movement in 3/4 meter has been compared to waltz parodies composed around the same time, such as Ravel’s La Valse and Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka — but to call such swashbuckling music a waltz is a bit of a stretch. The second movement, marked Andante pastorale, begins in an atmosphere as vague and static as the first movement was hard-edged and active. But soon the “pastoral” arrives in the form of a pretty flute tune that intertwines with itself, then alternates with a fervent theme for strings. The movement eventually winds down to a coda on the chord of E-flat major, as peaceful as the symphony’s opening was furious, and as harmonically distant from those loud opening A’s as it is possible to get. In a strikingly original touch, two wordless human voices are heard wheeling around ecstatically in the glow of E flat. We are awakened from this heavenly vision by a rather sarcastic little third-movement scherzo, which often seems to anticipate Shostakovich in its mechanical gestures and sneering wind sounds. Nielsen said he thought of the theme while riding a train, and wrote it on his shirt cuff. Perhaps that is what he meant when he called this movement “the heartbeat of the symphony,” because it does click along at a steady pace. Ever the lover of contrasts, the composer follows his acidic scherzo with a fourth-movement finale that opens in a hearty, friendly mood, with a forthright theme in the tradition of Beethoven’s Ninth or Brahms’s First. The movement’s hopping second theme is derived from this main theme, as are all the colorful episodes, so that the overall effect is of a free-form theme and variations. Even at the two points where the theme seems to return in full, Nielsen changes its shape a little and re-harmonizes it to reflect what has gone before — and also where he’s taking us, which is a coda firmly in A major. Thus, the symphony ends as it began, on a loud unison A, but this time it’s an arrival, not a departure. —David Wright © 2013
It is odd, the way the words “coolness” and “reserve” come to mind when hearing the music of a composer who exploited the full resources of the late Romantic orchestra, but Nielsen combined his Northern personality with a modern quest for objectivity.
The soloists’ biographies can be found on page 59.
Severance Hall 2012-13
About the Music