Already in late autumn of 1898 Nielsen had been busy with plans for an opera, even before having decided on a topic. A writer friend of his was tinkering with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, but work on it stopped up, while the composer in the meantime had become enthralled with the Old Testament figure of Saul.
King Saul has fallen out with God, and when he decides to perform a sacrificial act that must only be carried out by the prophet Samuel, the loss of his throne is forewarned. When David, a young shepherd who has fallen in love with Saul’s daughter, defeats the giant Goliath in battle, Saul is consumed by jealousy. David wants peace and reconciliation, but when the prophet anoints him as the new king, Saul’s anger flares up again. War breaks out, Saul’s son is killed, and by his son’s dead body he realizes his own ruin and throws himself onto his sword.
The libretto was written by an experienced writer and theatre director during the Christmas season 1898, and Nielsen immediately set about to work, engrossed in this enormous task during most of 1899. Having gotten leave from his post in the orchestra, he spent the first half of 1900 together with Anne Marie in Rome. Not until 18 April of the following year was he able to announce that ‘today (…) I will write the last note in my score’, and in September the Royal Theatre approved the opera for performance.
Saul doubts both God and himself. He vacillates between defiance and self-abasement, indecisiveness and rash actions, and feels threatened from all sides. Ever since Hamlet, indecision and doubt have been an integral part of the Danish mentality, a phenomenon that – in addition to Saul’s dissonant personality and the contrast to the devout, Orpheus-like figure of David – may explain Nielsen’s choice of plot. Dramaturgically, however, it is problematic – a drama needs tension and momentum, while Saul’s fate is already sealed the moment the curtain rises. With its many choirs and crowd scenes, the opera was also a costly venture for any opera theatre.
The papers are furious and leave me with neither talent, heart, or taste.
The premiere on November 28 1902 included the theatre’s finest cast, but the reception was lukewarm and the press was largely negative. One critic found it downright sad for the composer ‘to get such tangible evidence for the mediocrity of his abilities’, and many felt that the work was more oratorio than opera, a musical drama that both was too old-fashioned and too alien. A revival two years later fared no better, ‘the papers are furious and leave me with neither talent, heart, or taste,’ Nielsen wrote to Anne Marie. The opera was taken off the programme after only two performances, and despite its obvious musical qualities, it has never gained a firm place in the repertoire.
Anne Marie now received the same generous travel grant that once had allowed Carl to travel to Paris and brought them together. In January 1903 she travelled to Athens to copy ancient sculptures on the Acropolis, and, taking yet another leave of absence, he followed her in February. One day, in the dazzling sunlight on the Acropolis, he decided to depict the sun’s path along the sky in music. The result was the concert overture Helios, written in a rush of inspiration within barely a month and a half. The music ‘depicts the sun from its ascent over the dark mountains here in the East until it flickers and shimmers in full splendour at noon and finally disappears bit by bit behind the blue mountains in the West,’ he wrote to a friend.
[The music] depicts the sun from its ascent over the dark mountains here in the East until it flickers and shimmers in full splendour at noon and finally disappears bit by bit behind the blue mountains in the West.
The first performance in October of the same year was once again accompanied by the critics’ often harsh words that Nielsen by now was accustomed to. Today, Helios is considered a national treasure, a universally cherished symbol of time’s passage that can be heard every year after the bells ring in the New Year on Danish television and radio. The critic writing for Politiken, however, used the opportunity to warn the composer of ‘a small group of fairly ludicrous worshippers’, claiming that they ‘shamelessly’ considered Carl Nielsen to be the equal of Mozart and Beethoven. Irritated, Nielsen demanded support for this claim, without success. But rumours of a number of strategically placed ‘life guards’ who artificially inflated his reputation circulated for a long time.
The years that followed were largely troublesome. The chief conductor of the theatre was taken ill and his right-hand man, Frederik Rung, was on leave. Nielsen was appointed substitute conductor, but with the same pay as a second violinist. Rung felt increasingly ignored, and the controversy became so heated, that Nielsen was sent back to his desk in the violin section. Like a ‘common, harmless soldier’, he wrote bitterly. ‘Now there isn’t a single person left at the institution with any ability or purpose.’ In the spring of 1905, he handed in his resignation.
Now there isn’t a single person left at the institution with any ability or purpose.
Most of 1904 was occupied with a major new work for chorus and orchestra, a counterpart to Helios, now with a focus on night, darkness and the two faces of sleep – gentle rest and nightmarish dreams. The work, titled Søvnen (The Sleep), had progressed slowly and was to be one of his least performed larger opuses. Especially the harsh dissonances depicting a bad dream in the middle section vexed the critics. Here ‘even the most genuine admirer of Danish music comes to the verge of abandoning all loyalty to Nielsen,’ one critic wrote.
I nearly fall asleep every time I start to work, and that was not exactly what I had in mind.
Nielsen did not hide the fact that the work was rather slow in the making. ‘I nearly fall asleep every time I start to work,’ he wrote in December 1903, ‘and that was not exactly what I had in mind.’ But he was very pleased with the final result in November 1904, and in several respects this distinctive work points to his idiosyncratic form of expression twenty years later. His unhurried work pace was above all the result of having been occupied with something altogether different than sleep and nightmares for a long time: a comic opera!
Nielsen planned to write ‘an opera à la Holberg’ – the ‘Danish Moliere’ – but had difficulty finding a librettist with ‘the humour and lyric touch demanded by such a sujet.’ As it so happened, Wilhelm Andersen, a literary scholar and lecturer the same age as Nielsen, appeared on the scene, and ‘lying in my desk drawer I now have an excellent text by him for a “comic opera in three acts”’, he wrote in April of 1904. Once again his imagination is fuelled by complementary opposites, dualisms that directly suggest the relationship between the first and second theme of a symphony. Whether this attraction had its psychological roots in similar contradictions within himself, is impossible to know, but worthy of some thought. Certainly his sparkling and humorous Masquerade was in every respect a diametric counterpart to the sinister biblical drama about Saul and David.
In November 1904 Anne Marie returned to Athens to collect her inheritance after her mother had died the summer before. This time she was gone for more than half a year, and without her support Carl felt alone and defenceless, triggering their first major marital crisis. Only a few weeks after her departure, a bit gloomy because of a flu, he felt that they probably would never have ‘a quiet, productive and flourishing life together.’
Sometimes I have the feeling that I am simply not myself – Carl August Nielsen – but something like an open tube through which a stream of music flows, moved by mild and powerful forces at a certain blissful frequency.
How it was possible for Nielsen to write music to a text full of witty, baroque and comedic elements during a period of soul-wrenching conflicts both at home and abroad, and with a host of critics now almost habitually deriding him as both composer and conductor, is one of creativity’s life-affirming puzzles. His own awareness of this gap between everyday life and creativity comes to light in a letter to Anne Marie, written in February 1805 while he was working on the first act: ‘Sometimes I have the feeling that I am simply not myself – Carl August Nielsen – but something like an open tube through which a stream of music flows, moved by mild and powerful forces at a certain blissful frequency.’ Work progressed unusually quickly, Act 2 was completed within only 21 days, and in late summer Nielsen composed parts of Act 3 amidst the sand dunes of the North Sea, solely equipped with manuscript paper and a pencil.
Central to the opera is a masquerade ball that to all appearances takes place every night at the playhouse – a dreamland where people escape their humdrum bourgeois social roles with all attendant customs and obligations, and for a brief moment get a glimpse of other ideals of freedom, other types of lives. The opera succeeds in communicating this dream of new life and new passions with such universal appeal, that it can be shared by Holberg’s comedic characters and the audience alike. But Nielsen never felt quite satisfied with the result. Two days before the premiere, he wrote to a colleague: ‘I am quite distraught because I think the third act seems confused and unsettled on stage.’ For many years he contemplated changes, but – fortunately? – never carried them out. For it is precisely the third act that opens up for the possibility of transformation amidst a turmoil of music, dance, song, eroticism and love, and it is here the old world, represented by the cantankerous character of Jeronimus, symbolically disintegrates. ‘Once there was peace in our streets, but now it has gone,’ he grumbles, but finally takes part in the masquerade himself and ends up in a state of utter intoxication.
It is a snake-pit of envy, jealousy, selfishness, slander and pettiness, and it astonishes me how petty and venomous people can be – like horse-flies (…) This environment makes my work seem vile and dirty.
The rehearsals turned out to be a long and stressful process, not least because many theatre professionals resented the fact that one had ‘laid a hand’ on Denmark’s sacrosanct writer of comedies. But in actual fact, very little of Holberg remained, apart from the cast of characters. In April, while working on the opera, Nielsen wrote that ‘it is a snake-pit of envy, jealousy, selfishness, slander and pettiness, and it astonishes me how petty and venomous people can be – like horse-flies (…) This environment makes my work seem vile and dirty.’ The resounding success of the work at its premiere on 11 November 1906 therefore came as a surprise to all and everyone – ‘a sold out house at high prices, the theatre’s cashbox jingling with gold, and no one complains any longer!’ the composer ironically commented in a letter and ascertained that ‘material tangibility’ apparently reigned supreme. Masquerade continued to be a sell-out hit even after the New Year, reaching 25 performances within only 4 months, almost unheard of for a new opera. One can hardly pinpoint any specific national Danish features in the work, but as the most popular opera ever composed by a Dane, its status as Denmark’s national opera is undisputed.
A sold out house at high prices, the theatre’s cashbox jingling with gold, and no one complains any longer!
Once again Nielsen had earned the theatre’s stamp of approval, and in February 1908 entered into lengthy negotiations for a permanent position as conductor. The possibility of employing two conductors of equal status was considered, but Rung categorically refused. Nielsen was hired as assistant conductor, and the relationship between him and Rung remained strained. These conflicts, as well as friction in the relationship with Anne Marie, seem to have put a damper on his creative drive, and for several years he mainly composed occasional works.
During these years, Nielsen and his family regularly began to spend their working time and holidays at Fuglsang, a magnificent manor on Lolland in the southeast of Denmark. The landowner’s wife, daughter of composer Emil Hartmann, was 30 years younger than her husband, and under her supervision the estate become something of a retreat for creative people from near and far. Here Carl and Anne Marie met fellow artists that were to become friends for life, and it was here Nielsen often sought refuge when Anne Marie was away.
The first record of the Sinfonia espansiva, Nielsen’s third symphony, is a diary entry from the middle of May 1910: ‘Completed composition of the first Allegro of my new symphony.’ There is a striking discrepancy between this sober statement and the genesis of a symphonic movement that represents an overwhelming breakthrough in the history of Danish music – nothing in Nielsen’s previous works suggests anything like it.
The movement begins with a unique gesture: reinforced by octaves, the tonic note is repeated faster and faster, as if powerful forces thrust the main theme forward, hurling it at the listener like a handful of stones. The name of the symphony derives from its continual forward momentum, a sense of ‘expansiveness’ that characterizes the entire movement. In April of 1911 Nielsen noted that the symphony was now completed. Three contrasting movements had been added, a floating, practically static andante, a capricious scherzo, and a broadly conceived finale with an opening theme as tuneful as a popular song – not a unified symphonic entity, perhaps, but an evolving process that never fails to convey meaning and substance.
After a long period of creative drought, Nielsen’s creative juices were flowing once again, and in the summer he began work on his virtuosic and richly melodic violin concerto. In February of 1912 he conducted the Royal Chapel in a programme exclusively dedicated to his own works and centring around two first performances: the Violin Concerto and the Sinfonia Espansiva. The symphony became an instant hit, and even critics who previously had been sceptical now showered the 47-year-old composer with praise. Nielsen had reached the meridian of his career.
Masquerade became his most popular work on Danish soil, but only in the past few decades has the opera begun to gain a foothold on the international scene. It was Espansiva that firmly established Nielsen’s name abroad, and time would prove that thanks to this work the symphonist had forever outmanoeuvred the composer of operas.