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Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) – Symphony No. 4 “The Inextinguishable”

“Music is life, and, like it, inextinguishable”


Nielsen himself provided this ideal opener to any introduction to his Fourth Symphony. They’re not his actual words, but a translation – this is unfortunate, because the crucial word, “inextinguishable”, scarcely scratches the surface of Nielsen’s “uudslukkelige”. The word “lukke” means “to close” something that can later be “re-opened” (e.g. a book). What a difference a prefatory “s” makes! According to Jesper Buhl [1], “In Danish we will associate ‘slukke’ with something that will end and will never come back again. That is also the beauty of the word when your life is over; one can say that God will ‘slukke’ your life. It will not come back. Making that word [through the prefixes ‘u-’ (negation) and ‘ud-’ (‘out’)] into something that will never stop, never close, never end is actually . . . poetic and beautiful and very deep and intense.”
Whence came this remarkable proposition? Nielsen completed his Fourth Symphony in January 1916. It took him only six months to write but, one way or another, he’d spent all his life composing it. The young Carl had a child’s typically vivid imagination, but he was also exceptionally observant, perceptive and thirsty for knowledge. In the countryside of his native Fyn he spent hours on end soaking up the spectacle of Nature’s complex machinery at work.
With increasing maturity, knowledge and understanding, everything that had seeped into his young soul gradually coalesced into a profound vision: Considered as a whole, “Life” is not accidental but – given half a chance – inevitable, and once Life exists then, evolve as it may, it will flourish, overcoming any and all opposition.
Meanwhile, he’d also been thinking about Music. He’d soon concluded that, at rock bottom, Music consists of rhythm and tone. But (he asked himself), isn’t Life’s persistence most strongly suggested by movement and sound? His mind went “ping!” and drew the equation, “Music is Life, . . .” It matters not whether we agree with his reasoning; only that it sparked the incandescent music of the Fourth Symphony.
Nielsen started giving the work serious thought in Summer 1914, just as the dogs of the Great War were being unleashed. By the time he’d set pen to paper, a full year later, Mankind’s most determined attempt to date at pressing the “self-destruct” button was in full swing. Clearly, the gathering storm-clouds had inflamed his desire to express this uudslukkelige – but why did it take so long to get cracking?
He had a small technical problem. Based on a “home key” – an ultimate point of return – the traditional symphonic tonal scheme would scupper his entire intention. Luckily, whilst many were opting out of tonality, Nielsen had been busy revitalising it, and the experiments with progressive tonality of his earlier symphonies offered a solution.
In a nutshell, the new tonal scheme he devised is a one-way ticket – starting from some remote point, the music must work its way to a key chosen as a “goal”. Robert Simpson observed that [2], “[The] final establishment of the key has all the organic inevitability and miraculous beauty with which the flower appears at a plant’s point of full growth.”
The principle is simple, but in practice the scheme, more rigorous than the traditional one, poses formidable technical challenges. Whether pugnaciously or peacefully, the music must continually strive – and the “inevitable” is not actually guaranteed. His Clarinet Concerto, for example, ends up wobbling around an unachievable goal, whilst the Fourth Symphony hits the woodwork several times before scoring the outright winner.
So, is all the fun reserved exclusively for musicologists? Not at all! It’s rather like a conflagration – few comprehend the chemistry, but anyone can feel the heat. Nielsen’s scheme is devastatingly effective, setting new standards as a breeding-ground for searing symphonic drama. The Fourth Symphony is still the finest proof of this particular pudding – taking under 40 minutes to relate such an epic adventure hardly seems possible!
Nielsen’s fiery “flower” comes to full bloom (in E major) through four distinct but interdependent phases, which traverse a series of increasingly sophisticated “threats”. Throughout, the music is driven by complex, interlocked thematic and harmonic development, whose analysis took Simpson 13 pages to summarise [2]. I’m not about to emulate that! You’ll have to settle for my complementary “dramatic analysis”:
1. Allegro. Fires flare in the cauldron of Creation, spewing forth the chemicals of conflict (first subject). The eruption subsides, the smoke clears – chaos has spawned order: the lovely melody of Life (second subject, clarinets) stretches serenely. Momentarily uneasy (violas, nervous repeated notes), Life dances joyfully, then proudly flexes its young muscles.
As the brassy climax, striding downwards, fades, unease awakens (pulsing drum) – Life’s strutting has attracted attention. Anxiety increases as motives born of the first subject, slithering menacingly through the shadows, close in. The inevitable onslaught is ferocious. Life manages to repel and disengage, but is left dangerously disoriented, drifting bemusedly.
The cohorts of Chaos resurge (first subject “reprise”). The threat of obliteration awakens Life’s “will to indomitability”. With a massive effort, Life rises up and vanquishes its assailant (striding descent touches on “goal” key).
2. Poco allegretto. What now? A movement comparable “formally (though not stylistically) with the gentle allegrettos that Brahms substitutes for the normal scherzo”, reflecting the “quieter side [of the] evolution of life”? [2] That’s fair enough, except there’s a bit more to it. This is no idle “intermezzo”, but a dramatic turning-point.
This movement actually returns to its starting key, whilst the main theme, subtly derived from the “Life” melody, is elegant but prim. It reeks of drawing-room teas and cottage gardens. Elemental opposition has been vanquished, civilised leisure is the prize, complacency reigns – and Life’s guard is down, laying it wide open to sneakier foes . . .
3. Poco adagio quasi andante. Violins interrupt, circling, in Nielsen’s words, “like the eagle riding the wind.” The cantilena’s scorching intensity and the accompanying deadly thuds suggest that his “eagle” reflects that supreme predator, the Angel of Death, wheeling over the battlefields. How can Life overcome the urge physically to destroy itself? By an immense effort of intellectual will? The answer comes in music of incomparable fervour:
An apparently promising idea, whispered by a solo violin, sounds suspiciously like a “Blues”[3]. Of itself, though, weeping won’t do. However, it does attract an ally (loud woodwind), a commanding triplet phrase from the “eagle” theme, with attendant, chorale-like brass harmonies. These fuse into a fugato prayer of such elemental power that it energises the “Blues” theme (horns!). “Eagle”, now become an irresistible declamatory force, sweeps all before it, and wins through – for the first time unequivocally – to the “goal” key (brass, drums).
But something is still wanting. Fragments of “eagle” and “blues” hover hesitantly. Shimmering strings support “eagle”, now a faltering supplicant. In response, scintillating strings set the air sizzling . . .
4. Allegro. A pregnant pause explodes into a theme of glorious grandiloquence, craftily compounded of “Life”, “Eagle” and “Blues”! But dissension intrudes, perverting the grandest phrase into a bilious fugue (strings) – a schism amplified by the tympani splitting into two, identically pugilistic personalities. Life now fights to surmount its own psychoses. After a mighty tussle euphony, if not defeats, at least disperses its assailants.
In surely the most breathtakingly beautiful, albeit tense, strategic planning meeting ever, a reformed first movement agitator’s proposal prompts lengthy ruminations by the “grandiloquent” theme. Then, mystically inspired, it unveils the “Life” melody. Thus armed, an old-fashioned cadence (brass) solemnly summons the foe.
The tympani attack with unbridled aggression, thundering the tonality of Chaos. But the seed of sanity is already sown – they’re playing in strict canon. Screaming insistently above the din, “Life” drives in a tonal wedge, wrenching them into line (tympani glissando). Bereft of its allies, the bilious fugue is engulfed by Life’s rising rapture. That “something wanting” (third movement climax), a forceful but futile four-note cell, finds its fulfilment – as the chariot of Life. Its victory absolute, Life’s melody bursts into bloom – and, at last, everything in the garden is rosy.
©Paul Serotsky, 2008
[1] I am grateful to Jesper – founder and M.D. of the record company, Danacord – who, in a lengthy exchange of e-mails and with infinite patience, explained it all to me. Regrettably, his fascinating dissertation is too lengthy to pass on in detail. I hope that this brief quote suffices to convey the gist of the multi-layered shades of meaning that are all but lost in the common translation. Inadequate as ”inextinguishable” may be, it remains the best single-word equivalent that English can offer.
[2] “Carl Nielsen – Symphonist” by Dr. Robert Simpson (pub. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1952). Simpson’s finely detailed thematic and harmonic analysis is a “must” for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts, but (be warned!) he largely leaves the reader to figure out for himself the logic underlying Nielsen’s complicated harmonic progressions.
[3] At that time, the “Blues”, as an oral tradition, had been around in America for about 50 years. It was popularised in the immediate pre-War years, so it is just possible that Nielsen knew of it. If so, then he’d also have been well aware of the nature of the genre, that is, a self-pitying lament – fine for mulling over your woes, but not much use for overcoming them!

© Paul Serotsky
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