Spring Symphonies 36/60 Nielsen: Symphony No 6 “Sinfonia Semplice"
Carl Nielsen: b. 9 June 1865 – d. 3 October 1931
Last symphonies are as a very general rule regarded as enigmatic - though I have no idea whether this is an attribution given to them as a result of their content or their lastness. We are a bit uncertain or a lot uncertain about the real "meaning" of the last symphonies of Vaughan Williams, Bruckner, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Sibelius (even though we know he had another cooking), Ives and our subject here, Nielsen. Of course there are some great, very straightforward last symphonies from Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler which have some mystery associated with them - they are hallowed and super-menaingful. But the last symphony has become something of a matter of intrigue, mystery and in some cases tragedy (Sibelius' Eighth, Dvorak's Ninth and Bruckner's Ninth). We need to strip some of this away in general and in this cad win particular.
When early critics got their teeth into Nielsen's last symphony (premiered in 1925) they did so not really able to relate it to what went before and predictably they were baffled. So the character of this symphony is enigmatic - how much of it is about the composer. At that time Nielsen the master symphonist, was equally a sick man. He had retired from music making and concerned solely with writing music, so perhaps this was a goodbye to symphonic music? But equally as the excellent notes on the critical edition point out, Nielsen was also wrestling with the new music coming out of the Second Viennese school and wondering out loud where he sat in the music of his time. So this might not be the ravings of an old, ill man, or the deep insight of a fine musical revolutionary or the bizarre attempt to bridge the gap in styles between Nielsen and Schonberg. But we might never know what this symphony "means" - we might better just enjoy it for what we hear.
The work stars with bells and a jaunty tune in the manner of a country trot, but it soon has a characteristic Nielsen disjunction and where in previous Nielsen symphonies it might have gained momentum and traction it simpliy becomes a game of orchestral hide and seek with rude obtuse interruptions coming from all questers at random times. A short fugatto of the interrupting material starts up but even it can’t keep any discipline and it weaves and wavers and blurts out. Its all rather confusing.
There’s a vehemence to this which seems to defeat all Nielsen;s attempts at a energetic flow. When a broader chorale bursts out of the bunfight - without interruption we seem to be on more solid ground - and its quieting of the disturbed forces is very welcome. A little flute led fugue has greater clarity and colour and has hints of a development section when we hear the first theme in it’s midsts, but this soon turns into something more sour and veherment and once again we plunge into orchestral frenzy - brass and timpani chords serve some of the functions of interposition - in the same way as the twin timpani and side drum do in the previous two symphonies. The mood is bleaker again and bizarrely for this composer in a very quiet passage for strings (and xylophone) pulls itself out into something broader and bigger - it lacks confidence until it has enough speed to carry itself. This is not pretty music nor does it carry the way forward so clearly as earlier works. The storm is becalmed by a variation on the first tune - in this slow sad decayed and downtrodden mood the movements.
The scherzo opens with a series of theatrical strophes neither tunes or fragments of them - those these sort of grow out of it. Its winds and percussion at first with brass comedic interjections. The comedy here is something a child could understand and if we sit back and enjoy the random interjections then maybe we get a bit closer to the "meaning". A rustic clarinet led melody with trombone rudery brings us closer to an improvised wind band after a long night in a bar. We know this composer had a mischievous side and comments around the first performance were of a battle between the tastes of winds and percussion. More intriguing is the comment from Nielsen that this movement is about the very nature of time. It'd not far of Karajan's assertion that the second movement of Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is close to the very basis of music - not least in that going anywhere from these comments is pretty much useless. If there is a quarrel here it peters out to not much aside from a long sustained wind note and drum interjections - and maybe that is about time too.
The third movement is a much more substantial movement - akin - but written before - to some on Vaughan Williams most nihilistic movements. Robert Simpson - who is still the authoritative source for most comments on the work, regards it as somewhat circular. That is perhaps meant to indicate he was baffled. Relax in these sounds and the Bartok Music comes back to mind, as do other anti-rhetorical moments in music scattered across the globe at this time of angst between World Wars. It's more tranquil ending has a mood of the coda of the equivalent movements in Symphony No 3 "Espansiva"and Symphony No 5.
The finale is marked Theme and Variations and at last we have something amounting to structure. The theme is ushered in with a flourish and then ambles about carried by a bassoon. Winds take the first variation and what follows has structure but precious little meaning except I'd venture on two counts. First there is a feeling backwards into the symphony - in the same way that 80% of Bruckner's Fifth is a preparation for the last 20%, there's an element here of showmanship by the ageing composer. It is showing off his capabilities on the material we all thought in one way or another was rubbish. Unlike that Bruckner, which was fastidiously honed in its preparatory stage, Nielsen is much more rough hewn - intentionally so in my view. My second observation is much more emotionally based and here I lapse into last symphony mentality I've been seeking to avoid. As the variations progress the music turns though instrumental groups getting their hands on the theme and through waltzes and fanfares.
Theme - bassoon
Variation 1 - Lyrical on winds -foreshortened
Variation 2 - andantino - abstracted with interruptions
Variation 3 - quiet, accentuated string variation with strings decorations which grows
Variation 4 - Strings more vehement
Variation 5 - Brioso - hectic
Variation 6 - Waltz
Variation 7 - Waltz - brutal
Variation 8 - Molto Adagio heartbreaking reminiscence for music of Syms No 3 and 4 - wistful reminder of the pre-war years. ends after anguish with glockenspiel slowing down time itself
Variation 9 - percussion lead - grotesque
Fanfare - brass followed by strings with snare drum interruption. Noble theme related on brass, full orchestra in blaring light - hint of the fairground, to a bassoon, strings spiral high and ends!
Ultimately seems to in each variation sum up something essential we know from music over Nielsen's career, the Molto Adagio is so poignant it takes us to symphonic music written pre World War I - Symphonies No 2-4 - bucolic and to some extent idealistic. Two years after this symphony he wrote a book about his childhood on the island of Funen.
So without being too sentimental, I think the last movement is an amalgam of material earlier in the symphony and earlier in the composer's career. In from and structure (such as it is) it looks forward, but I don't think the Nielsen's response to Schonberg would have got much traction had there been a Seventh symphony. Whatever we get from Nielsen is usually from the heart to the heart - but for a man struggling we hear his struggle too. Such is Nielsen - expansive and inextinguishable to the end.
Footnote: It's worth noting that the Danish Centre for Music Publication has put the score of this symphony here for download (if your country's copyright allows)
Along with a fascinating preface and critical commentary on texts here:
Along with a fascinating preface and critical commentary on texts here: