Nielsen – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 33

by Max Derrickson

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 33
I. Praeludium:Largo
II. Allegro cavalleresco
III. Poco Adagio
IV. Rondo: Allegretto scherzando
Odds are fairly high that you have never heard anything by Danish composer Carl Nielsen.  Until the past few decades, the world overlooked this highly original, free-spirited composer.

The son of a house painter who was an amateur musician, Carl Nielsen was born south of Odense on the island of Funen (Fyn), called the Garden of Denmark.  He spent his childhood in a sea of 11 siblings, where the folk songs his mother sang and his early violin studies helped to etch his musical philosophy.

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Nielsen might have characterized himself as a country boy in an aesthetic world.  When he studied violin at the Copenhagen Conservatory from 1884-86, he became an insatiable pursuer of the arts, philosophy, and aesthetics, but with a “common man’s” view.  Later, as his composing career took shape, he favored such composers as Brahms and Wagner, whose work he saw as manly, healthy, and free of self-pity.

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While inParis, Nielsen met the Danish sculptress Anne Marie Broderson, whom he quickly wed.  Broderson was acclaimed for her sculptures of moving animals.  Her studies of Nature in art and her concepts of movement, beauty, and stasis complemented Nielsen’s own compositional aesthetic.  Though their relationship weathered some crises, Nielsen’s skills may have benefited more from his relationship with his wife than from any formal study.

By the time he wrote the Violin Concerto in 1911, Nielsen had completed three symphonies.  His approach to harmony was becoming well-defined:  “We should once and for all see about getting away from keys, but still remain diatonically convincing.”  He was inventing and crafting structures from classical models, but driven by psychological meanings.

The Violin Concerto is built in two large parts.  Each begins slowly, darkly, and meditatively, and then becomes faster and more energetic and high-spirited.  Within the first three chords of the opening movement (Praeludium), the listener hears Nielsen’s originality.  The first of these three descending chords is proclaimed by the full orchestra, the second by the solo violin, and the third by the lower register.  This will be a concerto shared by all the instruments.
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The second large part of the work follows somewhat the same pattern, but in a bit of a parallel universe.  The darker moments are a little darker.  The ebullient moments shine a little brighter.  The harmonies progress a little more wildly.  The structure expands and contracts time more fully.  The solo violin part
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Early in the concerto, Nielsen anchors chromatic sections (the absence of a particular key for any stretch of time)  fairly equally with tonal sections.  Later, he gives fewer anchors.  It’s really a question not of tonality, but of time, movement, color, and mood.  Motion and stasis are integral to the concerto, just as in the sculpture of a jumping horse.  One of Neilsen’s clever and effective tools is a quick string of repeated notes that, while driving the energy of a pa ssage, also disturbs it.

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