Nielsen Symphony No. 4, "Inextinguishable"
At the top of the score for the Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s 4th symphony, he wrote: “Music is life, and like it, inextinguishable.”
This could easily be the shortest podcast I’ve ever done. I could leave you with that quote and then play you the beginning of the symphony, and you would understand everything Nielsen wanted to portray in this remarkable music. But don’t worry, I won’t do that. Carl Nielsen’s music has never quite made it into the standard standard repertoire, but if there is one piece of his that is played more often than any other, it is his 4th symphony, subtitled The Inextinguishable. But as a whole, Nielsen’s 4th symphony is not easy to digest. It is a piece that is contradictory, in the sense that Nielsen uses an extremely small set of motives to write practically every note of music in the score, and yet sometimes the music can feel like a stream of consciousness. Nielsen himself wrote: “I have an idea for a new composition, which has no programme but will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestations of life, that is: everything that moves, that wants to live ... just life and motion, though varied – very varied – yet connected, and as if constantly on the move, in one big movement or stream. I must have a word or a short title to express this; that will be enough. I cannot quite explain what I want, but what I want is good.”
There is a James Joyce-esque sense of jump-cutting between different ideas, as if that inextinguishable life force is unaffected by earthly things like form and recognizable structure. But if you peek under the hood of this piece, you find that it is really in 4 movements, and the first movement is even in a kind of a Sonata Form. It has an intermezzo, a slow movement, and a rambunctious finale. In many ways, this is a conventional symphony, but in terms of the musical material and the way Nielsen decided to manipulate that material, it is anything but conventional. We’ll talk about all of this today, including the influence of World War 1 on the symphony and on Nielsen himself, and the remarkable music that throws us along like a relentless and boundless current of energy. Join us!