Let's just listen for a minute to Carl Nielsen's Inextinguishable Symphony (Barbirolli/Halle). String players especially dread Carl Nielsen, his music is full of these whirling lightning fast counterpoint. Today, musicians string players play that passage almost too well and precisely. You have to hear the struggle, it has to sound like a rocket, a smear of notes that's always moving so you can never hear exactly which note is placed when. This symphony is called the 'Inextinguishable', and Nielsen wrote of it in May 1914:
I have an idea for a new composition, which has no programme 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.August 1914, the famous month that ended the long European piece, was just a summer away. And the great irony of Nielsen's Inextinguishable Symphony is that 18 million lives were being extinguished as he wrote it, with another 23 million wounded. The elemental will to live itself was being put to the test. It's hard to believe that Nielsen didn't realize it. Near the end of the symphony we encounter a battle between the two timpani players. (Rattle/Royal Danish National)
Last week I said that of all Beethoven's successors, Nielsen is probably the one who channel's Beethoven's spirit most directly. He's a heroic, volcanic, optimist, a composer of towering humanity who uses the symphony to give hope and solace. The world needs to hear Carl Nielsen much more than they ever get to. Here is the climax of the whole piece. (Barbirolli/Halle) I don't need to say anything more about it than I already have, you'll get the point.
That was Nielsen's 4th Symphony, written during World War I. When Nielsen began it, he probably didn't mean it to be a statement of life in the face of death, but that's what it absolutely became. So now, let's listen to the end of Elgar's 1st Symphony, because while Nielsen found a way to adjust to the new world, Elgar could not.
Believe it or not, if you asked most music lovers whom the greatest composer was in exactly 1910, they wouldn't say Mahler or Debussy or Sibelius or even Puccini. Some of them would say Richard Strauss, but most would, believe it or not, say Edward Elgar.
The pressure on Elgar to write a symphony was more massive than any composer in history has ever experienced, including Brahms, and Elgar waited until he was fifty-one to issue his first. The difference in age between Elgar and Nielsen is eight years, but this is music of a completely different generation. Elgar wanted to write a symphony about General Gordon, who was considered the great British military hero of the imperial era and led a siege against a native uprising that lasted for an entire year. He abandoned this idea, but I wanted to tell you this to give you a sense of just how out of step Elgar was with how the world would change in just a few years. Elgar wrote to a friend:
There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future.We're not going to have time to listen to any of the Second Symphony, which is probably the greater piece. Elgar only wrote two symphonies, and both are genuinely great pieces even if they're both twelve minutes too long. But I do want to give you a sense of the enormity of the event that Elgar's First was and how important it was for Elgar to rise to the challenge. He begins the symphony with what sounds like a hymn, or a prayer - twice through, first very quietly, and then at full voice like a group of Episcopals in Church (Solti/London Philharmonic) with a march-like tread that clearly sounds a bit military - or at least it does when played at Elgar's metronome marking... The prayer basically disappears for most of the symphony - it comes back at the end of the first movement and at the end of the piece in, what sounds very much like some kind of battle, maybe even a sea battle... (Solti/London)
Elgar was a great melodist and a great orchestrator, he was not at all a natural symphonist. Both of his symphonies have all sorts of passages which really have no reason for being there except as padding to make a work that was 'Important' with a capital I. But Elgar was so gifted at what he was good at that it's amazing how good both of his symphonies are in spite of how bad they are in other parts. . After World War I, Elgar was a relic who couldn't come to terms with the modern world, and while he lived until the mid-Thirties, he barely wrote any music for the last fifteen years of his life.
Nielsen, on the other hand, was a great symphonist, and maybe even greater than the Inextinguishable, his Fourth, is his Fifth Symphony, which has no title. We're going to listen to the first few minutes, (Bernstein/New York) because I want you to hear how gradually something incredibly pastoral becomes something incredibly military.
So now we fast forward a few minutes, and the music becomes a prayer - a hymn, and as it grows in intensity, Nielsen does something truly shocking. Against his hymn, he has the snare drum play a march figure in a completely different tempo, and then he gives the snare drum player the instruction to improvise "as if at all costs he wants to stop the progress of the orchestra." (Horenstein/Philharmonia) It's a prayer and a military march - like a prayer to spare those in battle whom we love.
It took Nielsen the coming of the war to realize that a new era was upon us, but in the case of the two great symphonic masters, they seemed in their work to intuit something was coming. Last week we played the opening minute of Sibelius's Third Symphony, which I don't think gets enough credit, but Sibelius 3rd is both the first symphony by the fully mature Sibelius and an uncharacteristically cheerful work by him. Here's the last minute and a half. (Davis/Boston)
Even Sibelius's cheerfulness is stormy. So how dark will Sibelius sound when he isn't being cheerful? (Maazel/Vienna). There is plenty of emotional turbulence and storminess in other composers, but has there ever been any other symphony in the history of music which had the nerve to be as dark as Sibelius's 4th? This was premiered in 1911, the same year that Elgar's Second Symphony premiered, and here's what the beginning of Elgar's Second Symphony sounds like. (Solti/London)
This is not to say that Sibelius intuited in any way saw that war was imminent, but it is to say that something in Sibelius seemed to feel that the world was changing in some very fundamental way. Sibelius had written dark symphonies before, but they're a very different kind of dark. Listen to how Sibelius builds something that sounds like a storm in his first symphony, which, even if it's clearly the work of a genius, is so obviously influenced by Tchaikovsky. (Vanska/Lahti I think...)
It's like the young Sibelius needs the Russian-style melodies as a way of disguising what he's really doing. But listen to what Sibelius does a couple minutes into the Fourth Symphony to create what sounds, at least to me, like a winter storm. He starts with forty seconds of just the violin sections playing a semi-non-sensical series of notes against each other, eventually joined by tremolos in the rest of the strings. (Maazel/Vienna)
Sibelius 4 is completely unique, even to Sibelius....