Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Danish paradox - a collision of cultures

The publication by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad will come as no surprise to those who know the Danes well. The paradox of their culture is summed up in the words of their great composer Carl Nielsen: 'The right of life is stronger than the most sublime art, and even if we reached agreement on the fact that now the best and most beautiful has been achieved, mankind thirsting more for life and adventure than perception, would rise and shout in one voice: give us something else, give us something new, indeed for Heaven's sake give us rather the bad, and let us feel that we are still alive, instead of constantly going around in deedless admiration for the conventional.'

Nielsen (photo above) was passionate about 'giving us something new' in his music. In his six masterly symphonies the romantic and modern worlds collide, and the battle between the side drum and the orchestra in the adagio of the Fifth Symphony eerily predicts the cultural conflict triggered by Jyllands-Posten as each sides tries to drown the other out with more noise. Nielsen's symphonies rate among the great orchestral works of the twentieth century. But even though many would say "the best and most beautiful has been achieved" he did not rest after completing them. Towards the end of his life he precipitated another collision of cultures, with the 20th century meeting the Renaissance and Baroque. He became fascinated with the polyphony of that period, and in particular the great organ and choral works. His fascination was technical rather than spiritual, but it produced two extraordinary, but little known, works which very effectively illustrate the Danish cultural paradox.

Nielsen's Three Motets (Tre motetter Op. 55 first performed in 1930) were written for the Danish Palestrina Choir who specialised in polyphonic works from the Renaissance, and they were completed after the composer had studied works by Palestrina (picture right) and the Flemish polyphonists . The Motets use Latin translations of three of the Psalms of David, and are an extraordinary homage to the Renaissance. They are beautiful works which bear no resemblance to Nielsen's symphonies. In fact the composer wrote to his wife: "My symphonic talent and familiarity with the larger instrumental forms are not the slightest use in this context and I must even suppress ideas leading in many different directions in order to rise to a higher altitude and approach the old masters who hover there, pure and great like archangels on the borderof heaven."

If the Three Motets exist in a different universe to the symphonies Nielsen's Commotio (Op 51 first performed in 1931) for organ is an extension of them. In fact it has been described as his Seventh Symphony, and there is an orchestration completed after the composer's death by Bo Holten. Commotio is Latin for spiritually driven movement, and in it the composer leaves the last vestiges of romanticism far behind to return to the abstract work of Bach, and the Clavier-übung III in particular. Nielen intertwines two fugues to produce a masterpiece that lasts for twenty-two minutes and has 511 bars - Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E minor, his longest organ work, has 368 bars.

If you want to explore these two very different and little known works further the BIS CD of Nielsen's Complete Organ Music is highly recommended. It includes Commotio played by Elisabeth Westenholz on the organ (built by Marcussen & Son in December 1965) of Grundtvik Church, Copenhagen, and the Three Motets sung by the Camerata Chamber Choir conducted by Per Enevold. Very well worth getting hold of, and for "letting us feel that we are still alive, instead of constantly going around in deedless admiration for the conventional."

* There are many fine recordings of Nielsen's symphonies available. But a particular mention for Ole Schmidt complete cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra just reissued at super-budget price on Regis (and including the concertos), and also Michael Schønwandt's cycle with the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra on Dacapo. The Three Motets are available on another super-budget CD from Regis which also includes Springtime in Fünen and the Suite from Aladdin.
* And of couse Danish Radio has precipitated a clash of cultures with their free Mozart MP3 downloads.
* Quotation in first paragraph from My Childhood by Carl Nielsen, Hutchinson 1973.
* Image credits: Carl Nielsen - Klassik in Berlin, BIS CD – CD Universe, Palestrina -NNDB. Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Danish thread and Mortal defeat for the mob in Paris

6 comments:

Joseph said...

The cultural Danes. Give me a break.

This controversy suddenly makes complete sense to me.

What are we actually seeing?

We're watching a bunch of aquavit soaked, alcoholic, cigar fuming, cologne stinking, drunken journalist jerks enraging street mobs of fanatical, religiously demented, sexually crippled tribal nitwits.

Really edifying. The modern world at its level best

Pliable said...

I was just hoping to point readers down an Overgrown Path to two very interesting, but neglected, works by Carl Nielsen.

But based on the comment above I clearly failed.

Konrad von Swalwagner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pliable said...

Konrad, yes I can only agree with you. I do try to make On An Overgrown Path relevant to current events, and that can sometimes appear contrived.

Let me explain my reasons.

I started this blog to try to share some of my musical enthiusiasms with readers, and also to research how that sharing could be achieved.

Blogging is a hot media subject. But, despite this, if a 'serious music' web site relies on readership coming from cross-links from other supportive music bloggers the audience reached is dismally small. This is shown by the recent demise of Andante, and
a not very optimistic post from the owner of Sequenza21. It is also true, sadly, that if you want new readers about the only way of sure-fire way of getting them is stories on free MP3 downloads, as the stats for my article on free Mozart downloads show.

Concert promoters, record companies and music web sites are all trying to reach new audiences. Finding a topical 'hook' to hang a story on is one way of doing it for me because the search engines and news aggregators pick it up, and despite the risks you identify it seems to work.

My article about Scott Ross' complete Scarlatti Sonatas reached a very wide audience because it had a contrived link with John Lennon.

My article about Jacob Obrecht reached a very wide audience because it had a contrived link to avian flu.

By contrast the equally as deserving article about Sir Colin Davis'new recording of Má Vlast reached the usual small audience on Friday because there was no topical 'hook'. The Nielsen article would have certainly have suffered the same fate - despite my advocacy a twenty-two minute organ work doesn't make for compelling reading. As it is the readership figures were good if not outstanding, and hopefully some of those readers will have been tempted to buy the super-budget Nielsen symphony cycles which I carefully promoted.

The wider audience I reach comes from non-music sites such as political blogs. Leading blog measuring service Technorati currently shows that On An Overgrown Path has 936 links to it, and is rated in the top 12,000 blogs out of 27.2 million indexed by linkages. Each day readers access several thousand pages On An Overgrown Path. I give these figures not for self-agrandisement, but to show that the blog is being successful in reaching a wider audience.

Some try to promote classical music by free MP3 downloads. I try to do it by finding relevance and topicality for my articles. And I know that you Konrad, and other valued readers, will provide continuing checks and balances for that process.

Pliable said...

And an interesting, and possibly relevant, article in today's Guardian.

While discussing the lack of reader's reaction to the newspapers voluminous coverage of the dreadful Big Brother reality TV show, the Guardian's readers' editor writes:

Analyzing an absence of response is always hazardous, since it may indicate anything from approval to indifference or despair.

Pliable said...

And here is a salutary warning about manipulating search engines from BBC News

BMW given Google 'death penalty'

Search giant Google has "blacklisted" German car manufacturer BMW for breaching its guidelines.
Investigations by Google found that BMW's German website influenced search results to ensure top ranking when users searched for "used car."

Google has now reduced BMW's page rank to zero, ensuring the company no longer appears at the top.

BMW admitted using so-called "doorway pages" to boost search rankings, but denied any attempt to mislead users.

BMW's activities were revealed in a blog by Google software engineer Matt Cutts.

BMW's German website, which is heavily reliant on javascript code unsearchable by Google, used text-heavy pages liberally sprinkled with key words to attract the attention of Google's indexing system.
However, once a user clicked on the link displayed in Google's results window, they were redirected to a regular BMW Germany page, which contained far fewer of the key words.

A BMW spokesman admitted the company used the doorway pages, which are created to do well in searches for particular phrases and direct users to a final website.

But the spokesman insisted the company's intentions were honourable.

"We did not provide different content in the search results to the final website," Markus Sagemann told the BBC News website.
"However, if Google says all doorway pages are illegal we have to take this into consideration."

On Google's own website the company lists a series of quality guidelines.

First among those is a requirement to design websites for users, not for search engines.

"Don't deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as 'cloaking'," Google says.

Google confirmed that BMW.de had been removed from search results, adding that it would not tolerate any attempts to manipulate searches.

"The quality of our index and search results is of the utmost importance to Google," the company said in a statement.

Google would continue to strive to protect the accuracy and quality of its results, it added.

The action against BMW comes as Google faces criticism over its expanding activities.

Last month Google unveiled a new Chinese site, agreeing to Chinese government restrictions on search results.

The company's shares fell sharply on Wall Street after the California-based firm announced a $9m drop in profits, falling short of expectations for the first time.

It also bought a 5% stake in AOL, worth $1bn, fuelling fears of preferential treatment for AOL within Google searches.

Google has also remained quiet over accusations that business rivals have manipulated its click-based advertising system.

Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/technology/4685750.stm

Published: 2006/02/06 15:31:23 GMT