In Denmark Carl Nielsen is known as a composer of songs rather than symphonies
Carl Nielsen. Photo: DR
While Carl Nielsen’s symphonies, concertos and quartets are frequently performed outside Denmark, his songs are rarely heard. It comes as a surprise for most non-Danes to hear that Nielsen popularity in Denmark has little to do with his orchestral music, but stems from the fact that most Danes have been brought up with his songs.
Carl Nielsen’s wrote hundreds of songs. Some of them were originally arranged for choir, soloists or the stage, but many of them were composed for one purpose only: Community singing. Today his songs are still frequently sung when Danes gather and most Danes will know a handful of his melodies, even though they may not know that Nielsen composed them.
Carl Nielsen’s rare ability to write complex, modern symphonies as well as popular, tuneful songs has puzzled critics and scholars. The historical context of his upbringing may provide a key to understanding this contradiction.
Nielsen was born in 1865; the year after Denmark lost the Second Schleswig War. As a consequence of the defeat, the kingdom’s size was reduced by a third. However, the loss of the German speaking duchies also created the Danish nation state.
Carl Nielsen came of age in an era characterized by nation building, when Danish culture and language was celebrated in art, literature and music. Communal singing played an important role, not least at the numerous Folk High Schools, which flourished in the last half of the 19th Century. As Denmark - and Nielsen’s music - embraced modernity, the concept of popular, community singing (“den folkelige sang”) remained strong in Denmark.
In 1922 Carl Nielsen and three other composers were put in charge of collecting and writing melodies for the songbook that was used at the Folk High Schools, “Højskolesangbogen”. Today, several revised editions later; Nielsen is still the composer with the high est number of compositions in the songbook, having penned 35 of its melodies.
Danes singing songs from "Højskolesangbogen" today. Photo: Udenrigsministeriet
“It is strange that when I write these simple melodies, it is as if I am not the composer – it is people from my childhood or the Danish people who want something through me,” said Carl Nielsen. It is still discussed among scholars whether Nielsen’s music expresses a particular Danish tone, or indeed, if the idea of “Danishness” in music makes sense at all.
Carl Nielsen was equally proud of his simple tunes and his complex works, but he would sometimes complain that the latter did not get as much recognition as the former. In his 60s he once said that he would not recommend a career as a composer, as the times did not appreciate anything but dance music: “My biggest success has been "John the Roadman" and for that I was paid 50 kroner once and for all.”
"John the Roadman" ("Jens Vejmand" in Danish), a social realist poem by Jeppe Aakjær, was set to music by Nielsen in 1907 and soon became a veritable hit song. The Danish tabloid newspaper Ekstra Bladet wrote new lyrics to the tune, which in a friendly, mockingly manner moaned about “that bloody melody, which no-one can escape.” The new lyrics were printed on the front page with the headline “Thank you for the song, Carl!”
Carl Nielsen's original score of "Jens Vejmand" ("John the Roadman")
This brings to mind the fate of the seven years younger Ralph Vaughn Williams, who did for English songs what Nielsen did for Danish. For many years his first published song, “Linden Lea” was among the most popular tunes in Britain. Contrary to Nielsen, Vaughn Williams must have had a better contract. ”Linden Lea” famously earned him more money than any other things he wrote, including his symphonies.
The lyrics to all Nielsen’s songs have now been translated into English, removing the obstacle that has made it difficult for British Nielsen fans to get acquainted with Nielsen’s songs.
The translations can be downloaded from the Danish Royal Library’s website (lyrics start on page 183): http://www.kb.dk/export/sites/kb_dk/da/nb/dcm/cnu/pdf/CNU_III_07_songs_4.pdf .
All Nielsen’s works are also available at the website (three bindings contain songs): http://www.kb.dk/da/nb/dcm/cnu/download.html
A recording with Nielsen’s most popular songs has been released from Dacapo Records by vocal ensemble Ars Nova Copenhagen. Read more at www.dacapo-records.dk/c/6.220569
Kåre Gade, Press Attaché, Head of Culture, Communication and Public Diplomay