Monday, June 25, 2007

Carl Nielsen's Criticism

I am a big fan of Carl Nielsen's fourth symphony (particularly in the Martinon/CSO recording), but I haven't done much research into Nielsen as a composer or critic. Thankfully, Alex Ross has done the heavy lifting for me. Nielsen's "The Fullness of Time" makes for a compelling and interesting read:
Nothing in all art is as painful as unsuccessful originality. It is like the twisted grimaces of vanity. We see the spirit everywhere. Some of us know it, but have no word for it; we exchange looks and shudder, like children at the sight of a skeleton. We see it in houses, paintings, statues, music; and most of all where artists have wanted to express strong emotion. Joy howls, Cupid squirms and writhes, mirth is stylized on stilts, and sorrow and grief look like the mask of some sphinx with great hollow eyes. This is what happens when a man of insufficient talent tries to be original and do things for which he has neither the feeling nor the powers. Oh, you artists, see how Albrecht Dürer painted a blade of grass, how Schubert composed a little song! Learn that the smallest shall be the greatest; that two colors, three notes, two right-angles and a circle sufficed for the man who found delight as a humble servant of art!
Fair enough, Carl. Fair enough. You can read the post and decide for yourselves what you think. It's worth a few minutes. You can also appreciate his blasé barb at Mahler, which - to me - indicates that Nielsen had wit and musical talent,
[Here] was a time in music, not long ago, when the pursuit of originality led to monster orchestras. Imagine the incredible naïveté of trying to get a greater effect with bigger orchestras! It is not more than 15-20 years ago and there are composers still living who took part in the movement. But of course the limit was soon reached. Orchestras of one, two, three, and four hundred players were the cry, and the mass display culminated with a thousand at a concert, I think, in Vienna. [Munich — ed.] And what then? That was far as it could go; and clear-headed people outside the profession — not conductors and musicians — began to react in speech and print.
Nielsen is talking, of course, about the premiere of Mahler's 8th, dubbed Symphonie der Tausend for the occasion, or "Barnum and Bailey symphony," famously by the composer. It took place in Munich on September 12, 1910. It was pretty damn' big, as Mahler biographer Henry-Louis de la Grange reports:
Monday 12 September 1910, 7.30 p.m. Built entirely of glass and steel, the vast new concert hall of the International Exhibition Centre in Munich was full to overflowing with an audience of 3,400. Facing them was a chorus of 850 (500 adults and 350 children) dressed entirely in black and white and spread across the back of a huge rostrum specially built for the occasion, as well as one of the largest orchestras ever to have been assembled since the first performance of Berlioz's celebrated Requiem: 146 players, along with eight vocal soloists and eleven brass players (eight trumpeters and three trombonists) positioned elsewhere in the hall.
A big undertaking indeed. Still, Nielsen's piece deserves some reading for a critical view on this sort of wild and woolly musical milieu.

By the way, I'm experimenting with formatting my longer extracts, and maybe even my posts in general. Bear with me, please, and pardon our mess.


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