Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) in 1917
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) in 1917

We mark the death on October 3, 1931 – 91 years ago today – of the Danish composer and violinist Carl Nielsen in Copenhagen, at the age of 66.

Nielsen had what we colloquially call “a bad ticker.”  He suffered his first heart attack in 1925, when he was sixty years old.  A nasty series of heart attacks put him in Copenhagen’s National Hospital (the Rigshospitalet) on October 1, 1931.  He died there at 12:10 am on October 3.  Surrounded by his family, his last words were:

“You are standing here as if you were waiting for something.”

(We could take those last words a variety of ways.  For example, we might assume that Nielsen, suffering from delirium, was genuinely curious as to why his entire family was gathered around his bed.  But knowing Nielsen as we do – he was a salty, funny, straight-shooting person and a proud family man, married to a famous sculptress and the father of five kids – we’d like to think that Nielsen went to his death cracking an ironic joke.  Not quite as ironic as Chicago’s founding guitarist and vocalist Terry Kath’s last words, “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded”, but ironic enough.)

Nielsen clowning around for the camera, circa 1890
Nielsen clowning around for the camera, circa 1890

Despite the fact that Nielsen was born in 1865 and, as such, reached his compositional maturity in the musical environment of nineteenth century Romanticism, he lived and composed long enough into the twentieth century to have been influenced by the revolutionary new musical languages of the twentieth century.  For example, given its musical content, Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4 of 1916 – which will be the topic of tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post – could not have been composed in, say, 1890.

Carl Nielsen was and remains the central figure in Danish music in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  His music, his writings, and his attitudes about music exert a decisive influence over Danish music today and have been a source of inspiration for composers across Scandinavia as well. …

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