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Robert Simpson?s Carl Nielsen Symphonist is a comprehensive survey of Carl Nielsen?s work, with a detailed study of each of the six symphonies, and a comparison of the symphonic work of Nielsen and Sibelius.
The first edition of this work was published in 1952, and it was the first study of the Danish composer available in English?at this point few of Nielsen?s works had been performed outside Denmark and Germany. The book began to stir interest in the composer in Britain, and together with the promotion of Nielsen?s music that Simpson was able to effect in his position with the BBC Third Program in the 1950s and 1960s, it created the modern appreciation of Nielsen?s music in the English-speaking world. After the publication of this book Nielsen?s family, in recognition of Simpson?s work in promoting the composer, presented him with Nielsen?s gold propelling-pencil, which he then used to write his own compositions. (Simpson, by the way, is a composer of comparable stature with Nielsen, and completed 11 Symphonies and 15 String Quartets and other works before his death in 1997. In his own work he developed Nielsen?s symphonic techniques and took them further; his final symphonic trilogy, the Symphonies 9-11, are separately some of the masterpieces of the symphonic repertoire.)
Simpson?s work is an extremely lucid analysis of the six symphonies and also functions as a primer for Simpson?s own view of symphonic writing (also informed by his studies of Beethoven, Bruckner and Sibelius, and evident in his own composition). Put very simply Simpson sees the form as an analogue of strongly objective personal and social mental life which banishes subjectivity and wishful-thinking. He sees the compositional process of assisting the progression of the music from beginning to end of the piece by all available means (harmonic, rhythmic, thematic and textural) as a metaphor for meaningful life-experience, the opposite of Romantic subjectivity, self-pity, sentimentality and lack of integration and progression.
In his analysis of Nielsen?s symphonic music he elucidates particularly Nielsen?s use of progressive tonality: the First Symphony, for example, begins in G minor, and we might expect a symphony written in the 1890s to carry on with this as the home key and end in either G minor or G major. However, in the very first bars of the work G minor is destabilised, and at various points in the work there are hints that C major will displace it as the home key, which eventually happens, making the work more satisfying and memorable than it would have been with a final return to G. This process is the basis for the first five of Nielsen?s symphonies (though it is not so marked in the Second).
In 1979 Simpson published a revised version of Carl Nielsen Symphonist, which revised many passages, and which provided a major reassessment of the Sixth Symphony. This symphony has been seen as an anomaly by many writers on Nielsen owing to its stylistic difference, in places, from Nielsen?s other symphonies. In the first edition of Carl Nielsen Symphonist Simpson judged the work as not-objective because, although it seems to follow the pattern of other symphonies with a beginning in G major destabilised by B flat, B flat asserting itself at various points and the symphony ending in B flat, B flat is usually felt as a destructive presence and other tonal centres seem to offer, at various points in the symphony, more positive music. In his reevaluation of the symphony Simpson came to see this as Nielsen being objective in a deeper sense. G major and related keys, in this revised view, are seen as highly seductive, but ultimately offering illusory comforts. B flat has to be destructive of these, and its interventions are therefore seen as unwelcome and disruptive, precisely because the other music is so beguiling and persuasive. Simpson states that the other symphonies win through to a final key by forceful mental effort, with the Sixth the forceful mental effort is concerned with the final recognition that B flat cannot be avoided and to come to terms with this the key must be celebrated with a particularly defiant and unsentimental humour. (Simpson relates the Sixth Symphony biographically to the heart condition that Nielsen was diagnosed with at the time, and which, a few years later, he died from. In this analysis B flat is the knowledge of his mortality).
This is great work about a great composer (by a great composer), and it should be required reading for all those interested in C20 music. Purchasers should purchase the second edition, unless they are specifically interested in Simpson?s earlier views of Nielsen?s Sixth.
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