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Carl Nielsen and the United Kingdom

Why is Carl Nielsen so popular in the United Kingdom?

The United Kingdom loves Nielsen. In 2015 the Danish composer is being celebrated all over the country with performances by Britain's best orchestras, ensembles and conductors (a full list can be found here). In recent years, the UK has been one of the countries where Nielsen's music has been most often performed. It is also the country with the strongest and most well-established Carl Nielsen research tradition outside Denmark. The question is: why? We will take a little journey through the Nielsen history in the UK.

Carl Nielsen first arrived in Britain in 1910 when he visited London with his wife Anne Marie and daughter Søs (later: Anne Marie Telmányi). His wife was a sculptor and wished to stay in London for while to wander the city's many art museums and galleries. Furthermore, their daughter Anne Marie was to attend an English boarding school in 1910 before continuing her studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Denmark in 1912.

Drawing of Carl Nielsen and his wife Anne Marie Nielsen "father reading, mother working", by daughter Anne Marie Telmányi (AMT). Photo: The Royal Danish Library. 

During this visit, Carl Nielsen met the conductor Henry Wood, leader of the Promenade Concerts (‘the Proms’). Wood and Nielsen discussed a potential performance of Nielsen’s works in London but it wasn’t until a few years later that they agreed on a date in 1921. However, Nielsen cancelled in the end, explaining, in a pessimistic letter to his wife, that he ‘could not speak English and therefore could not talk about the performance with Wood anyway’ (3/9-21).

Two years after cancelling his London concert in 1921, Nielsen finally decided to present his music to a British audience by conducting himself. Nielsen’s debut concert in 1923 included his Violin Concerto (with Nielsen’s son-in-law Emil Telmányi as a soloist), Pan and Syrinx and the Fourth Symphony. The concert did not receive the best reviews and, for almost 30 years after this evening, Nielsen’s music was barely performed in Britain. Nielsen died in Copenhagen in 1931 and would never experience his own popularity in the United Kingdom 20 years later.

Carl Nielsen in 1910. Carl Nielsen with Emil Telmányi in 20s. Photo: The Royal Danish Library.

Carl Nielsen was rediscovered in 1950 when his Fifth Symphony was performed by The Danish Radio Orchestra in Edinburgh. The concert was a huge success followed by positive reviews from the British press: ‘Let us now have more of the most remarkable Danish composer who has yet appeared’, demanded The Observer’s Eric Blom, one of the enthusiastic critics.

In 1952, just two years after Nielsen’s revival in Edinburgh, the book Carl Nielsen: Symphonist was written by the British composer Robert Simpson. Simpson had a deep fascination for Nielsen and did his best to promote the Danish composer in the UK both as a writer and as a radio producer. And he did this with great success.
Carl Nielsen was now being performed across Britain from the beginning of the 50s. The Hallé Orchestra was one of the orchestras promoting Nielsen, especially when Sir John Barbirolli was its leading conductor. Many other conductors followed until our day, including Douglas Bostock and Sir Colin Davis.

Robert Simpson. Photo: BBC

1965, the year of Carl Nielsen’s centenary, led to the discovery of new works that until then had been neglected in Britain. His two operas Saul and David and Masquerade were performed in the 70s. The Guardian’s Edward Pearce later hailed Masquerade as ‘a masterpiece, nothing more, nothing less’ in 1990. A few years later, he chose Nielsen as one of the three greatest composers of the 20th century alongside Shostakovich and Strauss.

In the mid-seventies, the Danish Nielsen-interpreter Ole Schmidt conducted the London Symphony Orchestra for the very first recording of all Nielsen’s symphonies – The Six Symphonies (1974) – with Robert Simpson as the musical adviser.

Nielsen’s popularity continued through the 90s: A new book on Nielsen was published in the UK in 1997 (Carl Nielsen, 20th Century Composer by Jack Lawson) and in 1999 Nielsen was announced the composer of the year at the Proms.




But why did the Brits become so fascinated with Carl Nielsen?

One factor could simply be geography. The United Kingdom had been resistant to the European musical modernism found in Germany, Austria, France and Italy and had instead looked at other so-called peripheral countries like Scandinavia. The Finnish composer Sibelius became extremely popular in the 20s and 30s followed by Carl Nielsen in the 50s.

Another factor may have been a direct affinity between Nielsen’s music and the British nature of being. At least according to Robert Simpson, who saw Nielsen not just as a great composer but also as a humanist, an artist that was first of all concerned with the human being. For Simpson, there was something in Carl Nielsen’s musical expression that appealed directly to the British:

'It is quite likely that British music will find in Nielsen a real generating force: not only do his techniques and styles provide much that is still new, but his cast of mind, full-blooded yet utterly free from exaggerations, ranging from kindly humour to stern grandeur, capable of taut and compelling cogency of thought, powerfully constructive yet direct and uncomplicated, has all the qualities that appeal to much Englishmen.'

Robert Simpson, 1952

Marie-Louise Zervides, Bachelor of Arts in Musicology, Section of Culture, Communication and Public Diplomacy

Carl Nielsen by his piano. Photo: The Royal Danish Library


Select Bibliography

Fjeldsøe , Michael and Jens Boeg: “Carl Nielsen and the Idea of English National Music”, Carl Nielsen Studies, vol. 5, Copenhagen 2012

Grimley, Daniel M.: Carl Nielsen and the Idea of Modernism, Boydell Press, Woodbridge 2011

Muntoni, Paolo: “Carl Nielsen in the United Kingdom”, Carl Nielsen Studies, vol. 5, Copenhagen 2012

Simpson, Robert: Carl Nielsen, Symphonist. Hyperion Press, London 1952