Tuesday, 25 May 1999

Robert Simpson: Carl Nielsen, Symphonist (1952)

Edition: Dent, 1952
Review number: 257

Robert Simpson's book is the classic study of Nielsen's music; biographical information is relegated to a single chapter by another hand at the end of the volume. From the fifty or so published works, Simpson concentrates on the large-scale symphonic ones which show Nielsen's attitude to musical form, rather than the collections of songs (most of which still little known outside Denmark). Each of the six symphonies has a chapter of its own; these are followed by chapters on the concertos, music for voice(s) and keyboard music.

Where Simpson excels is in pointing out the particular aspects of each piece of music which mark it as one of Nielsen's, and describing how tonality is used within the major pieces (particularly the symphonies) in a revolutionary way. The weakness in Simpson's analyses spring from his own prejudices (just as the strengths do). While Nielsen's debt to Beethoven in particular is strongly acknowledged, every effort is made to distance him from later romantics (especially Wagner, though in this case evidence exists to show Nielsen himself had a poor opinion of this composer) and from the avant-garde composers contemporary with him. The influence of Brahms (which is mainly on the structural level) is admitted only with the qualification that it was purged by Nielsen of the excesses of romanticism; several tunes of Nielsen's are describes as 'affecting' (or with similar adjectives), with the saving phrase 'not straying into romanticism'. This is frequently contrasted with the failure of Sibelius to do the same.

The main criterion for success of this book is that it encourages a renewed interest in the music. (And yes, this book succeeds.) In the end, every book on music should have this effect: listening to the music is the primary experience while the best verbal description can only be a secondary one.

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