Carl Nielsen and the Idea of English National Music

  • Michael Fjeldsøe
  • Jens Boeg


Why did Carl Nielsen achieve such a favourable reception in England from the 1950s on, compared to the rather reluctant recognition in continental Europe? We would suggest that one reason could be an affi nity of features in his music with the concept of English national music. This attempt to discuss the British reception of Nielsen does, of course, not imply that Nielsen’s music is English. From a constructivist position, national musics are based on cultural common-views in a population of people identifying themselves with a certain concept of a nation which they regard their own. The concept of English national music had Ralph Vaughan Williams as chief engineer and champion. Based on Cecil J. Sharp’s scientific investigation of the English folk song, Vaughan Williams developed a theoretical background on which English composers could (and later would) create their compositions, and his thoughts became prevalent through the English musical establishment. Such ideas of English music did not by accident or as some kind of revelation find their way to the hearts and minds of English listeners and critics. The success was due to a deliberate effort by a national movement, and a most crucial feature was the introduction of folk song singing in elementary schools, instilling these particular views into following generations of listeners. Though mainly concerned with the music of England, Vaughan Williams’ ideas were not limited by nationality as such, but were general guidelines for every composer in every nation of the world. In many ways Nielsen’s music can be seen to fi t Vaughan Williams’ characteristics for good music. When fi rst established, ideas of national music are embedded in a value system that considers such music of high quality and thus music – like Nielsen’s – which has affi nities with the image of English national music, is more likely to be recognized and appreciated as ‘good’.
How to Cite
Fjeldsøe, M., & Boeg, J. (2012). Carl Nielsen and the Idea of English National Music. Carl Nielsen Studies, 5.