I am a composer, but that is not my “day job.” While I am always in the process of composing something, I make my living by playing viola in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It turns out that a century ago, another composer had a very similar arrangement. The vastly underrated Danish master Carl Nielsen spent much of his career in the second violin section of the Royal Danish Orchestra. His career and his music are both a great inspiration to me.
Carl Nielsen had little formal training as a composer, epitomizing Yogi Berra’s famous aphorism, “You can observe a lot just by watching!” I think that the unique nature of his music owes a great deal to the fact that he learned his craft not in a classroom but on a stage surrounded by his fellow musicians. While his music is by no means easy to play, it is clear it was written with a deep understanding of just what he is asking the musicians to do. I often am delighted to realize that there is some small detail in my part’s fingering or bowing patterns that ensures that it will sound with great effectiveness, even at its most demanding.
Another characteristic of his music that I suspect comes from his lack of extensive formal training is the extraordinarily original nature of the solutions he finds to many musical challenges. He didn’t learn how to write a transition, to change keys or to bring things to a close in any formal academic way. Consequently, the way he works these (and many other) issues out is wonderfully unexpected yet entirely convincing.
I think of this especially when performing his Fourth Symphony (The Inextinguishable), which the CSO will perform in concerts Dec. 6-8 and 11 under guest conductor Edward Gardner. Nielsen himself described this work as depicting “the life force, the unquenchable will to live.” Like life itself, the work surges forward in a wild, unpredictable and yet utterly compelling way. Jarring incidents keep shaking us out of our comfort zone, and it is only in retrospect that we can see what we have experienced as a coherent narrative.
Perhaps the most striking example of this is in the climax of the last movement. A second timpani player, who has been sitting silent for the entire performance, suddenly engages in a brutal and thrilling duel with his colleague. It is truly one of the most astonishing moments in all of music, and in its violence, it reminds us that Nielsen was writing this symphony while World War I was in full fury. In defiance of the maelstrom of death that was all around him, Nielsen created this miraculous paean to the life force within us all. It is performed far too rarely, and the opportunity to hear it live is not to be missed.