Nielsen and Sibelius – parallels and disparities

Outdoor adventurers in music … Sibelius, furtive spirit of the night (Wood Nymph, En Saga, Tapiola, Sixth Symphony), master of transitional seasons (Fifth Symphony); Nielsen, brave sun king with arms thrown wide open (Helios, Third Symphony), mercurial wit (Journey to the Pharaoh Isles, Sixth Symphony), the two coming together for acts of uncompromised heroism (Sibelius 7, Nielsen 5). Do you hear these parallels? Can you name others? Or name places to go when you’ve exhausted the magnificent legacies of both composers?

14 thoughts on “Nielsen and Sibelius – parallels and disparities

  1. Robert Roy

    I have an uncomfortable relationship with Nielson’s music as opposed to Sibelius who is one of my top 5 composers. There are bits of Nielson I like such as the first movement of the 3rd symphony which I think is wonderful but I find I rapidly lose interest in the rest of the work. Likewise Nielson’s violin concerto which, IMHO, has a fabulous end to its first movement which causes the rest of the work to sound a bit anti-climatic. The rest of his music I can take or leave with the 4th symphony being, to me, one of the most annoying pieces ever! (Those damn timpani banging away purposelessly at the end!)

    And yet Sibelius is one of my very favourite composers who has been there since my earliest memories. I’m sure others will remember the 45rpm single of the Karelia Suite with the Danish Radio Orchestra conducted by Thomas Jenson. I loved watching the record spinning away on the record player that my Uncle Bob built on his demob from the RAF! Now, had he played me Nielson things might have turned out differently.

    Since then I have collected many recordings of the great Fin’s music but have comparatively little Nielson. I Wish I could adequately described my antipathy towards Nielson suffice to say it just leaves me cold and uninvolved. It’s my loss I know but I’ve learnt to live with it.

    Just my three h’appence.

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  2. Thanks Robert. That Karelia Suite used to be coupled on an Ace of Clubs LP with Erik Tuxen’s Decca recording of the Fifth (just the ‘Intermezzo’ struck me as being a bit on the slow side, still does). There are recordings of Jensen in Nielsen. It might be worth you trying those. Blomstedt too. There’s a mercurial aspect to Nielsen that can confuse (esp. in Symphonies 2 and 6) but I think it’s worth persevering. Five in particular is shattering. Best. R

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  3. Robert Roy

    Ok, Rob. I’ll try again. Nielson is a composer I would love to love but… something just doesn’t click.

    Thanks for your reply. Really enjoying this site!

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  4. Robert – activate listen again and try the Fifth Symphony which was on yesterday’s Radio 3 Essential Classics at around 11:40, or a little earlier. A fine recording with Salonen.

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  5. Perhaps there is a parallel between Sibelius’ long silence and Nielsen’s fascinatingly confusing 6th – 2 different ways of trying to come to terms with the huge changes taking place at the time (musical and otherwise) ????

    Nielsen’s wonderful piano music (excellent Andsnes disc, or, from a while ago, Ogdon) should be heard more, as should my favourite organ piece, Commotio, a 20 minute masterpiece. If it hasn’t been on R3 for a while, please put it on Rob! I’ve got a couple of recordings – Herrick and Bowyer – but would be very interested in any recommendations.

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    1. I’m speculating about Sibelius. Of course, the usual story behind his silence is that he was intensely self-critical. I’d be very interested to know if he had anything to say about the new music of the 20s/30s/40s/50s, though. Any Sibelius experts got any idea? Did he know what was happening musically? Was he interested? Did he despair?

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      1. Interesting Chris that there’s a thematic germ in common between Sibelius 4 and Schoenberg’s String Trio. I’d have to locate it exactly … but it always strikes me as significant, especially as both men had be threatened by serious illness.

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  6. Commotio is a grand idea Chris and I have played the great Chaconne on Essential Classics (Ogdon as I recall). Very interesting thought about the different reactions to cultural change, ie Sibelius and Nielsen … if only JS had a little more of the quirky extrovert about him. Mind you, if he had, I doubt that Syms 4,6 and 7 + Tapiola would have been what they are!

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  7. I come back to Nielsen 1 – 3 again and again. I first heard it them in a TV documentary about 25 years ago: an introduction to Nielsen with (of course) Robert Simpson and others. Then, Simon Rattle brought his CBSO to Nottingham to play 1 and 3, I bought CDs, and played them to death on my Walkman. They’re always fresh, though – that lovely blend of favourite sounds from Brahms and Dvorak with a Beethovenian drive – glorious. To pick 1 favourite moment: when the 1st movement of the 3rd breaks into a full-blown waltz, with the melody passed between the horns and trumpets – magic. For me, that movement is up there with the 1st movements of the Eroica, the Rhenish and Brahms 2nd in the list of great 3-in-a-bar 1st movements.

    Re. Sibelius’ 8th – I’m sure I once read that it was Nielsen’s intention to write a concerto for each of the instruments in a wind quintet. If that’s true, what a pity he only managed the flute and clarinet works. In particular, I’d love to hear a Nielsen Horn Concerto.

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  8. Interesting Chris. I forget who it was who said that the first movement of 3 sounds like a cross between Nielsen and Carousel – but believe it or not it was that comment that first stimulated my interest, and I’ve loved the work ever since. I’ve a feeling that a Nielsen horn concerto would have sounded like freshly garlanded Strauss.

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    1. Robin Milner-Gulland

      The second movement of Nielsen’s Second is one of the most extraordinary things in all music (with only about three mins. of its soloists – but transcendent). Whyever not mentioned in the discussion, Rob? – Robin Milner-Gulland

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      1. An object lesson in how to ‘think’ with the orchestra … as so often with Nielsen, I hear Shostakovich waiting in the wings. Great orchestration, extraordinary curlicues in the writing – those without a recording should check out Chung on Spotify.

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