Thursday, September 11, 2014

Nielsen - Symphony No. 5

The premiere of classical music works can create many different reactions with audiences.  Johannes Brahms experienced a negative reaction from the audience at the Leipzig premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1859. The work had already been performed a few days before in Hanover to general success, but the story was different in Leipzig as Brahms wrote to his friend Joseph Joachim:
“No reaction at all to the first and second movements. At the end, three pairs of hands tried slowly to clap, whereupon a clear hissing from all sides quickly put an end to any such demonstration … I am only experimenting and feeling my way, all the same, the hissing was rather too much." 
Perhaps the most well known scandalous premiere was of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite Of Spring in May of 1913 in Paris.  Truth be told, no one knows if it was the music or the staging of the ballet that caused the disturbance.  Some members of the audience threw vegetables on stage in what was probably a concerted effort by traditionalists to disrupt the performance, and there was so much noise that it practically drowned out the orchestra.

Symphony No. 5 by Danish composer Carl Nielsen got a hostile treatment as well at its premiere in Sweden in 1924.  The symphony already premiered in Denmark two years prior with the composer conducting and was received well by the audience.  The premiere in Sweden was different, as reported in the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende :
Midway through the first part with its rattling drum and cacophonous effects a genuine panic broke out. Around a quarter of the audience rushed for the exits with confusion and anger written over their faces, and those who remained tried to hiss down the spectacle, while the conductor Georg Schneevoight drove the orchestra to extremes of volume. This whole intermezzo underlined the humoristic-burlesque element in the symphony in such a way that Carl Nielsen could certainly never have dreamed of. His representation of modern life with its confusion, brutality and struggle, all the uncontrolled shouts of pain and ignorance - and behind it all the side drum's harsh rhythm as the only disciplining force - as the public fled, made a touch of almost diabolic humor. 
Nielsen wrote the symphony in 1920-1922 and was to write but one more in his life. He is most well known for the six symphonies, and from the first one written in 1892 until the last written in 1925 showed a steady refinement in his style. Along with the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, Nielsen's modernism didn't go the way of Schoenberg's Twelve Tone technique or Stravinsky's chameleon-like changes of style. He remained a tonal composer, but one of great unpredictability that managed to stretch harmony in many directions without breaking it altogether.  Symphony No. 5 is in two movements that are further subdivided:

I.  The first movement is in two sections:

Tempo giusto -The violas wavers between two notes in the beginning of the work with the bassoons entering with a theme that ends with a downward scale. The theme does not return as the orchestra seems to meander about in the fog created in the opening. The wavering transfers to the clarinet until the snare drum makes its appearance. It beats out a monotonous rhythm with the low strings playing the same alternating two pizzicato notes F and D.  The clarinet and flute play a motif over the monotony until the rhythms fade away and the wavering returns as various instruments play what seems like random motives. The snare drum returns as the wavering notes cease as the oboe plays a familiar motive. The celesta plays a repeated, detached note as the orchestra grows more and more sinister. The music grows quiet, a tambourine is heard along with the fading snare drum.
Adagio non troppo - A lyrical theme in the strings spreads over the orchestra until a motive from the preceding section appears in the woodwinds that threatens the lyricism of the strings. The lyrical theme turns more disruptive in response to the woodwinds, and Nielsen directs the snare drum to play ad libitum thus:
The side [snare] drummer now improvises entirely freely with all possible fantasy, although from time to time he must pause.
The orchestra has divided into two sides in conflict while the snare drum tries to gain control over both, the section of the work that provoked some of the audience to walk out during the premiere in Sweden. Finally what was once a lyrical theme gains the edge sonically, subdues all the wavering as well as the snare drum. The opposing force plays quietly as the snare drum makes one last appearance. The clarinet plays softly as the chaos is now over as the first movement ends in a hush.

II. The second movement is in four sections:

Allegro - The second movement begins with a loud section for full orchestra as instruments struggle against one another. Fragmentary themes come and go as the music keeps moving forward until it finally runs itself out and segues into the next section without pause.
Presto -  A rapid fugue begins in the violins and makes its way through the string choir before it continues in the woodwinds and brass. The fugue dwindles down and segues into the next section.
Andante un poco tranquillo -  Another fugue, this one more calm in nature. A climax is reached near the end of the section and the music transitions directly to the final section.
Allegro - The final section is full of busy music that once again has to work through conflict before it reaches the final chord of the work.

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