Music as Life: Authority and Meaning in Nielsen's Fourth Symphony

  • Raymond Knapp


Carl Nielsen has left us in an odd predicament. He “explains” his music in ways that defy being taken literally despite their tone of frank earnestness. At the same time, he works within established idioms and tropes that evoke meanings hard to reconcile either with his explanations (even taken figuratively) or, in some cases, with their host works. Thus, for example, his timpani duel in the Fourth Symphony may reasonably be understood, given its use of established representational tropes and its historical situation, to evoke a naval battle. As such, however, it articulates only awkwardly with Nielsen’s explanation for the symphony, including the famous claim, “Music is Life, and, as life, inextinguishable.” Drawing on this and similarly perplexing episodes in Nielsen’s symphonies, and considering as well his distinctive contrapuntal practices, I suggest a framework for understanding this explanatory labyrinth. I base this framework in part on Nielsen’s intuitive manner of working with his musical ideas and materials, which derives from and is coupled with his sense of music as a mysterious and powerful force that (to paraphrase Francis Bacon regarding nature) to be commanded, must be obeyed. Comparing Nielsen’s claims and practices with those of roughly contemporary figures such as Mahler and Scriabin, I then argue for a shared basis for these composers’ attitudes and approaches in German Idealism.
How to Cite
Knapp, R. (2012). Music as Life: Authority and Meaning in Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony. Carl Nielsen Studies, 5.