The life and music of Carl Nielsen

Posted on November 18, 2012


Carl Nielsen, a composer of Denmark with increasing international recognition, was born on the island of Funen in 9 June 1865; Carl was the seventh born among 12 siblings. Nielsen’s earliest contact with music was provided mainly by the local folk heritage; his parents, who were musically educated people of modest social background. His mother, who was in charge of the household, was singing folk songs, and his father, a labourer and painter played the violin and he cornet. Nielsen started to play the violin and the piano as a child and started to notate his earliest little compositions by the age of eight-nine years. Around the same age he started to work in the nearby villages and became a shopkeepers apprentice for a while. However, when the shopkeeper went bankrupt Nielsen, encouraged by his parents started to practice the trumpet intensively, at the age of 14 he applied for a post of military musician at the Sixteenth Battalion in Odense, where he learned to play other brass instruments as well.
In 1884 the 18 year old Nielsen started to attend the Copenhagen Conservatory of Music (later to become the Royal Danish Academy of Music) led by Niels Gade, where he studied piano, violin, music history and theory. He also had small assignment in composition, mainly encouraged by Orla Rosenhoff, a music theorist with an open mind for modern musical currents. Nielsen dedicated his official opus 1 work, Suite for Strings, and other works for him. In the late period of his education he became more interested in composition and this remained his main focus thereafter. In 1887-1888 his first compositions were played at the Tivoli Hall such as the Andante tranquillo e Scherzo, the String Quartet in F major, and the Suite for Strings, the latter being considered his official opus 1, which was a great success. In 1889 Nielsen gained a regular position as a second violinist in the Chapel Royal Orchestra, a job that he carried out for many years even as a successful composer.

Suite for String Orchestra. The Young Danish Chamber Orcestra, Conductor: Gunnar Tagmose.

To extend his horizons as a composer Nielsen set out to travel (in 1890-91) after achieving a modest scholarship funded by the Ancker Award. He visited some of the great concert halls of Europe – Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, Paris, and later Italy – getting acquainted with the music of Wagner, Johan Svendsen and met fellow composers, such as Jean Sibelius and Victor Bendix. In Paris he met Anne Marie Brodersen, a young lady of a progressive world view, who was later to become his wife. They travelled to Italy together and married in the English Church of St. Mark’s in Venice. The couple spent large periods of time separated as Anne Marie was travelling and living abroad building a career as a sculptor. As a consequence Nielsen was carrying the lion share of bringing up their three children. He continued to play the violin in the Chapel Royal Orchestra, continued composing and taught music theory at the Copenhagen Conservatory, holding the post of director of the institute in the last year of his life.

Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, op.57 (1928), performed by Benny Goodman, clarinet with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Morton Gould conducting.

Nielsen’s music was considered to be part of the neo-classical current with markedly modern characteristics (which was often described as shocking by his audience) – a highly original and powerful combination of the old and new. He was keen on using progressive tonality in his most original works, especially in the symphonies. Progressive tonality is a compositional practice where a composition would depart from the original home-key and, usually through a competitive development, struggle between the two, ending in a different key as tonal centre. Nielsen combined many stylistic elements in his music, his compositions are considered great examples of complex, modern polyphonic structures blending Scandinavian folk tunes with counterpoint techniques used with great mastery.

Symphony no 5, Op. 50 Conductor: Leonard Bernstein, Orchestra/Ensemble: New York Philharmonic

He left a rich musical heritage which became a trademark of Danish culture and discovered by other parts of the world in the second half of the twentieth century. This includes orchestral music six symphonies, concertos for violin, flute and clarinet, chamber music (four string quartets, a wind quintet and the Fantasy Pieces for Oboe and Piano), music for piano and (at the later years of his career) for organ. He wrote numerous cantatas, songs and hymns (such as Hymnus amoris (Hymn of Love) and two operas – Saul og David (Saul and David) and Maskarade (Masquerade) – the second has become one of the most beloved pieces of the Danish musical repertoire.

References and useful links:

  • Carl Nielsen Danish Composer (1865-1931) Website [online]. Available from: [Accessed on 18th November 2012] – a very useful source of information about Nielsen’s musical style by composer and tap-guitarist Ray Ashley
Posted in: Part 2