Carl Nielsen’s Double Vocalise

Carl Nielsen (pictured) was born the same year as his better-known Scandinavian contemporary and Finland's greatest composer, Jean Sibelius(Photo: unknown)
Carl Nielsen (pictured) was born the same year as his better-known Scandinavian contemporary and Finland's greatest composer, Jean Sibelius(Photo: unknown)

I was recently thinking about the beautiful sound of the wordless singing in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14,  probably most familiar in the arrangement for soprano and orchestra.  It’s always a delight to hear it.  I was going to talk about that.

Then I saw on a calendar that this is the birthday of Danish composer Carl Nielsen, born June 9th, 1865.  So, not to neglect this important artist, I recalled his Third Symphony from 1911.  The second movement has gorgeous writing for wordless soprano and baritone voices together.

Carl Nielsen was born the same year as his better-known Scandinavian contemporary and Finland’s greatest composer, Jean Sibelius. Nielsen has not yet achieved the same level of recognition here as Sibelius, but he’s being heard more often these days.

Whereas Sibelius’ music is more brooding and inner-directed (in general), Nielsen’s is more energetic and outward-looking (again, in general).  Symphony No. 3 is titled “Sinfonia espansiva,” indicating its extroverted nature.  As Robert Simpson so well put it, the fundamental meaning is “the outward growth of the mind’s scope and the expansion of life that comes with it.”

A beautiful countryside is evoked in the pastoral slow movement, which provides a contrast to the bustle of activity in the first and last movements. Unlike the solitary world of nature often felt in Sibelius, here the human realm and nature’s realm harmoniously blend, as do the two voices that emerge out of the music in a gentle ecstasy toward the end of the movement.

It’s interesting that Nielsen uses two voices rather than one.  It’s as if he’s suggesting that not just the human world and nature are in harmony but that human society, Man and Woman, and Nature are peacefully co-existing.  One can only dream.

If you’re not familiar with this great Danish composer, his life-affirming  Third Symphony is a work not to be neglected. After the repose of the “Andante pastorale” with its lyrical voices (and a more ambiguous 3rd movement), the energetic finale is, in the composer’s words, “a hymn to work and the healthy activity of everyday life.”

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