Carl August Nielsen (June 9, 1865–October 3, 1931) was a Danish composer. He is probably the best known composer from Denmark.
Nielsen was born in Sortelung, not far from the city of Odense. His family was relatively poor, but he was still able to learn the violin and piano as a child. He also learnt how to play brass instruments, which led to a job as a bugler in a military band in Odense. He later studied violin and music theory at the Copenhagen Conservatory, but never took formal lessons in composition. Nonetheless, he began to compose. At first, he did not gain enough recognition for his works to support him and in the concert which saw the premiere of his first symphony on March 14, 1894, conducted by Johan Svendsen, he played in the second violin section of the orchestra. However, the same symphony was a great success when played in Berlin in 1896, and from then his fame grew.
He continued to play the violin at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen until 1905, by which time he had found a publisher for his compositions. In 1916 he took a post teaching at the Royal Danish Conservatory in Copenhagen, and continued to work there until his death.
On April 10, 1891 Nielsen married the Danish sculptress Anne Marie Brodersen. They had met just a month before in Paris. The couple spent their honeymoon in Italy. They remained married until Nielsen's death.
Internationally, Nielsen is best known for his six symphonies. Other well-known pieces of his are the incidental music for Oehlenschläger's drama Aladdin, the operas Saul og David and Maskarade, the concerti for flute and for clarinet, and the wind quintet. In Denmark, everybody knows and sings the numerous songs by various poets, set to music by Carl Nielsen.
Nielsen's works are sometimes referred to by FS numbers, from the 1965 catalog compiled by Dan Fog and Torben Schousboe.
Nielsen's early Symphony No. 1 in G minor already shows his individuality and hints at what Robert Simpson calls "progressive tonality".
A painting Nielsen saw at an inn, depicting the four temperaments (choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine) inspired him to write Symphony No. 2, "The Four Temperaments". It is in four movements, each depicting a temperament, but it's more than a suite of tone poems, it is a fully integrated Symphony.
Symphony No. 3, "Espansiva" was premiered in the same concert as the Violin Concerto. The second movement contains wordless solos for soprano and tenor (which can be alternatively played by clarinet and trombone).
Perhaps the best known of Nielsen's Symphonies is Symphony No. 4, "Inextinguishable". It is in four connected movements and the most dramatic Nielsen had written to date. In the last movement two sets of timpani are placed on opposite sides of the stage for a sort of musical duel.
Symphony No. 5 is one of only two of Nielsen's Symphonies without a subtitle. Like the previous one, it also has dramatic use of percussion: at one point in the first movement the snare drummer is instructed to improvise "as if at all costs to stop the progress of the orchestra."
Even Robert Simpson was at first confused by Nielsen's Symphony No. 6, "Semplice". It is not as obviously dramatic as the previous two and in some ways it strikes listeners as strange. For instance, the second movement is only scored for nine instruments of the orchestra: piccolo, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, trombone and percussion.
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