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Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) – Symphony No. 4 “The Inextinguishable” [2369 words, inc. footnotes]

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


Nielsen himself provided this ideal opener to any introduction to his Fourth Symphony. However, 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 Danish “lukke” means “to close” something that can later be “re-opened” (for example, 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.”


The prefix “u” is a negation, which already makes the word mean “in-extinguishable”. So, from the strictly semantic viewpoint, sticking in the “ud” (meaning “out) is simple superfluity, rather like the English “reverse back”. However, whereas in English such tautologies are utterly unnecessary and hence regarded as ridiculous, in Danish the word’s meaning is mysteriously magnified. In Jesper’s potent turn of phrase, “Making that word into something that will never stop, never close, never end, is actually . . . poetic and beautiful and very deep and intense.”
Obviously, the remarkable – and remarkably concise – proposition at the head of this note is the origin of the symphony’s subtitle and subject-matter, but whence came the proposition itself? 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.
Judging by the overall thrust of the Fourth Symphony, I suspect that Nielsen must have been aware of some correspondence between his observations and Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Whether or not that was the case, with increasing maturity, knowledge and understanding, everything that had seeped into his young soul gradually coalesced into a profound, and profoundly optimistic 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.. Paradoxical as it might seem, this doesn’t mean that Life has an easy ride. To overcome, Life has to fight every inch of the way.
Meanwhile, he’d also been thinking about Music. He’d soon figured out that the basic, the only irreducible elements of Music are rhythm and tone. But (he asked himself), isn’t Life’s persistence most strongly characterised by movement and sound? Something in his mind went “ping!” and drew the equation, “Music is Life, . . .” We may disagree with the detail of his reasoning – for example, sound is really only a form of movement (vibration) – but that matters not. The important thing is 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 in earnest, a full year later, what was then Mankind’s most determined attempt to press the “self-destruct” button was in full swing. The gathering storm-clouds had plunged not a few artists into deepest gloom. Nielsen, though, fortified by an unshakeable belief in uudslukkelige, was not to be cowed. Quite the contrary – the War had inflamed his already intense desire to express his belief, to wield it as a torch against the encroaching darkness. But why, then, did it take him so long to get cracking on the job?
Perhaps it was no more than this: he had a small technical problem. Based on a “home key” – an ultimate point of return – the traditional symphonic tonal scheme would undermine, or even scupper, his entire intention. Luckily, at a time when many were opting out of tonality, Nielsen had been busy revitalising it. The experiments with progressive tonality of his earlier symphonies now offered a stunning 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. At least part of the music’s tension results from the “inevitable” conclusion not actually being a foregone conclusion. The Fourth Symphony, for example, jangles the listener’s nerves by hitting the woodwork several times before scoring the outright winner, whereas his later Clarinet Concerto ultimately fails altogether to find the back of the net, ending up frustrated, wobbling around what turns out to be an unattainable goal.
So, does this mean that all the fun and games are reserved exclusively for musicologists and their ilk? Not at all! Think of it as rather like a conflagration – few of us 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 best proof of this particular pudding – at the end of its epic adventure, just check your watch. Surely, you will ask, it must have taken much longer than that?
Nielsen’s fiery “flower” comes to full bloom (in E major, for the musicologically minded) through four distinct but interdependent phases, which traverse a series of increasingly sophisticated “threats”. Now, Nielsen’s uudslukkelige relates to the universal concept of “Life”, whilst the music itself – especially in view of when it was written – forcibly calls to mind the specific concept of “human life”. As the principles at work apply much the same to both, we can cheerfully characterise the opposition in terms of the latter: First Movement – Jungle; Third Movement – War, the physical destroyer; Fourth Movement – Psychosis, the spiritual destroyer.
Throughout, the music is driven by complex, interlocked thematic and harmonic development, the summary of whose analysis occupied Simpson for some 13 pages [2]. I’m not about to try to emulate that! Instead, I offer you my relatively brief, complementary “dramatic analysis”, which is based upon the above-mentioned characteristics:
1. Allegro. The 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) serenely stretches its sinews. Momentarily uneasy (violas, nervous repeated notes), Life shrugs and prances vigorously, then proudly flexes its strong young sinews.
As the brassy climax, striding downwards, fades, unease awakens fully (pulsing drum) – Life’s brazen strutting has attracted unwelcome attention. Anxiety increases as motives born of the first subject, slithering menacingly through the shadows, close in. The inevitable onslaught is sudden and ferocious. Life manages to repel and disengage, but is left feeling dangerously disoriented, drifting bemusedly.
The cohorts of Chaos resurge (first subject “reprise”). The threat of imminent obliteration mobilises 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, as far as it goes. But surely, with his singular purpose, wouldn’t taking time out for an idle “intermezzo” be the last thing on Nielsen’s mind? I suspect so, and instead see this as a significant turning-point in the drama.
Think about it: this movement alone actually returns to its starting key, whilst the main theme, subtly derived from the “Life” melody, is elegant but prim. The finely-crafted music simply reeks of drawing-room teas and cottage gardens. It uses Classical formality to make its point: elemental opposition has been vanquished, civilised leisure is the prize, and complacency reigns supreme. Life’s guard is down, laying it wide open to much stealthier foes . . .
3. Poco adagio quasi andante. [*2] Violins interrupt, their cantilena circling, in Nielsen’s words, “like the eagle riding the wind”. I think that Nielsen was referring, not simply to the ease and majesty of its circling, but to the lazy-looking eagle that suddenly becomes the swift, silent reaper of even the momentarily complacent.
Yet, the cantilena’s scorching intensity and its accompanying deadly thuds suggest something much more sinister, perhaps that legendary supreme predator, the Angel of Death, wheeling over the battlefields of Europe. Ultimately, though, War itself is the predator, feeding on Life. How can Life overcome War, this urge physically to destroy itself? To vanquish War, its vast energy must be transmuted, from ill use to good. How? By an immense effort of intellectual will? The answer, which also involves a bit of gentle persuasion, comes in music of incomparable cumulative fervour:
A promising idea, whispered by a solo violin, sounds suspiciously like a “Blues”[3]. By itself, of course, weeping won’t turn the trick, but the eloquent melody’s implicit compassion does win over from the enemy’s ranks a convert – this, a commanding triplet phrase (loud woodwind) from the “eagle” theme, with attendant, chorale-like brass harmonies, is crucial to Life’s cause. These two themes fuse into a fugato prayer, or perhaps invocation, of such elemental power that it energises the “Blues” theme (horns!). Now ablaze with declamatory passion, the music drives irresistibly onwards, until it bursts through unequivocally to its “goal” (brass, tympani).
But it doesn’t stick! Tantalisingly, the “goal” slips away. Something is still wanting. In bewilderment, bits of “eagle” and “blues” hover hesitantly. The music starts to tingle with expectancy; shimmering strings gently support “eagle”, now reduced to a faltering supplicant. The plea seems to be answered, as scintillating strings set the air sizzling . . .
4. Allegro. . . . and, from a pregnant pause, there explodes a theme of utterly glorious grandiloquence, craftily compounding all three of the symphony’s affirmative elements! However, for all its outward magnificence, this new alliance – of “Life”, “Eagle” and “Blues” – is inwardly unstable. An internal rupture perverts its grandest phrase into a bilious fugue (strings). This schism is exacerbated by the tympani who (possibly traumatised by their failure at the third movement’s climax!), develop a pugilistically split personality, and beleaguer “Alliance” with cannon-fire from both left and right flanks. Thus is Life confronted with its ultimate challenge; how to surmount its own psychoses? After a mighty tussle, “Alliance” succeeds, not in vanquishing its assailants, but merely in buying a bit of time.
What follows is surely the most breathtakingly beautiful, albeit tense, strategic planning meeting you’re ever likely to witness. A reformed agitator (called up from the first movement) makes a proposal, sufficiently significant to prompt protracted ruminations by “Alliance”. Then, mystically inspired, the latter unveils its secret weapon, the simple innocence of the original “Life” melody. Thus armed, an old-fashioned cadence (brass) solemnly summons the foe to rejoin battle.
The tympani, who’ve been growling around in the undergrowth, steam in from both sides with apparently unbridled aggression. They’ve reverted to the “chaotic” tonality of the symphony’s opening tutti –progressive tonality’s most “negative” attitude! In thundering furiously they are, as it were, trying to hide an injury sustained in the previous engagement: their cannon-fire is no longer chaotic, but in strict canon. “Life”, screaming implacably above the din, drives its tonal wedge into the weak spot, wrenching them into line and out of contention (tympani glissando). Now bereft of its more powerful cohorts, the bilious fugue is soon engulfed by the rising rapture of “Life”, which soars untrammelled towards its “goal”.
The “something wanting” was simply the melody to complement the accompaniment. Life’s melody now claims this role. Riding the tympani’s forceful four-note cell like a victory chariot, Life celebrates its fulfilment, bursting into full bloom – as Simpson [2] keenly observed, this is the first and only time the tune appears complete and uninterrupted. It’s doubly fitting, then, that its culminating gesture is to hurl the “striding descent”, like a seed-burst arcing through the blazing light. At last, everything in Life’s garden is rosy.
I first heard Det Uudslukkelige in the early 1960s, played by the Hallé under Barbirolli. Back then, a lot of folk looked askance at this “rather modern” music. I couldn’t understand that attitude, any more than I can understand what’s happened since. Nielsen’s star has ascended but, it must be said, not to anything like the dizzy heights of (say) Mahler’s, or even Sibelius’s. I’ve a sneaking feeling that, as this sublime music grabs your ears firmly by the throat, you also will be tempted to ask why.
ã Paul Serotsky, 2008
[1] I am grateful to Jesper – founder and M.D. of the Danish record company, Danacord – who, in a lengthy exchange of e-mails and with infinite patience, gradually explained it all to me. Regrettably, his fascinating dissertation is too lengthy to pass on in detail. I hope that this brief explanation 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 nevertheless remains the nearest single-word equivalent that English can muster.
[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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