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Classical 101

The Columbus Symphony Performs Carl Nielsen's Fifth Symphony

Danish composer Carl Nielsen listening to the rehersal of Saul og David in Gothenburg in 1928
Charles Carlsson
Wikimedia Commons
Danish composer Carl Nielsen listening to the rehersal of Saul og David in Gothenburg in 1928. The CSO plays his Fifth Symphony this weekend

Growing up,  I was mentored by a next door neighbor who taught music in the public schools. She died a few weeks ago at 94.  I have been thinking of her while studying the symphonies of Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931).

He is a composer not well known by me. My teacher went to Denmark for a year and came home enthralled by his music. I was too young to leave off Bellini to investigate the greatest Danish born composer.

Until now. The Columbus Symphony plays Nielsen's Fifth symphony in this weekends' concerts. Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts.

After listening the fifth, I went back and listened to the fourth, then the sixth. Finally I had a listen to Commotio, Nielsen's final work, a large scale piece for organ.

I can't fit Nielsen into any category. He begins a symphony in one key and ends in another. He this nothing of either hypnotizing or infuriating listeners with repeated snare drum riffs, explosions of timpani, and occasional chaotic sounding orchestrations. My favorite  is the quasi siren-muted trumpets-late in the work.

Above all the breathtaking opening of the adagio in part one


I thought his symphony was in six movements. It's in two with sub sections. Tension is seldom absent from any of the music. There is a rush to 'release' or resolution in the final two minutes.

I'm intrigued by the first tempo marking: Tempo giusto '(the right tempo) Says who? Nielsen indicated quater note =100, but tempo gusto can be a challenge to a conductor.

The Fifth Symphony was begun in 1921 and premiered one year later. Nielsen conducted. The composer never mentioned the recent world war in connection to this music. Many people since have heard the chaos and the bloodshed of the great war in this symphony. Nielsen only said, "After the war, all of us were changed."

This weekend's CSO  program includes Finlandia by Sibelius, a national hymn if there ever was one. And the sublime Requiem by Gabriel Faure. This is an inspired program in a season filled with inspiration.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.