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Carl Nielsen and the Idea of Modernism (review)

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 83, Number 3, Fall 2011
pp. 450-453 | 10.1353/scd.2011.0041

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Grimley's contribution to Nielsen studies is concise and thematic. He does not attempt to cover all of Nielsen's works, but instead he provides more thorough analyses to the first, third, and sixth symphonies, among other works. The fifth symphony is discussed in passing, and the second symphony is hardly mentioned at all. Grimley analyzes the Helios overture and Nielsen's second opera, Maskarade, as well. However, Grimley's ability to give in-depth and lucid analyses and his mastery of both primary and secondary sources make the sacrifice of Nielsen's other works acceptable. Indeed, Grimley's skill as an experienced author of turn-of-century Scandinavian composers is apparent in this book. Since he has published books on Grieg and Sibelius, it seems natural that Nielsen would be his next target.

Modernism as an "idea" rather than a simple category is the main theme applied to Nielsen's works. In order to understand modernism as an idea, Grimley primarily uses the cultural theories of Fredric Jameson and Theodor Adorno. He discusses Jameson's notion of modernism as a narrative or "novel." Adorno's analysis of Mahler's first symphony as a "breakthrough" is borrowed for Nielsen's works. Both theories are diYcult to understand by themselves, let alone applied to such a complex figure as Nielsen. Grimley admits Nielsen's problematic relationship with modernism.

Nielsen's roots in symbolism with some of the early songs and his eventual rejection of the excess and decadence associated with the symbolist movement are the major highlights of the second chapter. Wagner especially is a foe that Nielsen attacks early in his career. Although Nielsen met Brahms, the influence of Brahms on Nielsen is not as pervasive as earlier critics thought. Van Gogh and Byron also influenced Nielsen's "modern breakthrough" with the first symphony. The bulk of this chapter is devoted to the analysis of the first symphony's opening movement, complete with Schenkerian reductive graphs—used for almost all of the other works as well.

In the next chapter (3), Grimley examines Nielsen's Mediterranean classical roots. He provides an analysis of the Helios overture as an example. The overture reflects Nielsen's life-changing trip to Greece as well as Nielsen's interest in the current archeological discoveries in Denmark. It was composed in Athens and shows the influence of the Greek landscape. Helios comprises a large arch form, symbolizing the sun's course in the sky. As a more abstract symbol of time, the overture became a popular work played every New Years Day in Denmark. Moreover, as a symbol of a new beginning, it represents an optimistic, classical answer to "Wagnerian gloom." Nielsen considers Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk as a misinterpretation of Greek tragedy. Instead, Nielsen and his librettist for Maskarade, Vilhelm Andersen, look to the comic aspect of Dionysus as a "counterpart" to Wagner and his followers.

The idea of comedy and carnival as a form of liberation from the dark and serious past is one of Grimley's most convincing lines of study that supports Nielsen's modernist stance. One of the first things the reader sees is a group of photographs showing a young Nielsen making funny faces for the camera. Much of Nielsen's music reflects his sardonic humor; especially his last symphony (No. 6) called Sinfonia Semplice. The title of the symphony, as Grimley notes, is ironic because the symphony is anything but simple. Grimley shows how this symphony was misunderstood from the time it premiered in Stockholm (1925) to more recent reviews. Nielsen was enduring painful health and marriage problems and his letters and interviews reveal a deep pessimism. In an interview, Nielsen confessed a delusion he felt with his musical works, noting that his works did not give him the satisfaction that a craftsman gets from a well-made product. Some scholars, such as Robert Simpson, considered the symphony an expression of Nielsen's delusion with music and life in general. Grimley does not feel the symphony is as pessimistic as it is an expression of liberation and renewal; it is also a part of Nielsen's comical personality, which can be traced back to Maskarade and his youthful face...

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