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
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