Research notes – Sibelius and Nielsen
Jean Sibelius was born in 1865 to Swedish parents in the Grand Duchy of Finland, then part of the Russian Empire. He started studying law, but soon moved to the Helsinki Music Institute which has since been renamed after the composer. He was an aspiring violinist, but did not succeed to become a concert level performer and turned instead to composition. He is most known for his symphonies, tone poems and violin concerto, although he also wrote a lot of chamber music and songs. He became very well known in Finland during his lifetime; the government even gave him an annual grant to give him the freedom to focus on his composition, and he became a kind of symbol of Finnish nationalism (independence from Russia was finally achieved in 1917). Finlandia was written as a depiction of Finland’s history, and had to be performed under different names to avoid Russian censorship. Musically, Sibelius belongs with the Romantic era, but although tonally his compositions were more traditional than some of his contemporaries, he was innovative in his treatment of the symphonic form – for example in his seventh symphony which has only one movement.
Carl Nielsen was born one year earlier than Sibelius, in Denmark. Unlike the Finnish composer, he remained relatively unknown during his lifetime, and earned his living as an orchestral violinist, teacher and conductor as well as composer. He wrote six symphonies, three concertos and two operas, amongst other smaller works. He was particularly interested in Danish folk music, although there is debate over how much this influenced his own music. His use of tonality was innovative – he often finished a piece in a different key to the one it started in, using ‘progressive harmony’ to move through different keys throughout, and also incorporating chromatic and modal harmony. Nielsen’s orchestration was rich, often making significant use of brass and percussion, and a portrayal of battle can be heard in symphonies 4 and 5 which were written during and shortly after World War I. These works didn’t reach international fame until after World War II however.
Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2017) 'Symphony' [online] At: https://www.britannica.com/art/symphony-music/The-20th-century (Accessed on 18.02.17)
Pickard, J. (2017) Carl Nielsen Biography [online] At: http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/1be1367d-119f-4b08-bdfe-50b95043e544 (Accessed on 18.02.17)
Ross, A. (2012) The Rest is Noise. London: Fourth Estate. pp. 171-193
Service T. (2007) The Silence of Sibelius. At: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2007/sep/20/classicalmusicandopera1 (Accessed on 18.02.17)
Programme Notes for Carl Nielsen: Symphony No. 5
Written just a few years after the end of the First World War, the Danish composer’s fifth symphony is one of contrasts, described in his own words as “the division of dark and light, the battle between evil and good”. It was first performed in Copenhagen in 1922 under the direction of Nielsen himself who was known in Denmark as a conductor and violinist as well as composer. Despite his relative popularity in his own country however, Nielsen did not gain international recognition until decades later.
The work opens with a soft minor third based motif on the violas – suspenseful and ambiguous in tonality as it accompanies the modal sounding woodwind and string melodies reminiscent of folk tunes. As the movement progresses it takes on a darker tone, the snare drum evoking a battle scene. The second half of the movement brings with it sweeping, joyous melodies in the strings, though the tension soon returns with a clashing motif in the woodwind. Nielsen’s innovative use of tonality to achieve the jarring effect is a recurring theme in this, as well as his other works.
Nielsen’s modernisation of the twentieth century symphony is also evident in the unusual structure of this work, which comprises only two movements. The second movement features a fugue, starting softly in the strings and building up the drama as the woodwind and brass join in. The symphony ends with a frantic ascent to the climax, which finally resolves with a resounding, triumphant chord.