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The Philharmonia Orchestra and Paavo Järvi perform two of Nielsen's characteristically fiery concertos, orchestral principals Samuel Coles (flute) and Mark van de Wiel (clarinet) stepping up as the intrepid soloists.
Nielsen, in fact, had particular ideas about the soul of the former instrument. ‘The flute cannot deny its own nature, its home is in Arcadia and it prefers pastoral moods’ he wrote to a friend, ‘hence the composer has to obey its gentle nature, unless he wants to be branded a barbarian’. But the concerto that was brewing inside Nielsen certainly wasn’t all pastoral reflection and prettiness. 15 years had passed since the first performance of Nielsen’s Violin Concerto when the Flute Concerto was introduced in Paris in 1927. But the contrast with its predecessor was keenly felt. Not only was the sound of the new concerto entirely different—more focused, brittle and chamberlike—it also bucked convention in shunning virtuosic cadenzas, proving reluctant to let both soloist and orchestra present a good deal of the themes and even allowing other instruments to indulge in controlling solos. That, and the piece appeared to pick up the flippant and reactive mantle of Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony completed the previous year.
At the time of composition, from August to the early autumn of 1926, Nielsen had experienced some illness but his private life was proving considerably more stable than at the start of the decade. The composer had travelled to Germany to help the Danish Broadcasting Corporation choose a new radio transmitter, and from there had continued south to Rome for an extended stay with his daughter and son-in-law. But despite the amenable circumstances, the concerto didn’t flow entirely easily from Nielsen’s pen. The first movement was pretty problem-free. But it was long. Nielsen believed it ‘could stand alone by itself’ and thus seemed a little confused as to how to follow it (he seldom planned his works, which helps explain their free attitude to form and their characteristic spontaneity).
Nine days after completing that first movement, Nielsen concluded that the piece would have only one more. Not long after that, he attempted to explain the content of the second movement in a letter to his friend Rudolph Simonsen but complained that he had already ‘had to send the fair copy and transcription of the solo part to Copenhagen for Gilbert-Jespersen to study’. Nielsen knew the concerto’s dedicatee and soloist would need time to practice the fearsome flute part before the 21 October premiere, but he undoubtedly finished the piece in a rush and apparently in the knowledge that he’d eventually rewrite its abrupt ending.
Holger Gilbert-Jespersen was a man of humour and taste—particularly for all things French, music included. But he was also, according to one who knew him, ‘full of shadow and ambiguity’. Everyone of those descriptions could equally apply to the concerto Nielsen fashioned in the flautist’s image. The first movement seems to be constantly in search of a key, right from the dissonant clash between low strings and brass (on an E flat) and upper strings and woodwinds (in D minor) that launches it.
Nielsen plays further with polarities in pitting the solo flute against a bass trombone which, to borrow Robert Simpson’s summary, ‘spreads himself all over the score with a grotesque and aimless blether’. The first time the trombone makes a nuisance of itself—just after the orchestra reprises the first movement’s rich initial theme—it appears to put the flute into a fluttering aristocratic panic. But the instrument soon composes itself for a gorgeous, floating melody in E major that’s taken up by the rest of the orchestra. There are three passages that could loosely be described as cadenzas, but in each the flute has company: first the timpani, then a clarinet, finally the whole orchestra.
The second movement is characterised by even more volatility and sudden shifts—one moment the flute’s material can feel purely melodic; the next it can bear unmistakably human qualities. Soon enough an elfin little melody (ending on a typically Nielsenite falling minor third) emerges, a theme ‘of childish innocence’ in Nielsen’s words; listen out for it accompanied by the orchestra’s glowing woodwinds. Soon after that, the flute presents an expressive theme that initiates the movement’s Adagio and is taken up by the double basses while the soloist comments lightly on it from above.
Thereafter the flute seems resolutely more prone to wading into the musical argument, occasionally getting its fingers burned. Originally, Nielsen’s quick-fix ending had reintroduced the first movement’s initial theme and pursued it to a close in D major. But as Simpson observes, that theme is itself related to the first movement’s floating E major idea—pretty convenient as E is the natural key with which to bring the concerto to a close. In his rewrite of January 1927, Nielsen cheekily has the trombone alight upon that melody, following the orchestra in converting it into a little march in 6/8 time, much to the consternation of the flute. When the flute eventually has the forthright last word—seizing the moral high ground—the trombone almost literally deflates.
Among the five wind players who premiered Nielsen’s Wind Quintet in 1922 was a clarinetist named Aage Oxenvad. Simpson described Oxenvad as a person ‘of somewhat choleric temperament, irascible but warm at heart, full of personal, subjective problems.’ Those characteristics are hard to miss in the changeable, confrontational and fiendishly difficult concerto Nielsen would deliver for Oxenvad.
Nielsen started work on the concerto while on a skiing trip with his sculptress wife Anne Marie in Norway. The composer had been ordered to rest by doctors following ongoing heart problems, but still managed to break two ribs on the slopes. Eventually Anne Marie continued on to Carrara in Italy to resume work on her latest project while Nielsen travelled to the summerhouse in Humlebæk, about 40km north of Copenhagen, which belonged to his friend and former pupil Carl Johan Michaelsen. From there, Nielsen wrote to another former pupil Nancy Dalberg (who had previously help him on the score for Aladdin): ‘I actually have no idea how it will sound’ the composer said of the new concerto; ‘Maybe it won’t sound good, but I will not compose music if I always have to compose in the same manner.’
Sure enough, the Clarinet Concerto ruffled feathers. On 14 September 1928, Oxenvad and a group of 22 musicians gave a private run-through of the piece in the drawing room of the summerhouse. Nielsen’s son-in-law Emil Telmányi conducted, describing the piece as ‘music from another planet.’ Critics in Copenhagen were cool when the piece was presented there on 11 October. Some days later, after its Swedish première in Stockholm, the critic Olag Petersen- Berger described the piece as ‘absolutely the worst thing that this slightly too obviously experimental and provocatively sidestepping Dane has yet put together.’
Nielsen would have been delighted. He later claimed the poor reviews proved ‘that one is not quite sacrosanct yet, that one is still alive and has hope and possibilities for development.’ In his determination to reveal everything about both Oxenvad and the clarinet—an instrument he described as ‘at once warm hearted, and completely hysterical, gentle as balm and screaming as a streetcar on poorly lubricated rails’—Nielsen had delivered what would soon be recognised as the most important clarinet concerto of the 20th century. Where previous scores by the composer had been invested with a sure sense of continuity, this one appeared both elusive and episodic—intentionally so. Its hints at atonality (the jettisoning of traditional harmonic process) would have sounded with a sharp modernist edge in 1928; the concerto as a whole can still sound raw, harsh and intense today.
But for all that, the concerto was built along Classical structural principles even though its ‘movements’ lead into one another with no break. The work begins when the orchestra states a simple theme as a sort of fugal nursery rhyme into which the soloist duly enters before taking on some of the wild and troll-like characteristics Nielsen claimed he saw in it. After teasing and irritating the orchestra, the clarinet encounters a wily snare drum (the composer specified it should be a small, bright drum). This instrument, rather troll-like itself, provokes and eggs-on whenever it can. Its principal target is the soloist—specifically, whenever the clarinet appears to drift into reflective or melancholy mood.
Some way into the first movement the clarinet indulges in its own choleric cadenza, which appears to provoke the orchestra into the hurtling passages that precede the Poco adagio section. This opens with a yearning horn solo whose strange gait stems from the fact that it is written in two keys: the horn in C major and the two accompanying bassoons in E major. The horn soon makes way for the soloist, who continues in the same vein and attempts to exert the same calming influence on the entire movement, despite yelping strings and the everdestabilising snare drum. When the energy levels have been sufficiently raised, the clarinet has no choice but to enter the fray.
A short cadenza then leads to the Allegro finale, in which the horn again introduces the movement’s initial theme over lolling strings. The clarinet arrives on a version of that horn theme, and continues in songful vein until the orchestra (encouraged by the snare drum) gets hooked on a flowing idea, high strings suddenly sounding a manic alarm. That leads into the soloist’s third cadenza and then the Adagio section in which, as always, the clarinet is shaken from its pensive repose by the snare drum.
From here it’s a bumpy ride—plenty of song-like passages interrupted by the clarinet japes (often in the form of flowery, virtuoso flourishes) or by the trolling snare drum—until the clarinet hesitantly circles around an F and eventually comes to rest on it, surrounded by a halo of strings playing on shimmering harmonics. It’s unlike Nielsen to end on the same key (and, indeed, note) that he began on; could the composer, ever more aware of his heart condition and speaking of ‘changing attitudes’ since his skiing trip to Norway (complete with accident), have caught a glimpse of his own mortality?
The ensemble of five musicians that spawned Nielsen’s two wind concertos was made up of players from the so-called Royal Chapel, the orchestra that played in the pit at Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre and does so to this day. Nielsen started his career in the orchestra’s second violin section, before becoming a resident conductor at the theatre and eventually writing two operas for its stage.
But as Nielsen achieved national treasure status in Denmark and got into his symphonic stride, he distanced himself from his former workplace. The composer claimed every one of its projects he had been involved in since the premiere of his opera Maskarade in 1906 had been dogged by compromise and willful distortion of his work. Some thought Nielsen was overreacting. His work on the Royal Theatre’s 1919 production of Aladdin suggested he had been right all along.
The theatre had scheduled a revival of Adam Oehlenschlæger’s adaptation of the story from the Arabian Nights in an attempt to lift spirits as war ravaged mainland Europe. The production was to be lavish, and its director Johannes Poulsen wanted Nielsen to provide original music for the show—aware of his abilities to write in a festive, joyous style. But Poulsen also knew that Nielsen would take some serious persuading given his opinions on the theatre. So the director wrote Nielsen a fawning poem by way of persuasion, which seemed to do the trick.
But for Nielsen, the omens were bad from the start. The theatre announced it needed music for the preliminary rehearsals of the ballet corps just weeks after he’d received the play’s first texts in the summer of 1918. Still, Nielsen sweated it out (‘I am going through a frightful amount of work’ he wrote to the composer Wilhelm Stenhammar) and with the help of his former pupil Nancy Dalberg, who assisted with orchestrations, he had completed the full 80 minutes of music by January 1919.
Nielsen’s hunch that the project wouldn’t end well for him came good. Poulsen’s production became more and more elaborate; it was eventually divided into two separate shows (playing on consecutive evenings) and the stage was extended over the Royal Theatre’s orchestra pit. The orchestra itself was thus squeezed into a recess on stage level, underneath a grand staircase that formed part of the set. Nielsen’s score was heavily cut and what remained of it was rearranged. The composer asked that his name be removed from all publicity surrounding the performances.
Nielsen had, however, taken preemptive action. Before the show opened that February he assembled a suite of seven movements for orchestra alone (the original score contained solo songs and a wordless chorus). The Aladdin Suite is founded largely on the dance and processional numbers written for the scenes in which the marriage of Aladdin to Gulnare is celebrated. It immediately became a popular concert work, even if it had to wait until 1940 to be published.
The Suite’s music might not be a quintessential example of Nielsen’s progressive, individual style, but it’s undoubtedly charming and intermittently revealing too. The scene is set with the ‘Oriental Festive March’, which uses minor keys to evoke the mysterious splendor of the east. Nielsen had visited Constantinople in 1903 and seen the dancing dervishes; his attempts to recapture the essence of the east certainly harked back to that memorable trip, but were certainly more inspired than authentic.
The composer’s gift for scene-setting is even better heard in ‘Aladdin’s Dream’, a hymn on muted strings which soon gives way to a charming waltz blessed with a lyrical lightness typical of Nielsen; it disappears suddenly like a twisting plume of smoke. The inflected modal opening of the ‘Hindu Dance’ is representative of Oriental tokenism typical of the time. But it’s notable how, in this delicate piece, those modal scales meet the rural harmonies common to folk music the world over and in which Nielsen’s harmonic DNA was rooted. Again, there’s nothing authentically Chinese about Nielsen’s ‘Chinese Dance’ (the claims that Aladdin was himself a Chinese character are equally spurious) but the music is absolutely Nielsen’s in its pushing through repeated notes towards sudden shifts in gait, and in its thrifty sense of climax and repose.
Next comes the Suite’s most fascinating movement. Nielsen was rightly proud of ‘The Marketplace in Ispahan’, and its effective castration by Poulsen proved the breaking point for the composer’s association with the whole Aladdin project. In conjuring the bustle of an Oriental market place (that which Nielsen would have known from Constantinople) the composer superimposes four separate musical statements, each greeting the listener as if from different corners of the souk; here is the imaginative experimentalist we hear in Nielsen’s wind concertos. Two vigorous dances conclude the Suite: the imposing ‘Dance of the Prisoners’ and, finally, the furiously energetic ‘Negro Dance’, a rollercoaster that accelerates as it hurtles towards its conclusion.
Andrew Mellor © 2016