Affirming Life in A Time of War: Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony

Carl_Nielsen(Photo: Wikipedia)
Carl_Nielsen(Photo: Wikipedia)

Written during the World War I, Danish composer Carl Nielsen titled his Fourth Symphony “the Inextinguishable.” 

It was completed in 1916, when the outcome of that conflict was still very uncertain. Even though Denmark was neutral in the “War to End All Wars,” the tension and anxiety were felt throughout all of Europe.

As is often the case, great art can emerge in times of great trouble.  Tension and drama are very evident in this powerful symphony.  The composer said, “it will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestation of life, that is: everything that moves, that wants to live.”  Nielsen gave it the title “Inextinguishable” to convey the elemental will to live itself.

Coming at such a dark time in Europe’s history, this symphony with its positive affirmation of life clearly stands in the great Romantic tradition of the struggle of life against death, darkness and light, as perhaps best exemplified to most of us in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony continuously moves forward with a propulsive drive and great energy, relenting only occasionally in quieter sections.  It is a grand work of drama and struggle, with life triumphant in the end after overcoming negative forces symbolized in the finale by battling pairs of timpani pitted against the rest of the orchestra.

The four movements of this great early 20th Century symphony are played without pause, which keeps the forward momentum going at a relentless pace, but the catharsis at the end is well worth the journey in this musical masterpiece from Nielsen.

Join me for “The Inextinguishable” on Symphony @ 7 tonight at 7 pm on Classical 101.

Comments