Carl Nielsen

Symphony No. 4, opus 29, “The Inextinguishable”

Born in Nørre Lyndelse, Funen, Denmark, June 9, 1865: died in Copenhagen, October 3, 1931

Scandinavia’s two greatest symphonists — Finland’s Jean Sibelius and Denmark’s Carl Nielsen — were born just six months apart in 1865. Nielsen was the seventh of twelve children born to an impoverished housepainter and his wife, and he grew up in a two-room cottage in the Danish countryside. At age four, Carl discovered that the pieces of timber in the cordwood delivered to his village produced different pitches when struck with a hammer, and so he arranged them into his first primitive instrument. At six, he began learning the violin, piano, and finally the cornet. His mastery of this last instrument enabled him to win a post as a regimental musician in the Danish Royal Army at age 14.

At 18, Nielsen won a scholarship at the Copenhagen Conservatory, where he studied violin and piano for two years while voraciously reading literature, history, and philosophy to make up for his limited schooling on Fyn. He received little formal training in composition, but this probably enhanced the originality of his creative voice.

By now a powerful symphonist, Nielsen began composing his Fourth Symphony in 1914 as World War I was breaking out, and it became, in effect, his “war symphony,” completed early in 1916 as the conflict was at its height. There was also turmoil in Nielsen’s private life: his marriage to the prominent sculptress Anne Marie Brodersen-Nielsen seemed to be falling apart, and in a letter to a friend, he described his life as “a stormy sea.” (The marriage did recover, and the two remained together until Nielsen’s death in 1931.) In the Symphony, the violence and anguish of this period is epitomized by a dramatic duel between two timpanists, positioned symbolically on opposite sides of the stage.

However, the overarching philosophical theme behind this dark, intense symphony, which Nielsen called “The Inextinguishable,” is actually the indestructibility of the life force. From his early years in the countryside, the composer retained a passionate attachment to the natural world, which we can sense in his explanation of the title: “The title The Inextinguishable … is meant to express the appearance of the most elementary forces among human beings, animals, and even plants. We can say: in case all the world was to be devastated by fire, flood, volcanoes, etc., and all things were destroyed and dead, then nature would still begin to breed new life again. … Soon the plants would begin to multiply, the breeding and screaming of birds would be seen and heard, the aspiration and yearning of human beings would be felt. These forces, which are ‘inextinguishable,’ are what I have tried to present.”

However, Nielsen also insisted that the Fourth was not a program symphony: rather, it was purely a musical drama in which the key of E Major, representing Life, wins an ultimate victory over an unstable D-minor tonality, representing chaos and destruction. He also conceived the symphony as one continuous 40-minute flow without pauses, though we can detect four distinct movements within.

The symphony opens in a maelstrom of chaotic violence. The key is already a source of strife, for the woodwinds assert D minor, while the strings prefer C Major. Meanwhile, the timpanist hammers dissonant tritone intervals, the infamous “devil-in-music” interval. Eventually, this violence subsides, and two clarinets propose a tranquil, folk-like melody; modest as it now sounds, this will turn out to be the Symphony’s most important theme. The violins adopt it, then transform it into a bold peasant dance; this dance introduces for the first time the key of E Major, the symphony’s goal. A grand, brass-led chorale, another variant of the clarinet theme, brings the exposition to an affirmative close.

Over an ominous sustained pedal-note in the timpani, the development section begins in quiet expectation. Soon a violent battle breaks out, which the clarinet theme tries in vain to pacify. The wild opening music returns and the grand chorale as well to carry this “first movement” to a provisional resting place in E Major.

A hushed bridge passage leads to an intermezzo-like “second movement” in G Major, which is led by woodwinds and has a gentle, rural charm (Poco allegretto).

Suddenly, the violins cry out in anguish, singing an impassioned theme; this is the work’s “slow movement” (Poco adagio quasi andante). The mood calms, and the solo violin sings a theme of grave beauty, a tender prayer enhanced by other solo strings. All the strings pick up this theme, but it is soon interrupted by urgent warnings from the woodwinds. These warnings grow into a fierce fugal passage, culminating in a mighty brass-driven climax.

A long bridge passage — at first hushed, then a whirl of frenzied activity — leads into the final Allegro, launched by a loud timpani crack. Opening in A Major, the energetic violin theme is related by its descending shape to the clarinet theme. The music evolves into a dissonant struggle. Now the two timpanists — Nielsen instructs them to always play with a menacing tone — erupt in their famous battle, each thundering away on a different tritone interval. The music seems to surmount this crisis in a grand victory Nielsen marks “glorioso,” but the key is still stuck in A Major.

A vaguely uneasy development section leads to another outbreak of the timpani battle, now focusing on the D-minor key with which the symphony opened. The horns roar out the clarinet theme, and eventually, it succeeds in defeating the chaotic world of D minor and other “wrong” keys. Now unequivocally in E Major, the once-modest clarinet theme sweeps to a triumphant, splendorous close. Once again, the inextinguishable life force is the victor.

Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2018