Spring Symphonies 20/60 Nielsen: Symphony No 3 “Sinfonia Espansiva"

For some people music can become very personal and their reaction to it can take manifold forms - for some it is a private meditation, it provides great comfort or some other benefit.  This symphony by the Dane Carl Nielsen is something of a inspiration to me.  It’s name means expansive, though I suspect there’s an ambiguity there we can all play with.  Robert Simpson - who was a great advocate of Nielsen had his own ideas on this - but they were about his reaction to the music - you must make up your own mind..  It is no more than a four movement symphony, immediately striking perhaps because of the use of a male and female voices in the second movement.

The symphony was premiered on 28 February 1912 in Copenhagen with Nielsen conducting - the programme also had the premiere of Nielsen’s Violin Concerto.  It is, I think, astounding that this work didn’t get its UK premiere for another 50 years. Perhaps the war got in the way or more likely, in my view, there was less appetite here for this kind of music.  Whatever the reasons there has been a slow burn of appreciation of this work - despite Robert Simpson seminal work on the composer published in 1952. Now they are well regarded and figure in recorded cycles by UK orchestras and on concert programmes here.

I remember hearing the work in a radio broadcast of a concert performance and then forgetting about it for a year or so.  I had been listening to the Fourth symphony and one morning, in the shower, a passage from the first movement of the Third came back to me.  I recalled a sea gull's call, repeated, it irked me and when I found it, I felt, somehow, at home.  Subsequently I have enjoyed many recordings of the piece and settled in as a Nielsen fan on the basis of knowing and loving all but the outer symphonies (they’re still somewhat mysterious).  Then I heard Osmo Vänskä’s recording of the Espansiva and my world changed something bigger and better emerged, something I have turned to again and again when I need reminding what my life is about.

In his Cambridge Music Handbook, David Fanning described how the Fifth Symphony of Nielsen saved his sanity.  A bit much for an academic tome I thought.  But I do understand how the music of Nielsen gets into your bones and in your deep emotional circuitry.  This work is to me a fine reminder about the outward scope of the mind and it does that without words - or for that matter fancy melodies.  Nielsen’s music is full of terse statements, and big tunes and, perhaps most telling of all for me, harmonic wonders.  His vision of a symphony that is so full of music that it bursts it’s banks and takes our minds with it - is not a prefiguring of the 1960s, but a return to the Renaissance. For me it is a personal reassurance that this life is not a rehearsal and that there is much to explore and to revel in that exploration.  These are associations completely without musical indication.  The music is absolute - but the effect somewhere in the hidden shallows of my mind is outrageously ecstatic, uplifting and rewarding.

The movements are specified as follows:

1. Allegro espansivo
2. Andante pastorale
3. Allegretto un poco
4. Finale: Allegro

The symphony starts with arresting gunshots which launch a set of themes with huge energy and dynamism.  They swing along repeated, punctuated, accented and overlapping to form a sort of fantastic musical playground.  The music is calmed to more graceful repetition but the tension grows as these figures try to bust out of their confines.  There’s fugatto which just ignites the whole cascade again. In there on the violins is the downward sea gull cry which I remembered in the shower.  A flute quietens things down again, but this only leads to a mock saunter of themes across the orchestra, even some classical poise at one point.  The gull call becomes ubiquitous as the music builds to most astonishing and unexpected climax over pedals of brass including a rasping, flutter tongued trumpets a crazy waltz burst open the whatever structure you might have made of this confluence of ideas. This is a fairground of a symphony - but deep inside the harmonic foundations for later wonders are laid. And if you stopped the music there you’d be forgiven.  This is not how symphonies usually go!  The rest of movement is further exploration and sometimes re-acquaintance.  The variety of expression is enough for us, the symphony howls and barks and drops into swinging tumble of confident repetition garlanded with repeated brass fanfares.  Drums roll and another climax busts the mould: a low rumble is the lead into by a brilliant tuba anchor point, which throws the music over it's shoulder to a new key of swaggering robust progress and a triumphant but short winded climax sees us home.

Follow that, as they say. The pastoral movement is of a hazy summer day and is beautifully realised. It really doesn’t matter where in the world you are the warm sun always feels like this.  It has a giant whiff of the spiritual about it when flutes and clarinets and oboes combine to weave a magical spell.  The strings interrupt with something more earnest - I think - related to the hazy musings which set the mood.  But the serious mood doesn’t last long - the wind’s serpentine progress returns, interrupted once more.  Later a brass cyclic figure winds us down to some of the most wonderful moments when the wordless soprano and baritone (though Nielsen every the practical musicians specifies that instruments can take their place).  It is soft and beautiful and peaceful and meditative: to quote Nielsen "All thoughts disappear....I lie beneath the sky" . It is not sad or introspective - those qualities have no part in this shining work.

Nielsen’s mastery of orchestral power and vigorous thematic writing - seen to devastating effect in symphonies no.s 4 and 5 - just drives his music forward at a pace from the off ordinarily.  Here though an ambiguity reigns - it’s not even a particularly fast scherzo until the strings grasp the nettle.  Brass contribution are short, shining and telling and wind keep the movements feet on the ground. A fugue bustles along to a grand climax - again it is the low pedal note which swings round the music into a different quarter.  There are an awful lot of starts and most fade to a better idea.  When the textures start to thicken we see the end in sight, a retrograde motion slows the whole affair down again and it ends not with a bang or a whimper, but a singular song for oboe which further degrades to not much at all, any attempt here to bring things together unravels.  This is a stepping stone in our harmonic journey too - closer to our goal.

So our symphony is hanging us out to dry at every one of so many levels - so many false dawns.  How does he effect a symphonic unity?  The finale is the place where it must all come together.  Nielsen starts again but with a big bold tune - vaguely familiar - the gull cry is in there.  As much an every present as the swan hymn in Sibelius 5th Symphony.  We have a counter theme too based on some of the rhythmical elements earlier in the work.  The stage is set. The brass writing here is crucially subtle and requires respect, as do the quiet woodwind contributions.  The movement here is gentle, re-assuring and quick to catch light and then subside.

A fugue on well remembered ideas tries to break out strings thwarted woodwind take it on.  There’s a great feeling of home-coming here, the verge of something we know and love.  The climax here is telling and august: it leads us back to an earlier and again over a huge orchestral pedal the brass lead us back to a tune which we may have been waiting for a long time.  It has that humanity which I’ve written about in my notes on Sibelius 7 and Ein Alpensinfonie.  These ‘everyman’ tunes in confident keys sound out every now and then in music to strike a deep chord in us - it maybe superficial to react to their harmonic glory, or it maybe something deeper about their hymn-like quality.  But what Strauss, Sibelius and Nielsen achieve is a remarkable sense of surety in an uncertain environment and indeed a very uncertain world.  They bring a sense of inner peace and radiate confidence, optimism and humanity.  For these reasons these works should be treasured.

But we are only half way through the movement - the sense of the fugue returns but it never picks up.  The tone is soft and sunny again - recalling the pastoral second movement.  Here Nielsen is constructing a world of strength, beauty and peace for the mind to rest in - an imaginary world giants the turbulent reality.  The fugue eventually breaks the bonds and raises our heads.  There is something bold here - against a backdrop of confidence the music effuses the single everyman theme breaks out in horns and brass.  Its greeted with a striding commanded by the strings and spirals upwards towards the bright sun.  In flight at the end of this symphony, bathed in golden light, we are reminded after all the Mahlerian doubt, Brucknerian angst and pomp and circumstance elsewhere, that a symphony of assured tread toward a bright end and that’s worth a lot. To me, it’s worth a great deal - optimism for a life filled and expansive…and also a life inextinguishable but that’s another story (as it happens another Nielsen symphony too).

Here’s the Danish National Radio Orchestra and Michael Schönwandt with Denise Beck: Soprano - Lars Møller: Baritone


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