Nielsen’s time as a student at the Academy as well as the following years were an emotionally turbulent time in his life, full of expectations, fear of failure, stormy love affairs, financial worries and hard work. It was therefore with high hopes, and thanks to the Ancker Grant, that he embarked on his long study trip abroad in September of 1890.
After five months in Germany he reached Paris in the spring of 1891. Here, among the colony of Danish artists, he met Anne Marie Brodersen, a young sculptor who immediately made an impression on him. In his diary he wrote: ‘In the evening a social at Bendix’. Miss Brodersen is really quite pretty.’ And a few days later: ‘Montmartre, where I danced with Miss Brodersen. Later at the Moulin Rouge. Came home at half-past two.’ Two weeks later: ‘Cannot remember what happened today, but that in the evening I found her, whom I have had a whole range of emotions for all along, and that we wish to live life together, be happy and nothing shall make me doubt any longer (…) Her company fills me with ever more meaning and purpose.’
In the evening a social at Bendix’. Miss Brodersen is really quite pretty.
Together the couple continued on to Italy, Anne Marie got pregnant, and in May they were married in Florence. Back in Copenhagen they moved into a tiny attic flat in Nyhavn, where Carl dedicated his first symphony to his young wife. She had been raised on a large farm near Kolding in the south of Jutland, and naturally the young couple presented themselves to their parents both here and at the small farm-workers’ home on Funen. Three children were born to the Nielsens over the next four years – two girls, Irmelin and Anne Marie (nicknamed Søs, equivalent to the English ‘Sis’), and a boy, Hans Borge.
The two artists had high ideals with regard to art as well as love. But Anne Marie’s constant absence due to work-related trips at home and abroad were a constant source of irritation. The children missed their mother intensely, to the point where the eldest daughter threatened with suicide if her mother was to leave for a long time once again, and Nielsen suffered from having to be alone. ‘To hell with all the rubbish we can create when it comes at the expense of our children and our happiness,’ he wrote to her in October of 1896. Although he greatly admired his wife as an artist, he was in no doubt that her place was at home with him and the children. For her, however, art came before everything else, even the family – surely a controversial attitude at the time, not least among women. Her response was typically sensible and judicious: ‘You know I will come back as soon as possible, but to leave something now when it is almost finished would be foolish, I think.’
To hell with all the rubbish we can create when it comes at the expense of our children and our happiness.
You know I will come back as soon as possible, but to leave something now when it is almost finished would be foolish, I think.
Shortly after, around Christmas 1896, Nielsen completed his great anthem Hymnus amoris, in which different age groups sing praise to the power of love. Anne Marie illustrated the title page of the printed version, and he wrote in her copy that ‘all our aspiration shall be love in life and in art.’ The wording reveals two conflicting pairs: life and art, and aspiration and love. The relationship between the two artists, who also were husband and wife, showed how difficult this balance would prove to be. No doubt it is easier to sing the praises of love than to live them. Behind Anne Marie’s back, Nielsen soon after pursued a number of shorter and longer love affairs.
But there were other skirmishes as well. In autumn 1904, Anne Marie travelled to Athens for several months to copy ancient sculptures at the Acropolis, and during her absence Nielsen felt snubbed by the Royal Theatre. He had faithfully served as an assistant conductor, but when the theatre suddenly demanded he return to his post as a violinist, he became deeply upset. Alone with three children, a housekeeper and a nanny, he feels both longing, anger and despair, and begs Anne Marie to come home. He believes she has gotten herself into ‘a whirlpool of rejection, awards and work,’ and demands that she ‘give up all this art nonsense!’ He wishes to ‘try all over again abroad,’ he claims. But she asks him to forget ‘the damned theatre’ and come to Athens immediately. ‘I think you have lost your mind,’ he replies in despair while in the middle of working on his cheerful opera Masquerade. ‘You have to come home at once,’ he demands, followed by a specific threat: ‘Now we must get this divorce over with. I feel desperate about having to notify you of this. I love you so very much, and it will be horrible to have to do without the children.’
Now we must get this divorce over with. I feel desperate about having to notify you of this. I love you so very much, and it will be horrible to have to do without the children.
Come immediately! Your girl doesn’t want a divorce.
His cry of despair makes an impression. Anne Marie telegraphs: ‘Come immediately! Your girl doesn’t want a divorce.’ But shortly after, in April of 1905, it is she who gives in and comes home. ‘No one and nothing can tear you away from me, we belong together!’ A short while later, however, she once again returns to Athens.
The tension between art and family life, children and chores, work and love, and the obvious but very different needs these two people had of one another, were to impact their entire life together with varying degrees of intensity.
The summer of 1914 was to be a turning point in Nielsen’s life. Only a month after the assassination of the Austrian-Hungarian Archduke in Sarajevo, ruthless power interests led a number of countries into a brutal war, and already by August World War I was a reality. In the months before, Nielsen had been pressured to leave his position as conductor at the Royal Theatre, and on 31 May he conducted his final performance. At the same time, his marriage crisis culminated when Anne Marie’s worst fears of infidelity were confirmed and she realized that a very close friend of hers had also been involved for a number of years.
Essentially, this led to almost eight years of separation, during which the couple lived a ‘pro forma’ life together in their spacious artists’ home-cum-studio at Frederiksholms Kanal in Copenhagen, recently made available to Anne Marie. Carl had a separate address in Copenhagen’s Nørrebro district, and often lived with wealthy friends at Fuglsang estate on Lolland and Damgård estate near the coastal town of Fredericia in the southeastern part of Jutland.
In the summer months, amidst a dismal war, Nielsen began work on his fourth symphony. In early May he wrote to his wife: ‘I have an idea for a new work (…) that will express what is meant by craving for life or affirmation of life (…) ‘That which is life’ or ‘That which wants life’ – I must find a word or a short title conveying just that.’ His choice fell on the explosively vigorous title ‘The Inextinguishable’. The Fourth Symphony was a triumph for Nielsen and one of the few works he conducted in a number of different countries. A well-informed and feared newspaper critic who had often been negative about Nielsen in the past, wrote that ‘the two Janus-faces that have characterized his peculiar artistic physiognomy so far: one childishly naïve, the other an almost distorted and overly sagacious Socrates mask – unite for the first time into a single artistic countenance: Carl Nielsen’s own.’ But the musical language is as conflicted as ever. The stylistic unity Nielsen had pursued in his first three symphonies is here replaced by powerful shifting forces. The global crisis as well as his personal one have become part of the musical language. After more than twenty years, the self-confident and bold pride of his First Symphony is now imbued with questions, collisions and doubt.
What I have despised others for putting up with, is now afforded to me, and has been for a long time.
Have returned my ring.
In the spring of 1914, Anne Marie had worked with plaster models of a German stallion in the North German town of Celle in preparation for her largest bronze figure ever, an equestrian statue of King Christian IX. In June, now back in Copenhagen, she writes in her notebook, describing a woman who had taken piano lessons with Carl Nielsen as ‘a bit clumsily naïve coquettish’, and adds: ‘I sleep in my studio.’ A few days earlier she had written: ‘What I have despised others for putting up with, is now afforded to me, and has been for a long time.’ And on 19 June: ‘Have returned my ring.’ It had happened before, but Carl convinced her to wear it again. When she wrote to him a week later, he had temporarily moved in with a mutual acquaintance: ‘My self-contempt sits next to me like an evil spirit. I try to think of all the good times together with you, but it almost increases the pain.’
Dissolved as if thrown up in the air and floating in everything (…) I disappear and become like an empty room in which there is neither good nor evil.
Why then doesn’t he loose himself in the women at the theatre, something he brags about not having done because it was unwise,’ and concludes: ‘The unconscious seems to be conscious enough to perceive where he might be at risk.
Carl desperately tries to pick up the broken pieces. While composing, his own will is gone, he writes, ‘dissolved as if thrown up in the air and floating in everything (…) I disappear and become like an empty room in which there is neither good nor evil.’ But Anne Marie is wondering to herself: ‘Why then doesn’t he loose himself in the women at the theatre, something he brags about not having done because it was unwise,’ and concludes: ‘The unconscious seems to be conscious enough to perceive where he might be at risk.’
Many examples attest to the fact that the courteous, humorous and charming composer with a light Funen accent had an unusual appeal to the opposite sex, but he was probably no womanizer himself. His steady refusal over many years to agree to a divorce, and his tireless pleas for forgiveness, suggest that Anne Marie really was the one and only one. He may have thought that she would understand how insignificant ‘everything else’ was.
In July, however, while travelling alone in Norway, Anne Marie’s hurt feelings begin to come to a head. She sees the lies and deception she has been subjected to all this time and realizes that one of her best friends has carried on a relationship with her husband for a number of years. For more than ten years, Marie Møller had helped as a nanny and stand-in mother during Anne Marie’s long trips abroad, never hiding what she felt about her friend’s many long absences from home. Already in March 1905, she had written to Anne Marie in Athens that ‘your relationship with him, your children and your home must come before your work,’ and ‘if you don’t attend to it yourself, others will come and crush it to pieces and throw the leftovers away.’ Now it became clear to Anne Marie that Marie Møller herself had had a part in fulfilling this prophecy. ‘A few days ago something dawned on me, and now I see everything in context. They had the heart to let me wade in a muddle of pretence and lies. It is as if something broke inside me, I cannot return (…) All that was beautiful and tender and good in our life together was a lie.’
It is as if something broke inside me, I cannot return (…) All that was beautiful and tender and good in our life together was a lie.
This personal drama develops against the backdrop of the War. Denmark’s population escaped any direct acts of war, but the killings at the front affected everyone. To an acquaintance, Nielsen wrote: ‘It is so infinitely sad and pointless that life seems to have no value … National pride has become a spiritual syphilis that has devoured our brains, sneering at us with insane hatred through hollow eye sockets.’ And when he writes to his wife in October, many emotions seem to surface at once: ‘What can we all do to understand and love one another without being evil and harming each other?’
What can we all do to understand and love one another without being evil and harming each other?
In early August Anne Marie returned to North Germany to safeguard her plaster casts and bring them home. In January 1915 the couple spent a month together in Norway, where Nielsen confessed everything. His 50th birthday in June was marked by many celebrations, also at his own home, but the relationship between the two artists had changed, and the exposure surrounding the couple led to a permanent split among their closest friends, several of whom believed that Nielsen had done Marie Møller a great injustice by promising her secrecy only to confess to the relationship; Anne Marie had no reason or moral duty to keep silent.
Nielsen continues his artistic work, apparently with a watertight barrier between art and life. But Anne Marie’s creativity remains on the backburner for a long time. Neither words nor work can mitigate his betrayal or her grief. As time goes by, they maintain a facade to the outside world, but in due course their life together effectually comes to a close, and whenever they were obliged to be in one another’s company, the result was usually hopelessness, despair or bitterness.