Symphony Study No. 59 | Nielsen: Symphony No. 4 “The Inextinguishable”

by Glenn on January 15, 2017

Carl Nielsen (1865–1931)
The Inextinguishable, Symphony No. 4

Allegro | Poco allegretto | Poco adagio quasi andante | Allegro

first performance: 1 February 1916
the orchestra of the Copenhagen Music Society, conducted by the composer

With Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, “The Inextinguishable,” I’ve reached the halfway point  in this little study of the symphony, working my way through Michael Steinberg’s listener’s guide. This reading and listening project has been going on for just over 18 months. I am grateful for David Allen’s GTD system, which has helped me create a system to track multiple long-running projects over time. Otherwise I’m certain I would have abandoned this project at some point, at least in some way.

Steinberg’s book was a Christmas present in 2014 and I have now listened to 59 of the 118 symphonies that are included.

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I thought this symphony would be a sort of homecoming, the way a couple of Sibelius’ symphonies (Nos. 2 and 5) were when I heard them again in the course of this study. I have memories of  listening to The Inextinguishable years ago, but I wish those memories were clearer. Was it a recording on cassette conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen? Eugene Ormandy? Listening to this symphony with its wide dynamic range on cassette in a car could explain the lack of nostalgia when I returned to this. There is a lot of music in this symphony that would be lost in road noise and tape hiss. It’s hard to remember music you never properly heard.

So, it seemed like new music when I listened to a recording by the San Francisco Symphony with Herbert Blomstedt. The BBC has a symphony guide for this symphony which mentions this recording as one of “five key performances.”

I listened with a score, which is always helpful, in this case for understanding some of the complexity of this composition. As a horn player, I imagine this would be a difficult piece to play, not because the notes are so hard, but because so much of this music is syncopated. You have to maintain an inner pulse when often nothing is on the beat. I wonder if there is a challenge to get players who are new to this music to get a groove going.

The late/post-romantic era seems to be my favorite. This was true going in and this study and this symphony in particular has confirmed it. I really enjoyed this symphony (as opposed to Hartmann’s Eighth).

One of the challenges with art is that our impressions of it and attempts to evaluate it are so personal. Discussions of music in particular, can reduce pretty quickly to people talking past each other:
“I love Mahler.”
“Mahler blows.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You don’t have a clue.”

I mention this because I recently began working my way through C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity again. Lewis notes that as we discuss human interactions, we often appeal to a higher law. We say something is right or wrong and look to something beyond ourselves to arbitrate.

In the world of music is there is a higher law? To what are we appealing when we say, for example, that Mahler is the greatest composer of symphonies? How can you judge that? Aren’t you simply appealing to your own preferences rather than natural law? It does seem like you should be able to get a group of people to sit down and agree to some basic principles for what makes great music. And then you should be able to listen to music and evaluate it accordingly.

But taste is so subjective and personal. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America once told me that you had to pay attention to the proclivities of the individual instructors to do well in their classes. The same recipe might require more or less salt depending on who was evaluating your cooking. Some instructors like a lot of salt, some just a little. If we can’t agree on how much salt in the same recipe, how do you decide which kind of food is better?

The philosophy of music appreciation is for another time.

This music was wonderful. In addition to reading Steinberg’s essay, I listened to a terrific BBC lecture by Tom Service and a podcast by Stuart Malina.

Nielsen appears to be reaching forward and backward. He is a driver looking down the road but who is quite conscious of what’s going on in his rear-view mirror. This I appreciate. He uses modern tonality (of his time) within relatively simple and traditional structures that give you some stability as a listener, for example when you’re revisiting some material—“Ah, I’ve heard this before. I see we left home and have come back home” (even if the tonality of the music is something new); when you become aware of the A-B-A framework of the second movement; and when you notice all the fugues and fugatos that are used throughout the symphony.

Things to know:

1. “Inextinguishable” is not an adjective describing the music, like “Pastorale” (Beethoven’s Sixth), “Pathétique” (Tchaikovsky’s Sixth), “Unfinished” (Schubert’s Eighth), “Resurrection” (Mahler’s Second), or “Farewell” (Haydn’s 45th). It’s a noun, descriptive of the elemental nature of things, which is that no matter what happens, ultimately “life goes on.” Put in a sidewalk and a daisy grows in the crack. There is something in people and creation that continues on … that is inextinguishable. As Nielsen described it in a letter to a friend, the symphony

“is meant to represent all that we feel and think about life in the most fundamental sense of the word, that is, all that has the will to live and to move.”

2. There are no breaks in the symphony, but it ends up feeling like four movements  because the moods/tempos of the four movements are so clear. Steinberg explains,

“There are four distinct tempo areas that are even quite traditionally ordered as an allegro, an intermezzo in medium tempo, a slow movement, and an allegro finale.”

In a way, it is like Mendelssohn’s Third, where the composer instead of indicating not to take breaks in the score, simply ties the movements together with transition music.

3. This is wartime music. Conflict can be heard throughout this piece. Perhaps some of the music is meant to be onomatopoeia. The tympani throughout the work often sound like military bombardments.

4. This is a destination symphony. Where in the past music started in and returned to a certain key, this symphony features “progressive tonality.” The progression of keys follows this pattern: d minor > A Major > E Major > G Major > c# minor > A Major > E Major. I can hear the transitions as they happen, but not having perfect pitch, I don’t think I am aware of the overall transformation.

5. The four movements go something like this:
i. Allegro | There is no introduction. We simply start in and it feels that we’re in the middle of something. To use words of Tom Service, this opening is full of “unease,” “instability,” “motion,” and “dynamism.” In contrast, a rustic theme is introduced. This motif presented early on in the first movement will make its way back in the last movement. The first presentation of the motif by the clarinets is quiet. The second presentation with full orchestra has a Strauss tone poem quality about it. The rest of this movement is full of juxtapositions of one form or another. A central feature of this symphony is warfare. The motif is drowned out by brass exclamations. The first movement is largely full-throated and extroverted. The quiet statement gets the final word before we move into the second movement.

ii. Poco allegretto | The second movement has beautiful woodwind choirs with a lilting folk-like, country dance quality to the tunes. Nielsen was famous for his folk music. We get some beautiful pastoral notes in this movement.Pizzicato strings contribute to the elegant and delicate feel of the music. The music seems to follow an A-B-A pattern, which is always helpful for the listener. When you come back to material you’ve heard, you get that “ah, we’ve been here before” sensation which is comforting, somehow (versus music that eschews traditional forms).

iii. Poco adagio quasi andante | The third movement returns the balance to the strings who begin with a big tune in the upper violins. Then the cellos and violas take over and at one point play higher than the violins. This is soulful, heart-cry sort of music at the outset. A kind of lament. The mood gets quieter and the strings with woodwind overlay play so gently. A peaceful quality. But then warfare sets in. The woodwinds bring a kind of fanfare which is followed by a quiet brass chorale. This chorale vs/ fanfare takes us most of the way to the end of the movement. While the big tune feels stable, it never plays long before it gets shot down by staccato fire from other sections. There’s some crazy counterpoint toward the end, dissonant in its effect, but an operating principle that we recognize. Little fuges. Little chorale-like melodies with interesting counterpoint on the top.

iv. Allegro | The last movement begins with absolute fire. The upper strings, then lower, have incredibly fast passages to contend with. Then a big tune. Two sets of tympani arranged antiphonally provide a lot of noise. A quiet tune for oboe, followed by flute, then violins. Then a motif is passed around the orchestra for a while. This movement is an inverted arch. The trombone choir sets us up to build to the end. The last movement results in conflict transcended, but along the way it’s ten minutes of two tympani instructed to play with “a certain menacing character,” in counterpoint to the rest of the orchestra. So striking that it doesn’t feel like noise with the tympani going to town. What’s fascinating about these two tympani players is that at one point they are both playing tri-tones, but two different ones so as they play off each other, it is incredibly dissonant. But once our theme from the opening movement returns, we have a glorious finish.

Later I watched a performance with Sir Simon Rattle in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. This performance was really stirring.

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One of the hopes I had for myself through this study was to expand my listening circle. I’ve listened to a lot of Mahler over the years. I expect to do more in the future. One of the things I love about Mahler’s music is how life-affirming so much of it is. And I realize that one of the things that attracts me to the music of other composers is when they exhibit a similar life-affirming quality in their music. So that even though Nielsen’s symphony doesn’t grab me the way much of Mahler’s music has, I still enjoy it and can see myself coming back to it.