Symphony No 4

Op. 29, ("The Inextinguishable"), Carl Nielsen

Music is Life, and like it, it is inextinguishable.

(Written at the top of the score by the composer)

Carl Nielsen was one of Denmark’s finest twentieth century conductors and composers, notable most of all for his six symphonies. The standouts have been the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, written against the backdrop and conclusion of World War I. The Fourth Symphony premiered in Copenhagen on February 1, 1916.

The composer grew up in humble circumstances, the son of a painter and village musician on the island of Funen. Though the family had little, the children did have music. Carl was clearly talented. With the help of village sponsors (Sortelung) he was able, as a teenager, to enter the royal Danish Conservatory in Copenhagen, studying violin piano, and theory.  He was diligent and became a violinist in the Royal Chapel, where he became acquainted with Wagner, leading to further study in Germany. It was there and then, in 1892, he began to write the first of his symphonies. Geoffrey Kuenning summarized their place in history: “Old enough to have met and been influenced by Brahms, and young enough to have an influence on Dmitri Shostakovich, his music spans the boundary between Romanticism and Modernism, wearing its heart on its sleeve while pushing the boundaries of tonality and form.”

Symphony Number Four gestated for two years. In 1914, he wrote to his estranged wife, Ann Marie. (Estranged because he had an affair with the nanny; they reconciled eight years later.)  “I have an idea for a new composition, which has no program but will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestations of life, that is: everything that moves, that wants to live … just life and motion, though varied—very varied—yet connected, and as if constantly on the move, in one big movement or stream. I must have a word or a short title to express this; that will be enough. I cannot quite explain what I want, but what I want is good.”

By 1916, when he finished Opus 29, he found just the word: Inextinguishable, signifying “the elemental will to live. The composer explained “It is not a program, but only a suggestion about the right approach to the music.”

Nielsen explained; “Music is Life. As soon as even a single note sounds in the air or through space, it is result of life and movement; that is why music (and the dance) is the more immediate expressions of the will to life.”

The symphony evokes the most primal sources of life and the wellspring of the life-feeling; that is, what lies behind all human, animal and plant life, as we perceive or live it. It is not a musical, program-like account of the development of a life within a limited stretch of time and space, but an un-program-like dip right down to the layers of the emotional life that are still half-chaotic and wholly elementary.

The symphony is not something with a thought-content, except insofar as the structuring of the various sections and the ordering of the musical material are the fruit of deliberation by the composer in the same way as when an engineer sets up dykes and sluices for the water during a flood. It is in a way a completely thoughtless expression of what make the birds cry, the animals roar, bleat, run and fight, and humans moan, groan exult and shout without any explanation. The symphony does not describe all this, but the basic emotion that lies beneath all this. Music can do just this, it is its most profound quality, its true domain … because, by simply being itself, it has performed its task. For it is life, whereas the other arts only represent and paraphrase life. Life is indomitable and inextinguishable; the struggle, the wrestling, the generation and the wasting away go on today as yesterday, tomorrow as today, and everything returns. Once more: music is life, and like it inextinguishable.

The music begins with a roar (marked attacca) from timpani and winds, joined afterwards by the strings. Two tonalities (D and E) are sounded simultaneously, adding to the distress. A three note motif introduced at the beginning becomes central to the first movement. Flutes and clarinet calm the uproar, and melt into a gentle second theme (sung by two clarinets in thirds), which will reappear in the third and finale movement. This has frequently been identified as the “will to life” theme. The stage is now set for the emotional flux which will continue throughout the work: sudden gentleness and sudden rage. “Nielsen’s sudden stylistic swings are shown through dynamics, instrumentation, tempo and tonality.  Such abrupt switches can be dizzying and can pose many challenges of pacing and momentum for the conductor.” (Joan Ollsen)

This lyric idea changes character: at times dance like, and also exploding into a massive climax. A turbulent development shatters the second theme into small pieces, which are ruffled and tossed about by extensive participation and commentary from violas. The storm continues into a high octane coda before quiet strings and solo timpani merge smoothly into the second movement.

This short allegretto is scored almost totally for winds, with light commentary from strings.  Quite suddenly, (marked poco adagio quasi andante) the strings change character and force, moving directly into the third section.  His music remains unsettled and, timpani again appear adding somber thumps until the strings move into a soft, slowly moving hymn structure with coloration from the winds. Nielsen instructs them to play like “an eagle riding the wind.” Gradually, the mood shifts with the entrance of low brass, and the texture coils into an extensive contrapuntal development.  Intensity and heaviness grow steadily, expanding to a huge climax before the movement runs out of steam, exhausted, closing over trilling violins (marked ppp) and oboe repeating notes. There is a large pause before the last section.

The fourth movement, con anima, is dramatic and aggressive, featuring military style participation from  dueling timpanists, placed at opposite sides of the orchestra, who are instructed  by Nielsen to play “ from here to the end, maintaining a certain threatening character even when they play quietly .”  Part of the terror comes from timpani playing tritones, a dissonant interval sometimes identified as “ the devil in music.”  The music begins in a frenzy, continues in exuberance and brilliance which is finally de-railed by horns and winds quoting from the “life force” theme from the first movement. Surging passages swirl into the atmosphere, alternating with quiet reflections. Just as all seems serene, the timpani re-ignite into their dueling contest. As if alarmed, the orchestra re-enters into a furious passage: strings race, brass intone grand ideas over the entire orchestral force, re-iterating the life force idea. And the inextinguishable force of life and the living of it triumphs in an enormous affirmation.

The last ISO performance of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4 was in April 2005, conducted by Mario Venzago.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

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