Thursday, 3 February 2011

Nielsen in the South

Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is arguably the most underrated composer of his generation, despite an ever-growing number of recordings and performances of his music. In a new book, Daniel Grimley offers a critical re-evaluation of his music and its rich artistic and literary contexts, drawing extensively on the newly completed Carl Nielsen Edition. Topics include the composer’s relationship with symbolism and fin de siècle decadence and his response to the Danish landscape. Running through the book is an engagement with the idea of musical modernism - a term which, for Nielsen, was fraught with anxiety and yet provided significant creative stimulus. In this excerpt, Grimley looks at the overture Helios. For anyone who might sympathise with the old joke that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, this is how it’s done:

The opening page of Nielsen’s concert overture Helios (1903) is one of the most magical dawn sequences in music. Long pedal notes in the lower strings suggest a seemingly infinite sense of musical time and space, of floating weightlessly in the musical ether: the pause over each second bar momentarily suspends the perception of regular clock time before the work has properly begun, so that the piece literally begins in a state of timelessness. The hairpin dynamics, rising almost imperceptibly from pianississimo and falling back again, reflect the vibrating amplitude of the bowed open string: it is as much a description of the sound object or ‘Klang’ as a performance direction.

The horn calls that then gradually rise above the bass pedal sound almost impossibly distant, gently arching upwards first through the octave and then to the flat seventh, as though sounding the upper partials of a single glowing harmonic spectrum. As this sound slowly echoes and peals, the resonance gaining strength through its waxing reiteration, the upper strings begin to weave a gently flowing quaver figure, gradually filling in the gaps between the widely spaced intervals of the horn calls and bass, so that the orchestral texture emerges as if from a clearing morning mist. As this slowly shifting curtain of sound grows, the harmonic palette also widens and enriches itself, the rocking fifth steps in the bass (a horizontalisation of the earlier vertical chord structures) followed eventually by the first chromatic descent (b. 30), tilting the music momentarily towards the flat side and casting aside the drowsy somnolent sevenths of the opening page.

The return to the opening white-note C major gains a greater sense of clarification or focus, prefiguring the arrival of the first fully fledged melodic statement, the striding chorale entry of the horns with a transfigured version of their opening call at b. 54, supported by a blaze of string tremolandos and organ-like woodwind writing. The final shadows of the night in which the piece figuratively began have melted away and the music surges irresistibly forwards to the start of the main section, an energetic Allegro ma non troppo in the bright, super-charged key of E major.

Formerly broadcast every 1 January by Danish Radio, Helios has gained a deeply symbolic place in Danish musical culture. It has become a ‘Morgensang’ (‘morning song’ or aubade), sounded optimistically at the threshold of each New Year. Yet the richly associative gestures with which the music begins invite a range of critical and historical interpretations. For example, the horn’s striding chorale belongs to a local tradition of Danish dawn hymns, a musical subgenre headed by Niels W. Gade’s setting of B. S. Ingemann’s ‘I Østen stiger Solen op’ (‘The sun rises in the east’) in his cantata Elverskud (1851–4), a pivotal reference work in the creation of a distinctively Danish musical romanticism in the mid-nineteenth century. The confident new dawn which Helios evokes, with its rising horn octaves and sonorous diatonicism, is at least in part a warm afterglow of this national romantic awakening, and also an affectionate tribute to Nielsen’s former teacher at the Danish Conservatory.

Yet the music delves even deeper into imaginary ideas of Danishness in its opening bars. The horn calls at the start evoke the sound of Lurs, curved Bronze Age brass instruments excavated (usually in pairs) from barrow mounds across Denmark and southern Sweden throughout the nineteenth century. They have discshaped bells that represent stylised sun symbols whose ritual function, it was believed, was to herald the passage into the afterlife. Pairs of Lurs were displayed in the Danish national museum, and in 1910 Nielsen even composed a Lur prelude as part of his incidental music for the Viking play Hagbarth og Signe, performed outside at Friluft Teatret in Dyrehaven (the open-air theatre at the deer park north of Copenhagen), one of his most atmospheric and evocative dramatic scores. Yet, as Svend Ravnkilde has revealed, Helios simultaneously evoked an even more startling archaeological discovery, now displayed in the antiquities collection at the National Museum.

In 1902, the year before composition of the overture, a ploughed field at Trundholm bog in Zealand unearthed a precious miniature model of a solvogn (sun chariot), a golden disc pulled by a stylised divine horse (equipped with spoked wheels) that was believed to represent the journey of the sun across the heavens: a metaphor, in the Bronze Age Nordic mind, for the course of human life and its relationship with the cosmos and the seasonal cycles of the natural world. The structure of Nielsen’s overture, waxing and waning from near silence to full strength and back to silence, traces the same circular trajectory as the imaginary path of the solvogn. Nielsen thus responded to this complex mythic notion of Danishness on different levels, both through the highly localised evocation of an antique Nordic sun cult as embodied in the archaeological treasures at the National museum, and also in its reimagining through the prism of the nineteenth-century national romantic imagination in Gade’s Elverskud.

Yet Helios also breaks out from such local associations and embraces a wider musical patrilineage. The musical representation of apparently organic, self-determined growth from a kernel cell points to a whole range of nineteenth- century evocations of nature – the opening of Wagner’s Rheingold is the most obvious and paradigmatic example. Such evocations conventionally serve as thresholds to an imaginary Arcadian landscape or enchanted nature realm, and signal displacement (or removal) from the modern world. Helios is similarly concerned with a sense of the mythic past, the temporal suspension and circularity of its opening bars a way of manipulating time so as to create the impression of reaching back into an imagined antiquity.

Yet its re-creation of a lost golden age serves a double function, casting expectation optimistically forwards towards the reattainment of previous greatness and cultural renewal. The music’s growth, evolution and fulfilment thus begin to gain a more pointed ideological focus. The chorale-like treatment of the morning song at b. 54, with its shades of the finale from Brahms’s First Symphony and the Academic Festival Overture, becomes the apotheosis of a broader Northern European cultural vision, a stylised synthesis of Hellenic and Nordic streams with elements of the early eighteenth-century German Baroque. The manner in which the music sheds the mythic Wagnerian gloom of the opening page for a brighter, leaner and more athletic musical discourse at the work’s heart reveals a great deal about Nielsen’s stylistic orientation.

The overture’s Hellenism becomes a musical realisation of Nietzsche’s decisive anti-Romantic turn and famous call for the ‘Mediterraneanisation of music’ in The Case of Wagner, promoted energetically in Copenhagen in the 1890s by Georg Brandes. The ritualistic dawn evoked by Helios’s opening pages thus gives way to a consciously modern, neo-classical, and ultimately comedic vision – its closest musical counterpart, in that sense, might be Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, a work which likewise opens with a dramatic musical sunrise and unveils the birth of a new Nordic-Hellenic superman. Just as his First Symphony had sounded a dramatic modernist breakthrough in 1894, therefore, Nielsen’s Helios became a further threshold to a new expressive and musical domain, a gateway that is as much the symbolic adoption of a particular aesthetic tone or vision as the literal depiction of the sun rising above the wine-dark waters of the Aegean Sea.

Carl Nielsen and the Idea of Modernism by Daniel M Grimley is published by the Boydell Press and available from all good booksellers. Grimley's acclaimed book on Grieg is also available from the Boydell Press.

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