Nielsen's 'Saul and David' as Tragedy: The Dialectics of Fate and Freedom in Drama and Music

  • Anee-Marie Reynolds


In previous studies of Carl Nielsen’s opera Saul og David , Einar Christiansen’s libretto as been compared to the biblical story, and the similarities and differences duly noted. Recently, Pat McCreless suggested that, beyond the biblical narrative, Saul and David might constructively be viewed as a tragedy. Indeed, in this paper I will demonstrate that this perspective illuminates not just Christiansen’s take on King Saul’s demise, but also Nielsen’s methods of underscoring it musically. My title alludes to Paul Ricoeur’s The Symbolism of Evil in which the author states: ‘Without the dialectics of fate and freedom, there would be no tragedy.’ In other words, tragedy depends on the tension between forces beyond a person’s control, and actions taken of his own volition that may postpone, but ultimately cannot alter, his fate. I will argue that Nielsen was drawn to this subject for his fi rst opera in part because Saul’s struggle against the inevitable unfolds in much the way his music does: ‘fate’ is the tonal goal, and ‘freedom’ is the volatile harmonic language and serpentine voice-leading that thwart progress toward that ineluctable goal. This is perhaps why many reviewers have noted the opera’s symphonic nature; Nielsen’s instrumental works depend on these same techniques precisely because he infused all of his compositions with drama. He once admitted as much: ‘I have always felt strongly attracted by the ‘dramatic’ in art, for is not all art actually dramatic?’ It is also tempting to consider the dialectics of fate and freedom in regard to Nielsen’s life at the time that he was writing Saul og David . He was just over thirty when he began, yet already had one illegitimate child, a wife and three kids depending on him. Attempting to develop a career that requires imagination and inspiration, while burdened with the mundane necessities of making a living and raising a family, he may have identified intuitively with Saul’s sense of entrapment, and viewed him more sympathetically than the less complicated David. Saul’s humanness surely resonated with Nielsen’s own.
How to Cite
Reynolds, A.-M. (2012). Nielsen’s ’Saul and David’ as Tragedy: The Dialectics of Fate and Freedom in Drama and Music. Carl Nielsen Studies, 5.