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What was Nielsen trying to say?


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Initial post: 20 Aug 2013 21:12:26 BDT
JayJayDee says:
I've been istening to a lot of Nielsen recently. And I find just a few post echoes of Sibelius, and even more pre-echoes of Holmboe, Simpson and many other subsequent Scandinavian composers.
What was he up to?
And is he one of the more enigmatic 20th century Composers?

Posted on 24 Aug 2013 11:48:28 BDT
Maybe you can find out by reading his own essays:

Living music

This new book looks great, but it's very expensive (so why don't you buy it first and tell me if it is worth reading! ;) :

Carl Nielsen and the Idea of Modernism

Posted on 24 Aug 2013 12:48:56 BDT
JayJayDee says:
TBH, Rasmus, I'm not really in to buying that many full length books about music (other than the scores themselves) especially not when written by the composers. After all; they chose music as their language of expression.
It just occurred to me that of all twentieth century composers Nielsen-along with Bartok and Stravinsky- appears to have been amongst the most influential. Most of the subsequent Scandinavians, many American composers and (especially) Robert Simpson seem to owe a lot to Nielsen!

And I was interested in what other contributors had gleaned by way of philosophical understanding of Nielsen's message. Because anyone who has heard and responded to the middle symphonies and the concertos must surely be pondering the 'message'.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Aug 2013 12:53:21 BDT
JayDee

I will see if I can find the time to hear the new Espansiva from Dausgaard on DVD and then come back with something really deep - it's a slim chance though. ;)
Four Symphonies: Dausgaard (Brahms 1, Dvorak 9, Sibelius 5, Nielsen 3) (C Major: 710508) [DVD] [2012] [NTSC]

Posted on 24 Aug 2013 15:21:31 BDT
Last edited by the author on 25 Aug 2013 01:28:02 BDT
mancheeros says:
JJD: It just occurred to me that of all twentieth century composers Nielsen-along with Bartok and Stravinsky- appears to have been amongst the most influential

Bartok and Stravinsky, yes, but not Nielsen. Ranking him alongside those two giants is overstating the case to put it mildly. How has Nielsen been so hugely influential? What works of undisputed towering genius did he produce? How did he influence/change the course of 20th century music?

PS: My questions are not to be read as an outright condemnation of Nielsen. You've simply piqued my curiosity by raising him to such dizzy heights.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Aug 2013 17:03:10 BDT
Last edited by the author on 24 Aug 2013 17:20:34 BDT
scarecrow says:
1) Any Symphony is an exploration unpretentiously of the Infinite. . .you transform sound, timbre, the multiplicity of form,timbre, rhythm space from whatever you have in front of you, your Finite existence. . . .unpretentiously. . . if it is not that, then why bother? . .!, is it worth your time to experience half-concocted musical experiences,( I guess we do that all the time, especially today with the New Music Scene,their masturbatory, self-referential agendas.)

2) then I suspect a way to judge who you are as a creator of music; Art, is the influence your music has thrown out over the globe,out over Culture; or here in Nielsen's case simply Europa,its culture, its values, its capital; for many that is Europa (IS) everything that exists, and for some even less than that.

3) you can find how Nielsen fits into the history of the Symphony,what was his contributions. . .explorations or lack thereof. . .is it a repetition of something else already explored. . .

4) Identities, finding them is a rather cumbersome process, you can't say Stravinsky or Bartok influenced any one thing,dimension within culture; for each had reactionary tendencies, So does one take the most innovative parts of their creativity? and jettison the rest, or do take their oeuvre as a Whole?

5) If you don't give a true Identity to Nielsen as a Symphonist, (and I'm not implying a "Great " symphonist, for we don't know what that means yet. . ) and you then begin a process of diminution of his Work, well then there is a problem. . for each composer has their own creative formulas, each has their own aesthetic, and complexity. .this is many times complete or within a process of development over a lifetime. . .

6)For mancheeros point on development,influence. . .in fact You find a forever shrinking minority of cadre who acknowledge any development at all within 20th Century Music. . . .for many if the music does not, refuses to communicate, Well is simply doesn't exist, it exists within a Void of alienation schemes. . . Nielsen for many is just as influential as Stravinsky or Bartok for the power of what is perceived, touched, communicated within yourself(s) as a person. .

Posted on 24 Aug 2013 18:26:09 BDT
Last edited by the author on 1 Mar 2014 17:57:08 GMT
Anonymouse says:
Damn. I thought this thread was going to stay at zero forever.

Oh well.

So I guess I'll jump in too, now, with my two cents worth.

Here's what I think about the whole language and expression thing: If Nielsen (or anyone else) has a message, then they will express that message in words. It's not the best thing words do, but it is a thing that words do better than anything else.

Notes, for instance. Sounds, phrases, development, acoustics, frequencies, rhythm--those things don't convey any messages at all.

They can be made to appear to be conveying messages by being associated with words, of course, either words as in librettos or lyrics or words as in programs. They can have acquired associations by tradition as well, hence marches and waltzes and such.

But really. No messages. Nothing to convey. Music is not a vehicle. Music is music.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Aug 2013 18:50:39 BDT
Last edited by the author on 24 Aug 2013 18:50:57 BDT
In the book by Nielsen I linked to above - >>Living Music<< - there is an essay on this subject titled:
>>Words, music and program music<<.

Posted on 25 Aug 2013 01:50:07 BDT
mancheeros says:
scarecrow: For mancheeros point on development

No, I did not use the word 'development'. I was careful not to use that word because I don't believe that a development (as in an improvement/advancement) took place in 20th century music. I used the neutral phrase "the course of 20th century music". Of course, there was more than one course, but I hope you get the point that I firmly believe that no one course of musical exploration is/was intrinsically better than any other. I don't wish to get embroiled in yet another fruitless Tonality v Serialism wrangle.

Posted on 25 Aug 2013 09:11:37 BDT
enthusiast says:
The idea that this or that composer "had more influence" than another composer is invoked quite often these days, usually to denigrate or "reassess the value of" a composer - recent critical attacks on Britten's reputation come to mind - but sometimes also to claim greater importance for an "unjustly neglected one". It worries me because it is so difficult to substantiate and seems to depend on what you value from amongst later music. It seems to me self evident, though, that Stravinsky and Bartok had great influence - one hears echoes of what they did in so much of their century's music - but this might not have been in terms of defining the way forward so much as dominating the way many lesser composers thought of music. I can't relate to the idea that Nielsen was particularly influential. His music seemed to derive from the symphonic and nationalist tradition. His was a distinct and individual voice. I value his music highly.

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Aug 2013 12:45:32 BDT
Last edited by the author on 25 Aug 2013 12:51:21 BDT
Anonymouse

In case you don't know it I am glad to inform you that Carl Nielsen agreed with you rejecting program music / musical messages etc. In his essay >>Words, music and program music<< (which I read yesterday) he argues that music is only music and does not contain a message or depict a concept or story etc...

The essay ends with this beautiful passage:

"If music were to assume human form and explain its essence." Carl Nielsen imagined in his pamphlet Living Music (1925), "it might say something like this: 'I am everywhere and nowhere; I skim the wave and the tops of forests; I sit in the throat of the savage and the foot of the negro and sleep in the stone and the sounding metal. None can grasp me, all can apprehend me; I live tenfold more intensely than any living thing, and die a thousandfold deeper. I love the vast surface of silence; and it is my chief delight to break it. I know no sorrow or joy, no pleasure or pain; but I can rejoice, weep, laugh, and lament all at once and everlastingly"

This, however, only applies to some of Nielsen's music. (He published this essay in a book in 1925 and the 2nd Symphony which came before is programatic - "The Four Temperents" are being depicted).

See page 76 and forward of this book for a short overview about Nielsen and the issue of program music:

http://books.google.dk/books?id=RnMGtn2K6h8C&pg=PA72&lpg=PA72&dq=%22Carl+nielsen%22+%22if+you+ask+a+composer%22&source=bl&ots=h_qhMs_rWh&sig=4cXvqFKiSgOUAtdRddN6zA_u6pc&hl=da&sa=X&ei=9ewZUsb-Kq2u4QSDqYCgDg&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22Carl%20nielsen%22%20%22if%20you%20ask%20a%20composer%22&f=false

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Aug 2013 13:01:35 BDT
Rasmus: The same essay also mentions Nielsen's symphonic poems - he didn't think of them as being like the tone poems of Strauss but more as concert overtures. Symphony No 2 has a programme but can be just as easily listened to without it.

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Aug 2013 13:26:21 BDT
Point taken, Geoffrey.
But what about "The Sleep"? - it's a choral work and has words by the poet Johannes Jørgensen.

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Aug 2013 15:18:14 BDT
Rasmus: I don't know that work - I have a small amount of choral works from Nielsen - Springtime on Funen, Hymnus Amoris etc.

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Aug 2013 15:55:52 BDT
Geoffrey

You might have it on this CD:
Nielsen: Choral Works Chandos
Anyway... I remember now that Nielsen says in that essay that setting words to music is pure decoration.

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Aug 2013 16:25:29 BDT
Rasmus: I have the works coupled differently - Hymnus Amoris & Symphony No 4 (Schirmer/Danish National RSO) and Springtime etc & the 3 Motets on a Regis disc from Veto/Odense SO.

I will have to give the essay another read!

In reply to an earlier post on 29 Aug 2013 17:31:27 BDT
JayJayDee says:
Anon....
<<Here's what I thing about the whole language and expression thing: If Nielsen (or anyone else) has a message, then they will express that message in words. It's not the best thing words do, but it is a thing that words do better than anything else.>>

I beg to differ. Surely, if composers had nothing to say with musical notation as the vehicle then they why would they compose music at all except to accompany an advertising jingle? I can accept that some, or many, lesser composers have learned the language much as one learns German or Algebra, and use it even though they have nothing to say.
But I think that Nielsen is one of the twentieth century's composers who was delivering something philosophical through his music.
Frankly I get far more of a message from (say) Elgar or Mahler through their music than I ever could get through their letters, essays, memoirs or written words.
The problem remains putting in to words the general philosophical message of misery or life affirmation (and the transitions between the two extremes) which comes over clearly through music...

Mahler was 'saying' something radically different from Bruckner through his music. And our dilemma is trying to put into words what those different objectives or motivations might have been.

To that extent I am not really interested in abstract music which has no capacity for interpretation of mood or message. But I recognise that there are some forum users who do like that sort of a challenge, rather like tackling a really difficult Sudoku puzzle!

Ultimately, I can't imagine any verbal description matching the desolation in the Largo fourth movement of Shostakovich 8th Symphony. And if I heard it in 99% of the world's languages I wouldn't understand it at all.

In reply to an earlier post on 29 Aug 2013 17:35:27 BDT
JayJayDee says:
Rasmus: that passage by Nielsen is indeed very touching (even in translation). But it can never come into my mind as I awake in the morning in the way that passages of Sinfonia Espansiva haunt the transitions between my conscious and subconscious.

In reply to an earlier post on 29 Aug 2013 18:21:02 BDT
True JayDee
-- Music is better than words.

In reply to an earlier post on 30 Aug 2013 00:15:31 BDT
Last edited by the author on 30 Aug 2013 00:43:50 BDT
mancheeros says:
JJD: Ultimately, I can't imagine any verbal description matching the desolation in the Largo fourth movement of Shostakovich 8th Symphony

But surely the only reason you know that the Largo fourth movement of Shostakovich's 8th Symphony symbolises desolation is because Shostakovich (or somebody else) said so in words. If a composer does not tell us in words what his music is supposed to represent emotionally, politically, philosophically, etc, then we are completely in the dark about these things, and perhaps that composer is not interested in attempting to convey a specific set of emotions or a political viewpoint through musical sounds, or perhaps he would rather keep that extra-musical stuff private and just let the listeners focus on the sounds themselves and make up their own minds about what it means to them emotionally.

Posted on 30 Aug 2013 08:00:54 BDT
enthusiast says:
I agree that great music "says" profound things but I also agree that what it says cannot be expressed in words - so does it literally "say" anything or is the use of the word "say" really just metaphorical? Really gifted critics can sometimes use words to describe what music says but even then it is subjective. We can all agree that music can be profound or moving or amusing or ... .

In reply to an earlier post on 30 Aug 2013 14:07:18 BDT
Last edited by the author on 30 Aug 2013 14:35:26 BDT
mancheeros says:
Yes, I think the use of the word 'say' is usually metaphorical. Of course music says something very precise on a technical level - i.e. how a composer uses an established form (e.g. sonata form), facts about the instrumentation and other compositional strategies, but beyond that anything else (non-technical) that is ascribed to a piece of music usually derives from something that the composer has said about his piece of music in order to make it more accessible to the listener. Writers of liner notes seize on these little nuggets of extra-musical information so as to shape their analyses of what the music 'actually means' at an emotional level and in the process they shape our response to the music. For instance, we come to learn that the exceptionally turbulent second movement of Humphrey Velveteen's String Quartet no.23 was written at a time when Mr Velveteen's marriage to Lucinda was going through a very difficult phase. No, it's not simply a noisy barrage of pizzicato, that endless atonal din is actually a profoundly moving account of a couple's desperate attempt to save their marriage.

Stravinsky originally insisted his Symphony in Three Movements (1945) was "pure music", then later said that it was inspired by watching newsreels of scorched-earth tactics in China and goose-stepping soldiers, etc. Suddenly a layer of emotional/political profundity is imposed on something that was previously 'just' an imaginative exercise in note-writing.

Posted on 30 Aug 2013 16:28:12 BDT
Anonymouse says:
Kinda like Penderecki's 8'37".

Posted on 30 Aug 2013 18:27:01 BDT
Bella says:
Beethoven is said to have expressed concern towards the end of his life that he might lose his "fancy" - I don't know whether he wanted to keep it in order to express profound thoughts...

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Sep 2013 12:03:21 BDT
Last edited by the author on 3 Sep 2013 12:16:44 BDT
JayJayDee says:
Not so.
Surely nobody can listen to the DSCH 8 Largo without developing, or at least sensing, a profound feeling of desolation? It's not necessarily specifically about the War or Stalin (or anything the ideologues on both sides would have us believe). It's about the condition of lonely despair that can afflict the human spirit. Sure enough it was triggered by the suffering witnessed by DSCH. But the genius behind the music transmogrifies it into something much more eternal.
I have to be honest and say that I find it hard to believe that many lovers of great music are 'missing' the point about the universality of music, and its ability to transcend words or events.
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