Shit that makes me cry, Volume 1: Nielsen: Symphony no. 1

As a grown man with a job who occasionally pays bills, society tells me that generally speaking I ought not cry. Normally, I take society up on that, encasing my emotions in enough metaphorical lucite to protect that Honus Wagner baseball card. Every so often, though, something comes along and moves me to tears, bringing me untold joy and disappointing 65% of fathers in America. This is one of those somethings…

Years ago, my dear friend Dave McIntire and I listened to all the Nielsen symphonies in one night and wrote retro diaries about them. At that time I was fairly unfamiliar with Nielsen’s symphonies. I knew the famous 4th OK, and I was familiar with the nutso 5th, but the rest were varying degrees of murky. Fast forward four years and I’m a little less murky on some, a little more murky on the 4th and 5th, and desperately in love with the 1st.

Nielsen wrote it in 1892, the same year that Bruckner’s mind-blowing Symphony no. 8 premiered, Dvorak arrived in America, and the rules to a game played with a ball and some peach baskets were published in a magazine. He was 27 at the time it was completed; for reference, I was working a dead end job at a bank at the same time, not that it’s about me, though now that I think about it, fuck you, it is about me. It’s a perfectly proportioned symphony that could serve as the poster child for the Romantic symphony, full of [insert descriptive German word here] and [insert another German word like sehnsucht here].

Robert Simpson, who literally wrote the book on Nielsen, says it might be the first symphony in a different key than it started, which, if true, certainly means that he gets mad props for listening to the Wanderer Fantasy and absorbing valuable lessons. Progressive tonality, of course, became a staple in the universes of Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner, so the distinction of it being the first symphony is one of those entertainingly stupid distinctions that doesn’t really make a difference, but isn’t that exactly the kind of person who would read this blog? I love you guys.

There’s a lot of really exciting music in here. The coda to the first movement is absolutely in consideration for the music to accompany the Anti-Christ taking his seat on what I’m sure will be a needlessly ostentatious throne of some sort. Can’t you just see him ascending some marble steps during the eerie string mini-fugato business, taking his seat on a throne when the tempo speeds up, and then smiling while his followers, which are fucking legion, appear around him in a devastating show of force, culminating in a militaristic flourish copied from the opening ceremonies of Beijing 2008 as the trombones aggressively play the main motive for the last time? You can now.

The finale is equally exciting, building and building to an opportunity for me to use the word orgiastic, which I just did. It bears an awful lot of similarities to the finale of Schumann’s Symphony no. 4 in the way it feels, a relentless ball of energy that saves one last bit of juice for the last minute or so. The scherzo is likewise a bouncy good time, reminiscent of Dvorak but with a gorgeous brass chorale as the trio.

The jewel of the piece, though, and the part that makes me cry, is the second movement, a stunningly beautiful Andante that is full of rich color and even richer harmonies. The melody seems to move effortlessly through the band, gently rolling from strings to woodwinds and back, building in intensity until it climaxes in the middle of the movement in a breathtaking B-flat major chord that goes straight to G major before unwinding to to the “home” key of G minor. It’s not exactly a revelation to use the relative and parallel minors to this effect, but I think it is a revelation to use them in such alarmingly quick succession, especially when you bring the full weight of the orchestra to bear on it. The movement ultimately chills back out, disappearing into a lovely roll call of the woodwinds and a soothing G major chord.

The above video is a pretty fine performance, I have to say. A couple key points in this video:

  • The hall looks quite empty in certain shots
  • The climax of the second movement, which I am now listening to on loop and weeping to, starts in earnest at the 12:59 mark of the video
  • The dude with the wrap around head support thing in front of the timpani might actually be the Anti-Christ in the above description; that has a throne look to it if you want to get sci-fi with it, like he’s using telepathy to get you to touch yourself against the will of God

5 thoughts on “Shit that makes me cry, Volume 1: Nielsen: Symphony no. 1

  1. Love this symphony so damn much. Sure, the Fourth and Fifth are almost universally considered Nielsen’s finest, and I won’t dispute it. But his first three are the ones that first won my heart and they’re still my three favorites—not just of his, but (almost) of anyone’s.

  2. I love 1-5. Still far from wise enough to grok no. 6. Any recommendations for recordings of the set? I grew up with Blomstedt/SF, and probably like Salonen best at the moment, but am still not happy. I think I’m looking for the white hot intensity that Mravinsky brought to Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich…

  3. Interesting…I’d love to hear more about the first three thing with other composers as well. I’ve never heard that before!

  4. I really love the set that Theodore Kuchar and the Janacek Philharmonic did. I think they just might have the intensity you’re looking for, and, as an added bonus, it’s inexpensive. Check it out!

  5. Pingback: Revisit: Nielsen Symphony no. 1 in Gm, op. 7 – Fugue for Thought

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