Nielsen, Shakespeare and the Flute Concerto: From Character to Archetype


  • David Fanning
  • Michelle Assay



In June 1916 Nielsen supplied incidental music for the tercentenary Shakespeare celebrations in Hamlet’s castle of Kronborg, Helsingør (Elsinore). The three choruses and two songs he composed constitute one of his least-known works. But they had a legacy, and not only in the final choral number, which, to other words, subsequently became a candidate for Danish national anthem. Shortly after the event, Nielsen confided that he found Ariel and Caliban (for each of whom he had composed a sharply characterful song) so fascinating that he was considering writing an instrumental work based on their contrasting temperaments. This he never did, at least not overtly. However, ten years later the drastic instrumental contrasts in his Flute Concerto invite a reading based on the Ariel/Caliban duality. The distinctiveness of the concerto’s confrontation between the flute solo and the orchestral bass trombone has long been recognised. However, this duality takes on a more focused and at the same time broader significance when viewed in the light of Nielsen’s life-long, albeit mainly indirect, engagement with Shakespeare. Suggesting how a composer’s occasional character-music may re-emerge in their concert work in the guise of archetypes, our article seeks to contribute to a growing field of investigation into the relationship between ‘applied’ and concert music.

Author Biographies

David Fanning

David Fanning is Professor of Music at the University of Manchester and author and editor of books, articles and critical editions on Nielsen, Shostakovich, Weinberg, and the 20th-century symphonic tradition. He is co-author with Michelle Assay of a much-expanded version of his 2010 Weinberg biography (Toccata Press, forthcoming), and co-editor with Erik Levi of the Routledge Companion to Music under German Occupation (Routledge 2019). As a pianist he partnered the Lindsay String Quartet for 25 years, a role he has continued with its successor as ensemble-in-residence at the University of Manchester, the Quatuor Danel. For many years he has been a critic for Gramophone and The Daily Telegraph.

Michelle Assay

Michelle Assay is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Huddersfield, working on the topic of ‘Shakespeare and Censorship in Soviet/post-Soviet Music, Film and Theatre’. She is currently preparing her PhD dissertation on the topic of ‘Hamlet in the Stalin Era’ for publication by Routledge. Alongside numerous published articles in this area, she is co-ordinator of an international research group on ‘Shakespeare and Music’. Alongside concert appearances as a solo and chamber pianist, for the past seven years she has been currently collaborating with David Fanning on a major life-and-works study of Mieczyslaw Weinberg for Toccata Press (forthcoming), and the couple also published Carl Nielsen: Selected Letters and Diaries (Museum Tusculanum, 2017). Since April 2018 she has been part of the reviewing team for Gramophone magazine.




How to Cite

Fanning, D., & Assay, M. (2020). Nielsen, Shakespeare and the Flute Concerto: From Character to Archetype. Carl Nielsen Studies, 6.