In this essay written for the release of the first cd from The Carl Nielsen Trio, the chairman of The Carl Nielsen Society, Knud Ketting, tells about the music of Carl Nielsen, and the challenge of reinterpreting it.
“Philosophizing in music is not possible – if you try, you are not using the language of music, it becomes hollow and untrue. In the very modern music as well there has been a tendency to aim for the incomprehensible, and concertgoers have had the inclination to be impressed by it as a work of genius, just because of its obscurity. But art must be for mankind: understandable and accessible.”
This is how Carl Nielsen set his views on music in words when talking to a Danish newspaper in 1926. Some would think that Nielsen’s 6th symphony, world premiered just a month earlier at a concert in honor of his 60th birthday, would be an example of music, which is difficult to comprehend. Yet, Nielsen himself saw no contradiction between his symphonic creations and those popular songs which had made his name known and beloved in with a very wide audience for more than twenty years, with the song “John the Roadman” (1906) as his first breakthrough.
Though Nielsen himself may not have perceived inner contradictions between the various genres of his music, it is tempting to conclude that while his symphonic creations became still more complicated, his songs moved in the exact opposite direction. His first song collections (op. 4 and op. 6 from 1892 and -93) both with texts by J.P. Jacobsen were through-composed and with particularly elaborate piano accompaniments. With six songs (op. 10 from 1894, texts by Ludvig Holstein) he approaches the simplicity that was to become so very characteristic of his popular songs: a strophic structure with a thoroughly balanced melody line accompanied by a simple but flawlessly harmonized accompaniment. This led him to the road away from concert hall songs towards popular community songs, which he was hardly ever to leave again. It was a road he also took when his incidental music included songs. Here the explanation is obvious: he was composing for singing actors instead of trained opera singers.
When a composer is arranging music it will always be an advantage to have as simple a point of departure as possible, leaving space for the musical arranger to give it his personal touch. Thus, the earliest songs arranged for the Carl Nielsen Trio are from Nielsen’s op. 10 (“Summer song”, “Apple Blossom” and “Greeting”). Most of the arranged songs were composed later in Nielsen’s career, with “Look! The sun is red, mum” and “Two larks in love have nested” as the last. They are both from The Songbook of Denmark (1924). The fully harmonized version of the last song didn’t even appear until Ten Small Danish Songs was published in 1926, the year following the national celebration of Nielsen’s 60th birthday.
The present musical arrangers are all contemporary with a span of birth dates from 1939 (Fuzzy) to 1969 (Jens Hørsving). The general simplicity of Nielsen’s songs does not mean that all of the arrangers have dealt with the songs of their choice in the same way. The differences relate more to the individual musical temperaments of the arrangers than to their respective age. Jørgen Lauritsen (b. 1966) has worked rather traditionally, not venturing to fiddle with Nielsen’s harmonies. Peter Bruun (b. 1968), too, says that he had not realized from the start just how compactly and well-integrated Nielsen’s musical language unfolds itself in these songs. Whenever Bruun tried to change something, he found out that all he obtained by doing so was a strong longing to hear what Nielsen originally wrote. So he focused on the instruments instead and on bringing out lines with increasing interaction between voice and instruments.
Jens Hørsving had not yet graduated from The Royal Danish Academy of Music when he made his three arrangements for the Carl Nielsen Trio. He points out that regarding style and expression they are quite far from the music he writes today. At the same time he stresses his great love of Nielsen’s music with its “Nordic power of expression and immensely melodious qualities”, as he puts it.
Jesper Koch (b. 1967) has arranged his songs more radically. His intentions have been to compose three nocturnes based on the Carl Nielsen songs. “Look! The sun is red, mum” is seen from the perspective of a child where even the stars are singing. The innocent piccolo flute comments on the story while the guitar only uses loose strings (plus various flageolets). Thus it creates a static harmonic universe, the stars of which the boy is looking upon.
Koch forms “In peace, I lay me down to sleep” like an evening prayer, close to Nielsen’s own style. The warm alto flute makes its entrance with beautifully woven lines above and below the melody. The second verse stands out, though, using the natural flageolets of the guitar to describe: “The day is bright and clear…”
“Lay down, sweet flower, your head” is seen by Koch as his attempt to approach Nielsen’s own nature. The tonality is more complex/ambiguous, and in the last verse (“Sleep like a child…”) he loosens the metric/rhythmic structure. The music fades out and we sink down into the big collective unknown, from where all good melodies arise, as Koch puts it.
In his essay on Danish songs, printed in the collection, Living Music, Carl Nielsen expresses it slightly different: “The original is the most difficult, and the state of soul I talk about is a gift, for many unobtainable. The drunkard is not pleased with plain water, the whore with morning prayers, the gambler with a pawn game, and yet from birth they were all uncorrupted; but that has been forgotten by them, making it difficult to return to the original”.
Did the musical arrangers succeed in maintaining the original qualities and not polluting the source? Is the music still as easily understandable, as Nielsen wanted? Or did some of the new versions perhaps actually achieve a life of their own, independent of the originals, so they are to be measured not only by Nielsen’s standards? Judge for yourself!
Knud Ketting, 2012
Knud Ketting is the leading expert in the field of Carl Nielsen in Denmark and chairman of The Carl Nielsen Society, a non profit institution whose goal is to promote Carl Nielsen and his music.
Further more he is a personal friend of Jan Lund. In the 1990es when he was artistic director of the Aalborg Symphonic, he engaged Jan Lund as tenor soloist in Carl Nielsens Springtime on Funen. An engagement that was Jan Lund´s first professional job as a singer.
Later on the two have also worked together creating a series of Carl Nielsen CD´s with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, also featuring Jan Lund as tenor soloist. It felt quite natural to ask Knud Ketting to write a text about Carl Nielsen and the task of arranging his music for Carl Nielsen Trio.
Carl Nielsen in his own and distinguished apparal. For more information about the composer and his life see carlnielsen.dk.
A young Carl in a less formal setting. The photos are cutouts from the so-called "Clown Sheet".