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Mark Morris’s Guide to Twentieth Century Composers

Front Page




Historically, Denmark has been a Scandinavian country looking over its shoulder at the more dominant mainland European cultures, usually Germany, but sometimes France. A leading Danish Romantic composer was Johann Peter Emelius Hartmann (1805-1900, not to be confused with the German Karl Hartmann), who came from a family with a Danish tradition of composition stretching back to the 18th century and continued by the related Niels Bentzon (born 1919). Hartmann is best remembered for his songs (often drawing on Old Norse literature) and his operas, two of which had librettos by Hans Christian Andersen. One of his most nationalist works was the folk ballet Et Folkesagn, written in collaboration with his son-in-law, the best-known of the 19th-century Danish composers, Niels Wilhelm Gade (1817-1890). The foundation of Gade's output are eight symphonies, now largely forgotten but quite widely admired in their time, and Gade was an important teacher and influence on the following generation of Danish composers. The dominant figure of this generation was of Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), who with Sibelius is the most important Scandinavian composer of any age, and who provided a crucial link between the symphonies of Brahms and Dvořák and the later 20th century. His contemporary August Enna (1859-1939) was once widely known for his sentimental opera, based on Andersen, The Little Match Girl (1897). The French influence appeared in the next generation, notably in the vivacious music of Knudage Riisåger (born in Estonia, 1897, died 1974), who studied with Roussel, and admired the Gallic wit of `Les Six'. He is best-known for his sparkling Concerto for Trumpet and String Orchestra (1933) and his ballet music, including Qarrtsiluni (1938), originally a purely orchestral score but turned into a celebrated ballet in 1942; the work was inspired by the writings of the Arctic explorer Knud Rassmussen, and the title is an Inuit word referring to the silence of expectation before the summer sun returns after the long night of the Arctic winter. Jørgen Bentzon (1897-1951) looked more to Germany and Hindemith, and was the first Danish modernist composer, experimenting, largely in chamber music, with what he called `character polyphony', exploiting the character of a particular instrument by assigning material suited to that character, and different (simultaneous) material suited to the character of each other instrument, or group of instruments. The development of this concept is to be found in a chamber series Racconto (No.1, 1935), but he gradually mellowed this style and toned down the experimentation, partly motivated by his democratic political ideals, leading to such works as the Dickens Symphony (1939). The most unusual composer of this generation, who has recently received more attention, is the mystical maverick Rued Langgaard (1893-1952).

The only one of this generation of composers to receive more than a passing attention outside Denmark has been Vagn Holmboe (born 1909), whose idiom recognisably follows on from Nielsen, but who has forged an individual voice in his symphonies and string quartets. Like Nielsen the sense of northern light in his orchestration could have only come from a Scandinavian country. Both assimilate Danish folk-song, which has long been recognised as an important element of Danish culture, folk-songs being collected and studied as far back as the late 18th century.

Holmboe has continued to forge his own individual idiom, but two of the better-known Danish composers have embraced a more European outlook, influenced by the development of the avant-garde. Niels Viggo Bentzon (born 1919) has produced a vast, eclectic, and uneven output, while Per Nørgård (born 1932) has developed a personal, static idiom. Danish 12-tone composers have included Jan Maegaard (born 1926), and the first Danish serial work was Elegy (1953) for organ by Poul Rovsing Olsen (1922-1982), who was influenced by non-European musics, especially the classical rāgs of northern India; the nonet Patet (1966), for example, is based on Indonesian music and Watusi rhythms. Among the younger composers, Poul Ruders (born 1949) is beginning to attract some attention. His two-movement String Quartet No.2 suggested a composer of promise whose textures echoed a distant influence of the minimalists, also apparent in his Violin Concerto No.1 (1981), a tribute to Vivaldi's Four Seasons. In his Concerto for clarinet and twin orchestras (1985) the soloist represents the voice of humanity squeezed in an orchestral grip, and among his other works is a trilogy of concertos with dramatic intent, Drama-Trilogy, the last the Cello Concerto `Polydrama' (1988).

It must be said that, in contrast to the other Scandinavian countries, Denmark has been singularly reticent about disseminating its music, and Nielsen is still far too little known, especially in North America. Vagn Holmboe, while admittedly likely to appeal to a narrower audience, has not received the kind of international attention and performance that he deserves, and the lesser composers can be difficult to encounter.

Danish Music Information Centre:

Dansk Musik Information Centre

Graabroedre Torv 16

DK-1154 Copenhagen K.


tel: +45 33 112066

fax: +45 33 322016








BENTZON Niels Viggo

born 24th August, 1919 at Copenhagen

died 25th April, 2000 at Copenhagen


Niels Viggo Bentzon (not to be confused with his cousin, the composer Jorgen Bentzon, 1897-1951), has been a colourful figure in Danish composition, and his huge, sometimes provocative, and uneven output has drawn on a very wide variety of influences and sources. His earliest music was influenced by Hindemith, but his discovery of Schoenberg, partly through his activities as a pianist, led to the use of 12-tone principles, and he wrote a treatise on the technique in 1950; it eventually became only one element in his eclectic palette. From the late 1940s he also adopted the technique of `metamorphosis', the continuous development and evolution of material (a technique already employed by Holmboe), and this informs much of his more conventional work. From the 1960s his music took two directions: a continuation of the more mainstream style, often tonally based, and a more avant-garde approach that has included the use of pop and jazz, `happenings', and unconventional performance venues. This latter aspect has been very difficult to encounter outside Denmark. The consistent features of this eclectic output have been an improvisatory feeling, contrasting moods, and an often Classical or Baroque basis of structure, especially variation form. The neo-classical strain was exemplified in the concerto grosso impetus to the Chamber Concerto (1948) for eleven instruments, coloured by the use of three pianos, or in such works as the Pezzi sinfonici (Symphonic Pieces, 1956), a work whose architectural clarity and vigour is more impressive than its rather colourless overall effect.

The works currently most widely admired (and most likely to be encountered) date from before 1960, especially his symphonies and piano sonatas, which now number at least 15 and 22 respectively. The Symphony No.3 (1947) is impressively built from its opening, pastoral material, transforming it into a number of effective themes. The Symphony No.4 `Metamorfosen' (1948) builds on three themes heard at the outset, and was the work which brought him more international attention. By the time of Kronik om René Descartes (Feature Article on René Descartes, 1975), his orchestral style had absorbed some of the mainstream European elements originating in the avant-garde; the four movements of the work reflect different aspects of Descartes' philosophy and philosophical life, and the moods of the work are as diverse as the stylistic sources, and include a touch of tongue-in-cheek humour through instrumental effects and a fairly dreadful jazz passage. Again, while one can admire the inventiveness, there is a lack of strong character in the music, especially for such a potent subject; but it has some fine moments, and it shows the composer's fluency as well as his flaws. The piano sonatas have something of the mercurial quality and pianistic brilliance of Prokofiev, an influence that Bentzon has acknowledged. Of his other piano music, The Tempered Piano (1964) is a gigantic (80 minute) series of twenty-four preludes and fugues using metamorphosis techniques, and is one of a number of works that reflect Bentzon's appreciation of Bach, including the Fifteen Two-Part Inventions (1964) and the Fifteen Three-Part Inventions (1964), both for piano. His later piano writing includes works for prepared piano.

Bentzon taught at the Århus Conservatory from 1945 to 1949, and then at the Copenhagen Conservatory. He has been active as a painter, writer and poet, and critic as well as a composer.


works include (from a huge output of some 500 works):

- 15 symphonies (No.4 Metamorfosen, No.5 Ellipsis, No.7 The Three Versions); Chamber Symphony for 17 instruments; Sinfonia concertante for 6 accordions and orch.

- accordion concerto; cello concerto; flute concerto; oboe concerto; 15 piano concertos; violin concerto; Concerto per Archi; Concerto for Six Percussion Players; Triple Concerto for flute, oboe, bassoon and orch.; 6 Copenhagen Concertos; Chamber Concerto for 11 instruments

- Feature Article on René Descartes, Five Mobiles, Intrada, Mutationen, Pezzi sinfonici, Symphonic Variations, Variazioni breve and other works for orch.

- sonata for solo cello; Variations for solo flute; horn sonata; 7 violin sonatas; 10 string quartets

- 22 piano sonatas; The Tempered Piano, Toccata, Traesnit (Woodcuts) and other works for piano; Paganini-Variations for piano, four hands

- Variations for organ

- song cycle Shelley Songs; cantata Bonjour Max Ernst; Sagn (Legend) for tenor, male chorus, and orch.

- ballets Døren (The Door), Jenny von Westphalen, Jubilaeumsballet, Kurtisanen (The Courtesan) and Metafor (Metaphor)

- operas Die Automaton and Faust III


recommended works:

Feature Article on René Descartes (1975) for orchestra

Symphony No.4 Metamorphosen (1948)



born 20th December 1909 at Horsens

died 1st September 1996 at Ramløse


Vagn Holmboe has been the leading Danish symphonist after Nielsen, and his considerable achievement has received less general recognition than its deserves. Largely unaffected by changing trends around him, his music shows a continuous development and refinement of a personal idiom, seeking tauter and more concentrated means of expression within parameters established fairly early in his career. This unflinching attitude left him somewhat isolated in the rapidly developing experimentation of the 1960s, and partly accounts for his relative neglect, though his development of symphonic structures and content places him in the mainstream, and he is not in any sense an overtly conservative composer.

The second reason for his neglect is the element of a studied dryness in his style. The emergence of the emotive in his music sometimes feels consequential to the concentration on form; the emotions arise, so to speak, from the subconscious, as if it is the play of forms that allows their expression. This is the antithesis of a composer such as Shostakovich, where form often has to contain a welter of expression, and the interplay of the cerebral and the expressive in Holmboe's music is not so immediately appealing. Symphonies and string quartets are at the core of Holmboe's output, and they share similar qualities and techniques.

His earlier music was influenced by Nielsen, whose clarity of orchestration Holmboe has continued to develop, and by Bartók, furthered by studies of folk-music that Holmboe made in Rumania in the 1930s (his wife was Rumanian). The more obvious residue of these influences died out by the early 1950s. The chief feature of his idiom is a very Scandinavian clarity, best compared to the quality of light in Northern lands, with the sharp outlines, lack of hazy shadows, a starkness, at times a draining of colour in a clear whitening brilliance, sometimes a luminescence, that will be familiar to anyone who has lived in northern latitudes. This, so inherent in Holmboe's output, seems a clear case of an environmental influence on the cast of the musical content, just as the dry reticence reflects one particular but often-noted characteristic of those living in such a quality of light. It is this that makes Holmboe such a quintessentially Scandinavian composer.

The guiding principal behind Holmboe's structures, fully developed by the time of the sixth string quartet and the sixth symphony, has been described by him as `metamorphosis': the continuous evolution and development of material, often subtle and complex, from a theme or idea expressed at the beginning of a work; the obvious antecedent is to be found in Sibelius's Symphony No.7. When combined with the emotional reticence, this can produce a strange effect in Holmboe's music: the feeling of satisfaction or fulfilment on the completion of a Holmboe work is often much greater than the individual events would seem to warrant, even allowing for the haunting passages Holmboe often produces. The ear has been carried on an aural journey, even though the recognition on the part of the listener may be purely subconscious, and has arrived at a destination created by Holmboe's mastery of this technique. The other features of this style are a rhythmic vitality, sometimes almost nervous; melodies shaped by modal scales, at times allowing a line to follow the key in the minor, while the main body pursues the major (or vice versa - all these techniques are traceable back to Nielsen); precise, clear orchestration of lean textures, often sharply differentiating between members of sections of the orchestra; and moods of controlled tension, of a luminosity that reflects the wide spaces of northern latitudes, and sometimes a Danish sense of humour, occasionally slightly sardonic or melancholy. The overall effect is to invite us in to survey the prospect he is offering, not the presentation of emotions we are expected to share.

The Symphony No.1 (1935) uses chamber forces, while the Symphony No.4 `Sinfonia sacra' is a choral work, but the first of his symphonies to receive wider attention was the three-movement Symphony No.5 (1944). It exemplifies his clear, incisive lines, the forceful opening movement sculpted with bold precision, especially in the compelling climax. The slow movement, reminiscent of Nielsen, is suffused with a noble quality, and includes a funeral march with reiterated timpani strokes. The dark, polyphonic Symphony No.6 (1947) developed Holmboe's technique of metamorphosis, and is two taut movements, with a quote in the first movement paying tribute to Nielsen's two-movement fifth symphony. The Symphony No.7 (1950), again developing from the initial germ material, is one of his finest. In one overall movement divided into three sections, themselves linked by what Holmboe called `intermedia', it opens with a section of penetrating clarity and rhythmic vitality, including a suggestion of the mawkish and moments of arresting delicacy, celesta and high violins setting the atmosphere, woodwind carrying the progression. The central slow section has touches of the limpid and the mysterious, building up to the most luminous textures, and the final section is forceful, arriving at what seems to be the climax of an ending. The strings are held on from the climactic chord for a moment of warmth, and then a marvellous equivalent to an epilogue emerges, haunting, fragmented, and unforgettable. The much larger Symphony No.8 `Sinfonia boreale' (1952) reverts to a more conventional usage of thematic material, each of its four movements introducing new themes, but within each movement using the principle of thematic metamorphosis. The element of the mawkish or sardonic again emerges in the second movement, the elegiac in the slow movement. The three-movement Symphony No.10 (1970-1971) is prefaced by quote from Walt Whitman referring to the mutability of the universe, and the movements are separated by a general pause rather than by breaks (a device Nielsen had also used). Compared with the earlier symphonies, there is an added texture, a layer of sound, from fluttering wind or strings, replacing the silences between the orchestral sections, and the symphony has something of the quality of contemplating the stars suggested by its preface, with trumpet calls over long dark lines and a weave of subdued patterns in the slow movement. The typical nervous percussive tension is joined by a sense of uplift and the expansive vista of the heavens in the last movement. There is a new tone, too, in the warm textures of the fine Symphony No.11 (1980), its opening (reminiscent of Britten) setting a positive, unaggressive rhythmic figure against the type of whirling textures found in the tenth symphony. This rhythmic figure recurs in the symphony and is devoid of the nervous tension found in earlier works. Slower sections have a pastoral, almost bucolic, air, and the symphony fades away with a mellow light not often found in Holmboe's output.

Besides the symphonies, Holmboe has written a number of other orchestral works, including a series of concertos recalling the spirit of Bach's Brandenberg Concertos. The restrained and thoughtful Cello Concerto (1974), in five movements played without a break, is worth encountering. Its dramatic opening, orchestral crashes against slow-spinning figures led by the cello, belies the general mood, the lyrical cello line weaving and often short-phrased; when the drama of that opening does threaten to return, the cello, or at one point dancing strings, usually lead it off into more ruminative or light-hearted regions.

However, Holmboe's most important contribution after the symphonies have been his string quartets, now numbering twenty. They share the stylistic and procedural features of the symphonies within the more intimate setting of the form, and are characterized by the thoroughness with which they explore their material. The String Quartet No.1 (1949) was influenced by Bartók, and the String Quartet No.2 (1949) is lyrical, but Holmboe's individual voice emerged in the concentrated String Quartet No.3 (1949), pitting major triads against minor and with a chaconne at its centre, and especially in the dark String Quartet No.4 (1953-1954, revised 1956) and in the drive of the String Quartet No.5 (1954-1955). By the String Quartet No.6 (1961) Holmboe had refined his technique of metamorphosis, and all the material in its four movements is developed from the opening theme. The next two string quartets are related. The String Quartet No.7 (1964) shows a relaxation from its astringent predecessor in its broader feel, with darker emotions in the adagio, while the String Quartet No.8 (1965) returns to a five-movement plan, with luminous clear textures, especially in the second movement; Holmboe characterized the seventh as the stronger, the eighth as the more lyrical and sturdy. Of the later quartets, the String Quartet No.14 (1979), with its very stark opening, occupies a refined, introspective and subdued world analogous to that of the late quartets of Shostakovich.

Holmboe has also written a considerable body of vocal music, including a series of works on biblical texts written in the early 1950s under the collective title Liber canticorum, of which the best known is the eight-part motet Vanitas vanitatum (1953). While some are dry and austere, others are warm and very beautiful, such as the luminous, undulating polyphonic flow of Domine non superbit, or the folk-like opening of Omnia flumina for six voices, a long line over a drone conjuring the rivers of the title. Of his other choral music, the spirited Three Inuit Songs (1956) for the energetic combination of baritone, male chorus and timpani, is worth discovering. The title refers more to the settings of Eskimo poems than folk-music, for ethnomusicologically the songs seem influenced more by North American native Indian music than by Inuit music, but the combination of an earthy spontaneity and Danish refinement is most effective.

Holmboe was music critic of Politiken (1947-1955), and from 1950 taught at the Copenhagen Conservatory.


works include:

- 11 symphonies (No.3 Sinfonia rustica, No.4 Sinfonia sacra, No.8 Sinfonia Boreale)

- cello concerto; 11 concertos for chamber orch.; Concerto for Brass

- Epilogue, Epitaph, Monolith and other works for orch.

- sonata for solo cello; sonata for solo flute; Triade for trumpet and organ; 20 string quartets; Primavera for flute, violin, cello and piano; Quartetto Medico for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano; brass quintet; Notturno for wind quintet

- Suono da bardo for piano; 2 sonatas and 5 Intermezzi for guitar; Fabula II for organ

- songs including song cycle Moya for high voice and piano; cantata Requiem for Nietzsche; series Liber Canticorum for various unaccompanied choral forces; Three Inuit Songs for baritone, male chorus and timpani; Yrkingar (Six Faroese Songs) and other works for chorus


recommended works:

Cello Concerto (1974)

the string quartets

Symphony No.5 (1944)

Symphony No.7 (1950)

Symphony No.10 (1970-1971)

Symphony No.11 (1980)

Three Inuit Songs (1956) for baritone, male chorus and timpani


LANGGAARD Rued Immanuel

born 28th July, 1893 at Copenhagen

died 10th July, 1952 at Ribe


An eccentric, something of a visionary or a little crazed (depending on your point of view), composer and organist Rued Langgaard has started to receive more attention in his native Denmark, and now occupies a place analogous to Havergal Brian in Britain. His early music was Romantic, including the Symphony No.4, Lovfald (The Fall of the Leaf, 1916), but by the end of World War I he had started experimenting with such devices as dissonant polyphony, tone-clusters and static bodies of sonority, mostly prompted by the cosmic scope of his themes (especially the clash between Good and Evil), mingling the experimental with the conventional. This period included Sfaerernes Musik (Music for the Spheres, 1918) for soprano, chorus and orchestra, which opens with a tone-cluster but shows his limitations in the handling of large-scale forms, the busy and climactic Symphony No.6 `Det Himmelrivende' (Heaven-Storming, 1919), and the first stages of his major work, the one-act Expressionist opera-oratorio Antikrist (AntiChrist, 1914-1936), based on Revelations. However, by the middle of the 1920s, apparently disenchanted with neo-classicism, he revered to the late-Romantic style of his earlier works, while retaining the apocalyptic and religious themes. His five string quartets (numbered 2 to 6; the material of No.1, 1914, was reworked in Nos. 4 & 5) originally date from 1914 to 1925, and show a considerable stylistic diversity, from the emulation of a passing train in No.2 to the late-Romantic style of the last three. His piano music includes the Insectarium, a collection of unusual miniatures describing various insects. His major organ work is the Messis (Mass, 1934-1937), an `organ drama' showing French organ and Romantic Nordic influences, intended to be played over three evenings.

Much of the dating of Langgaard's work is obscure due to his habit of multiple revisions. His music appears to be a mixture of moments or ideas of interest and a vision quite beyond his technical means; like many such visionaries, he has passionate adherents.


works include:

- 16 symphonies (No.1 Klippepastoraler, No.2 Vaarbrud, No.4 Lovfal [The Fall of the Leaf], No.6 Det Himmelrivende [Heaven-Storming], No.11 Ixion, No.13 Undertro, No.16 Syndflod af sol)

- 2 violin sonatas, 5 string quartets, Variations, and other works for string quartet and other chamber music

- 2 piano sonatas (No.1 Afrundsmusik, No.2 Ex est.); Insectarium and other piano works

- organ-drama in three parts Messis and other organ works

- songs; Sfaerernes Musik (Music for the Spheres) for soprano, chorus and orch.; opera-oratorio Antikrist (AntiChrist)

───────────────────────────────────────recommended works:

opera Antikrist (1916-1936)

Symphony No.6 Det Himmelrivende (Heaven-Storming) (1919)


NIELSEN Carl August

born 9th June 1865 at Norre-Lyndelse

died 3rd October 1931 at Copenhagen


Nielsen is the one Danish composer of unquestionable international reputation. While Mahler took the symphony to its late-Romantic culmination, it was Nielsen and his exact contemporary Sibelius who took the form of the symphony and sought new procedures to mould it into a rejuvenated genre. Nielsen's output is relatively small but of consistently high quality, and at its core lie the six symphonies, which, spread over his compositional life, exemplify his artistic development.

Nielsen stands on the cusp of Romanticism, and he represents not so much a reaction against the full lushness of the late-Romantic idiom, but an evolution out of it, influenced in part by his admiration for the crisp precision of the Classical period. That precision is the hallmark of Nielsen's writing; he increasingly stripped away the accumulations of the late-Romantic idiom, so that ideas are less encumbered by a wealth of colour effects and thick-textured detail, and every facet of the orchestra has a precision of purpose. Yet at the same time, and using these means, he could produce an atmosphere that was the legacy of the Scandinavian Romantic heritage, in a tone-poem, or in the equivalent of seascape or landscape painting in the symphonies. What propels this aesthetic evolution is Nielsen's underlying philosophy, which informs his music: a return to a more direct and simple (but never simplistic) view of the human condition, cutting away the accumulation of internal angst that was the heritage of the German late-Romantics. Implicit in this is a sense of hope, of the potentially positive outcome of any situation, even when a sense of menace, distress, and sometimes titanic conflict enters his music during and after the First World War, which affected him deeply. These new emotions broadened his emotional range and impact, a response to an external crisis rather than the response to an internal crisis usually expressed by the late-Romantics.

However, stripping away the accumulation of effect of the late-Romantic idiom left a void in terms of the power of emotional expression, especially as Nielsen was continuing a tradition, rather than forging new technical means. Nielsen's response was to develop those aspects he had at hand, particular the harmonic. In his symphonies he utilized the principle of progressive tonality, where the whole work (or a movement) would end in a different key to that in which it began (a technique also explored by Mahler). This has two main effects, first a sense of momentum established by the progression of keys to a new goal while the work is in progress, and second a different atmosphere from the traditional symphonic harmonic layout after the work is finished; instead of arriving back where we started harmonically, having experienced various musical events and emotions on the way, we now use those experiences to arrive at a new destination. In addition, he increasingly used polytonality (the simultaneous use of two or more keys) as an element of the progression but also for conflict and for expressive effect, two emotions overlapping. A third harmonic idiom is his use of church modes and the pentatonic scale; this has the aural effect of maintaining the tonal system while often leaving the sense of key hovering between the major and the minor, and it also colours the shape of his melodies. At the same time Nielsen developed his use of light, spacious and precise textures (though again he was quite willing to launch into thicker-textured turbulent or descriptively evocative passages), so that, for example, the use of glockenspiel in the Symphony No.6 creates a lightness and delicacy of texture. He had an awareness of the potential and power of silences, far removed from late-Romanticism and not emulated until much later, and developed the use of the percussion section, in particular the snare-drum (side-drum). On the one hand this instrument could inject the underlying menace already mentioned; on the other, it is an harmonically neutral instrument (since it has no recognizable pitch), and can thus act independently of the progressions of tonality, most obviously in the Symphony No.5 or in the Clarinet Concerto. It also allows strongly emphasized rhythmic elements, another area of development for Nielsen, culminating in the Symphony No.5 (where a section of the important snare-drum part is left to the performer, and not notated), but also clear in the structural momentum generated by changing rhythmic ideas in passages of the Symphony No.6. By the end of his life Nielsen had arrived at a fluidity and ease of flow, with an almost instinctive sense of the progress of event, that has been disconcerting to those used to more conventional structuring of material, but which can in hindsight be seen as prophetic of later developments in music: a kind of self-permission for controlled freedom of the larger cast combined with the precision of detail that has been taken for granted in the second half of the century.

Nielsen's earliest music was heavily influenced by Niles Gade and Edvard Grieg, the main Scandinavian proponents of Romanticism, and shows the same sunny disposition, in the Little Suite op.1 (1888) for strings, still a popular work, and the first two string quartets (1888, revised 1890). The forceful String Quartet No.3 (1897-1898) shows his command of counterpoint, and the warm String Quartet No.4 (1906, revised 1923), subtitled Piacevolezza, the increasing influence of a Classical precision. But it is in the short tone-poems that the Scandinavian Romantic legacy never completely abandoned by Nielsen is best displayed; they also represent the element of Danish tone-painting in his music. The Helios Overture op.17 (1903) is a short and beautiful descriptive work inspired by a Greek holiday, best described in Nielsen's own words: "Silence and darkness - then the sun rises with a joyous song of praise - it wanders its golden way - and sinks quietly into the sea." Saga Drøm op.39 (1908) was inspired a passage from the famous Icelandic Njal's Saga, in which Gunner rides home, sleeps, and recounts a prophetic dream in which he was pursued by wolves and had to fight them off. After the slow opening that sets the landscape, the story is closely followed, but concentrates on nature tone-painting and a dreamy atmosphere; lovers of Sibelius's tone poems will enjoy this work. Andante Lamentoso, Ved en ung Kunstners Baare (At the bier of a young artist, 1910) for strings (originally string quartet) is a powerful funeral tribute to the young painter Oluf Hartmann. The finest of these orchestral works is Pan and Syrinx op.49 (1918) for orchestra, which Nielsen described as a `nature scene for orchestra', though it is a fiercely dramatic work; it deserves to stand alongside the best of his symphonies. It tells the story (from Ovid's Metamorphoses) of how Pan got his pipes, chasing the unwilling nymph Syrinx until the gods, taking pity on her, turned her into a reed. The music again follows the story closely (and with such effects as the bleating of Pan), but by this stage of his career Nielsen's command of contrast in orchestral ideas and their more fragmentary placement was highly developed, and percussion plays an important colour and structural role. If Pan and Syrinx is the finest of these works, easily the most immediately evocative is An Imaginary Trip to the Faroes (En Fantasirejse til Faerøerne, 1927). It opens with the dark swelling of the grey North Sea, woodwind joining in to scatter light on the crest of the waves, building up to a climax joined by a marching bass, with vivid orchestration. Horns announce a noble Faroese folk-song (Easter bells chimed softly) over shimmering upper strings, taken up by the whole orchestra and sighing away to the tinkle of the triangle. Suddenly the piece bursts into a Faroese dance (surely land has been sighted), with its own polytonal moment, the earlier quieter material weaving in and out and creating the quiet close. This little nature picture deserves to stand alongside Sibelius's better-known shorter tone-poems, and would make a show-stopper of an orchestral encore. But these orchestral works are essentially Nielsen in a more relaxed, Romantic mood; it is in the six symphonies that his genius is to be found.

The Symphony No.1 op.7 (1890-1892) is the most derivative, showing the influence of Brahms and Dvořák, unmistakable at the end of the first movement. But it is constructed with great surety, displaying a spacious freshness, clean textures, joy and vivacity in the finale; in the pastoral third movement there is entirely individual writing in the suggestion of a sudden storm in the falling flutes. It also introduced progressive tonality (the first symphony to use the principle): although the symphony is in G minor, the opening chord is that of C major, the key in which the symphony ends. The Symphony No.2 op.16 (1901-1902), titled The Four Temperaments, was inspired by paintings in Zealand depicting the four `humours', choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine, respectively the mood of each of the four movements; the tonality moves from B minor to A major. From the big, expansive opening and the feeling of vitality and energy, through the nobility of the opening of the third movement, turning into a more pastoral vein, to the boldness of the finale, there is an analogy with the kind of sound that Elgar was producing in the same period. The Symphony No.3 `Sinfonia espansiva' op. 27 (Expansive, 1910-1911) for orchestra with soprano and tenor has a philosophical content, the title referring to the expansion of the mind and thus of the appreciation of life; the progressive tonality of the whole symphony is announced in harmonic evolution of the first movement (from D minor to A major). This has tremendous force and energy, including a majestic waltz, with passages that suggest that Nielsen had absorbed the idiom of Mahler. The slow movement, coming second, is a beautiful and atmospheric evocation that includes a wordless soprano and tenor to add colour and texture. The third movement is a wonderful dancing praise of the joys of life, propelling its assured self-confidence into our laps with exuberant brass, while the finale, again with hints of the dance, arrives at a moment when all this heady vitality almost overwhelms itself, the woodwind dying away exhausted. Slowly the dancing, delighted atmosphere picks itself up again and eventually arrives at a climactic assertion of the overall mood. No-one in a 20th-century symphony has managed to express such a powerful and untroubled assertion of the explosive joy of life and nature with such a complete absence of banality or cliché. In the Symphony No.4 `Inextinguishable' op.29 (1914-1916) the spirit of vitality triumphant comes under threat from far darker and more menacing material (a reflection of the events in Europe) and has to strive to emerge; but its does, and hence the title of the work. Nielsen makes a further expressive evolution of the form, linking the four movements so that they are played continuously. The menace is underlined by the use of timpani in the third and fourth movements; in the last, the pair in the body of the orchestra are joined by another at the side of the orchestra, creating a stereophonic effect, and they have an important function in the harmonic struggle, one of the earliest examples of percussion being used for more than colour or effect. Technically, the strife is characterized by the attempt to establish the key of E major; expressively, the symphony moves from the statement of a gentle pastoral theme in A major, heard near the beginning of the first movement, to its triumphant full brilliance in E major at the end of the work. In the journey is a reflective slow movement, and two passages of great turbulence in the first and last movements, both using fragments of themes already heard, that display Nielsen's powers of precise control at their best. The struggle inherent in the fourth symphony becomes palpable in the Symphony No.5 op.50 (1921-1922); its entire cast is a conflict between two ideas expressed musically in two tonal centres, and indirectly by the construction in two massive movements. Nielsen intended the opening, with violas repeating the interval C - A, joined by pieces of the orchestra drifting in and out, to express inertia or lack of purpose; what he actually produces is a state of aimless anxiety, filled with insecurity and fears, of which lassitude and inertia can be a psychological consequence; this aspect of the symphony is centred around the key of F. Its opposite, the energy of fulfilment, is centred on the key of B (grating with F). That insecure opening is joined by martial percussion, leading to a controlled menacing chaos, an emotionally deadened world with the various sections of the orchestra at odds with each other, both in terms of key and the fragments of themes they use. That hollow world comes to a close as violas infuse a warm, noble light over the frightened darkness, complete with a fanfare. But the themes from the darkness return, building up to a huge fantastical climax, a collage of minutely organized material, the snare-drum, playing ad.lib., attempting to stop the progress of the whole symphony. The snare-drum is silenced, and this huge construction moves into a cathartic hymn, G major triumphant, until, with mutters of the snare-drum, it moves to an ending of calm but inconclusive clarity. That conclusion is provided by the second movement, that opens with a joyous and vital energy, though with discordant contributions from the brass, builds in tension, and then relaxes into another passage of uncertainty, the repeated notes of D recalling the side-drum in the first movement. An inconclusive climax leads to a fast fugue, itself inconclusive, which is swapped for the slow, thoughtful, spare landscape of another fugue, moving the symphony to its close, where the key of E flat major finally triumphs in a great outpouring, silencing all the previous conflict. In this marvellous symphony lies the primal opposition of the 20th century, between the propelling thrust to improve the lot of humankind, and the forces of anger and anxiety that seek to constrict it. The Symphony No.6 `Sinfonia semplice' op.116 (1924-1925) is the culmination of this cycle. It is anything but simple, except in the paring away of orchestral texture and the remove at times to the most innocent of emotions, and it has baffled many. However, it is first cousin to another sixth symphony, that of Martinů, not in terms of construction, but in terms of the instinctive exploration of the conjunction and opposition of styles and material that the composers had already assimilated in more conventional settings; both composers originally gave their works sinfonia titles before including them in their sequence of symphonies. The first movement, opening with the sound of bells on the celesta, an idea that will recur in the symphony when a calm is needed, is full of lean textures (often only one or two instruments), passages of almost deliberate naïveté, such as the march at the opening, sections without any sense of key, or with clashes of key, and a child-like atmosphere that suggests Nielsen might have been remembering his childhood. Eventually it moves into a disturbing, thick-textured climax resolved by the bell sounds, only to return to the disturbing, polytonal mood. The extraordinary second movement has no match in the literature of the symphony until Shostakovich's fifteenth symphony, a world that suggests the puppet theatre or the toy store. The third movement, with its searching, anguished string ostinati, unfolds a seascape of the grey sea seen from the flat Jutland shoreline with its limitless sky, anticipating Britten's `Sea Interludes' from Peter Grimes. This pre-echo is reinforced by the woodwind opening of the last movement (an almost identical figure is to be found at the opening of Britten's opera), and it is as if, ushered by horn calls, we are moving inland, until a furious passage recalls the previous movement. From this point the symphony moves on to a new plane of expression, from a sardonic, mawkish march to an atmosphere of disjointed ideas and points of colour, together with moments of jovial rhythm, the theme from the more furious passage, and textures of minute delicacy. It is as if the ideas in the symphony had been taken apart into fragments, and left with their essence, with a sense of logic that is haunting and instinctively appropriate, the silence between the fragments of crucial importance, as if we were being let into a world whose emotions we are being offered, but whose deepest significance remains with the composer.

Nielsen also wrote three concertos that have hovered on the periphery of the repertoire. The Violin Concerto op.33 (1911) shows Nielsen actually sitting on that cusp of the emergence from late-Romanticism, for much of the writing has a Romantic limpidity and beauty of line, reflecting Nielsen's own prowess as a violinist. The first movement is preceded by a slow introduction (where that Romantic atmosphere is prominent), moving from G major to D minor (the progressive tonality of the whole concerto); the body of the movement is attractive, relatively conventional and, like the finale, not exceptionally inspired. The slow movement is deliberately simple and lyrical, with a Romantic sense of nostalgia, and acts as a slow introduction to the linked finale. The Flute Concerto op.119 (1926) is a lovely and straightforward work, with a refined delicacy in the solo writing and a small orchestra to give clear textures. Its generally pastoral air has a covering of a touch of the martial and the more ruggedly emphatic; the grace of a classical dance appears, ending up with a restrained humour, the trombone prominent. The Clarinet Concerto op.57 (1928) combines neo-classical orchestral writing with florid, bold solo writing, with some extraordinary effects, such as the combination of clarinet and snare-drum, which sometimes acts as a kind of counter-instrument to the soloist, sometimes as a link between soloist and orchestra. The solo line often has little sense of key, in contrast to the orchestra; like the Symphony No.6, this is not an easy work on first encounter, but a rewarding one. These last two concertos deserve more prominence, especially as the repertoire of flute and clarinet concertos is relatively limited.

Nielsen's two operas have both remained in the Danish repertoire, but are less well-known outside Denmark. Saul and David (1898-1901), whose libretto by Einar Christiansen is based on the biblical story (with a bass for Saul), concentrates on the psychological conflict between the two, and ends with David's coronation. With a relatively taut four-act plot (the Witch of Endor scene is notably dramatic), it contains fine music in the idiom of the period of the second symphony, especially in the choral writing, which has given it the unjustified reputation of being more an oratorio than an opera. Its neglect stems in part from the difficulties of exporting an opera in the Danish language, and in part from its now-unfashionable biblical subject. His three-act comic opera Maskarade (1904-1906) to a libretto by Vihelm Andersen, has recently become much better known. It is based on a classic Danish comedy by Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), and the opera itself has become a symbol of Danish cultural nationalism, though it is no sense an opera of nationalist sentiments. The opera is set in 1723, and opens with the hero Leander discussing his love life with his valet Henrik. The previous night Leander had fallen in love with an unknown woman at the Masquerade (the delight of the younger generation, the bane of the older), and they exchanged rings. However, Leander's father has promised him to another, whose father reveals that his daughter had a similar experience the previous evening. In the quartet that ends the first Act, the two generations quarrel over the Masquerade, which will continue that night. The second Act introduces the swirl of all the different kinds of people who are on their way to the Masquerade. Leander and Henrik, who had been locked up by Leander's father to prevent them attending the Masquerade, escape to join in the fun. In the complex last Act, which includes the entertainments of the Masquerade within the opera, the eventual unmaskings inevitably reveal that the unknown woman is actually the person Leander is slated to marry; but they also reveal the presence of his father, and, unknown to either of them, his mother. In the music for this zestful little comedy, Nielsen reverts to the spirit of the Classical comic opera within the means of the early 20th century, anticipating a similar inspiration for Strauss and von Hoffmannsthal in Der Rosenkavalier. This inspiration is immediately obvious from the overture and the orchestral interludes, often heard on their own (though the lovely prelude to Act II has its own antecedents in Scandinavian musical tone-painting), while the role of Henrik has parallels with that of Figaro, especially when he has to have the final word. Allied to this was Nielsen's growing interest in folk-song, which indirectly colours much of the vocal writing, overtly in such arias as Jeronimus' `Fordum var der Fred paa Garden'. Those expecting a similar style to the symphonies will be disappointed (the Strauss-Hofmannsthal comedies perhaps provide the closest parallel), but this opera is full of delights, the characters drawn with warmth, humour and understanding, and only the absence of the kind of deeper comic-tragedy that is found in Mozart or Strauss prevents a more considerable achievement. The attractive and unassuming little Aladdin Suite op.34, drawn from Nielsen's incidental music (1918) to the play by Adam Oehlenschlager (1779-1850), may also be encountered; it has something of the grace, colour and dancing swirl of Tchaikovsky's ballets, combined with many exotic touches in keeping with its subject.

Of Nielsen's other music, his songs increasingly moved away from the art song to an equivalent of folk-forms, and many have become generally popular in Denmark. More serious in content are the Three Motets op.55 (1929) for chorus, Nielsen's last major work, which are settings of the Psalms in Latin. There are also two major later piano works which show how far Nielsen had travelled in the evolution of his idiom. The Suite op.45 (1920) for piano, his finest piano work, has six contrasting sections rather than the formal layout of a conventional suite, and is harmonically restless and experimental, while the Tre Klaverstykken op.59 (Three Piano Pieces, 1928) have been compared to Bartók in their suggestion of atonality and the use of embryonic tone-clusters. His major organ work, Commotio op.58 (Movement, 1931), is an important contribution to the organ literature, in toccata form. The genial Wind Quintet op.43 (1922) was written for the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, and the variations that create the finale reflect the different characters of the members of the Quintet in the writing for their own instrument (the flute and clarinet concertos were intended to be part of a series of five for the same players). In the prelude to the finale the cor anglais replaces the oboe, and the eleven variations include discourse and argument between the instruments, as well as two unaccompanied variations (for bassoon and for horn).

Nielsen's music is still woefully neglected outside Scandinavia; he has suffered in the reaction against the post-Romantics observable from the 1960s onwards (Sibelius has suffered a similar neglect), and his innovations and his highly individual voice in the late works have not yet been fully recognized. Yet his influence has been more considerable that is suggested by his current position, most directly on Shostakovich (there are close connections between the last symphonies of both composers), and on Britten: those familiar with the latter's work will find many stylistic echoes in Nielsen's later music. Similarly, the experience of Nielsen's fifth lies behind Vaughan Williams's sixth symphony. Less directly, Martinů extended the principle of progressive tonality, with the same goal of the search for hope in any situation. As the century draws to a close, it is becoming clear that Nielsen's fifth and sixth symphonies join those from Mahler, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Martinů and Shostakovich in providing the core 20th-century works in which the combination of technical fascination and an expression of the human condition that is the goal of the form of the symphony have been most fully realised.

Nielsen was conductor of the Copenhagen Royal Orchestra from 1904-1914, assistant conductor at the Royal Opera (1908-1914), and regularly conducted the Göteborg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden between 1918 and 1922. He taught at the Copenhagen Conservatory (1915-1919), having joined its governing board in 1914.


works include:

- 6 symphonies (No.2 The Four Temperaments, No.3 Sinfonia espansiva, No.4 The Inextinguishable, No.6 Sinfonia semplice)

- clarinet concerto; flute concerto; violin concerto

- Andante lamentoso, Helios Overture, rhapsody overture An Imaginary Trip to the Faroe Islands (En Fantasirejse til Faerøerne), Pan and Syrinx, Saga-Drøm (Gunnar's Dream) for orch.; Little Suite for strings

- Prelude with Them and Variations and Preludio e Presto for solo violin; Canto serioso for horn and piano; Fantasy pieces for oboe and piano; 2 violin sonatas; 4 string quartets; string quintet; wind quintet; Serenta in vano for three winds, cello and double-bass

- Chaconne, Five Piano Pieces (Fem Klaverstykker), Humorous Bagatelles, Piano Music for Young and Old (Klavermusik for små og store); Suite, Symphonic Suite, Theme with Variations, Three Piano Pieces (Tre Klaverstykken) for piano; Festival Prelude for piano or organ

- many preludes and Commotio for organ

- song cycles Holstein Songs and Jacobsen Songs; many other songs; Springtime on Funen (Fynsk Forar) for soloists, chorus and orch.; Three Motets for chorus and other choral works

- operas Maskarade and Saul and David; incidental music to Aladdin and The Mother (Moderen)


recommended works:

Clarinet Concerto op.57 (1928)

Commotio op.58 for organ

Flute Concerto op.119 (1926)

tone-poem An Imaginary Trip to the Faroe Islands (1927)

tone-poem Pan and Syrinx op.49 (1918)

tone-poem Saga Drøm op.39 (1908)

String Quartet No.4 (1906, revised 1923)

Suite op.45 (1920) for piano

Symphony No.1 op.7 (1890-1892)

Symphony No.2 The Four Temperaments op.16 (1901-1902)

Symphony No.3 Sinfonia espansiva op.27 (1910-1911)

Symphony No.4 Inextinguishable op.29 (1914-1916)

Symphony No.5 op.50 (1921-1922)

Symphony No.6 Sinfonia semplice op.116 (1924-1925)



R.Simpson Nielsen, 1979



born 13th July, 1932 at Gentofte


Per Nørgård has through his own experimentation and through his teaching, particularly at Århus Conservatory, established himself as the most important and influential Danish composer of his generation. His early music was in a Scandinavian nationalist style, influenced by Sibelius (the choral Aftonland, op.10), and then included neo-classical features (Triptychon op.19 for chorus and organ or wind instruments, 1957). The culmination of this period is Konstellationer op.22 (Constellations, 1958) for twelve string solo instruments or twelve string groups, a three-movement concertante work that still shows the influence of his teacher Vagn Holmboe, but which is rhythmically organised by serial techniques.

However, he became increasingly aware of developments elsewhere in Europe, and after a series of pieces entitled Fragmenter (1959-1961) he gradually developed what might be described as a Minimalist style. Most characteristic is the continual contrapuntal and rhythmic transformation of short motifs that nonetheless remain recognisable. There is a concentration on colour and texture, flexible rhythms, and the creation of a sense of static repetition. He had used overlapping layers of different tempi in the otherwise conventional Clarinet Trio op.15 (1955). By Inscape (1969) for string quartet, the preoccupation with texture had been established, and contrasts are provided by different flexible rhythms. He had also developed the notion of what he has called `infinite series' - a method of establishing hierarchical relationships within a chromatic palette, and which remains the same for each work even though the motivic series may vary. This usually results in the repetition of the harmonics of a particular note, adding to the sense of minimalism and creating resonances that are generally more consonant than dissonant. The basis of the method is to have elements of the series, which is capable of an infinite and prescribed number of transformations, running in parallel at different tempi. The principle is demonstrated in Voyage into the Golden Screen (1968) for chamber orchestra, while in Arcana (1970, revised 1975) for electric guitar, amplified accordion and percussion the emphasis is on the timbral merger of the instruments. The equally Minimalist Symphony No.2 (1970-1971) uses the `infinite series' principle, in a single movement using the first 4096 notes of the infinity row, while concentrating on colour and texture. The effect is of a slowly undulating variation of material, gradually evolving more incident, lyrical or interjectory; there is no sense of traditional symphonic development other than by the continuous transformation. The static Symphony No.3 (1972-1975) for chorus and orchestra is as questionable a 'symphony' as its predecessor, and also concentrates on textures, using the 'infinity series' as well as the Golden Section for rhythmic values.

In the early 1980s Nørgård's music underwent a further change, adding more violent and dramatic elements, following his discovery of the works of the schizophrenic Swiss artist and writer Adolf Wolfli. The major work to reflect this change was the collage- and mirage-like Symphony No.4 (1980-1981, subtitled, after Wolfli, Indischer Roosen-Gaarten und Chinesischer Hexensee). Violent, sometimes brutal juxtapositions of various styles and borrowings (including bird-song) reflect the subject matter. Among his other works of the early 1980s is the unusual Plutonium Ode for soprano and cello, a passionate setting of Ginsberg's poem against nuclear power, with a virtuoso cello part.

Nørgård has also written works designed for teaching, in which he attempts to combine modern musical styles with ease of playing or singing. He was music critic for the Copenhagen Politiken (1958-1962), and taught at the Odense Conservatory (1958-1961) and the Copenhagen Conservatory (1960-1965) before establishing himself at Århus.


works include:

- 4 symphonies (No.1 Sinfonia austera, No.4 Indischer Roosen-Gaarten und Chineesischer Hexensee)

- cello concerto Between

- Iris, Fragmenter I-IV, Konstellationer (Constellations), Luna, Metamorphoses, Voyage into the Golden Screen and other works for orch.

- Lila; trio Spell; 3 string quartets (No.1 Quartetto Brioso, No.2 In Three Spheres, No.3 Inscape); wind quintet Whirl's World; Bølger (Waves), Energy Free, I Ching and Rondo for percussion

- 2 piano sonatas; Achilles, Four Fragments, Four Sketches, Grooving, Nine Studies and other works for piano; Canon for organ

- vocal The Disturbing Duckling, Orbit, Winter Cantata and Frost Psalms

- ballets Le jeune homme à marier and Gipsy Tango

- operas The Divine Tivoli, Gilgamesh, Labyrinten (The Labyrinth), Siddharta

- electronic The Enchanted Forest


recommended works:

Symphony No.2 (1970)

Symphony No.3 (1972-1975) for chorus and orchestra

Symphony No.4 (1980-1981)





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