Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ross on Nielsen

Alex Ross has made my week with this piece on Carl Nielsen. Nielsen's 4th might be on the very short list of pieces that I tie to a particular place and time. Strangely enough, at least for this Danish composer, it's modern Pompei last spring. As part of an immersion trip for my Ancient Roman City class, which was - in addition to an interesting course - a great excuse to spend better than a week on the Bay of Naples and in Rome in May, we started out in Pompei in a nice-enough hotel (the Hotel Iside, which I recommend highly for various reasons). It might have been our first or second night there, and - still a little frazzled from the jet-lag - I laid awake one night listening to Nielsen's 4th. For whatever reason, it clicked and it worked.

Ross, though, has this to say,
Given the blazing individuality of Nielsen’s voice, it’s puzzling that he has yet to find a firm place in the international repertory. He is ubiquitous in his native Denmark, where he holds the place of National Composer-Hero; he is a mainstay throughout the Nordic countries and, to a lesser extent, in Britain. For American orchestras, however, he remains a tough sell, despite periodic attempts to whip up the same enthusiasm that has long attended his contemporaries Mahler and Sibelius. Leonard Bernstein tried to set off a Nielsen fad at the New York Philharmonic in the nineteen-sixties, but it didn’t quite take. Orchestral players, percussionists excepted, tend to groan a little when Nielsen shows up on their music stands; his habit of writing furiously fast figures, and then passing them from one section to another, relay style, can make even an ensemble of virtuosos sound like a mess. Audiences, for their part, often go away from Nielsen performances pleased but a little dazed, not sure what hit them.
I, for one, would not mind it one bit if Nielsen became more popular. After forty years, Gustav Mahler entered the standard Germanic canon as it is performed in the United States. Bruckner is making strong inroads, though I don't think Bruckner is nearly as popular as Mahler. Nielsen, though in different ways, has at least as much claim to a spot in the Pantheon as Mahler or Bruckner. As to Sibelius, though, I am still not sure that he has gotten quite the spot that Mahler has. He's certainly canonical, but - let's be fair - if a music director wants to fill seats, he's going to program Mahler's 5th or 9th, not Sibelius' 7th. Those are the breaks.

In any event, Ross' article is - as usual - well worth your time.

2 Comments:

At 3:40 PM, Anonymous karl henning said...

Practically every note of Nielsen's that I've heard, I have found well-turned and enjoyable.

Cheers,
~Karl

 
At 6:58 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Smith said...

I agree. For whatever reason, he was one of those composers who knew how to hit all the notes. That is to say that he could find melodies that were enjoyable and then play with them to do interesting things.

 

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