, however, is far from monolithic or one-dimensional. On the contrary, modernism emerges repeatedly from this discussion as a highly contested category: it can be identified as a term of frequent abuse in early twentieth-century music criticism (especially in the contemporary reception of Nielsen’s more challenging large-scale works), and subsequently emerges as a complex, problematic strand in recent music-historical writing. Jørgen I. Jensen’s image of the double man, of Nielsen as both ‘great...

  17. 8 Conclusion
    (pp. 289-293)

    Anne marie carl-nielsen’s memorial figure of her husband, Den fløjtespillende Pan (Musikkens Genius) (‘The Flute-playing Pan (Music’s Genius)’), unveiled on 17 December 1939, eight years after the composer’s death,¹ stands almost unnoticed in what was once one of the most atmospheric quarters of Copenhagen (Fig. 8.1). Now a traffic island at the junction of Store Kongensgade and Grønningen, constantly shaken by vehicles streaming in and out of the city, it is occasionally possible to gain a sense of the location’s former character. Situated at the apex of the green triangle formed by the western corners of the citadel, Kastellet, one...

  18. Appendix: Sketches for the Sinfonia semplice
    (pp. 294-297)
  19. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 298-304)
  20. Index
    (pp. 305-316)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 317-317)