Fin-de-siècle symphonist and dawning modernist Carl Nielsen arrives this spring at the sesquicentennial of his birth. Generally known for his symphonies, Nielsen’s music for wind instruments extends to chamber music and solo concerti with a dash of exclusive audition material. His compositional evolution progresses through his wind music writing as his style transforms from German-influenced Danish Romanticism to an idiosyncratic voice of early modernism.

In a time when the violin and piano dominated the solo spotlight, Nielsen’s earliest works for woodwinds in the decade of 1880 come in the form of Fantasistykker, or Fantasy Pieces. Written around 1883, give or take a few years, Nielsen’s unpublished manuscript for the Fantasistykke for Clarinet and Piano in G minor is dark and lyrical, characteristic of the late-Romantic idiom. Six years later in 1889, Nielsen joined the Royal Danish Orchestra’s second violin section and composed the Fantasistykker for Oboe and Piano in G minor for colleague Olivo Krause, an educator who taught Victor Borge piano music at the Royal Danish Conservatory. The first of the two fantasy pieces, marked “Romance”, shows Nielsen’s signature melodic approach where a line often reaches the height of a phrase only to slide chromatically while remaining within the confines of accepted tonality. The second fantasy piece, a “Humoreske”, is lively and sarcastic, revealing a sense of humor which is apart both in his future output and epistolary musings.

Danish oboist Max Artved and pianist Per Salo:

For the next quarter of a century, Nielsen honed his innovative craftsmanship through large-scale orchestration and text-setting as he embarked on a conducting career at the Royal Danish Theatre. During this time, he composed two operas and three symphonies, as well as incidental music and a few string quartets, so it’s natural to imagine he only wrote music intended for the concert stage. On the contrary, his position at the theatre led him to write Canto serioso in 1913, as an audition for the low horn, opening in the Copenhagen Opera Orchestra. The piece shows off the horn’s expansive range and capability for husky staccato notes as the horn player must not only diminuendo on a sustained low C, but also demonstrate fierce tonguing and expressive control. The piece has since wedged itself into the recital repertoire.

Vidar Olsen (horn) and Leif Ove Andsnes (piano):

Nielsen resigned from the opera in 1914, and focused his attention on composition, conceiving Serenata-Invano that same year as a quintet for an unusual combination of instruments to be performed on tour alongside Beethoven’s Septet. The title itself, meaning “Serenade-In Vain”, shows the witty complexion of the piece. Written for clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello and double-bass, "Serenata-Invano is a humorous trifle," Nielsen wrote in a letter to the head of Swedish Radio, Julius Rabe. "First the gentlemen play in a somewhat chivalric and showy manner to lure the fair one out onto the balcony, but she does not appear. Then they play in a slightly languorous strain (Poco adagio), but that hasn't any effect either. Since they have played in vain (in vano), they don't care a straw and shuffle off home to the strains of the little final march, which they play for their own amusement." The programmatic nature of his oeuvre is perceptible and continued to manifest through his wind quintet and solo concerti. 

Aage Oxenvad (clarinet), Knud Lassen (bassoon), Hans Sørensen (horn), Louis Jensen (cello), Louis Hegner (double bass); recorded in 1937: 

Nielsen’s wind writing culminated in 1922 when he wrote a quintet to encapsulate the personalities of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. The first movement, in sonata form, and second movement, a menuet, adhere to traditional form. However, the final movement is written in the same vein as Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Beginning with a Praeludium, the cor anglais calls the winds to engage in dialogue. This moment emphasizes Nielsen’s philosophy of objektivering in which each musician is granted freedom of interpretation. The dialogue is then followed by an original hymnal theme, Min Jesus, lad mit Hjerte faa, that navigates through 11 variations. Each variation depicts a character portrait or interactions among the musicians. After the success of the quintet, Nielsen intended to write a solo concerto for each player; however, only two would come into fruition before the composer’s passing.

Scandinavian Chamber Players:

In 1926, Nielsen began writing a flute concerto, the first of the planned five wind concerti. Written for and premiered by Holger Gilbert-Jespersen, the flautist who succeeded Paul Hagemann in the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, the Flute Concerto retains Nielsen’s early melodic tendencies while further pushing the boundaries of traditional tonality and conventional form. He carefully removed the flute section from the orchestral accompaniment in order to give the solo instrument complete dominance over its individual timbre and divisioned the work into two movements, rather than the standard three. At times, the scoring is like chamber music and Nielsen composed the piece with such narrative force that one could easily choreograph the music for ballet. For instance, the flute takes a break from chattering with the orchestra to play with either the clarinet, viola, timpani or bass trombone, in each instance imitating or showing off for one another.

Jean Pierre Rampal with the Copenhagen Philharmonic conducted by John Frandsen:

Written in 1928 for Aage Oxenvad, Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto would be his last orchestral work. Further diluting conventional form, the concerto flows through a single movement, intertwined with extensive cadenzas by the solo instrument. The orchestra, now reduced to bassoons, horns, strings and snare drum, acts as an encouraging force to intensify the clarinet’s visceral disposition. In the years surrounding the concerto, the composer had been suffering from cardiac trouble, and his personal stress can be found in the piece. The snare drum seems to beat against the clarinet throughout the concerto, finally beating slower with less intensity until the piece fades to nothing.

Stanley Drucker with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (1967):

Nielsen spent the last few years of his life reacquainting himself with Renaissance and Baroque polyphony, and at the age of 66, his last composition for winds was not for a standard orchestral wind instrument, but rather for two recorders. Although each section tends to land on an octave, the duet is tonal – not modal – and uses perfect fourth harmonies, so it is clear Nielsen was not trying to mimic Renaissance technique. Undemanding and brief, the Allegretto is nothing more than a fleeting divertiment of a man at the end of his life.

Carl Nielsen is revered for advancing traditional wind writing into the age of modernism. The Wind Quintet, the Flute Concerto and the Clarinet Concerto have entered the standard repertoire and receive frequent performances in our time. In Nielsen’s sesquicentennial year, the lesser known works for wind instruments are sure to come out of the woodwork.

To read reviews of Nielsen in concert or to catch some Nielsen near you, visit our Nielsen page


Carl Nielsen Society

Laura Prichard: Carl August Nielsen