Musician. Widely regarded as Denmark's greatest composer, he was born in the village of Norre Lyndelse, south of Odense on the island of Fyn. His father was an amateur musician who taught him to play several instruments, and at 14 he was serving as a trumpeter in an Odense military band. He later studied violin and music theory at the Royal Conservatory in Copenhagen, but never took formal lessons in composition. The need to make a living led Nielsen to join Copenhagen's Royal Theatre Orchestra as a second violinist in 1889; he kept this job for 16 years, while composing in spare moments. He was nearly 40 before he found a steady publisher for his music, by which time his first major opera, "Saul and David" (1902), and his first two symphonies had appeared. Nielsen finally scored a hearty success with "Maskarade" (1906), a delightful comic opera based on a play by Ludvig Holberg. In 1908 he was appointed conductor of the Royal Theatre Orchestra (where he had anonymously sawed at a fiddle for so many years), but backstage jealousy and squabbles over repertory forced his resignation in 1914. He went on to conduct the Copenhagen Music Society from 1915 to 1927, and was on the board of directors at the Royal Conservatory after 1916, becoming chairman shortly before his death. In the 1920's he also visited Germany, England, France, and Sweden, performing his works. Nielsen's 60th birthday in 1925 was celebrated as a national event, culminating in a performance of "Maskarade" that marked the first time an opera was broadcast over Danish radio. He died after a long battle with heart disease. His wife of 40 years, Anne Marie Carl Nielsen (1863-1945), was a noted sculptor. Throughout his life Nielsen's reputation as a composer was overshadowed by that of his Finnish contemporary, Jean Sibelius, and it was only after World War II that his work began to receive the international recognition it deserved. And while his greatness is now beyond dispute, much of his music remains little known outside his homeland. This includes three fine concertos, for Violin (1911), Flute (1926), and Clarinet (1928); the Wind Quintet (1922); and a beautiful cantata, "Springtime In Funen" (1922). And "Maskarade" is considered Denmark's National Opera. Nielsen's greatest achievements, and the ones listeners are most likely to encounter, are his six symphonies. Although he gave most of them descriptive titles they are not programmatic in any literal sense; rather, they are expressions of ideas and feelings, translated into music of awesome scope and grandeur. His First Symphony (1892), influenced by Brahms, already shows signs of Nielsen's unique approach to tonal relationships. The Second, entitled "The Four Temperaments" (1902) is a tightly-woven look at the four "humors" of human nature (choleric, phlegmatic, melancolic, and sanguine). It was inspired by a folk painting Nielsen spotted at a village pub. The Third, the "Espansiva" (1911), has great lyrical breadth and employs wordless voices (soprano and tenor) as part of its texture. Many believe the Fourth, the "Inextinguishable", is Neilsen's masterpiece. Conceived on the brink of World War I and completed in 1916, it is a musical tribute to the life force, illustrating the composer's conviction that nature will overcome any catastrophe, manmade or otherwise; this is made explicit in the final movement, in which triumphant themes for strings and brass do battle with two sets of malevolent timpani. If the "Inextinguishable" is Nielsen's most popular symphony, then the untitled Fifth (1922) is the most original in conception. The first of its two movements centers on a wary march, spurred on by a relentless snare drum that ultimately erupts into an improvisational fury in an attempt to drown out the orchestra. After further struggle the work ends in provisional affirmation. Even diehard Nielsen fans find his subjectively personal Sixth Symphony, the "Semplice" (1925), puzzling. This curious work reflects some of the bitterness of Nielsen's last years, when his health was failing and he regretted having become a composer because of the constant adversity it had brought him. Particularly biting is the cynical wit of the scherzo, where mindless, chattering winds are brushed aside by a rudely yawning trombone. Comparable only to the 15th Symphony of Dimitri Shostakovich (a Nielsen devotee), it brings to an enigmatic close one of the great symphony cycles of 20th Century music.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards