Danish Composer Carl Nielsen Getting His Due From New York

Carl Nielsen in 1910(Photo: Wikipedia)
Carl Nielsen in 1910(Photo: Wikipedia)

The New York Philharmonic with its music director, conductor Alan Gilbert, have begun the Nielsen Project.  I’m glad to see Denmark’s greatest composer getting his due from this major American orchestra. 

They have released their first disc of a projected cycle of the six symphonies and concertos.  2015 will be the 150th anniversary of the birth of Carl Nielsen, and the last of the releases in the series is planned for that year.  The first CD contains two of my favorite Nielsen symphonies: No. 2, The Four Temperaments, and No. 3, Sinfonia Espansiva.

Nielsen is not as well-known as his Scandinavian contemporary, Finland’s Jean Sibelius (born in the same year, 1865), but that may be beginning to change.  Nielsen’s symphonies typically have a more extrovert and energetic feeling than Sibelius’s, especially in the outer movements, but there are passages of inner reflection as well. 

My personal reaction to their music is that with Sibelius, we are more often in the world of nature, especially the uninhabited northern landscapes.  With Nielsen, I feel more in touch with human nature and the goings on of mankind.

His symphonies, written between 1892 and 1925, also seem to progress more radically in the series and become tonally more adventurous and “modern” sounding. 

The First Symphony, while owing something to Brahms or Grieg, already makes use of what’s been called progressive tonality, and the final one, Sinfonia semplice, is anything but “simple.”  The Fourth Symphony, The Inextinguishable, is his most popular.

Meanwhile in this first release, both symphonies relate to human nature in their titles and inspiration.  In the Second, The Four Temperaments, each of the four movements expresses the ancient and medieval concept of human character or psychological types in terms of the four humors, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic, and sanguine.  Nielsen got the idea from seeing a painting on the wall in a pub in which each type was personified.

Here’s Alan Gilbert describing Nielsen and his Second Symphony:

In the Third Symphony, Sinfonia Espansiva, the title refers to the healthy expansion of human nature in what composer Robert Simpson called “the outward growth of the mind’s scope.”  This symphony also contains parts for wordless soprano and baritone voices in the beautiful second movement Andante pastorale.

This evening on Symphony @ 7, we’re featuring the new recording from the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert of the Second Symphony, The Four Temperaments by Carl Nielsen.  I hope you can join me for this refreshing and engaging work from this early 20th Century master.  In the meantime, here’s the first movement from the Royal Danish Orchestra and Michael Schoenwandt conducting:

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