2. vn Kgl. Kapel
2. kapelmst
Anne Marie


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Born in Nørre Lyndelse on the island of Funen

Born 9 June at 1.30 a.m. in ‘The Owl House’, a little farmhouse in the middle of a field. The area is known as Sortelung. The boy’s parents are Maren Kirstine Johansen (1833–97) and her husband Niels Jørgensen (1835-1915), a day labourer and painter. Upon the owner’s request, the house is torn down in 1873.

Nielsen or Jørgensen?

A new Danish law required surnames to be passed on, but the local minister insisted that the child’s surname be based on the father’s given name. Therefore, all of the Nielsen children should actually have been named Jørgensen, including the composer, whose name would have been Carl Jørgensen.


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The first violin

His mother gives him a three-quarter size violin.


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Starts to attend school in Nørre Lyndelse.


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First music lessons

A new teaching assistant, Emil Petersen, gives him violin lessons, ‘properly and with written music.’

Moves again

The family has bought a thatched house called ‘Petersborg’. Located on the border of Nørre Søby parish, it had ‘seven paned windows’. They move in March, and Carl lives there until autumn 1869. Today, the house is a museum, known as Carl Nielsen Childhood Home.


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Works as a farmhand

Tends the geese at Bramstrup Estate, where his father works as a day labourer. Also works at a brick factory.


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More structured music lessons

Regular violin lessons with both his father and Emil Petersen.


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Moving house

Because his birthplace is to be demolished, Carl’s family moves to a house ”on the other side of the brick factory”.


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Apprenticeship with an unmarried shopkeeper in Ellinge in the municipality of Nyborg, a few kilometres from his home. The shopkeeper suffers from tuberculosis, and declares bankruptcy after three months.

A position with the military

In November, he wins an audition for a trumpet position with the 16th battalion in Odense, first on a trial basis. Continues as a military musician for four years.


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Music for brass

Learns to play alto trombone and writes short movements for brass instruments; also plays violin together with his father at public dance evenings.


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Regular violin lessons

After military exercises in the summer, Carl Larsen, the future bell-ringer at Odense Cathedral, begins to teach him.

The first proper compositions

Writes Fantasy for clarinet and piano, and a violin sonata.

An important supporter

Klaus Berntsen, a member of the Danish Parliament and pioneer of the Danish adult education movement known as højskole, introduces him to composer Niels W. Gade, head of the conservatory in Copenhagen.


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Chamber music and the first quartet

Plays Classical violin sonatas together with an older pub pianist, and composes a string quartet in D minor.

A piano for 50 kroner

Spends his savings on buying a small used piano from a watchmaker, but has to pay off the amount for a long time.


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Travels to the capital in May, bringing with him the string quartet he had composed the year before. In June he turns eighteen. With the help of a state-subsidized scholarship, he is admitted to the conservatory.


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Gade´s conservatory

In January, he begins his studies at the conservatory. In addition to Gade, J.P.E. Hartmann and H.S. Paulli head the institution – three decidedly older gentlemen. Hartmann is approaching his eighties.

Music studies

His main subject is violin, in addition to which he studies piano, music theory and history. He shows new works to Gade and his main teacher, Orla Rosenhoff. His syllabus does not include composition lessons, however.


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Establishes long friendships with people who later become central in the musical life of Denmark, notably conductor Frederik Schnedler-Petersen and pianist Johanne Stockmarr.


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Final exam

At the end of the year he graduates from the conservatory, 21 years of age. His final exam is average, but satisfactory.


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‘Foster parents’

Moves to Slagelsegade in Copenhagen with a retired merchant and his wife, both originally from Odense. They support him financially and almost act as his foster parents. His economy is strained.

Young love

The merchant’s wife, Marie Demant, has a 14-year-old niece, Emilie Demant, with whom he falls desperately in love. When the relationship ends in autumn 1889, he suffers a deep personal crisis.

Composition debut

Plays as a regular with the Tivoli Symphony Orchestra (until 1890) and takes students. He himself continues as a private student of Orla Rosenhoff. Makes his public debut as a composer on 17 September at Tivoli Gardens with Andante e scherzo for string orchestra.


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A son out of wedlock

On 8 January, a son is born to him, baptized Carl August Hansen. The mother, Karen Marie Hansen, works as a maid in the three-storey tenement where he lives. He helps both of them financially, but never accepts paternity. In 1901, mother and child emigrate to the United States.

Growing attention

In January, his String Quartet in F major is premiered at the Private Chamber Music Society. Only members are admitted to these concerts.

First success

His ‘official’ opus 1, Little Suite for Strings, is premiered at Tivoli. He himself plays in the violin section. ‘It was very successful’, he later writes. To the ovations of the audience, conductor Balduin Dahl calls Nielsen forward.

Conducting debut

In October, he appears as a conductor for the first time. He conducts his suite for strings at the season opening of the Odense Music Society.


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New works

Composes a new, later revised, string quartet in G minor and a string quintet in G major. The latter is performed several times, in April with himself playing second violin. In May his suite is performed again at Tivoli, now with Nielsen himself conducting.

The Royal Danish Orchestra

In August, he wins the audition for a second violin position with the Royal Danish Orchestra, a position he kept for sixteen years until 1905, more out of necessity than enthusiasm. Despite his many successes in the years to come, he was unable to fully support himself as a composer.


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First publications

Wilhelm Hansen publishes the suite, and shortly after the Fantasy Pieces for oboe and piano, op. 2. They are premiered in March 1891.

Travel abroad

In 1889, after a previously unsuccessful attempt, he had been awarded a grant (det Anckerske rejselegat) to travel and study abroad. He is given leave from the orchestra for the entire 1890/91 season.


In Berlin, Brahms’ music makes a strong impression on him, and he meets his colleagues Jean Sibelius, Christian Sinding from Norway, and the great violinist Joseph Joachim. He also becomes more closely acquainted with pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni. At the famous opera in Dresden, he experiences Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen.

First attempts at symphonic music

In Berlin, he begins to sketch out a work that slowly evolves into his first symphony, in G minor. Another attempt, Symphonic Rhapsody, was performed two years later at ‘Folkekoncerterne’ (people’s concerts) in Copenhagen.

Gade dies

A few days before Christmas, still in Berlin, he learns of Niels W. Gade’s death in Copenhagen. ‘Empty and black’, he notes in his diary, ‘I am sick with grief and can neither eat nor sleep.’


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To Paris by train in February. Here he meets the painter J.F. Willumsen who had recently settled in the city. Willumsen models for a young Danish sculptor, Anne Marie Brodersen. ‘She is really quite pretty’, he confides to his diary.

Anne Marie

Diary, 16 March: ‘In the evening I found her, for whom I have had a whole range of feelings all this time (...) and nothing shall make me doubt any longer.’ 30 March: ‘Have been intoxicated with happiness (...) Her company fills me with ever more meaning and purpose.’

Wedding without papers

The young couple want to marry as soon as possible, but the necessary papers have to arrive from Denmark first. In mid-April, they throw a wedding party at a restaurant together with Danish friends.

Formal marriage

In May, they travel to Florence and tie the knot at St. Mark’s English Church on 10 May. Having run out of money, they depend on help from a compatriot and the consulate to cover the cost of the return journey.

First child

The couple move to Copenhagen’s Nyhavn district. Their daughter Irmelin is born in December. In March 1893, another daughter is born – Anne Marie, nicknamed Søs (equivalent to the English ‘Sis’). Carl notes in his diary that ‘we had both wholeheartedly wished for a son.’ In September 1895, their son Hans Børge is born.


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Budding international attention

In April, the String Quartet in F minor, written two years earlier, is premiered at the Odd Fellows Mansion and published as opus 5. The work garners attention abroad and is performed in Germany, Holland, England and several countries in South America. It will be one of his most frequently played works.


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A weak heart

In October, a piano mover is dangerously trapped under a toppled grand piano. Carl immediately rushes to help, but overstrains his heart and needs to be hospitalized – a possible foreboding of his later heart problems.


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First Symphony

After many failed attempts, the First Symphony is ready for its premiere in the middle of March. Johan Svendsen conducts the Royal Danish Orchestra to great acclaim, and calls the young second violinist to the front of the stage. ‘Like a child playing with dynamite’, one of the critics writes about the work.

Another trip abroad

A second leave of absence in the autumn, but this time to promote himself and his music. Once more, he has his eyes on Berlin, where he meets Richard Strauss and again Busoni, whose concerts in Denmark have broadened their acquaintance. A meeting with Brahms in Vienna stands out as a particularly memorable event.


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The journey yields results

Invited to conduct his Symphony No. 1 in Dresden. Premiere of his first violin sonata, composed the previous year.


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An hommage to love

A painting by Titian on the subject of jealousy had made a strong impression on the newlyweds. They both wanted to portray the many facets of love through their art. He realizes the idea in a major work for choir, children’s choir and orchestra, and conducts the premiere in a performance on 27 April at the Music Society. He finds Latin to be ‘most universal and singable’, and has the Danish text translated.

Marie Møller and Bror Beckman

The family strikes up a friendship with Marie Møller, who for a number of years fills an important role in their home. She is a qualified masseuse and former housekeeper for author Jakob Knudsen at Askov Højskole. Nielsen begins an extensive correspondence with Swedish composer Bror Beckman, which continues until Beckman’s death in 1929.


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Opera plans

Several opera subjects appeal to him, The Merchant of Venice and the myth surrounding the Danish noble woman Marie Grubbe. But in the end he chooses the biblical tale of King Saul’s demise and his envious hatred of the young David, who loves his daughter. Einar Christiansen, appointed artistic director of the Royal Danish Theatre the following year, prepared a libretto abounding in large choir scenes.


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Life and art

Anne Marie is a strong-minded, ambitious ‘modern’ woman who refuses to be stifled by her role as a mother. She is often away from home to sculpt animals based on live models, and Carl reacts with increasing anger and frustration. That same year, his son Hans Børge contracts meningitis, believed to have lead to his lifelong mental disorder.


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Study grants allow the couple to spend half a year in Italy from December 1899. He works on Saul and David, she studies with a French sculptor. Together with the Danish church musician Thomas Laub, who is staying in Rome, he performs violin sonatas by Mozart at the Scandinavian Association.


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Second Symphony

A naive mural in a tavern inspires him to write his Second Symphony. The painting depicts the four temperaments, the four traits or emotional dispositions that antiquity closely associated with the elements of fire, water, earth and air, one of which was particularly pronounced in any given individual.

Temperaments as symphonic expression

In December he completes the symphony. Musically, the four movements reflect the personality types choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine, respectively – vehemence, reflection, gloom and optimism.

Official recognition

Awarded a three-year artistic grant of 800 Danish kroner (about 8000 Euros in present-day currency), paid in regular instalments. The following year, he signs a general agreement with music publisher Wilhelm Hansen.


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Opera premiere

Nielsen himself gets to conduct the premiere of Saul and David in November. When principal conductor Frederik Rung takes ill, he conducts all seven performances himself. This drama about doubt, betrayal and love makes an impression, but several reviewers find the opera uneven and long-winded. Except for a number of individual performances, 27 years would pass before the theatre staged it again.

The new symphony

Only three days after the premiere of the opera, he conducts the first performance of The Four Temperaments at Dansk Koncert-Forening (Danish Concert Association). The last movement had only been completed a week earlier. The symphony is well received by both audiences and music critics in Copenhagen.


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Fiasco in Berlin

Ferruccio Busoni promises to arrange a performance of the symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic. As a sign of appreciation, Nielsen dedicates the work to him. After its performance in Berlin on 5 November, however, the symphony is ripped apart, but later earns status as one of Nielsen’s most popular orchestral works.

Sun over Athens

Anne Marie receives the Ancker Travel Award and gets permission to copy pieces exhibited at the Acropolis Museum. The couple spend the first half of the year in Athens. Using a practice room at the city’s conservatory, Carl composes the concert overture Helios, depicting the sun’s orbit across the sky from dawn to nightfall.


Anne Marie begins working on Typhon, a multi-headed figure in limestone at the Acropolis. She copies, reconstructs and colours it the way she thinks it looked in antiquity. She is completely immersed in her work for two years, and returns to Athens in 1904. Carl is upset by her long absence.

Darkness and light

Back home in July, he plans a choral work depicting Sleep. The Danish poet Johannes Jørgensen agrees to write a text. The poem depicts sleep as a gentle, loving mother, but also as the mainspring of nightmares. In October, Johan Svendsen performs the Helios overture for the first time.


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Maren, an institution

Maren Hansen, a childhood friend from Funen, is engaged as a housekeeper and stays in the family’s employ until Anne Marie’s death in 1945. In November, Anne Marie returns to Athens to work on Typhon. Carl is alone with Maren, the children and Marie Møller, who fills the role of nanny and stand-in mother.

Inspiration comes and goes

Work on Sleep for choir and orchestra is slow, and it takes him a long time to get started. With self-irony, he writes to a friend that ‘I nearly fall asleep every time I start to work.’ But in November, the work is completed, and now he thinks it is ‘one of my best, if not the best so far.’ The date of completion is 27 November.


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From April 1904, Johan Svendsen is on sick leave, Frederik Rung has leave of absence, and Nielsen is asked to substitute as music director. When he is moved further back in the second violin section in March, he is deeply offended and resigns his position as of 30 June. He now has to face being alone with three children and survive without a regular income. Anne Marie continues to stay in Athens.

More discord

The two artists are connected by a strong bond, but they have fundamentally different ideas about gender roles, about life together and all the social conventions this entails. He thinks her place is in the home with the children, while she is constantly absent due to work and travel.

Another opera

In March, Sleep gets a lukewarm reception, but he is well on his way with a second opera, this time on a comic subject. The author and literary historian Vilhelm Andersen writes a libretto based on Holberg’s comedy Masquerade, a cheerful piece about generational conflicts, mix-ups and eroticism. But reality is not cheerful – in April, he threatens to divorce Anne Marie.


He feels let down and finds the pursuit of art to be incompatible with marital harmony. But Anne Marie telegraphs back immediately: ‘Your girl doesn’t want a divorce’. And in a letter she writes: ‘No one is to tear you away from me, for we belong together.’ She returns home. After a few weeks, however, she is back in Athens.


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A national opera

The rumour of an opera based on Holberg’s Masquerade creates controversy – the gently moralizing comedies from the 1720s by the ‘Danish Molière’ were a national shrine. But the premiere in November is a spectacular audience success, and the opera runs for an unheard-of twenty times during the 1906/07 season, alternately conducted by Rung and the composer.

Sing, Danish men

In May he composes the patriotic song ‘Du danske Mand’ (Sing, Danish men) for a vaudeville performance at Tivoli. Although the text, written by Holger Drachman, has clear ironic undertones, the song quickly becomes hugely popular, especially among choirs and for sing-alongs. And it still is.


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A toxic infection in her arm leaves Anne Marie unable to work for a longer period of time. In March she is hospitalized with severe stomach problems and undergoes several intestinal surgeries. Apparently she swallowed a fish bone that caused a malignant inflammation.

John the Roadman

In June, he composes the melody to Jeppe Aakjær’s socio-critical poem about John the Roadman – Jens Vejmand. Within a few years, the song becomes a regular hit. As an example of publishers’ greed, he later claims to have sold it for a one-time fee of 50 kroner. In all fairness, however, its popularity only came later.


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Regular music director at the theatre

When the constantly ailing Johan Svendsen has to resign in the spring, Carl is offered a permanent position at the theatre. This leads to long and difficult negotiations about equal status among the musical directors, but he ends up accepting a position as associate music director.

An equestrian statue

Anne Marie has won the commission that will be her greatest and most time-consuming task: an equestrian statue of Christian IX. She needs a larger studio, and the family moves to a house by the lakes in Frederiksberg on the western margin of Copenhagen’s city centre. For long periods, she works among horses and their owners in the northern German city of Celle. Her contract is not finalized until 1912.


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At the Bier of a Young Artist

On 16 January, the gifted painter Oluf Hartmann suddenly dies, barely 31 years old. The son of Emil Hartmann, grandson of J.P.E. Hartmann, he is also the brother of Bodil de Neergaard, Carl’s friend, benefactor and chatelaine at ‘Fuglsang’ manor on the Danish island of Lolland. Carl composes a poignant string movement in memory of the young man.

Third Symphony

Begins work on the Third Symphony, so far his most ambitious and wilful orchestral work. He completes the first movement in mid-April and the second movement at Damgaard in the summer. The second movement includes two vocal parts as an additional ‘instrument’ without text. The symphony is completed on 30 April the following year.

Father to a daughter?

In October, he possibly fathers another child out of wedlock. This time it is a girl named Rachel Siegmann after her mother, but baptized Hansen. The relationship is kept from Anne Marie, who, as far as we know, never finds out about it. Neither does Carl Nielsen ever mention it, and there is no certain evidence of his paternity.


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The first solo concerto

Throughout the autumn, a violin concerto causes him worry because it has to be ‘rich in substance, easily accessible and captivating, without becoming superficial.’ With its cantabile qualities and its unusual division into two bipartite movements, the concerto gains many admirers over time, also among violinists.


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Sinfonia Espansiva

In February, he premieres his Third Symphony with the theatre orchestra at the Odd Fellows Mansion. For the time being, it remains untitled. A Dutch friend enables him to perform it once again, this time with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Only after yet another performance at the theatre on 4 May does it get its title – Sinfonia Espansiva, in reference to an expressive marking in the first movement.

Violin virtuoso Peder Møller

The Third Symphony is performed together with the violin concerto. The violin soloist is Peder Møller, who has just returned after several years in Paris. Møller’s playing arouses enthusiasm, and he and the composer perform the work in Paris, Berlin and the Scandinavian capitals.


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International attention

Sinfonia Espansiva cements Carl Nielsen’s reputation as Denmark’s most important composer and sparks increasing interest abroad. A publisher in Leipzig pays a fortune for the rights, and within a short time Nielsen conducts the work in Stuttgart, Stockholm, Helsinki and Berlin.

Further frustrations

More trouble at the theatre. He and Rung can’t agree on which performances to share. When Rung, after a sick leave, hires former second violinist Georg Høeberg as an assistant, Carl Nielsen takes it as a deliberate sign of disregard and tenders his resignation. The decision, however, is deferred.


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The music director issue

In January, music director Rung dies, and Carl Nielsen expects to take over the position. The administration, however, wishes to give equal rank to him and Høeberg. Nielsen expects to lead the Danish premiere of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and when the task is assigned to Høeberg, he resigns once and for all. The press describes the incident as a scandal.

Marital conflicts

Since 1905, the two artists have experienced difficulties in their married life more than once. Anne Marie continues to be frequently absent, while he feels ignored and relegated to the support of affluent friends. He yearns for female attention, something that easily seems to lead him into erotic affairs.

Another symphony on the way

In May, he writes to Anne Marie in Celle about the idea for a new symphony: The desire to live (...) all that craves life (...) one large movement in one continuous stream’. He can’t explain it, but ‘what I want is good.’ And he is looking for ‘a word or a short title.’ That is the seed to the Fourth Symphony, The Inextinguishable.

The price of betrayal

Gradually – and specifically during a journey alone to Bergen – Anne Marie becomes aware of her husband’s repeated bouts of infidelity, not least a lengthy and indisputable affair with her close friend, Marie Møller. ‘I’ve been so blind, I’m disgusted with myself,’ she confides in her diary.

Assassination in Sarajevo

On 28 June, the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife are shot by Serbian nationalists at Sarajevo. On 1 August, security concerns and power politics lead Germany to declare war on Russia, and the conflict soon involves many allies – Russia, France and England against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Arrested as a spy

The day Germany declares war, Anne Marie hurries to Celle to protect her working models. A misunderstanding leads to her arrest as a spy. After a month, she manages to load all of her work on a train to Copenhagen. It fills an entire carriage.


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In January, the couple go on a skiing holiday to Norway, not least to deal with their marital crisis. He admits the long-standing affair with Marie Møller, and she demands full transparency and clear lines. ‘Either we had to get through it, or I wanted to be free.’

New opportunities

After his farewell to the theatre, Nielsen is out of a regular job. He takes on leadership of the Music Society in Copenhagen, a position Niels W. Gade had held for 40 years. Despite only three annual concerts, the position carries prestige. The society is making a comeback, hoping that Nielsen can breathe new life into it.

A score of Danish songs

Together with composer and organist Thomas Laub, responsible for renewing Danish church song, he publishes ‘En snes danske viser’ (A score of Danish songs). In April, the two composers arrange an evening of Danish songs, presenting old, familiar lyrics with their own, newly composed melodies. In retrospect, a number of these popular songs are perceived to express a national sense of self, both in symbolic and concrete terms.

Poison gas

In April, the German army makes use of poison gas. New technology means that combat with machine guns and artillery in the trenches is the safest form of warfare. This results in prolonged positional warfare, and a breakthrough on the Western Front is a long way off. In May, Italy joins the war on the Franco-Russian side.

Fiftieth birthday

Anne Marie is assigned an artist residence with rich traditions. It is located in the Copenhagen district of Frederiksholms Kanal, and includes a studio. In April, the family moves in. Here they celebrate Carl’s 50th birthday under the spectre of their marital chaos. ‘I no longer belong by your side,’ she writes in August. The relationship collapses, and they have to adjust to a life alone and apart.


The house they share is Anne Marie’s artist residence, and the situation increasingly – and soon altogether – requires him to live on his own, away from home. Two of his close friends’ country estates – the Neergaard family’s Fuglsang Estate on Lolland, and especially Miss Charlotte Trap de Thygeson’s Damgaard Estate near Fredericia in southern Denmark – become indispensable places to live and work.


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The Inextinguishable

Despite his marital crisis, Carl is hard at work on his Fourth Symphony in autumn 1915. In mid-January, the work is completed, and the premiere on 1 February at the Music Society is a resounding success that is further reinforced when the work is performed again a few months later. ‘I felt that I might be of importance to my country in the future’, he wrote to a friend.


In February, the Germans launch a major offensive at Verdun in north-eastern France. The battle continues throughout the rest of the year, and the death toll is staggering. But the results fail to materialize. More than 100,000 soldiers are left dead on the battlefield. British-Indian forces occupy Iraq (Mesopotamia), and battles are fought in Palestine.

Against the backdrop of war

The massacres at the front affect everyone. Carl Nielsen writes to an acquaintance: ‘National sentiment has turned into a form of spiritual syphilis that has devoured the brain and grins out through the empty eye sockets … It is as if the whole world were disintegrating.’ On the eastern front – from the Baltic to the Black Sea – large territories come under German control.

Marriage on standby

Several attempts at reconciliation only lead to more despair and bitterness. Anne Marie wants a divorce, Carl doesn’t. After much doubt and pondering, she files for legal separation, which is not formalized until September 1919. With all its ramifications, the process damages the couple’s relationship with several of their closest friends.


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Revolution in Russia

The Russian revolutions in February and October (old calendar) change the course of the war to some extent. In December, Lenin signs a humiliating peace treaty, relinquishing vast territories to the central powers, and leading to the Russian Civil War.


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A safe haven in Gothenburg

Starts to collaborate with his friend Wilhelm Stenhammar as substitute conductor for the Gothenburg orchestra. He enjoys the work and conducts more than forty concerts in the next four years. This gives him an income and a sense of home, as he can’t continue to live off the generosity of his landed friends. For all intents and purposes, he soon obtains a permanent position.

Attempt at reconciliation

For a number of reasons, the correspondence of the separated couple is only partly available, but everything indicates that both of them, especially Carl, are hard-hit by the separation. He buys a cottage in Skagen, the northernmost town in Denmark. Formerly their favourite holiday refuge, it is a clear attempt at reconciliation. But he fails in his efforts at tempting her to visit.

Violin virtuoso Telmányi

In February, Carl’s youngest daughter marries the Hungarian violinist Emil Telmányi. With his interpretations of the violin concerto, with later works composed especially for him, and not least as a conductor, he is of great importance to spreading Carl Nielsen’s oeuvre.

The end of the war

In the spring, the Germans finally break through enemy lines. But the resources of the German army are depleted, and on 11 November at 11 a.m., a truce is called, essentially ending the war.


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In 1917, the theatre had commissioned incidental music for a restaging of Adam Oehlenschläger’s poetic drama Aladdin. But the collaboration with the theatre turns into an ordeal once again. Nielsen’s music is pared down and modified to such a degree that he demands his name deleted from the billboard for the premiere in February. Instead, he reworks the music into a concert suite.


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Fifth Symphony

Begins work on his Fifth Symphony at Damgaard and in a house at Humlebæk, loaned to him by one of his benefactors, Director Johan Michaelsen. Many consider it to be his most important work. The following year, the first part is finished, and Nielsen dedicates the symphony to the Michaelsen family. In December, his daughter Irmelin marries her fiancé, the physician Eggert Møller.


After the end of World War I, the final Treaty of Versailles (June 1919) required that the border between Germany and Denmark be redrawn pending a vote among the local population. In February 1920, Southern Jutland chose to be part of Denmark, while 75 per cent of the population in Flensburg and Schleswig chose Germany. This led to considerable political turmoil in Denmark, but on 9 June 1920 Christian X ratified the annexation, and symbolically crossed the old border south of Kolding on horseback. The Royal Danish Theatre wanted to celebrate the event with a gala performance, and in 1920 Carl wrote twenty musical numbers to a play by Helge Rode (1870–1937) about Denmark (‘the mother’) and Southern Jutland (‘the son’). Among them we find the opening scene ‘Taagen letter’ (The fog is lifting) and the final song ‘Som en rejselysten flåde’ (There’s a fleet of floating islands). The play was premiered in late January 1921.


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Occasional works

Time and again, his more ambitious projects are interrupted by occasional works, and far too many of them end up in the filing cabinet after a single performance. A few of them, however, become ‘evergreens’, such as Taagen letter (The fog is lifting) from the play Moderen (The mother), and a cantata written for a large choir convention, Fynsk Foraar (Springtime on Funen), which is a perennial favourite. But both interfere with his work on the Fifth Symphony.


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The modern Nielsen

Conducts his Fifth Symphony at the Music Society on 24 January. This edgy, radical work with only two contrasting movements pushes the bounds of tonality and splits audiences and critics alike. The work’s originality is undisputed, but it is perceived to be provocative and is slow in being acknowledged as one of Nielsen’s major works.

Heart problems

In May, a heart attack confines him to bed. This is not the first time he has experienced heart trouble, and he lies sick in Anne Marie’s artist residence. Her concerns are the beginning of a gradual reconciliation. In due time, they will live together again, but for now, he needs a long time to recuperate at Damgaard and in July has to miss a performance of Fynsk Foraar in Odense with a chorus of a thousand.

A Wind Quintet second to none

In autumn 1921 he had agreed to write a new work for the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. On the last day of April, the work is performed in a private setting; a public performance will have to wait until October. The quintet is a true classic in its genre, and today it is inarguably Nielsen’s most frequently performed work.

The German economy collapses

Certain of victory, Germany has waged war on borrowed funds. The Weimar Republic prints money without any resources to back it up and buys foreign currency for worthless marks. Between 1921 and 1923, the mark spirals into hyperinflation. By December, one US dollar costs 7,400 German marks.

Banking crisis

The Danish Landmandsbanken had become the largest bank in Scandinavia, but during the war years, exchange rates multiply and reckless speculation based on weak capital holdings lead the bank to crash with enormous losses. The resulting banking crisis impacts Danish economy for a number of years.

Forging ahead

Nielsen wants to fortify his position abroad, and in December hires the Berlin Philharmonic, including the hall, with his own funds to arrange a concert of his works. The enormous drop in German currency makes the project both attractive and possible. The following year, several initiatives are launched on behalf of Danish culture, both private and public.


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Publisher Wilhelm Hansen

After numerous conflicts with his publisher, he signs a contract with C.F. Peters in Leipzig. But they publish only a few of his works, and Wilhelm Hansen secures the cash cow – the Wind Quintet. Trust has been broken, however, and from 1925 he is published by either Borup’s publishing house or the state-sponsored SUDM, and the controversy has repercussions for decades. Several of his last works are published posthumously.


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The first musical scandal

In January, the Stockholm Concert Association celebrates its anniversary and performs the Fifth Symphony, among other works. The fiercely insistent winds and side drum at the end drive audience members out of the concert hall. He is regarded as a ‘symbol of controversy (...) in the name of eternal disquiet and living art’, one Danish critic writes.

The first car

He buys his first car, a Renault. A police officer teaches him how to drive, and he becomes an avid motorist – now he can drive to Damgaard or Skagen in his ‘safe, honest, lovely, sensitive, lively and yet modest Renault.’ But one evening in 1930, things go wrong – he collides with a tram, sustains serious injuries, and has to be hospitalized for three weeks.

The last symphony

Begins working on his Sixth Symphony at the summer house in Skagen. By New Year, the first two movements are finished, but smaller commissions and his birthday the following year result in constant interruptions. The symphony is taunting him, just as it will taunt many listeners.


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A nationwide anniversary

Nielsen’s 60th birthday on 9 June is a national event. He himself conducts his Fifth Symphony and Springtime on Funen in a gala concert at Tivoli Gardens, and more than three hundred guests are invited to supper at Tivoli’s Hotel Nimb. Seven-hundred ‘young musicians’ walk from Christiansborg Palace to Hotel Nimb in a torchlight procession while singing the composer’s most cherished songs.


In a conversation with the Danish daily Politiken, published on 9 November, he expresses disappointment at how artists are treated by society. ‘If I could live my life over again (...) I would go into business or do some other useful work (...) Being a creative artist is not a happy destiny.’

A man of letters

Around the time of his birthday, a selection of Nielsen’s articles is published under the title Levende Musik (Living music). In fact, several hundred of his commentaries, interviews, articles and essays have been published in Danish newspapers and magazines over the years. Only two short texts in the book are new contributions, ‘Tidens Fylde’ (The fullness of time) and ‘Den fynske Sang’ (The song of Funen).

An enigma?

With only one week until the premiere with the Royal Danish Orchestra on 11 December, the final movement of the Sixth Symphony is completed. It ends with two bassoons playing their lowest note fortissimo, a rough and enigmatic ending to a symphony so full of riddles, that to this day it is played far less often than the other five.

Sinfonia semplice

The newspaper critics are perplexed by the Sixth Symphony. Even its title, ‘Simple Symphony’, is a provocation; it is difficult to perform, difficult to understand, and full of irony, self-irony and grotesque caricature. Although he himself speaks of its ‘idyllic character’, the music fluctuates erratically between depth and surface, tenderness and mockery.


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Angina pectoris

On 7 February, he has another violent heart attack at Damgaard and has to resign himself to remaining a heart patient for life. The awareness of finality seems to be a factor in writing his childhood memories the following year.

Five wind concertos?

His heart disease, angina pectoris, forces him to slow down, but in the autumn he travels to Florence and San Gimignano, where his daughter ‘Søs’ and son-in-law Emil Telmányi are on holiday. In his wind quintet, he attempted to ‘characterize each individual player’, and he now wants to compose a concerto for each musician in the quintet. He begins with a flute concerto.

Flute concerto

As early as October, the flute concerto is scheduled to be performed in a major Nielsen concert in Paris. He only just finishes it, the soloist gets his part in minor instalments, and Telmányi has to conduct the first performance with a preliminary ending. The work with its final ending is not presented until the Danish premiere in January 1927.


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Spa visit and memoirs

Plagued by his heart disease, he visits a spa in Bad Nauheim, north of Frankfurt, in March and April. He stays completely at rest – ‘Unfortunately, I tolerate neither happiness nor the opposite’, he says. ‘All I want is tranquillity.’ Most of his childhood autobiography, Min fynske barndom (My childhood on Funen, published in English as My Childhood), is written during these months.

Modern or not?

In July, world-famous conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler performs the Fifth Symphony at the annual World Music Days Festival hosted by the ISCM in Frankfurt, Germany. The work is warmly received by the audience, but the critics find it inappropriate for a festival devoted to experimental modern music.

My childhood

In November, he publishes his childhood memoirs Min fynske Barndom, spurned on by constant appeals from his daughter Irmelin. The reception is overwhelming – he demonstrates a literary and stylistic ability worthy of a great author, and the book has long since gained status as a classic.

Anne Marie´s tale of woe

After nineteen years of work, endless conflicts with the project committee, money problems, scathing criticism, an unsuccessful first mould and countless other disappointments and delays, Anne Marie’s equestrian statue of Christian IX is finally revealed at Christiansborg Palace on 15 November. King Frederick VIII and Queen Louise attend the event.


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Toward atonality

Both Carl and his family know that he should take it easy, but that is not one of his strong sides. He composes his most ‘modern’ and at times almost atonal works – three piano pieces and an experimental work for solo violin for his son-in-law. The last of the three piano pieces abandons major-minor tonality altogether.

Clarinet concerto

In the spring, he works on a clarinet concerto and finishes it in mid-August. It is scored for small orchestra – two horns, two bassoons, side drum and strings. Michaelsen’s summer residence in Humlebæk provides the venue for the first performance. The soloist comments that one would surely have to be able to play the clarinet in order to come up with the most difficult fingerings so consistently!

Saul and David in Gothenburg

His first opera ran nine times in 1902, but apart from a handful of performances, it had not been performed again. In December, Gothenburg’s Grand Theatre presents a new production that kindles renewed interest for Nielsen’s music in Sweden. The success prompts the Royal Danish Theatre to restage the opera in February the following year.


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Three motets

Nielsen is fascinated by Renaissance vocal polyphony, and when Mogens Wøldike asks him to write a work for his Palestrina Choir, he and Anne Marie choose three verses from the Latin Bible’s Book of Psalms. Palestrina is the model for the three motets. Around this time, he also composes a number of his most celebrated popular songs.


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Strict counterpoint

It was probably his interest in early polyphony that led him to the organ, an instrument he had previously shown interest in, but never written for. The year before, he had composed a collection of small organ preludes, and now he was planning a major work for organ.


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Director of the conservatory

Shortly before Christmas 1930, Anton Svendsen, the head of the Royal Danish Academy of Music, dies. The board had previously elected Nielsen as his successor. On 7 January, he is officially appointed, and fortunately the terms provide that ‘the incumbent daily administration of both musical and administrative tasks’ be attended to by others.


In February, Carl travels to Damgaard to complete his new organ piece, Commotio (‘movement’), a work governed by strict classical polyphony. On 2 March, he writes to Anne Marie that ‘more skill went into this than any of my other things.’ He attends private performances, but the official premiere is not given until after his death.

Masquerade revisited

In September, the theatre restages Masquerade, and Nielsen attends the rehearsals. When a rope mechanism malfunctions during the dress rehearsal, Carl – according to legend – hoists himself up some twenty metres to fix it. The next day, he pays the price with several minor heart attacks. The anecdote, however, is in direct contradiction to his illness, his understanding of it, and his age.

At death´s door

He attends the premiere of Masquerade, but barely manages to stay until the end and hear the applause. The following days show no improvement, and on the initiative of his son-in-law, head physician Eggert Møller, he is admitted to the National Hospital on 1 October. On a crystal radio set, he listens to the broadcast of a concert he should have conducted himself.

The end

The next day, his condition worsens, and in the evening his immediate family gathers by his bedside. He is extremely drowsy, but at one point mumbles, ‘You’re standing there as if you’re waiting for something.’ On 3 October 1931 at ten minutes past midnight, Carl Nielsen is no more.


The funeral service at Copenhagen Cathedral on 9 October at 2 p.m. draws huge crowds, and there is not enough seating for everyone. All of the music, including the hymns, was by Carl Nielsen. At Vestre Kirkegård, the coffin is lowered into the ground to the final chorale from the Wind Quintet. In a short speech, Anne Marie thanks him for his colourful personality, and the Danish people for singing his songs.
Karl Aage Rasmussen, 2019
Translation by Thilo Reinhard