Carl August Nielsen (1865-1931) was one of the major symphonists of the postromantic epoch and Denmark's most eminent composer. His works are characterized by Iyricism, accomplished contrapuntal skill, mastery of form, and a fresh approach to tonality.
Carl Nielsen was born on June 9, 1865, in Nørre-Lyndelse on the island of Fünen, the seventh of 12 children of Niels Jørgensen, a poor house painter and country fiddler. His poor but not unhappy rural youth Nielsen described in a moving memoir, My Childhood (1927), a classic of Danish literature. Introduced early to music, though with limited training, he entered a military band at 14. Growing interest in music and composition led to scholarship study at the Copenhagen Conservatory (1884-1886).
Nielsen won his first public success with Little Suite for Strings, Opus 1 (1888), and the following year he acquired a steady job as a second violinist of the Royal Orchestra. In Paris he met and married the sculptor Anne Marie Brodersen. Their marriage inspired his First Symphony (premiered 1894) and his choral work on the varieties of love, the Hymnus amoris (1896). The next decade witnessed the appearance of two operas, the majestically tragic Saul and David (produced 1902) and the deliciously comic Masquerade (produced 1906) after Holberg's play, and two of his most appealing orchestral works, the Second Symphony (The Four Temperaments, 1901) and the concert overture Helios (1903), the latter inspired by the Athenian sun during a visit to Greece.
In 1908 Nielsen became the conductor of the Royal Theater. Though he met with some criticism and public resistance for his continued departure from the traditions of romanticism in such works as his Third Symphony (Sinfonia espansiva, 1910-1911) and his Violin Concerto (1911), he was emerging to undeniable predominance in Danish music. He was also perfecting his techniques of what analysts have called "progressive" tonality, a pattern of composing not in but toward a basic key, which allowed new possibilities for exploring the harmonic and structural expression of conflict and resolution in musical terms. This technique he put to particularly telling use in two orchestral reflections of his reactions to World War I and its aftermath: the Fourth Symphony (The Inextinguishable, 1915-1916) and the Fifth Symphony (1921-1922), both affirmations in abstract musical terms of positive human values against the forces of negativism and brutality.
The bold Chaconne, the Theme with Variations, and the Luciferic Suite (1919) are among Nielsen's finest original and unconventional contributions to the literature for solo piano. He wrote the richly inventive Wood-wind Quintet (1922) for five wind-playing friends, for whom he also planned to compose individual solo concertos. However, he completed only two: one for the flute (1926) and the other for the clarinet (1929).
Though Nielsen's prestige mounted at home and brought him at the end of his life the conservatory's director-ship, the international fame he desired still eluded him. The first signs of the heart trouble that would kill him seem to have added to the unusual mood that produced his Sixth Symphony (Sinfonia semplice, 1924-1925), which enigmatically combines tender poetry with grimly sardonic whimsy. His exploration of new possibilities continued, as exemplified in his austere, Palestrina-like Three Motets (1929) and monumental organ work Commotio (1931).
Notwithstanding the wide-ranging development of his style, from the romanticism of his youth to the "modernism" of his later years, Nielsen's enduring directness of personality and his patriotism found regular expression in his output of Danish song. His tuneful, folksy choral work Springtime on Fünen (1922) is a loving tribute to his home island; and his lifelong production of simple, melodious songs contributed many a popular classic to the Danish heritage.
Nielsen's set of short essays, Living Music (1925), and his memoir, My Childhood (1927), are available in English translations by Reginald Spink (both 1953). The volume of penetrating analysis by Robert Simpson, Carl Nielsen: Symphonist, 1865-1931 (1952), includes a biographical essay by Torben Meyer. Johannes Fabricius, Carl Nielsen: A Pictorial Biography, in Danish and English (1965), is a vivid evocation of the man. Jürgen Balzer, ed., Carl Nielsen, 1865-1965: Centenary Essays (1965), is comprehensive in scope. □