Carl Nielsen and Tonality

| DMT Årgang 40 (1965) nr. 04 - side 89-93

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Robert Simpson
Carl Nielsen and Tonality

Den engelske musikolog, Dr. Robert Simpson, hvis bog om Carl Nielsen (Carl Nielsen, Symphonist 1865-1931. London 1952) repræsenterer den hidtil grundigste analytiske indføring i Carl Nielsens symfoniske musik, har på Dansk Musiktidsskrifts opfordring sammenfattet sine synspunkter om tonalitetens betydning i Carl Nielsens musik i nedenstående artikel. Da Robert Simpson har ønsket artiklens originale formulering bevaret, gengiver vi manuskriptet på engelsk med et efterfølgende kort resumé på dansk.

There are no rules in art. There are natural laws, but no one has successfully defined them in words; perfect art is itself their only definition. Carl Nielsen's remark that music is life is more profound than would appear to some theorists of the present-day, for art and biology are in many ways akin; the former is scarcely possible without the latter! Therefore the natural laws that give rise to art are deep and subtle, far from arbitrary; they are not altered or even affected by the fashions of this week or that. In our day (that is, in the last sixty years) one law that can be defined has been often forgotten. It is the most obvious one of all: Nothing that has proved at any time artistically useful can be abolished.

There is in the arts today so much confused thinking (some of it infected by arrogance, some by false humility) that it is necessary to point out, with the simplicity of language one would use to a young child, that nothing could be sillier than to imagine (as many composers do, it seems) that melody, harmony, tonality, etc., etc., are "dead". These things are nothing when they do not exist in someone's imagination; the only thing that can "die" is the individual imagination itself. Therefore it is not harmony or tonality that have become exhausted - it is the composers themselves. The surest sign of exhaustion is the desire to avoid any issue, the drift towards negative solutions to problems. And so we find a large number of twentieth-century artists taking the line of least resistance, content (even unconsciously) to make sure that they are baffling their timid critics by first baffling themselves. It is easier to pretend to abolish than to create from an awareness of all the possibilities. This is why so many artists are living in a world of make-believe and so few of them make real contact with an audience. It is salutary to remember that in the old days the artist who puzzled or shocked his public was always the excepcional genius; now, it is the majority that appears thus to the average intelligent music-lover, with the difference that while the artist may succeed in puzzling his audience, he can no longer shock it. When a large proportion of artists fancies itself thus, romanticism has reached its nadir.

Indeed, we may realistically regard the desire for the abolition of this or that as a romantic malaise, brought about by satiety. It is important to realize that this sense of saturation and the need to sweat out or even vomit the superfluity is not itself the cure. It is the sickness. The cure comes when the body begins its recuperation, when is is able to work, when it is not distracted by the need to get rid of poisons or excesses. The congested and inflamed stomach of romanticism eventually knotted itself in spasms so prolonged that they have not yet ceased, and for most artists the close-up view of the basin prevented their glaring eyeballs from seeing anything else. Unfortunately there are all too many in this pitiably undignified and hapless posture at the present time. Those who are still desperately casting about for something to abolish or get rid of, merely suggest the twitchings of a long evacuated gut, unable yet to control the abnormal reflexes into which it has been forced by its erstwhile sickness, and still incapable of performing its proper function of digesting nourishment.

Although he might not have described the situation in precisely these terms Carl Nielsen was well aware of the situation, not only as he found it in the sphere of music, but in the world at large. He was one of those rare artists who could see clearly positive potentialities, without being distracted or fatally depressed by the ignominious rout of his contemporaries. Another such was Sibelius, and the northern countries may congratulate themselves on producing two such men, together the embodiment of a lavel-headedness and a vigour of the imagination that the rest of Europe could not match. In Sibelius's case his achievement was based on a mastery of musical movement that successfully blended (for the first time) the vast slowness of Wagner with the long-lost athleticism of classical music. Nielsen, at a time when most composers had despaired of ever doing so, found something new in tonality. Before discussing this it is important to make the point that what he discovered was essentially personal to him, that while it may well prove a stimulus to many composers when the intellectual climate changes, it would be a mistake to set it up as a panacea. The notion of a panacea is itself romantic nonsense; it is the error by which the serialists have betrayed their inability to escape from romanticism. Carl Nielsen's reaction to the natural resource of tonality was instinctively positive and realistic. It recogniced the same facts as did Schoenberg's; but it was able to make use of them. The Viennese composer evaded these particular facts in favour of what seemed to him a new technique, but which merely prolonged the death agonies of romanticism. The Dane brought out of the fact of tonality a new discipline that was a hitherto unknown extension of classical energy. That Nielsen's achievement is even now not fully recognized is a comment on the confusion of our time rather than on any failure of his work.

During the period of romanticism the pace of music had gradually become slower; the cause of this was growing preoccupation with the emotional moment and the reduction of strength and vigour in the use of tonality, with harmony functioning often as appoggiatura. Wagners mastery of a vast time-scala as well as his highly emotive use of harmony in such a work as Tristan made it impossible for lesser composers to see the wood for the trees. Schoenberg's despair and his desperate remedy were understandable. His basic assumption was that tonality must be some sort of anchor, that extreme chromaticism demanded its removal, that a tonal work must of necessity (unless it were on a huge scala) have a fixed tonic. Like most conservatives, Schoenberg was confronted with a Gordian Knot, and cutting it was a gesture of exhaustion. It seems unlikely that Schoenberg knew much of Nielsen's work; had he been faced with it he would probably have rejected it. But the fact remains that Nielsens discovered what Schoenberg really hoped for - a way of breaking out of what appeared to be the confinement of a closed circle without sacrificing energy in the act. An artist's personal solution of a general problem is so often a matter of temperament. If one compares Schoenberg's with Nielsen's temperament, it is easy to see why the former chose a somewhat agoraphobic retreat, while the latter preferred the open spaces of a new world of tonality. The comparison should not be misunderstood; Schoenberg is not dragged into the argument with pejorative intent, nor with the idea of proving that Nielsen is the greater composer (as I happen to believe, by a long way). In order to appreciate what Carl Nielsen did, it is necessary to see the background against which he composed, and the way in which his younger contemporaries reacted. We must remember that most of them knew little or nothing of his music, that a great many of them shared the assumption that classical tonality was a form of imprisonment from which the only escape was destructive.

As soon as this assumption is perceived for what it is, Nielsen's boldness becomes obvious. Merely to end a work in a key different from the one in which it began was, of course, nothing new, and no way out. Plenty of composers had done this, either for picturesque reasons, or out of indiscipline. On rare occasions someone hit on a device for regulating a tonal journey in such a way than an expressive function was achieved. A notable example of this may be found in the Dies irae of Berlioz's Grande messe des morts, where the music moves in regular tonal strides, each increasing the tension as well as the pace, until it has travelled across the musical empyrean from A minor to E flat major. This fling from one tonal extreme to the other was, incidentally, often exploited by Nielsen for original structural purposes. Before his so-called »G minor« First Symphony, however, no-one had derived any really subtle processes from the idea of tonality as a mobile as opposed to a rooted phenomenon. Even Berlioz, living when he did, needed at titanic burst of pictorial as well as musical imagination to achieve it was a remarkable exception in his work. The gradual slowing down of the pace of romantic music and the continued assumption that tonality could be only some sort of root for a work, subsequently made Berlioz's Dies irae a strange and lonely prominence whose true signifiance was not grasped. I do not know (and very much doubt) whether Nielsens conception of tonality was engendered by this piece of Berlioz, but so far I have been able to find nothing between it and Nielsen's Symphony No. 1 of 1892 that is anything like so deliberately systematic as either. Independently of Nielsen, and soon afterwards, Gustav Mahler began to explore the possibilities - but, though he displayed, a powerful personality and much startling invention, he was not objective enough to follow this path to its conclusion, and totally subjective romanticism invariably intervened.

Although Carl Nielsen talked very little about the inner musical processes of his work, no one who examines it thoroughly and feels its spirit can mistake the clear trend it shows. And not merely a trend - his life's achievements reveals a new and deep mode of thought that, like all great discoveries, is based upon a long history of human development. Without the classical period of music encompassed by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and without the entire growth of romanticism in the nineteenth century, his special synthesis would have been impossible. As Sibelius made a synthesis of two extremes of musical movement that had reached the stage of seeming irreconcilable, so Nielsen found a way to render tonality mobile at the time when its classical fixity appeared to be fatally threatened by an encroaching sea of chromaticism. He showed how tonality could be used with renewed force. Like most such achievements, it was instinctive; it is most unlikely that he consciously planned it. His larger works grew under his hands, while his temperament and brain together controlled the emergent form. The process that informs most of his extended compositions is usually called "progressive tonality''; but such terminology must be treated with caution. A better term would be "fluid" or "mobile" tonality, if either of these words be invested with a sense of direction; best of all, perhaps, might be "emergent" tonality, since the essence of the action is often in the growth of a tonality's potency until it dominates the music. The clearest example is, of course, the Fourth Symphony, where the final emergence of E major comes from a direct conflict with D minor. These two tonalities are opposed, and although their environs are also explored to subtilize the argument, the Fourth embodies a simplification of Emergent Tonality if one compares it which No. 5, in which the eventual domination of E flat is the upshot of very complex cross-currents that cannot posibly be hinted at in a few words (For an explanation of this I can only refer the reader to my book on the composer published by J. M. Dent & Co., London). The process is complex, too, in the first three symphonies and highly original (though I do not find it entirely cogent throughout the work as a whole) in the Sixth.

There are two pieces of external evidence that confirm interestingly the way in which Nielsen's finished compositions show the workings of his instinct. Both concern the concertos for wind instruments. In the Flute Concerto he at first wrote a cheerful ending in D major, with no significance beyond its gaiety. After the first performance, however, he saw that he had not fulfilled a process that had already almost completed itself. At one point in the first movement there is an enchanted passage in E major, soon to be obscured by other matters. In the second and definitive ending of the concerto, that coarse fellow the bass trombone discovers (to the annoyance of the sensitive flute) that the cheerful dance-tune is nothing but a version of the E major passage in the first movement. He rubs in his discovery with crude glee and the concerto ends in E major; this is one of the most inspired and revealing afterthoughts I know. In the early stages of composing the Clarinet Concerto, Nielsen was obsessed by a simple folk-like tune in E major. This melody disappeared from the work; but its traces remain in a subtle conflict between the key of E and the main tonality, F. The character of the concerto is such that its perforce is tied to one main key, from which it tries in vain to escape. Nielsen does not believe in panaceas; if it suits his expressive purposes, he will contradict what many another composer (had he the wit to evolve it in the first place) would have turned into a "system" or "method".

As a composer I have often been asked what it is about Carl Nielsen's use of tonality that might make it a force in the future of music, or that may have been neglected hitherto. My reply has always been - "I hope, nothing". One of the curses of our time, in all the arts, is a fatal fixation upon mere materials. Tonality is nothing without invention, and unless a composer can invent music as alive and profound as Nielsen's, he will never make significant use of tonality, nor of anything else. An artist of such character and power as this great Danish composer will nevertheless throw off sparks in all directions; one composer may find the seeds of still more new thought in his approach to tonality, another might produce a fresh kind of music simply by allowing Nielsen's energy to set turning the wheels of his mind. Hindsight can demonstrate that Nielsen's treatment of tonality was the results of historical development, a process whose outcome emerged through his mind rather than another's; the proper thing to realize is that such moments of illumination do not come from calculation. Hard thought is certainly necessary, but only to create a condition of mind in which awareness is readily possible. In my country (and, for all I know, in Denmark, too) there is an old superstition that it is lucky to find a four-leaved clover, and there can be no doubt that a trained observer would find one more easily than a casual stroller. Therefore if we are to gain from Nielsen's music, we must first find our way inside the music. What it may then kindle in our minds is unpredictable, but it can only be something vital. Theorizing about the future will get us nowhere.


Dr. Robert Simpson lægger det skisma mellem tonalitet og atonalitet, som er karakteristisk for de sidste halvtreds års musik, til grund for sine betragtninger over Carl Nielsens tonalitet. Ved at forkaste det - ofte gentagne - dogme, at »melodik, harmonik og tonalitet etc., etc. er døde«, når han til den konklusion, at to principielt forskellige kompositoriske attituder er mulige i det tyvende århundrede: Den almindeligste og nemmeste karakteriseret ved sit negative standpunkt til den musikalske tradition - nemlig forkastelsen af denne og dens erstattelse gennem en ny konvention af mere eller mindre dogmatisk karakter (som eksponent herfor fremhæver Simpson Arnold Schönberg). Den anden, mere sjældne og mindre letopnåelige kompositoriske fremgangsmåde, der af Simpson tilskrives både Jean Sibelius og Carl Nielsen, karakteriseres af sin komponists positive holdning til de overleverede musikalske muligheder, som en gang har vist sig kunstnerisk værdifulde.

Carl Nielsens forhold til tonaliteten belyses ved en sammenligning med Arnold Schönbergs brud med tonaliteten. Simpson påpeger, at Schönberg ved at holde fast ved det nittende århundredes opfattelse af tonalitet som musikkens forankring i en fast grundtonefornemmelse bringes i konflikt med den kromatisering af tonesproget, som er konsekvensen af Wagners »Tristan-harmonik«. Carl Nielsen frigør derimod tonaliteten fra bundenheden til den enkelte grundtone og åbner mulighed for en mobil eller »opstående« tonalitet, som lader kromatikken blive grobund for nye, tonale kræfter.

Tonalitet i denne specielle udformning belyses ved eksempler hentet fra Carl Nielsens sidste tre symfonier og fra koncerterne for fløjte og klarinet; men Simpson advarer mod den tro, at »mobil tonalitet« skulle have karakter af et dogme eller et konstruktionsprincip, der kan tjene som teoretisk rygdækning for en kompositorisk skole i lighed med »Wienerskolen«. Kun ved at annamme Carl Nielsens opfattelse af musik som liv og afholde sig fra tør teoretisering er man i stand til at studere hans værker med fuldt udbytte.