Carl Nielsen

1865 1931

Carl Nielsen



The Danish composer Carl Nielsen was one of the most important composers of his generation. His life and career spanned the late Romanticism of the 19th century through to neo-classicism and his highly individual dynamic musical language of the early twentieth century. He is most noted for his six symphonies, which are a significant contribution to the 20th century symphonic repertoire. In addition to this impressive legacy, he was extremely influential as a teacher and a conductor in his own lifetime.

Nielsen was the 7th of twelve children born on the island of Funen, in a village 15km south of Odense. This island is sometimes referred to as “The Garden of Denmark” and Nielsen attributed the beauty of nature to his early musical influences. Later in life, he stated that he often had Funen in his mind when he was composing. He wrote an autobiography chronicling his childhood musical influences inMin fynske barndom (My Childhood on Funen).  His earliest contact with classical music was when he attended performances of the local 12-piece local amateur orchestra,Braga, named after a Nordic god of bards, who performed the Viennese classics.

After a three-month apprenticeship to a grocer, which did not interest him, he joined a military orchestra in Odense, playing signal horn and trombone. He also began taking violin lessons from a local musician and subsequently took up the piano. He never became a proficient pianist, but found his piano skills to be a valuable tool in composing.

In 1884, Nielsen began his studies at the Copenhagen Conservatory. The head of the conservatory at the time was Denmark’s most prominent composer, Niels Gade, whom Nielsen would subsequently surpass. Nielsen found Gade to be very generous as a music history teacher, but Nielsen wished not to emulate Gade’s composition style, which Nielsen described as a smoothed-over Germanic style. Nielsen made steady progress in his violin studies and in theory and harmony lessons.

Nielsen appeared as a conductor with the Odense Musical Society conducting his Suite for Strings. He made his official debut as a composer in Copenhagen on 25 October 1888 with his String Quartet in F. He enjoyed his career beginnings as a freelance violinist and composer for the first three years after graduation. In September 1889, Nielsen gained a position in the orchestra of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. The position was a source of frustration for him, as he had aspirations beyond that of an orchestral violinist, but on the other hand it provided him with steady income for the next 16 years.

Less than a year after being accepted into the Royal Theatre orchestra, he was awarded the Ancker scholarship, consisting of 1800 kroner, which allowed him to travel to the great cities of Europe and gain professional and artistic insight. He left Denmark on 3 September 1890 and kept a diary – a crucial source of evidence which has helped musicologists and historians to understand Nielsen’s musical development.

In Paris he met the Danish sculptor Anne Marie Brodersen who was also on an Ancker scholarship. They fell in love and embarked on a tour of Italy, marrying in Florence in May 1891. They moved back to Copenhagen soon after, to begin family life. Soon after, Nielsen completed his First Symphony, which he had begun to sketch while in Berlin.

Nielsen and his wife were said to have been a good match romantically, artistically and intellectually. Anne Marie was a modern-minded person with the passion and drive to carve out a career for herself, which she achieved with great success, receiving numerous important commissions and gaining a national reputation as a superbly talented sculptor and artist. Anne Marie’s occupation often required long hours of work on location, leaving her husband to look after the children and tend to his composition. This was another source of frustration for him, which he sometimes referred to as his ‘psychological period’. His interest in the driving forces behind human personality was transmuted into his operaSaul og David and his Second Symphony (De fire temperamenter) and his cantatas Hymnus amoris and Søvnen. According to Grove, Anne Marie had an overall positive role in developing Nielsen’s outlook on life. Her influence helped him to define his fundamental aesthetics in which he was concerned with ‘movement, clarity, boldness and the essential drives of human nature’.

In 1915, he became head of the Musikforening (Music Society) where he conducted four concert programmes per season until 1927. He also appeared as guest conductor in Sweden for Stenhammar and Göteborg Orchestral Societies from October 1918. In 1915 he was also promoted to the governing body of the Copenhagen Conservatory, teaching theory and composition there from 1916 to 1919.

In 1925, Nielsen was at the pinnacle of his fame. There was a national celebration for his 60th birthday. Carl Nielsen is pictured above side by side Igor Stravinsky among many artists, musicians and composers at his birthday party on 2 December 1925. The following year he was struck with the beginning of a heart condition that would claim his life in 1931.

It was not until after World War II that Nielsen’s music became world renowned. This can be owed to many things, namely the advent of the LP recording, the publication of Robert Simpson’s bookCarl Nielsen: Symphonist in the English language and the historic visit of the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra to the Edinburgh Festival around the same time, which drew the interest of English-speaking audiences. No recordings exist of Nielsen himself performing or conducting, but a number of Danish conductors who worked with him left recorded interpretations that are valuable artefacts in Nielsen’s legacy.

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In 1904, Nielsen and his wife travelled to Greece, due to his wife’s Ancker scholarship, and he developed a profound interest in the subject of Ancient Greece. HisHelios Overture depicts the rise and the falls of the sun over the Aegean Sea, which he composed during this inspiring trip.

In 1908 he voiced that there was 'a bone of contention…because I wanted to protest against the typical Danish soft smoothing over. I wanted stronger rhythms and more advanced harmony.’ He attracted a loyal following in musical and intellectual circles, but the press were sceptical. His operaMaskerade gained him a significant boost to his reputation in 1907.

By 1914, the marriage was in crisis, leading to an eight-year separation, triggering a creative crisis which forced him to self-evaluate. Along with the emergence of World War I, in which Denmark was neutral, his turbulent state of mind contributed significantly to his Fourth Symphony, (The Inextinguishable)  and Fifth Symphony which are said to be his greatest works.