14 Nov 2019

NIELSEN: Symphony No 5

From Music Alive, 8:04 pm on 14 November 2019

The symphony in which the snare drum player is instructed to go wild.

  • Listen duration 33:54

Performed by Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Giordano Bellincampi.

Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen Photo: Public Domain

When Carl Nielsen's Fifth Symphony was premiered on the 24th of January 1922 it was big news in his native Denmark.

An interview with the composer ran in the paper on the day and when questioned on the lack of a title for the work he explained:

"My first symphony was nameless too. But then came 'The Four Temperaments', 'Espansiva' and 'The Inextinguishable' ... actually just different names for the same thing: the only thing that music in the final analysis can express: the resting powers as opposed to the active ones. If I were to find a name for this, my new fifth symphony, it would express something similar. I have been unable to get hold of the one word that is at the same time characteristic and not too pretentious – so I let it be."

On the unusual two-movement structure, he said:

"I am content with two parts instead of the usual four movements …. in the old symphonic form you usually said most of what you had on your mind in the first allegro. Then came the calm andante, which functioned as a contrast, but then it’s the scherzo, where you get up too high again and spoil the mood for the finale, where the ideas have all too often run out. I shouldn’t wonder if Beethoven felt that in his Ninth, when he got some assistance from the human voice towards the end! So what I have done this time is divided the symphony into two large, broad parts – the first, which begins slowly and calmly, and the second, more active. I’ve been told that my new symphony isn’t like my earlier ones. I can’t hear it myself. But perhaps it’s true. I do know that it isn’t all that easy to grasp, nor all that easy to play. We’ve had many rehearsals of it. Some people have even thought that now Arnold Schoenberg can pack his bags and take a walk with his disharmonies ... mine were worse. I don’t think so."

When pushed further on the idea or thought behind the work Nielsen replied: "...I roll a stone up a hill, use the energy I have in me to get the stone up to a high point. And there the stone lies still. The energy is tied up in it – until I give it a kick, and the same energy is released and the stone rolls down again. But you just mustn’t see this as a programme! These explanations and instructions for what the music “represents” can only be bad, they distract the listeners and spoil the absolute grasp of the work."

Nielsen conducted the premiere himself.

The prominent snare drum part gives an example of the more radical elements in the work. Not only is the drum's soloistic nature unusual in a symphony, but it's instructed to play in its own time as if to disturb the rest of the music. After the first few bars, the percussionist is left to improvise so as to, in Nielsen's words: "… ruin the singing in the orchestra".

The snare drum is played in this performance by Principal Percussionist Eric Renick.

Programme note by Kevin Keys

Recorded by RNZ in Auckland Town Hall, 14 November 2019
Producer: Tim Dodd; Engineer: Adrian Hollay

Related:

  • Curtain Raiser: Nielsen - Symphony No 5