Nielsen – Helios Overture, Op. 17

by Max Derrickson

Carl Nielsen
(Born in Sortelung, on Funen, 1865; died in Copenhagen, 1931)

Carl Nielsen was born on the island of Funen, Denmark, the birthplace of Hans Christian Anderson, and a place so lovely it is rightfully called the Garden of Denmark.  The composer’s family was relatively poor:  his father was a house painter, his mother tending to 12 children, and there were some hard times for everyone.  But Nielsen’s home was filled with natural wonders and music.  He learned dozens of folksongs from his mother, and his father, who was also an amateur musician, was leader of a town band.  Nielsen’s own musical gifts presented themselves in a surprising manner at the age of six, when townsfolk heard him playing melodies on pieces of firewood that he had arranged.  Nielsen was soon playing the violin, mimicking his mother’s songs, and playing trombone in his father’s band.  And there was often a fair amount of hilarity, as Nielsen’s father was apparently an extraordinary impressionist, pranking his friends with light-hearted buffoonery.  Nielsen’s early inclusion into that musical world of folksong and joyful town-music making, along with a keen sense of the comical, deeply informed his compositional career.  That career would span nearly five decades in Denmark, from studying at the Copenhagen Conservatory to eventually becoming its director, and becoming, arguably, that country’s greatest composer.


[. . .]

Helios Overture, Op. 17

In 1902, Nielsen’s wife, Anne Marie Broderson, a gifted sculptor, won a rarely-granted authorization to copy bas reliefs at the Acropolis in Athens, and Nielsen was able to join her.  His interests in being with his wife were united with his lifelong interest in archaeology and ancient architecture.  Their lodgings were idyllic, overlooking the Aegean Sea, and indeed, Nielsen and Broderson were enjoying halcyon days.

Surrounded and inspired by antiquity, Nielsen’s musical interests then turned to the sea and sky, and the ancient myth of Helios.  The Greek myth of Helios was of the god who ferried the sun across the sky in a chariot.  It fired Nielsen’s imagination.  [. . .] – the Helios Overture.

Arising out of the inky black sea before dawn, low swells sound in the basses.  Soon, in a series of 4rths and 5ths and octaves, [. . .] while creating a sure sense of anticipation.

Radiance is at the heart of the themes that Nielsen uses to narrate Helios’s progress.  Near mid-work (mid-day), the sun and its music are ablaze [. . .] at last returning to the swells in the darkness where everything began.