The final years
With the Fifth Symphony, Carl Nielsen’s music had become ‘modern’. But he himself would hardly have put it that way. In a private conversation he allegedly told of a colleague (some sources specify Bela Bartók) who, after the performance of a new work, asked him whether the music was ‘modern enough’. Nielsen is said to have commented: ‘Despite his considerable abilities, he had not realized that one should not chase after ‘modernity’, but simply try to be oneself.’ Furthermore he tells of a ‘narrow strait’ with ‘a lot of small barbed hooks’, a kind of mental checkpoint that his music passed through in his mind. ‘If it does not cause some small pleasant pain, I can be fairly sure that there is nothing to it – ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful’. He avoided direct questions about modernism and the avant-garde. But to a younger colleague, he wrote: ‘I do not enjoy composing music if I continue to do it in the same way.’ And perhaps it was that simple. He did not write music with the intention of progress or innovation, but was purely guided by intuition, pleasure and musical perception.
I do not enjoy composing music if I continue to do it in the same way.
In the summer of 1924 he also became modern in a more straightforward sense: after fifteen hours of driving lessons with the local police officer in Skagen, he took his place behind the wheel of a small Renault, a gift that pleased him no end. ‘My safe, honest, lovely, sensitive, lively and yet modest Renault’ he noted with rapture, and became a keen motorist. But a year before he died, things went wrong – he collided with a tram and was quite seriously injured.
That very summer he began work on his sixth and final symphony, writing to his youngest daughter that it will be ‘entirely idyllic in character (…) anything but a sensation, yet extremely close to my heart.’ And to a friend he said that the symphony would have ‘a different character than any of my others: more gracious, smooth, or how shall I put it?’ But the result was by no means pure idyll and affability. The title Sinfonia semplice – ‘simple symphony’ – is not merely puzzling, but downright provocative. Among all of Nielsen’s symphonies it is the most difficult to play, often confusing to listeners, and full of irony, self-irony and grotesque caricatures. Developmental form, the great symphonic drama that had completely dominated his music as late as the Fifth Symphony, has suddenly disappeared; the form is more compressed, the sound reminiscent of chamber music, and the texture transparent. Perhaps ‘simplicity’ implies the absence of ‘ulterior motives’, of existential contradictions, dramaturgy and narrative strategies. The Sixth Symphony represents both a conclusion and a new, utterly surprising beginning in his life-work.
The heart problems that had seriously begun to flare up after the completion of the Fifth Symphony had by now become the norm, and in February 1926 Nielsen experienced yet another violent attack. It dawned on him that both physical and mental factors could cause pain in his heart, and he realized that the disease was now a fact of life. When a doctor some years earlier had predicted that he would never fully regain his health, he had dismissed the thought. Now he understood that the doctor had been right. ‘First now I begin to get to know myself. It’s all so very difficult!’ He has to get plenty of rest and describes himself as ‘a ship whose deckhouse takes in water at the slightest breeze.’ But the metaphor triggers his never-failing sense of humour, and he adds: ‘It could just as well be a slogan: “He has water in his deckhouse!”’
One of the main reasons for the prolonged marriage crisis between the two artists had been all their time away from each other due to work. Now their health stood in the way. Numerous spa visits to Slovakia, France, Germany and Italy attest to their considerable financial freedom, but their ailments – his angina pectoris, her arthritis and chronic bronchitis – demanded different climates and treatments, and most of the time they had to go their separate ways. Moreover, Anne Marie’s never-ending problems with casting, financing and collecting fees for King Christian IX’s enormous bronze monument tied her to the capital, while the only place Nielsen felt shielded from the constant demands and proposals from all corners of the musical world was the Damgård estate at Lillbælt where he now stayed for long periods at a time. This allowed him to relax completely, while his spacious new Morris and a discount card to the ferry made the journey manageable.
While working on his wind quintet, he had offered the prospect of a solo work with orchestra to each of the five musicians, and a concerto for clarinet and orchestra began to take shape in May 1926. But it had to wait its turn when friends and benefactors with ties to France organized a major orchestra concert of works by Nielsen in Paris, since a concerto for flute apparently seemed more appropriate to him. In the summer of 1926, his youngest daughter, nicknamed Søs, and her husband, the Hungarian violinist Emil Telmanyi, were staying in the area around Siena. He visited them, discovered that the warm climate agreed extremely well with him, and within a short amount time completed most of his light and elegant flute concerto. Thanks to its neoclassical features, it had acquired something of a French ‘accent’.
The Paris concert in October 1926, including the Violin Concerto and the Fifth Symphony, turned into a major success. Famous colleagues like Albert Roussel, Maurice Ravel and Arthur Honegger attended the event, which Nielsen described as the experience of a lifetime. And although the pace of his output now had noticeably diminished, his reputation abroad experienced a major boost during these years. In 1927, one of the greatest conductors of all time, Wilhelm Furtwängler, led two performances of the Fifth Symphony, something Anne Marie had had a hand in. Furtwängler’s father was a renowned archaeologist whose acquaintance Anne Marie had made while both were working at the Acropolis in 1904–05. In 1922, when Furtwängler conducted in Copenhagen for the first time, she contacted him, and he agreed to perform a Nielsen symphony with his Gewandthaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Time went by without any development, but when the annual world music festival was held in Frankfurt in July 1927, one of the jury members was a Dane, and Nielsen’s Fifth was selected for performance. When Furtwängler, by now a household name all over the world, agreed to conduct, several German critics thought that he had helped to ‘rescue’ a ‘rather poor work’ by the festival’s oldest attending composer. Others, however, described the performance as a major event at a festival that also featured brand new masterpieces such as Alban Berg’s Kammerkonzert, Janáček’s Concertino and Bartók’s First Piano Concerto. In October of the same year, Furtwängler also presented the symphony in Leipzig.
Nielsen sensed a major European breakthrough in the offing, and that is what the Danish press reported. Performances in France and Germany were among the highlights of his life and career. Partly, however, they were the result of lucky circumstances, discrete prodding by Danish benefactors or Danish capital, and had no long-term consequences – an international breakthrough never took place in his own lifetime.
In autumn 1927, Anne Marie was able to announce a major occasion as well: her monumental equestrian statue of King Christian IX was finally cast! With difficulty it was shipped to the Riding Ground Complex at Christiansborg Palace to be set up. The unveiling took place on 15 November, nearly twenty long and arduous working years after taking on the task.
In 1928 Nielsen composed several of his most radically innovative works, the Preludio e presto for solo violin (for his son-in-law Telmanyi) and two of the Three Piano Pieces op. 59; the third piece, approaching atonality, was added in November. In mid-September he completed work on the Clarinet Concerto, a masterpiece written on the eve of his life and a resolute quest to explore the expressive possibilities of the solo instrument as well as his own music. A month later the work was presented to the public, and newspaper critics applauded the aging composer’s youthful desire to experiment, although some of them found the work to be ‘peculiar’. One newspaper noted that ‘if this is the music of the future, we do not believe that coming generations will feel at ease in the concert hall.’
If this is the music of the future, we do not believe that coming generations will feel at ease in the concert hall.
Breakthrough or not, the stars were aligned in Nielsen’s favour. A short while later, a new production of Saul and David opened in Gothenburg. With only thirteen performances since its premiere in 1902, the opera was something of an ugly duckling among his works. Now it was broadcast in its entirety on Swedish radio, and Nielsen went off to lead a performance in the city that over time had become his second home. Prior to that, he had successfully conducted his new Clarinet Concerto as well as the Fifth Symphony in Stockholm, which this time did not scare away any of the audience. The following year, Saul and David was re-staged by the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen.
My childhood home lures me more and more like a long and eager kiss.
The idea of writing his childhood memories was not only linked to convalescence, spa visits and reduced compositional activity, but probably also pure nostalgia. Already in January 1926 he had noted in his diary that ‘my childhood home lures me more and more like a long and eager kiss.’ Most of My Childhood was written in the spring of 1927, but Nielsen continued to work on it for a long time, and when the book came out in November, it had claimed much of his time and creativity throughout the year. That he derived pleasure from working on the project is beyond question, writing to his daughter ‘Søs’ that ‘I enjoy seeing that world again, and often it pulls so deeply at my heartstrings, phew!’
I enjoy seeing that world again, and often it pulls so deeply at my heartstrings, phew!
Not long ago, some critics felt that the works written during Nielsen’s last years showed signs of decline due to old age. One pointed to his heart disease, believing that the craving for novelty and experimentation that characterized these years were essentially foreign to his character. Even as late as the 100th anniversary of his birth, a highly respected Danish musicologist wrote: ‘The question is whether the last decade of his life did not represent a decline in creative power.’
Today, there is little support for this view. The sense of fracture and the sudden shifts that eventually came to distinguish Nielsen’s music had now become a part of his artistic mode of orientation. He acknowledged that doubt and disintegration were an essential artistic requirement that should neither be suppressed nor concealed. Perhaps the massive stylistic clashes in his final works were not rooted in the indisputable sense of ‘rightness’ we usually associate with the term ‘a classic’. In works such as the Wind Quintet, the Sixth Symphony, the Clarinet Concerto or the three late piano pieces, backward and forward-looking tendencies collide like sharp-edged pieces, while the sophisticated Three Motets for a capella choir from 1929 point back to the vocal polyphony of the Renaissance. As was his habit, Nielsen also composed more traditional festive cantatas and typical occasional works, and worked eagerly on additional songs for his Danish songbook (Melodier til Sangbogen ‘Danmark’).
His last major composition was Commotio, a broadly conceived organ work ranging from unbridled fantasy and baroque splendour to intimate poetry and almost academic fugues.
In 1931, following an agreement reached several years earlier, Nielsen took over the post of director of the Royal Danish Academy of Music, feeling obliged to do so despite his heart disease and physical weakness. But his time as head of the institution was not to last for long. He now experienced almost constant coronary spasms, and was often plagued by shortness of breath and pain.
On 3 October at ten past midnight he died at Copenhagen University Hospital, surrounded by his family. The funeral took place at Copenhagen Cathedral, which was crowded with people who had waited for hours to get a seat. He was buried on a dark autumn day at Vestre Kirkegård, and in her short speech, Anne Marie said: ‘He was like a perennial spring of water. He never stood still.’
A few years later she created a memorial to her husband at his birthplace on Funen – a shepherd boy with a willow flute in his hand, clearly modelled after Carl Nielsen as a child. Another bronze sculpture of hers was later erected at Grønningen in Copenhagen, portraying him as the young muse of music, this time a boy on horseback, a pan flute in his hand.
But neither figure is playing the instrument.
They are listening …
Translation by Thilo Reinhard