Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)

Quintet for Wind Instruments, Op.43 (1922)

atpiano.gif (26490 bytes)Carl Nielsen is perhaps Denmark’s most notable Twentieth Century musical figure, (after Victor Borge, of course.) Although revered in his native land, it wasn’t until the 1960s when his works were championed and recorded by the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Eugene Ormandy that Nielsen’s music gained the international recognition that it holds today.

Carl was one of many children born to a poor housepainter on the Isle of Fyen. As a young boy, he worked as a shepherd to help support the family. He received violin lessons from the local schoolteacher, and played the cornet in a military band. In 1884, thanks in some part to the generosity of friends, Nielsen was able to attend the Royal Conservatory in Copenhagen, where he studied composition with Niels Gade.

His musical career centered around Copenhagen, where he worked as an orchestra musician, a conductor, teacher, and finally Director of the Royal Conservatory. His compositions include operas, symphonies, symphonic poems and overtures, concerti, chamber music, piano music, organ music, songs, and choral works. In the realm of choral works, Nielsen composed a series of commemorative cantatas (though they span his career, he did not assign an opus number to any of them) for various civic organizations, including a Cantata for the 50th Anniversary of the Danish Cremation Union. His most often heard works are his six symphonies, the clarinet concerto, the flute concerto, and the Quintet for Wind Instruments.

Nielsen was inspired to compose a wind quintet, after hearing a performance by the Copenhagen Wind Quintet at a friend’s house in the autumn of 1921. British composer and musicologist Robert Simpson, who has devoted much study to the music of Nielsen, and whose own early symphonies reflect his admiration of the music writes, "Nielsen’s fondness of wind instruments is closely related to his love of nature, his fascination for living, breathing things. He was also intensely interested in human character, and in the Wind Quintet composed deliberately for five friends; each part is cunningly made to suit the individuality of each player." Simpson also states that it was Nielsen’s intention to compose a concerto for each of the instruments of the wind quintet. However, at his death, he had completed only two; the flute concerto and the clarinet concerto. "It is more than arguable that his Wind Quintet is the subtlest and finest ever written, that the Flute Concerto is much the best there is, and that the Clarinet Concerto is the greatest since Mozart. These are not extravagant claims. It is perhaps a curious thing that Nielsen, who was a violinist (though he played cornet in his youth) often wrote with greater perspicacity for wind than for strings. Nielsen shows great imagination and ingenuity in conjuring a surprising variety of sonorities and blends from the wind quintet; few would suppose from this work that one of the chief difficulties of this combination is the fact that the five instruments do not blend."

Nielsen himself provided a short description of the quintet."The composer has here attempted to present the characteristics of the various instruments. Now they seem to interrupt one another and now they sound alone. The theme for these variations is the tune of one of Carl Nielsen’s spiritual songs, which is here made the basis of a number of variations, now gay and grotesque, now elegiac and solemn, ending with the theme itself, simply and gently expressed."

Believe me, its better in Danish. If that’s all the composer has to say about the work, why should I add more? Except to say that the first movement is in sonata form (for whatever that’s worth) , the second movement is a minuet with a rustic quality and that the third movement consists of a short Preludium followed by a set of variations. In the Preludium, the oboe is replaced by the cor anglais (english horn) to impart a different tone color to an already colorful work. The theme on which the variations are based is Nielsen’s own chorale tune Min Jesus, lad min Hjerte faa en saaden Smag paa dig (My Jesus, make my heart to love thee). There are eleven variations (for all you variation counters) with a reprise of the theme marked "moderate in speed, festive in character." Incidentally, this movement was played at Nielsen’s funeral service. The work was first performed by the Copenhagen Quartet in 1922.

1997-98 Season, Program II, Sunday December 14, 1997

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All original text on this page Copyright 1997 by Joseph Way