Carl Nielsen Symposium

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

1 November 2001, Recital Room, Birmingham Conservatoire

While a festival such as ’Discover Denmark’ is primarily about performance and exhibition, it makes sense to include a conference element as part of the activities, particularly when the subject is a composer as significant in twentieth-century music as Carl Nielsen. To this end, Daniel Grimley, Lecturer in Music at the University of Surrey, assembled a symposium of leading Danish, British and American authorities to present some of the latest findings in Nielsen scholarship and research.

Session One: Historical and Cultural Perspectives

This opened with John Fellow’s detailed and absorbing comparison of the biblical ’Saul and David’ with Nielsen’s operatic treatment, with comparative reference to the Icelandic national saga as represented in the composer’s Saga-drøm. Dr Peter Hauge followed with a detailed consideration of the factors involved in editing Nielsen’s music, and the need to distinguish between those integral to the work itself, and those relevant to interpretation and performance: an important area of discussion given that the era of so-called ’authenticity’ is just now passing.

Knud Ketting gave a detailed and fascinating insight into the performance history of Nielsen’s music at the Tivoli concert season from 1887 until his death forty-four years later, just one aspect of the research which makes his forthcoming biography of the composer such an eagerly anticipated study. Dr Colin Roth concluded the session with a consideration of Nielsen in the context of turn-of-the-century Danish culture from a pan-European perspective; interesting in detail, though too generalised in scope to be of greater application in a symposium such as this.

Session Two: Analytical Interpretations

The second part opened with Dr David Fanning’s fascinating speculation on the possible common links, musical and conceptual, between Nielsen and the theory of ’Russian Symphonism’ as propounded in the heady early-Soviet era by Boris Asafiev; clearly an area ripe for further investigation. Dr Michael Fjeldsøe addressed the question of a fixed tone structure, diatonic but not modal in the traditional sense, at work over the course of the Fifth Symphony – an area with wider symphonic application than might be supposed. Dr Anne-Marie Reynolds offered a thoughtful reading of the musico-dramatic context and tonal trajectory of Maskarade; for too long viewed as a work in the ’national opera’ tradition, but clearly a watershed in Nielsen’s own creative development.

Tom Pankhurst made a detailed exploration of aspects of Eero Tarasti’s ’Theory of Musical Semiotics’ as pertaining to the tonal structure of Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony; the discussion of tonal closure, or lack of it, as an aspect of Nielsen’s symphonism again having direct relevance for future symphonic thought. Finally, Dr Grimley himself gave some valuable analytical insights into the formal thinking of the Clarinet Concerto, with its radical play on the conventions of that much-maligned genre – the twentieth-century concerto.

Panel Discussion

The final hour – led by Dr Niels Krabbe – ’New Directions in Nielsen Research’, included a detailed and welcome insight into progress on the Carl Nielsen Critical Edition, scheduled for completion in 2008. Questions were, of necessity, kept to a minimum after each paper, with time for a general discussion at the end of the symposium.


The whole event was a valuable opportunity for sharing the fruits of current Nielsen research with an attentive and by no means entirely ’specialist’ audience. Daniel Grimley deserves credit for putting together such an authoritative and wide-ranging panel, and is hopefully encouraged to plan further such symposia. The importance of Nielsen, both as a composer in his own right and as a model for future creative thought, deserves no less.

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