Symphony Study No. 68 | Nielsen No. 5

by Glenn on January 30, 2020

Carl Nielsen
Symphony No. 5, Opus 50, FS7

Tempo giusto—Adagio non troppo
Allegro—Presto—Andante un poco tranquillo—Allegro

Recordings heard:
Herbert Blomstedt | San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Recorded: Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco | November 1987
London | 421 524-2

Leonard Bernstein | New York Philharmonic
Recorded: Manhattan Center, New York City | 1962
CBS Records | MK 44708

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After a long session of reading and writing about theology, I needed something different for my brain, so I returned to my study of The Symphony, a book by Michael Steinberg that offers program notes on 118 symphonies. I am reading his notes, listening to each symphony, and recording some observations. I am past the halfway point in this project—this was symphony number 68 of 118, which has me at about 58%. For the most part, I have now listened to the symphonies I am familiar with, so with the exception of the Mahler and Haydn I have saved for the end, there is going to be a lot of unfamiliarity from here on out. Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5 is a case in point.

Steinberg is helpful with his introductions, but there is a lot in this that catches the ear and is difficult to put into writing. It is big and aggressive a lot of the time. Steinberg finds the lack of a title for this symphony “surprising, given the drama that takes place in it.”

It’s a very sectional symphony. It says two movements. But it feels like six different containers of types of music. It’s about juxtapositions.

I.1 The Tempo giusto of the opening movement is intense. Steinberg notes the first part of the symphony has “[a] certain obsessive quality.” That’s understatement. It’s back and forth on two notes for whole sections of instruments for long periods of time. About four minutes in, the percussion section takes over and threatens to overwhelm everything. Steinberg says,

“It is a threatening and uneasy sort of music, and almost nothing about it is scarier than the fact that it just goes away.”

He adds,

“What Nielsen has imagined and portrayed here is a profoundly frightening vision of madness and f the invasion of order by disorder.”

I.2 After the somewhat irritating opening, there is a soulful tune that comes in the Adagio. It’s not a happy tune, though, and is rather motivic in nature. When it repeats it is given a counterpoint that is a striking juxtaposition in terms of speed and mood.  The organization of this part of the movement is A-B-A. Toward the end of the A section the music builds into a serious cacophany until we transition into B, a dramatic percussion interlude (again) where the snare drum sort of does its own thing. It has a Charles Ives quality about it. The A section brings back the melody in a triumphant way with the snare drum adding some discord.

II.1 The music feels a little strident although an oboe tune does warm things up a bit.

II.2 A 6/8 feel is very energetic.

II.3 The fugal patterns in the Presto are a nice change.

II.4 The final allegro is just 2:40. A dark but quiet tune opens up into a full-throated expression that resolves in a big final chord that gives us an ending if not a resolution. Hard to know how all these parts go together.

I wasn’t sure how soon (if ever) I would return to this music so I thought I would give a second listen, this time to the performance by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. This recording is less tidy but more energetic and compelling. It has an immediacy to it.

I wonder if symphonies could be analyzed in terms of personality. So, for example, how would Nielsen’s Fifth do on a personality test, like the Big 5?

Conscientiousness—This is hard to measure. I would say it is efficient and organized. So this is probably reasonably high. It’s tidy. Not sprawling.

Agreeableness—Very low. Not very agreeable. When you do get that moment of blissful, serene music, it is often interrupted by something clamorous. This is not music that is trying to win you over. It speaks rather brashly a lot of the time.

Neuroticism—to the extent this means carrying powerful, negative feelings, I would rank this pretty high.

Extraversion. Off the chart. This is very loud and boisterous music. Although this is a difficult sort of extraversion. It’s not playful, “Let’s have a good time.” It’s “I’ve got things to say. Sit there and listen.” P

Openness. Certainly doesn’t sound like anything else, so this sems to be very open to the new.

In short, this music has a very strong personality. It doesn’t have the listener in mind. We have to adjust ourselves to it. I was also thinking that Carl Nielsen is a Scandinavian composer—Danish to be precise—but that I don’t know how to recognize that sort of ethnicity in music, if it is there in this music. With Tchaikovsky, I can hear something Slavic or Russian a lot of the time. With Mahler, I can certainly get some tastes of Vienna or Bohemia. Not sure how ethnic this music is.