A to Z: Nielsen

I like randomness in music. It’s fun to hear works that are literally different each and every time they are played. Of course, there’s a sense in which all works are different each and every time they are played; the exact combination of tempi and specific blend of instrumental or vocal sonorities can never be matched perfectly, but true randomness in music is something that came along with the Modern era: improvisational works, experimental works that use random elements to determine their course, and so on.

One work that employs a random element to startlingly amazing degree is Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5. This work is not atonal, but it is most certainly modern in its sound, approach to even a traditional kind of harmony, and its treatment of melodic material. The symphony is in two movements, and the overwhelming feeling when listening to the work is one of strife and of the orchestra’s efforts to surmount it. It’s almost as if Nielsen’s score is trying to elevate itself above the violent concerns of our world.

This comes to the fore in the second section of the first of the Symphony’s two movements. It sounds like a traditional slow movement at first, but the clouds quickly gather, and then the random strife shows up in the form of the instructions given to the snare drummer. The snare is directed to improvise, wildly and loudly, more and more insistently, as if trying to disrupt the music entirely. The rest of the orchestra swells and swells, even as the snare drum thrashes about, until finally the orchestra overwhelms the percussionist. The effect is one of the most thrilling uses of improvisatory randomness I know.

Carl Nielsen was born and lived in Denmark, and he is generally considered the finest Danish composer. His work is partly a natural evolution of the classically Romantic approach of Brahms and Grieg, but he soon struck out in his own direction, so much so that Nielsen always strikes me as a late-Romantic, early-Modern analog of Hector Berlioz, in that he was a brilliant orchestrator whose music isn’t the easiest to crack into and whose approach can seem indulgent, but who is, in the end, deeply moving and involving.

Here is Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5.

Tomorrow: A side-trip…to Japan!

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