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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.
from notes by Andrew Mellor © 2016
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