Tuesday 9 June 2015
Tillykke med fødselsdagen, Carl Nielsen
That's a Danish happy birthday to the mighty and yet oh so human Nielsen, 150 today and, as befits a Gemini, a man of many faces (not just the two). Thanks to the Danish Royal Library via the Embassy for permission to reproduce the photographs here*.
Still ringing in my ears from the last concert in Sakari Oramo's Nielsen symphonies cycle with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, as topsy turvy as Gilbert and Sullivan as well as more profound, the variation finale of the Sixth Symphony strikes me as a quintessentially Geminian endgame. Every mood is here, and Nielsen still can't really decide on what should have the last word (a burp, or fart, from the two bassoons isn't exactly conclusive). I'm more than ever convinced that this had a huge influence on Shostakovich - above all in the desultory waltz sequence of the Fourth Symphony's finale, not to mention a glock launching another first movement, that of Shostakovich's Fifteenth - also, surely not coincidentally, a symphonic last will and testament.
Anyway, I find myself immensely privileged to be here in Copenhagen on the day, keenly awaiting my first live acquaintance with Saul and David, the most important gap to fill in anniversary or for that matter any year. And last week it was Sibelius melodramas in a stunning programme put together by Leif Ove Andsnes at the Bergen Festival, an even more unrepeatable treat. Tomorrow, off to Funen for house-museums and a concert in Odense (the Vienna Philharmonic under Franz Welser-Möst, not the first name that springs to mind for the fire of the Inextinguishable - they turned their noses up at the Danes' proposal of the Espansiva, more fools they - alongside Sibelius's Four Lemminkäinen Legends). Then back to London on Thursday in time to talk to Vladimir Ashkenazy at 6pm before his all-Sibelius blockbuster with the Philharmonia on the Southbank.
Projects here have an enviable level of funding. This website, along with the associated catalogue put together by the Royal Library complete with full scores to follow, is hugely impressive. Every letter that Nielsen wrote, and much of what was written to him, has been published in nine volumes to date (one to go, I believe). There will be a two-volume selection in English, translated by my linguistically gifted colleague David Fanning. We know Nielsen was a remarkable writer, thanks to a translation by Reginald Spink - it reads extremely well - of his classic My Childhood (My Funen Childhood, to translate directly from the original title). It's shameful this translation isn't currently in print, but you can probably pick up a second-hand copy. Let me end by quoting from the introduction:
It has often surprised me how little we realise that the moment a child receives a strong impression, one strong enough to remain permanently in the memory, then that child is really a poet, with his own distinctive gift of receiving the impression and reproducing or merely retaining it. Poetic talent, I imagine, is fundamentally the faculty, the gift, of distinctive observation and perception. Thus we have all at one time been poets and artists, each after his manner. The rough way in which life and adults summon the child from its beautiful world of poetry and art to harsh, matter-of-fact reality must, I think, be blamed for the fact that most of us forfeit these talents, with the result that the divine gift of imagination, innate in the child, becomes mere day-dreaming, or is quite lost.
The great poets, philosophers, scientists and artists are only exceptions that prove the rule.
For Danish musicians, Nielsen's special genius is that he kept his childhood simplicity for the extraordinary number of popular songs known and sung by all his countryfolk - albeit unfamiliar outside Denmark - and yet had such radical, unrepeateable visions in his great symphonies, concertos and operas. There's also the question of darkness and depression versus manic energy, but that's a whole other issue for future discussion.
*I learnt only today here in Odense that the series of 'grimasses' were taken in the mid 1880s at a photographic studio far from Nielsen's usual haunts for the benefit of a girlfriend in front of whose family he acted out stories, doing all the voices and faces.