according to this random free online encyclopedia site you’ve probably never heard of, carl nielsen’s sixth symphony (say it 10x fast) is the least performed symphony by a rarely performed danish composer. after checking out a recording of it, i could understand why. to me, he sounded like mahler without any redeeming qualities. what was i to do? well, i threw out a question to some os musicians on this random free online social networking site you’ve probably never heard of, and here’s the latest status of the conversation in its entirety:
the classical beaver: help! in preparation for your concert, i’m really trying to like mr. nielsen’s symphony #6. or at least appreciate it. i’m finding it difficult. nothing helps. any suggestions? thanks.
*warning: some or all of your replies may be intercepted by the classical beaver and published on the interwebs
Ron Blessinger (an actual violinist with the symphony, btw): Nielsen just wasn’t the same composer after Airplane…
Charles Noble (xo of the mighty viola section, btw): and stop calling me Shirley!
the classical beaver: so, thanks to ron & charles for their contributions… any other musical insights?
Marty Hebert (chief-of-oboes, btw): Many musicians, when studying a piece they’ve never played, like to listen to recordings of the work. I do it myself. But, sometimes, I like to learn by doing, absorbing the work in flagrante, and by osmosis. So, I haven’t heard the Nielsen before, except in our first rehearsal. I’m sure by the end of the week I’ll have a much more informed opinion – and maybe even an earworm or two. First impressions? I imagine that the work is challenging to listen to because parts of it are strongly polytonal, with musical lines in 2 and even 3 different keys at once. Also, there’s a section in the ‘waltz’ variation in the last movement where strings and woodwinds are in a waltz in 3, while the brass and piccolo are in a brisk march in 2. Other parts of the symphony are much more in line with my experience of Nielsen’s musical language – in particular the Woodwind Quintet, a spectacularly good example of the genre.
Nancy Ives (principal cellist, btw): I feel the same as Marty about listening to recordings of unfamiliar (to me) works before rehearsals start. This time, I did go through it with a recording to be better prepared, mostly because we have one fewer rehearsal than usual with Carlos — and because I was tired and wanted a leg up! This piece is quirky. It’s quite unusual. It’s a standard symphonic package spiked with some very distinctive sounds and ideas. To me it sounds like Haydn’s “Toy Symphony” meets Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony” in a Hindemith-ian harmonic realm with Bruckner-ian earnestness! (Thanks to Charles Noble for pinpointing the last two resemblances) I hear the “Toy Symphony” because of the frequent use of high-pitched percussion, and the “Classical Symphony” because of a seemingly quasi-satirical referencing of older styles, although I don’t think Carl Nielsen meant that. The program notes online at orsymphony.org say that he meant the symphony to be child-like and joyful, but refers to a grim and sardonic quality found in much of the piece. Apparently, Nielsen was facing his mortality, and judging by the music, he was clearly not in the acceptance stage! He also intended to explore “pure sound,” as opposed to programmatic music I assume, but that isn’t the effect either. There are many places that paint pictures or make very specific comments, like the brass playing over and out of sync with the waltz.
I already have an earworm, by the way — the Waltz…around and around…