Nielsen's 4th Symphony: "The Inextinguishable"


Carl Nielsen – Symphony No.4 “Inextinguishable” Op.29

“Music is life, and like it, inextinguishable.”

“Without a current, my music is nothing.”

These two quotes alone by Carl Nielsen are almost sufficient to fully appreciate the Fourth Symphony. He elucidated his meaning further when he wrote of the work:

 “It’s all those things that have Will and the Craving for Life that cannot be suppressed that I’ve wanted to depict. Not because I want to reduce my art to the imitation of Nature but [rather] to let it attempt to express what lies behind it.” Nielsen thought music was uniquely able to do this because “music is a manifestation of Life, in that it is either completely dead—at that moment when it is not sounding—or completely alive and, therefore, it can exactly express the concept of Life from its most elementary form of utterance to the highest spiritual ecstasy.”`

Nielsen further wrote, “There must be conflict so that we may have clarity. Perception must be preceded by opposition.” Like Beethoven’s, Nielsen’s symphonies move forward through a series of conflicts based on the clash, and ultimate resolution, of tonalities. Nielsen used the counterpoint he mastered as an engine for generating these conflicts. The orchestra is constantly in motion, asking and answering itself, issuing and meeting challenges.

Regarding the Fourth Symphony Nielsen wrote: “In case all the world was devastated…then nature would still begin to breed new life again, begin to push forward again…. These forces, which are ‘inextinguishable,’ I have tried to represent.”

As one can imagine from Nielsen’s description, this music relies on a sense of overwhelming forward drive – Nielsen’s “current”. Its four movements are continuous, evolving tonally and thematically through a number of hazardous encounters with the powers of extinction into the eventual and exhilarating triumph of the “inextinguishable.” (The moniker refers not to the symphony, be it noted, nor even necessarily to music itself but rather to the ideas which the piece represents).

In musical terms, that “current” expressed itself in Nielsen’s hands through what has been called progressive tonality, although he never used the term himself. Perhaps the most famous example would be Mahler’s Second Symphony, beginning in C minor and ending in E flat major, although the two keys are related. Nielsen’s music has been extensively described by British composer Robert Simpson, who also employed the technique in his own symphonies. It is hard to know whether Nielsen thought in these terms himself, but his technique is clear for all to see in the study of his scores, and its effect on the informed listener can be very strong indeed.

“I have an idea for a new composition, which has no programme but will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestations of life, that is: everything that moves, that wants to live ... just life and motion, though varied – very varied – yet connected, and as if constantly on the move, in one big movement or stream. I must have a word or a short title to express this; that will be enough. I cannot quite explain what I want, but what I want is good.”

Although the symphony’s official date of composition is given as 1916 – implying that the cataclysmic events of the First World War may have partly inspired it - Nielsen wrote the words to his wife in 1914. As with Holst’s Mars and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, this apocalyptic musical vision came perhaps out of cultural perceptions and the artists’ imaginations, rather than in response to events and are the more powerful for that.

A brief guide to the music: we start with a struggle between the keys of C (strings) and D woodwind. Neither of these is the key of the symphony – which finds its resolution in E, but they represent dangerous dead-end stability on the one hand, and elemental, inorganic forces on the other.

The hymn-like “melody of life” which the clarinets first introduce early in the piece will eventually have its life-affirming apotheosis at the end, but there is much to struggle with first. A climax in  A brings about the close of the exposition, and maybe a vision of the future, but we soon find ourselves tossed around aimlessly among fragments of musical DNA, with aggressive assertions of D from the violas. As the temperature rises they eventually hit upon E, unleashing a torrential climax, almost like lava entering the sea. Fragments of the life melody are heard, but cannot succeed, and we are becalmed in C major for a time. The opening tumult returns, and the first “movement” ends in E with partial success.

The symphony is written continuously, each movement flowing seamlessly into the next although the joins are quite clearly heard. The second movement, sounding like an amalgam of 18th century gavotte and minuet, exhibits some of Nielsen’s most beautiful and characteristic wind writing, and also many of his musical fingerprints. This is a moment of charm and repose, a world of flowers and scents, perhaps, life, but without consciousness as yet?

The third movement begins with the sense of a colossal fugue – but soon turns out to be a great elegy. The emotions subside and there are episodes of chamber music, interrupted by a rude rhythmic figure from the winds. This soon becomes the movement’s true fugue, and embodies the most “constructive” spell of music in the symphony, climaxing in a great peroration in E, but – note – without as yet the vital melody.

A nervous oboe is overwhelmed by a furious, mercurial string passage, redolent of Leonora No.3, as if living creatures suddenly swarm in an unheralded Cambrian explosion. Cut off at a cliff’s edge, the music roars into the final movement, one of Nielsen’s three great swaggering triple time movements perhaps inspired by the Eroica’s opening chapter. There is thrill and glory here – and Nielsen says so – but the rock is not done yet. In the form of two opposing sets of timpani, the elements seek to disrupt. In their final onslaught, the drum notes tellingly combine to construct the chord of D. The defiant shrieks from wind and strings are on the note B – dominant of E – and they eventually triumph, ripping the drums out by the roots. The onrush takes the music quickly to its final E major triumph. Even the timps are converted.

Nielsen returns to such conflict in his 5th symphony, where the struggle becomes more anthropocentric, between good and evil. For now though, life is ascendant.

- Jonathan Small 2016 (with thanks to Robert Simpson)