History of the Music
History of the Music
By Jeff Counts
Duration: 36 minutes in four movements (played without pause).
THE COMPOSER – CARL NIELSEN (1865–1931) – In a world increasingly defined by a new and brutal kind of war, Nielsen’s domestic life also continued to be a source of great stress in the mid 1910s. Infidelities (his) and the generally difficult circumstances of a multi-city professional life (his and hers) had begun to put significant strain on his marriage. As always, Nielsen attempted to partition his troubles, and maybe the troubles of the continent, by burying himself in hard work as a conductor and educator. But the mounting global and personal pressures were too much to ignore and necessitated some self-reflection in his compositional life as well.
THE HISTORY – Symphony No. 4 (1916) dates from this period and it constituted Nielsen’s strongest and most iconoclastic symphonic statement to date. This was partly attributable to his evolving maturity as a composer but also due to the inclusion of something rather new to his sound so far—unambiguous conflict. If the Third Symphony was created to positively convey the musical characteristics of the human spirit and the natural world, the Fourth could be read as an effort to present and challenge the notion that music is discrete and equal to man and nature, not merely their expressive proxy. It was the idea of music as a force in and of itself, capable of giving voice to “The Elemental Will of Life.” Nielsen believed life and music to be equally enduring in the truest sense of the word and stated as much in the preface to the score. “Music is life,” he wrote, “and, like it, is inextinguishable.” The title of “Inextinguishable” was given to the symphony by Nielsen not as a programmatic reference but as “a suggestion as to a way into this, music’s own territory.” If not programmatic then, the nickname certainly promised a grand dramatic arc in the music because, as Nielsen knew, for a thing to be proven inextinguishable it must be put through a test of doubt and hostility. Hence the aforementioned conflict, as depicted in the final movement by dueling antiphonal timpani (one set of which having been silent until this moment). The thematic triumph (taken from the humble clarinet tune in the first movement) that stills their physically evocative combat represents Nielsen’s theory proven once and for all.
This symphony often invites comparisons to Sibelius, but these suggested similarities do both men harm. “The Inextinguishable” was pure Nielsen, and emblematic of his highly unique approach to tonality, texture and emotional dynamism.
THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1916, the Easter Rebellion broke out in Ireland, the Battle of the Somme was fought in France, Rasputin was killed in Russia, and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published.
THE CONNECTION – Nielsen 4 was last performed by the Utah Symphony back in 2013. Thierry Fischer was on the podium.
Duration: 44 minutes in three movements.
THE COMPOSER – JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833–1897) – Brahms spent the greater part of the 1850s building his first orchestral masterpiece: Not a symphony, of course, but rather the D Minor Piano Concerto, made largely out of material meant for other works. The time between the first sketches in 1854 and the premiere performance of 1859 encompassed a lifetime of intense personal experiences for Brahms, most of which revolved around his special (and complicated) relationship with Robert and Clara Schumann. Robert’s death in 1856 did not result in a relationship between Johannes and Clara, at least not the romantic kind, and the Concerto stands as a thinly veiled testament to these turbulent, emotional years.
THE HISTORY – Before any of that, the 20-year-old Brahms had made quite an impression on Robert Schumann in 1853. Schumann, in his oft-quoted article from that year entitled “New Paths”, spoke of the younger man in almost messianic terms. Brahms was, for Schumann, the fulfillment of a prophecy (his own, admittedly) in which a new artistic voice would appear suddenly and fully formed as if from the mind of a god to “express the ideal form and spirit of his time.” As the friendship between Brahms and the Schumanns developed in their complex ways, Brahms was sorting and re-mixing the pre-existing ingredients of his D Minor Concerto. Unlike himself, the man of Robert Schumann’s oracular vision, Brahms’ Concerto would not spring “fully formed” from the mind, his or a god’s. This concerto was a result of patient deliberation and reassignment. Brahms, to this point, was famously reluctant to tackle the symphony form and was frightened enough of Beethoven’s ghost that he was shy about orchestral music in any form. As well-studied as his reticence has become, some specific context from this moment in his compositional life is helpful. Brahms had heard Beethoven’s Ninth for the first time in 1854, an experience that might have stunned even the most confident upstart to silence. It put to rest any symphonic ambitions for a humble acolyte like Brahms, for a few more decades at least. Instead, he poured his ideas into a sonata for two pianos but felt increasingly drawn to the larger forces of a proper concerto. There was a nagging question of grandeur that only an orchestra could answer and after a year of helpful support from his friend Joseph Joachim, the brilliant “symphony with solo piano” was born.
THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1859, excavation of the Suez Canal began, Charles Darwin published his shocking scientific work On the Origin of Species, and Alfred Lord Tennyson released the first portion of his Arthurian epic The Idylls of the King.
THE CONNECTION – Brahms’ First Piano Concerto is a popular work on Utah Symphony Masterworks seasons. The most recent performance was in 2012 under the baton of Thierry Fischer with Nelson Goerner as soloist.