Symphony No. 6 (Nielsen)
Symphony No. 6 "Sinfonia semplice", (no opus number), FS 116. In August 1924 Danish composer Carl Nielsen began working on a Sixth Symphony, which turned out to be his last. By the end of October he wrote to Carl Johan Michaelsen:
As far as I can see, it will on the whole be different from my other symphonies: more amiable and smooth, or how shall I put it, but it is impossible to tell as I do not know at all what currents I may run into during the voyage.
The first movement was finished at the end of November while he was in Copenhagen, and the second movement was composed during Christmas. At the end of January 1925 he traveled to the French Riviera with his wife.
While he had been in Copenhagen, Nielsen had composed the third movement, but he now had to put the symphony aside to work on a commission for incidental music to Ebbe Skammelsen, which was to be performed at the Open Air Theatre in the deer park. He completed the score immediately before his sixtieth birthday on June 9. When going to Damgaard in the middle of July, Nielsen was able to continue work on his symphony. The last movement was finally completed on December 5, 1925. The first performance was given by the Chapel Royal Orchestra on December 11. The Copenhagen reviewers were confused by the style of the new Symphony. Nielsen had called it Sinfonia semplice (Simple Symphony). Being hard to grasp, it has remained the least performed of all six symphonies.
There are four movements:
According to Robert W. Simpson, from the second edition of his book on Nielsen, this work may be partially autobiographical; the composer had just experienced a tremendous success with his Fifth symphony, but had also suffered a series of heart attacks. He was to write several more works, but in the remaining six years of his life, the atmosphere of his works began to change.
As with many other works by Nielsen starting as early as his first symphony, this symphony uses "progressive tonality", not only starting in one key — G, here — and ending in another (B-flat) but making the change part of the drama of the work (this was one of the main theses of Simpson's book).
Beginning with G major, the opening features bell sounds followed by a "simple" and peaceful melody with strings; followed in turn, by active and very characteristic figures in the winds. As in the fifth symphony there is an early hint of the key B-flat in which we will eventually close, since the wind response hits that B-flat as an on-and-off note in an otherwise G major passage. The mood of the opening gives way to fugal unrest and, eventually, two chaotic and disturbing outbursts (Simpson believes these reflect Nielsen's heart attacks, in a manner of speaking, though he does not claim that the piece is pictorial or otherwise programmatic) before again quieting, to a lightly scored but unsettled close in A-flat.
The Humoreske is for winds and percussion alone, almost athematic/tuneless and depending on rhythm. The composer, in notes he wrote for the first performance of the work, said of this movement that the wind and percussion "quarrel, each sticking to his own tastes and inclinations"; Nielsen went on to liken this to the musical world of the time.
Proposta seria. To paraphrase Simpson, again, several passages in this movement circle around as though snakes chasing for-the-moment lost tails.
Fanfare, theme and variations, fanfare-reprise and coda, on a fairly unstable theme in B-flat. The ninth variation, just before the fanfare-reprise and coda, has a sound and affect like that of the Humoreske — Simpson likens it to a grinning skeleton; it is preceded by a minore variation before that, as in many variations sets (a variation in the parallel minor), but one that is so protracted that when its last minor cadence arrives it is difficult to grasp as one whole variation. Layton describes it as a lament and that is a closer description.
- Carl Nielsen.dk - Art and Consciousness
- Simpson 1979, p. 115
- Simpson 1979, p. 113 quotes extracts from a newspaper interview given by Nielsen
- Simpson, Robert (1952). Carl Nielsen, Symphonist, 1865–1931. London: J. M. Dent. p. 236. ASIN B0000CIDKO. See pages 105–123. First edition (reprinted by Hyperion Press ISBN 0-88355-715-0).
- Simpson, Robert (1979). Carl Nielsen, Symphonist. London: Kahn & Averill. p. 260. ISBN 0-900707-46-1. See pages 112–136. Second edition completely revised with additional chapter.