Nielsen composed his fifth symphony between 1920 and 1922. It was premiered in Copenhagen on the 24th of January 1922, conducted by the composer. Duration 35:00.
“I love the vast surface of silence; and it is my chief delight to break it”
Born in Nørre Lyndelse, Denmark in 1865, Carl August Nielsen benefitted from an early familial exposure to music which led to him learning both the violin and piano and exploring composition before the age of ten.
Playing brass with the local army regiment in his early teens and winning a scholarship to the Danish Royal Conservatory, he went on to develop his compositional technique throughout his twenties and thirties while playing with the second violins with the Royal Danish Orchestra and eventually conducting the Royal Theatre Orchestra.
Nielsen composed his fifth symphony at a time when the world was just picking itself up from the trials of the First World War and the theme of conflict and martial vigour might be imagined as we progress through the work. Consisting of two movements instead of the usual four, the piece is a testament to Nielsen’s melodic mastery and label of Denmark’s greatest composer.
The piece unfolds with undulating strings, soon joined by woodwind as we start to hear the theme of the first movement unfolding. The stability and tranquillity is shaken by the incursion of the militaristic snare drum and percussion. Listen out for the clarinet and flute trying to shoulder their way into the light only a few minutes in and the continual battle for dominance between the orchestra and the snare drum.
The second movement opens in turmoil as the strings rush forward, emboldened by strident brass and as the initial urgency abates, the composer allows the themes to develop against a backdrop of rhythmic strings and as Nielsen’s Baroque influences become apparent, we’re led into a kaleidoscope of multi-layered counterpoint.