The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 5, Op. 50

About the Work

Carl Nielsen Composer: Carl Nielsen
© Robert Markow

Denmark's most famous composer, Carl Nielsen, like his Finnish counterpart Sibelius, ranks as one of the leading symphonists of the early twentieth century. Nielsen had a voice all his own, but he grew up in an era that included so many attention-grabbing personalities - Debussy, Bartók, Mahler, Ravel, Satie, Schoenberg, Busoni, Strauss, Stravinsky, Varèse - that there was little room left in the international consciousness for conservative music written by a quiet, simple man in Copenhagen. But times change, and the Nielsen ratings are now significantly higher than they were just a few decades ago. His music, especially the six symphonies and three concertos (clarinet, flute, violin), is now encountered frequently and appreciated for its fresh approach to old forms, for its deeply ingrained spirit of humanity, its vital energy and ingratiating charm. The Danish scholar Robert Naur has explained Nielsen's individual style and affirmative outlook in these words: "No one listening to Nielsen's life work can harbor the slightest doubt that the composer was a man familiar with conflict, the chasms of the human mind, and with human conditions."

Nielsen worked on his Fifth Symphony throughout 1921 and finished it in early January of 1922. A few days later, he conducted the first performance in Copenhagen on January 24. The American premiere was given on January 3, 1951, by the National Symphony, Erik Tuxen conducting. Unlike Nielsen's other symphonies save the First, it bears no suggestive subtitle, yet the music easily lends itself to one. The question is what. Nielsen himself left no clues. Each listener can freely invent his or her own, for the score is filled with conflict, confrontation, intrusion, questing, drama, resolution and triumph. Though only about 35 minutes in length, it seems to take us on a long, varied and fulfilling journey, simultaneously indefinite yet deeply personal.

Robert Simpson, in his monograph on the Nielsen symphonies, sees the Fifth Symphony thus: "Here is man's conflict, in which his progressive, constructive instincts are at war with other elements that face him with indifference or downright hostility. Nielsen found he could best reflect this drama in a two-movement work, the first to contain the crux of the conflict itself and the second to be a finale that would rise out of the ashes in a great fount of regenerative energy."

The symphony opens with quiet murmuring in the violas, an ostinato pattern that will continue for more than one hundred measures. Bassoons present a wandering theme to which horns, flutes and clarinets in turn make contributions. Muted violins introduce the flowing second theme. The mood remains gentle, pastoral, uneventful, until the entrance of the snare drum, which beats out a tattoo that will persist for much of the remainder of the movement. Other percussion instruments get into the act. Conflict and confrontation are now in the air. The mood turns ugly, even violent. Intrusions from the percussion are temporarily halted by a warmly caressing new subject in the mid-range instruments of the orchestra (divided violas and cellos, horns, bassoons), but they return in force while the rest of the orchestra surges on gallantly. By the end of the movement one senses an uneasy truce has been declared as the dialogue for snare drum and solo clarinet fades into the distance.

The first half of the symphony has left us disturbed and in search of resolution ("a frightening vision of madness and of the invasion of order by disorder," as Michael Steinberg sees it). The second half takes off with a joyful, energetic Allegro, densely polyphonic and supported, like the symphony's opening, with its own two-note ostinato pattern, this one initially in the low-range instruments. But resolution is not yet at hand. Two fugal episodes, each based on some aspect of the melodic material already presented, intervene and run their courses (the first one fast and skittish, the second calm and lyrical). The music eventually returns to the movement's opening Allegro in a kind of recapitulation, much condensed in time but expanded in the feeling of resolution, confidence and triumph.