Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”)
Carl Nielsen is considered Denmark’s greatest composer. He was also a violinist and conductor. He composed six symphonies, many concertos, a “Wind Quintet,” an opera, and many songs. He is regarded so highly in Denmark that his image was engraveD on 100-kroner currency. His international familiarity and acclaim continues to grow.
As World War I erupted in Europe, Denmark was able to stay neutral. But the horrors of war haunted Nielsen in a way that caused his creative spirit to push back. He wrote his wife, “I have an idea for a new composition which has no program 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, as if constantly on the move, in one big movement or stream. I cannot quite explain what I want, but what I want is good.”
Though Nielsen couldn’t give words to what he wanted, his struggle for expression came out in powerful form in his Symphony No. 4. Nielsen said that only music could express what he was trying to get out, “for music is life, whereas the other arts only depict life.” Other artists may take issue with Nielsen, but his symphony is full of intensity of feeling, passion, conflict, triumph, and life. At times Nielsen despaired for the future as the carnage continued, but he found faith in the persistence of the will to live.
He wrote the symphony from 1914 until just before its premiere in February of 1916. He called it “The Inextinguishable,” referring “to that which is inextinguishable … the elemental will to live.” For Nielsen, “Life is unquenchable and inextinguishable: yesterday, today, and tomorrow life was, is and will be in struggle, conflict, procreation and destruction, and everything returns.”
The war didn’t physically scar Denmark, but the battles are woven into his music culminating in the final movement when two sets of timpani engage in a climactic clash. The movements all flow into each other with a demanding intensity for the orchestra. The first movement begins with bursts of chaotic energy, then more calming and gentle in the second and third movements, culminating in the powerful clash in the fourth movement. The clash resolves in the life-affirming theme in E Major that brings the symphony to its glorious end.
Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4: