Denmark’s favourite musical son, Carl Nielsen, celebrates his 150th birthday today. Bachtrack has published a number of articles about the composer in this anniversary year (links below), but today is about enjoying some of his greatest music in excellent performances.

Brought up on the island of Funen, Nielsen demonstrated musical talent at an early age. He played in a military band before attending the Royal Conservatory in Copenhagen in 1884. Nielsen spent 26 years as a violinist in the Royal Danish Orchestra. Indeed, in the première of his Symphony no. 1 in G minor in 1894, Nielsen played in the second violin section! In 1916, he took on a teaching position in the Royal Danish Academy of Music.

Kicking off with an overture, here is the curtain-raiser to Nielsen’s comedy Maskarade, brimming and bustling with infectious melodies. Ulf Schirmer conducts the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra:

The Third Symphony, known as the Sinfonia espansiva, was composed between 1910-11 and offered Nielsen his symphonic breakthrough internationally. The subtitle refers to the tempo marking for the first movement, Allegro espansivo. It includes wordless vocal solos for soprano and baritone in the Andante pastorale second movement.

Leonard Bernstein had a special affinity for Nielsen’s symphonies. Here, he conducts the Royal Danish Orchestra (Nielsen’s own orchestra) in 1965:

Nielsen only wrote three concertos: for violin, flute and – here – for clarinet. Written for Aage Oxenvad in 1928, the Clarinet Concerto is in a continuous single movement in four distinct sections. The newspaper Politiken reported how Nielsen had “liberated the soul of the clarinet”. Here, Stanley Drucker, long time principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, performs the work, Bernstein again conducting.

Pan and Syrinx is a short tone poem describing the myth of Pan lustily pursuing the nymph Syrinx through Ancient Greece. At the river’s edge, Syrinx prays for assistance from the gods, who transform her into reeds, from which the frustrated Pan creates the first set of pan pipes. Joshua Weilerstein conducts the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra:

In 1917 the Danish Choral Society sponsored a poetry competition, aiming to celebrate Danish culture. The winning verse was to be set to music by Nielsen. Aage Bernsten, a doctor and a writer, won. The resulting work, Springtime in Funen, is Nielsen’s most popular choral piece, a cantata to which the composer added the subtitle “lyric humoresque”. Nielsen grew up on the isle of Fyn and the cantata evokes both the marine and pastoral settings.

Nielsen wrote incidental music for a production of Aladdin at the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen. The Suite contains much colourful music, none more so than “The Marketplace in Ispahan”, where Nielsen divides the orchestra into four parts, each playing independently, piling up on top of each other. Herbert Blomstedt conducts the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra:

Here’s Nielsen’s Wind Quintet, performed by the Scandinavian Chamber Players. The composer described how he “has attempted to render the characters of the various instruments”. It’s a work full of great charm and wit and the perfect postlude to our Nielsen birthday playlist.


Other Nielsen articles on Bachtrack:

National poetry and polyphony: Exploring the choral music of Sibelius and Nielsen

Behind the disguise: a look at Carl Nielsen’s Maskarade

Celebrating the Wind Music of Carl Nielsen

Nordic twin peaks: the Violin Concertos of Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius