Skip to contentSkip to navigation
Become a Member
Explore today's schedule
Visit MMFA for free by becoming a Member
Learn more

Composer of the month

May: Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré

Chapter 1: The Struggling Young Artist

Overview

Spring has been rather tardy in coming to Montreal, and for the first installment of our “Composer of the Month” series we have selected a composer who could also be considered a late bloomer: Gabriel Fauré. Born on May 12, 1845 near Pamiers in southwestern France, Fauré displayed great promise from a young age, but he struggled tremendously for the first half of his life to gain recognition for his works. History has been kinder to Fauré however, and he is now recognized for the fine craftsmanship and originality of his works, and for the important influence he had on composers such as Maurice Ravel, Florent Schmitt, Nadia Boulanger, and Arthur Honegger.

After completing his studies at the École Niedermayer in Paris, where the focus on religious music had a major impact on Fauré’s style, Fauré worked primarily as a private teacher and organist, and eventually attained the post of choirmaster and deputy organist at La Madeleine in Paris thanks to his close friendship with Camille Saint-Saëns.

As a composer, Fauré’s initial focus was on solo piano works, songs, and chamber music, such as the Violin Sonata No. 1 and Ballade for Piano, and his cheeky homage to Wagner’s Ring cycle, the Souvenirs de Bayreuth. Such works allowed Fauré to reach only a very limited audience, but those that heard Fauré’s music were astonished by his creativity and craftsmanship. In the early part of his career, Fauré became a fixture of the many salons in Paris during the late 19th century, where he mingled with some of the most talented minds of other artistic fields, and cultivated relationships with wealthy patrons, which would lead to important commissions for major works later in his career.

To be continued….

An in-depth look

As a young composer who lacked the proper connections to gain entry into the Parisian musical establishment, Fauré instead turned his focus to the many artistic salons held in private homes, where he quickly became the darling of these gatherings, and more importantly, captured the attention of several wealthy patrons. Composing did not pay the bills however, and so Fauré was forced to work as an organist and private teacher, which as a result severely curtailed the time he could devote to composing - for most of his life in fact, he could only find time to compose during his summer vacation.

The other difficulty that Fauré faced at this time was finding an audience for his work. His natural inclination towards chamber works more suitable for small gatherings, and the difficulties he faced in having them published, limited his public exposure. Large-scale orchestral pieces would have allowed him to reach a far larger audience, but early compositions such as a violin concerto and a symphony in D minor remained only abortive attempts at such works.

Had Fauré even succeeded in completing these works, he then would have had to contend with the difficult reality that many French composers faced from the mid-19th century onwards: the hegemony of German composers in the realm of symphonic music, and the stranglehold that opera had on French musical life. There was little appetite in Paris at that time for symphonic music, and the only surefire way for a composer to earn widespread public acclaim was through opera. Even Fauré felt compelled to attempt composing an opera despite his inexperience and lack of aptitude for the genre, and he would pursue various unsuccessful projects before he completed Pénélope, the sole opera in his output, in 1913.

An Unconventional Education

Fauré’s distinctive style was formed in part by his rather unconventional musical education; rather than passing through the Paris Conservatory or competing for the Prix de Rome as would be expected of an ambitious young composer, at nine years of age Fauré was sent to the École Niedermayer in Paris, which focused on educating musicians for a career in the church. The study of works ranging from Josquin to J.S. Bach had a profound influence on the young Fauré, as did that of the church modes - the medieval predecessors of the major and minor scales that form the basis of tonal harmony. Echoes of this centuries-old music are heard in the simple, modally-tinged melodies of many of Fauré’s works, as well as the counterpoint that ripples beneath the surface and the linear conception of his music.

Fauré and Saint-Saëns

The other great influence of Fauré’s youth was Camille Saint-Saëns, who was a young professor at the École Niedermayer when Fauré first arrived there. Saint-Saëns introduced his pupils to the latest works of Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, and Chopin, and for Fauré his role surpassed that of a teacher to be his mentor, substitute parent, and lifelong friend and confidante. It was Saint-Saëns who assisted Fauré in finding employment after graduation, first as a church organist in Rennes, and eventually as choirmaster and deputy organist at La Madeleine in Paris, then one of the most fashionable churches in the city.

Saint-Saëns
Credit

Violin Sonata No. 1 – The Beginnings of a distinct style

Gabriel Fauré - Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 13

Violin Sonata No. 1

Masterpieces from Fauré’s early period include the Piano Quartet No. 1 and the Ballade for Piano - whose intricate filigree-like figurations entangled Liszt’s fingers when Fauré presented it to him in 1882 -, as well as the Violin Sonata No. 1 composed in 1875, in which Fauré firmly established his style while also displaying astonishing creativity. Fauré’s passionate temperament seems to flow through the entire work - from the very first measure it bounds forward with youthful exuberance, barely able to contain its ecstasy.

It is in early works such as this that Fauré established what would become stylistic trademarks of his output: a heavily chromatic, ambiguous harmonic character, and a predilection for rising scale motifs over syncopated rhythms - a device used here in the final movement, and one to which Fauré would return in many other compositions. The third movement also displays his unique take on the scherzo: a sunny and nimble movement with the lightness of bubbles in a glass of champagne.

Encadré Proust

Souvenirs de Bayreuth – Fauré and Wagner

Fauré/Messager - Souvenirs de Bayreuth

At the time Fauré was in the process of establishing himself as a composer, one figure towered over the world of music: Wagner. Fauré first encountered Wagner’s music in the classes of Saint-Saëns, and in early adulthood ventured to Germany on several occasions to experience the master’s operas in person. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Der Ring des Nibelungen thrilled him, while Lohengrin left him indifferent and Tristan und Isolde aroused a virulently negative reaction; and yet, unlike his colleagues, Fauré was not swept up in the craze of “Wagnérisme.” He rummaged through Wagner’s music for material that was useful to him, but it seems Fauré quickly realized that Wagner’s aesthetic and his own were fundamentally incompatible - the overflowing emotions of Wagner’s operas were the antithesis of the restraint and poise of Fauré’s carefully sculpted works.

Fauré’s admiration for Der Ring des Nibelungen, however, did not impede him from paying tribute to Wagner’s epic with the tongue-in-cheek Souvenirs de Bayreuth, composed for piano duet with his friend André Messager. Various leitmotifs from the cycle are transformed into four foppish quadrilles, their open-ended harmonies securely tied down with an emphatically tonal cadence at the end of each section - here, the heroic Siegfried has traded his hunting horn and helmet for the frock coat and spats of a proper bourgeois dandy!

by Trevor Hoy

Georg Unger Siegfried
Credit
Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré

Chapter 2: Successes and Tribulations of Middle Age

Overview

Gabriel Fauré’s middle years coincided with the belle époque in Paris. It was a time of societal change as well as great scientific and technological innovation, and for Fauré brought a mixture of success and disappointment; and yet, just as societal progress continued its inexorable march onwards, Fauré’s career followed its slow upward trajectory as if drawn by some invisible force. While Fauré was generally good-humoured for much of his youth, he was also subject to emotional extremes, and his middle years were marred by bouts of depression - what Fauré termed “spleen” - brought about most likely by a broken engagement and unhappiness over his lack of success as a composer, as well as the deaths of his parents. In spite of these doldrums, there were also many bright spots in this period of Fauré’s life. It was a sign of the changing times when Fauré obtained in 1896 a coveted position as professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory, despite the dislike for Fauré among conservative members of the musical establishment. During this period, Fauré completed important new works for both small ensemble and solo piano, while a sojourn in Venice yielded the song cycle Cinq mélodies de Venise. An even more profound impact on his music arrived in the form of a passionate affair with Emma Bardac begun in 1892, the result of which includes the song cycle La Bonne chanson, in which Fauré explored new formal possibilities in music of exquisitely sensual beauty. Fauré also found success in this period with music of a much larger scope, including charming incidental music for the plays Caligula, Shylock, and Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist drama Pelléas et Mélisande. Belated, but much-deserved, public acclaim on a grand scale arrived with his monumental Prométhée, when at its premiere in Béziers in 1900 a crowd 10,000 strong fêted a triumphant Fauré.

An In-Depth Look

La Belle Époque: Transformation of a Society

All around Fauré, the world was changing at an ever-quickening pace. The 1889 Universal Exhibition was a seminal event in French art, in particular music. It was here that Claude Debussy first encountered the Javanese gamelan, which permanently altered the direction his music would take; if Fauré attended the exhibition, there is no evidence that gamelan, or the current fad of japonisme, had any impact on his music, and he was content to continue composing in his own manner. That same year, and also part of the Exhibition, an intricate ironwork structure designed by Gustave Eiffel appeared on the Parisian skyline - the Eiffel Tower stands today as an unmistakable symbol of Paris, but it was at first condemned as an eyesore by many, including Fauré’s fellow composer Charles Gounod. Meanwhile, one of the most groundbreaking innovations of this era was the widespread introduction of electricity. Starting in 1893, Fauré was able to enjoy an electric elevator installed in his apartment building, while the ever-inquisitive Camille Saint-Saëns composed his cantata Le Feu céleste in honour of this exciting new technology.

The Eiffel Tower under construction
Credit

Fauré and the Conservatoire de Paris

Seismic change was also coming to the musical establishment, as the deaths of older composers left vacancies at the Conservatoire de Paris. Despite the support of Saint-Saëns, Fauré had been continuously frustrated in his attempts to obtain a much-vaunted teaching position there, as more conservative composers felt threatened by this mere composer of “salon music” who constantly broke established rules of harmony in his works. In a previous application for a post, Fauré had been instead shunted into a position as inspector of musical education in branches of the Conservatory - a position which came with more prestige and a better salary, but now required Fauré to make interminable journeys to provincial towns. Fauré’s second go at a position at the Conservatory proved more successful: in 1896, at 51 years of age, Fauré finally had a taste of the success and recognition he had for so long craved when he was appointed as a professor of composition. The most famous pupil of this class was Maurice Ravel, but Fauré also educated some of the other great talents of the 20th century, among them Nadia Boulanger, Florent Schmitt, Charles Koechlin, and George Enescu.

Fauré the Celebrity: Large-Scale Works

Important compositions from this period of Fauré’s life include the Piano Quartet No. 2 and the Piano Quintet No. 1, as well as several nocturnes and barcarolles for piano and the song cycles Cinq mélodies de Venise and La Bonne chanson. This period was also marked by the completion of several larger orchestral works that contributed to Fauré’s growing reputation: along with the Requiem, Fauré composed incidental music for the plays Caligula, Shylock (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice), and Pelléas et Mélisande.

Finally, on August 27, 1900 Fauré was able to enjoy the public recognition he so deserved with the premiere of Prométhée at an outdoor arena in Béziers. A tragédie lyrique on the myth of Prometheus that cannot be categorized as either a cantata or an opera, Fauré composed Prométhée for an ensemble of 800 musicians, and the work was heard by a total of 17,000 people over two nights. The public marvelled at his creation, and Fauré was elated - never before had he enjoyed celebrity status. In the coming years, several small Fauré festivals would be held in Paris, and in 1903 Fauré would be appointed as music critic for Le Figaro, a position he would hold until the end of his life. Things were finally beginning to go his way.

A Turbulent Romantic Life: La Bonne chanson

Anne Sofie von Otter: The complete "La bonne chanson Op. 61" (Fauré)

La Bonne chanson, op. 61

With middle age came the trappings of domestic life, and in 1883 Fauré married Marie Fremiet. The two were at first affectionate and shared a mutual passion for art, but things eventually cooled between them; Marie shared neither Fauré’s passionate temperament or love of socializing, and unfortunately for Marie, marriage could not tame Fauré’s unfaithful behaviour. Fauré’s musical talents combined with his other attributes - a dark complexion and wavy locks, “large, languid and sensual eyes of an impenitent Casanova” according to his pupil Alfredo Casella, pleasant demeanour and charmingly provincial manner of rolling his ‘r’s - apparently made Fauré irresistible to the opposite sex, and Fauré was equally unable to resist the affections of other women.

For the first half of Fauré’s life, this unhappy marriage and other turmoil in his love life - various short affairs, a failed earlier engagement, and the brief, ultimately futile romantic feelings for his lesbian patron Winnaretta Singer - caused Fauré a fair amount of emotional instability. All this changed when Fauré met Emma Bardac in 1892. Bardac was at this time married to a wealthy banker (whom she would eventually divorce in 1905 for Claude Debussy), but both she and her husband had a very loose interpretation of marital fidelity. Intelligent, beautiful, a gifted soprano and brilliant conversationalist, Bardac provided Fauré with both the first emotionally fulfilling relationship he had thus far experienced, and the inspiration for a strikingly original work: the song cycle La Bonne chanson.

In conjunction with this change in his personal life, La Bonne chanson *demonstrated a marked shift in Fauré’s music that was far more adventurous in its approach to both form and harmony, to the point that Saint-Saëns declared that Fauré must have gone mad the first time he heard the work. *La Bonne chanson also marked Fauré’s first prominent use of cyclical elements in his music, a technique foreshadowed in the Ballade for Piano and* Cinq mélodies de Venise*. In La Bonne chanson though, these recurring themes play a far more important structural role, akin to a leitmotif, and are manipulated and transfigured through the nine songs that make up the cycle; notable examples are a melody pulled from one of his earlier songs, Lydia, and a passionate rising motif that accompanies the words “Je vous aime” in the fifth song, “J’ai presque peur, en vérité”.

Fauré selected nine poems from Paul Verlaine’s eponymous collection for* La Bonne chanson*, which, rather than outlining a story, sketch a portrait of the beloved. As the composer was particularly enamoured of Verlaine’s poetry, having previously set several of his poems to music, when Fauré’s patron Winnaretta Singer offered him a substantial commission to compose a short opera, Fauré saw this as a splendid opportunity to work with Verlaine. This ambitious plan fell apart though when Fauré finally located Verlaine in 1891, by which time the poet was reeling in the advanced stages of alcoholism, and it was clear that the once-gushing well had dried up.

Emma Bardac
Credit

Fauré at the End of the Century: Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande

Fauré : Pelléas et Mélisande, suite d'orchestre (Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France / Mikko...

Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande

Fauré’s incidental music for Pelléas et Mélisande was one of only four works based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist drama that were composed in the span of ten years; most famous of these is Claude Debussy’s opera, but Arnold Schoenberg produced an hour-long tone poem in a sweeping post-Mahlerian style in 1903, while in 1905 Jean Sibelius composed his own incidental music for the play. It may seem odd that so many composers were drawn to a play expressing a pessimistic worldview and in which little action happens, but it is precisely these qualities that were evocative of the fin-de-siècle mood; the idea of man’s impotence before destiny expressed in Pelléas et Mélisande echoed the sense of resignation and mourning for a slowly crumbling world that gripped many artists at this time. Fauré’s music for Pelléas et Mélisande, which he composed for an 1898 production in London, has had the misfortune of being overshadowed by Debussy’s far more radical opera, and the two composers made no secret of their dislike for each other’s work; after first hearing Debussy’s opera, a baffled Fauré exclaimed “If that is music, then I have never known what music is.” Nonetheless, to Fauré’s credit, he produced richly melodic and appealing music that won the admiration of Maeterlinck himself; the music today exists only as a four-movement suite, while the rest sadly remains unpublished.

by Trevor Hoy

Claude de Bussy
Credit
Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré

Chapter 3: The Elder Statesman of French Music

Overview

For the final decade and a half of his life, Fauré was at the peak of his fame and influence. In 1905 he took the helm of the Paris Conservatory and brought important reforms to an institution that had become backwards in its views and encumbered by its own traditions. He also achieved significant success when, after years of failed attempts at composing an opera, his Pénélope had its triumphant premiere in 1913. The joy, however, was tempered by tragedy: Fauré experienced the deaths of his older siblings during this time, as well as that of his close friend Camille Saint-Saëns in 1921. He also suffered the greatest misfortune that could happen to a musician as he gradually went deaf, until he could finally only hear his compositions in his head. In spite of these challenges, the final years of Fauré’s life were some of his most productive, during which time he produced innovative works such as the Piano Quintet No. 2 and the String Quartet, before he finally passed away from pneumonia in 1924.

An In-Depth Look

The final period of Fauré’s life brought another unexpected turn of events, when in 1905 he was appointed director of the Paris Conservatory following the resignation of Théodore Dubois, in a move that was possibly influenced by the government as a way to shake up an institution that was perceived as increasingly ineffectual and backwards. Fauré entered his new position with sweeping plans to reform the Conservatory - to the point that others nicknamed him “Robespierre” due to his determination and toughness in carrying out this task. First among these reforms were modifications to the teaching curricula, as well as a massive expansion of the repertoire students were permitted to study: Wagner was at long last allowed within the Conservatory walls, and students could now study music ranging from Monteverdi to Debussy. A wave of resignations by professors outraged at the appointment of this outsider from the provinces gave Fauré the perfect opportunity to appoint more progressive members to the faculty, and invite composers such as Paul Dukas and Claude Debussy to sit on examination panels.

A major advantage that Fauré had during his tenure as director was the goodwill he held with both warring factions of the Parisian musical world: he was an esteemed colleague of conservative composers such as Camille Saint-Saëns and Vincent d’Indy, and admired by members of the younger generation like Maurice Ravel and Darius Milhaud.

Pénélope: an Opera at Last

Another significant achievement of Fauré’s later life was his sole opera, Pénélope, based on Ulysses’ return to Ithaca as told in the Odyssey. While for most of his life Fauré had avoided Wagner’s influence, he finally turned to his operas to aid him in the composition of Pénélope. Taking his cue from Wagner, Fauré created a series of leitmotifs to represent key characters and elements of the story, and favoured a mostly continuous musical flow in place of set recitatives and arias; nonetheless, Fauré was selective in what aspects of Wagnerian opera he imitated, and combined them with elements of more traditional opera to create an idiosyncratic and wholly personal approach. Fauré scored a tremendous success with the Paris premiere of Pénélope on May 10, 1913, only to have his moment of triumph overshadowed when, three weeks later, a young Russian composer by the name of Igor Stravinsky scandalized Paris (and forever changed the course of music) with his new ballet The Rite of Spring.

Poster for the opera Pénélope
Credit

Beethoven and Fauré: a Shared Fate

All this time, Fauré was concealing a secret, one so devastating that it could potentially finish his career at the Conservatory: he was going deaf. By the first decade of the 20th century, the first noticeable signs of hearing loss were beginning to appear; worse still, they were accompanied by the distortion of sounds - according to his son Philippe, Fauré “heard bass notes a third higher and treble notes a third lower”. Rumours of Fauré’s difficulties began to circulate at the Conservatory, and in all likelihood Fauré was only able to maintain his directorship as long as he did due to the outbreak of the First World War. Fauré’s experience, in many regards, was akin to that of Beethoven’s - both produced some of their most innovative and adventurous works near the end of their lives while living in aural isolation. The tragedy for Fauré was that, just as was reaching the peak of his fame, he could now only hear his music in his head; as the librettist of Pénélope, René Fauchois, once related in an interview, at a rehearsal for Pénélope, “[Fauré] leaned towards me and said in my ear: ‘It’s pretty, isn’t it?’ ‘Admirable!’ I answered him, as indeed I thought. And never have I forgotten the intense melancholy and the sorrowful accents of the old master saying to me then: ‘I can’t hear it!’ “

Piano Quintet No. 2 in C minor, Op. 115

Fauré - Piano Quintet No.2 in C minor, Op.115 (score)

Old age was slowly wearing down Fauré’s body, but it did nothing to dampen his spirits or his intellect, and in the last three years of his life Fauré experienced an “Indian summer” - a sudden outpouring of works that confirmed Fauré was in no way past his prime. This event was partly the result of his retirement from the Conservatory in 1921, which suddenly offered Fauré with the one thing that had always eluded him as a composer: free time. Among the works from Fauré’s final years is the Piano Quintet No. 2, completed in 1921, which combines the energy of Fauré’s youthful works with the harmonic dexterity and daring characteristic of Fauré’s later compositions. The overall mood of the quintet is one of serenity, with the calm exterior of the music broken by occasional energetic outbursts; the piano provides much of the rhythmic drive, often playing rippling, rapid patterns over which the strings unfurl long-winded melodies.

The String Quartet

Gabriel Fauré: Quatuor à cordes en mi mineur, Op. 121 (Quatuor Ysaÿe)

The final year and a half of Fauré’s life was marked by two grand achievements: on January 31, 1923, he was awarded the Grand Croix de la Légion d’Honneur, the very highest level in the French honours system and one rarely awarded to composers; that same year, he also began work on a string quartet, a genre hitherto unexplored by Fauré. Given his immense talents and proclivity for chamber music, it may seem odd that Fauré composed a string quartet so late in his life. However, Beethoven and his sixteen string quartets cast a long shadow over the genre, and it is possible Fauré only overcame his apprehension in composing a string quartet until later in life. Fauré’s compositions are also biased towards the piano - the String Quartet in E minor is his sole piece of chamber music without piano, and its textual sparseness can seem almost jarring in comparison to his other works.

The String Quartet is often viewed as his least successful chamber work, and its various qualities that are so typical of late Fauré - lengthy phrases and seemingly endless sequential progressions, intricate counterpoint, and strange harmonies - can render it difficult to grasp at first. Nevertheless, these features are married with the suppleness and fine-shaped melodic contours also characteristic of Fauré’s music, in a work that progresses from the shadowy E minor of the first movement to end in a luminous outburst of joy.

The effort of finishing the String Quartet severely weakened Fauré, and shortly after completing it in the summer of 1924 he fell ill with pneumonia, a problem exacerbated by years of heavy smoking. He recovered, but his condition steadily declined over the rest of the year until he passed away in Paris on November 4, thus ending a remarkable life and career, and bringing to a close an important chapter in French music. Georges Auric, a member of the generation of French composers that followed Fauré, perhaps summed up Fauré’s legacy best: “Fauré’s achievement was to invent musical forms which attracted our hearts and senses without debasing them. He offered a homage to Beauty in which there was not only faith, but a discreet yet irresistible passion … The delicate precision of his architecture, the concision (without dryness) of his ideas will long guide us in our moments of anxiety …”

By Trevor Hoy

Score of the String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121
Credit

June: Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen

In our June edition of our Composer of the Month series, we explore the life and music of Carl Nielsen, Denmark’s superstar composer and one of the most original voices in classical music. Over the span of four chapters, discover Nielsen’s role as a symbol of Danish culture; the modern innovations of his music; his idiosyncratic and humorous personality as expressed through his compositions; and his philosophical musings on music and the human condition. As Nielsen famously stated in reference to his Fourth Symphony, “music is life, and like it, inextinguishable.”

Chapter 1: Carl Nielsen, Denmark’s National Songwriter

North American audiences are in general most familiar with Nielsen’s six symphonies, though his music does not enjoy nearly the same level of popularity as that of his close contemporaries such as Jean Sibelius and Béla Bartók. In Denmark however, Nielsen’s status transcends that of a renowned composer to be the country’s Composer-Hero and a national symbol: his music is lauded as an important contribution to Danish culture, his portrait once graced the 100-kroner banknote, and his opera Maskarade is considered Denmark’s national opera. Aside from Nielsen’s numerous classical works - among them concertos, tone poems, string quartets, and incidental music for plays such as Aladdin - in his home country he is also remembered for his hundreds of popular songs.

Nielsen’s interest in composing songs for the general public stemmed from a desire to reform the national song tradition, which occurred during a period of renewed curiosity among the Danish population in their country’s folk traditions. This folk revival in Denmark meanwhile coincided with a broader European movement of composers seeking out the traditional musics of their respective nations. Out of the hundreds of simple, pleasant tunes that Nielsen wrote, one of the most popular was “Jens Vejmand” (Jens the Roadmender), composed in 1907. Several years later, Nielsen embarked on an ambitious collaborative effort with organist and composer Thomas Laub that yielded several volumes of popular songs and hymns inspired by Danish folk music - which Nielsen would have known well from his childhood experiences - and using texts by eminent Danish poets. The fruits of their labour included En Snes danske Viser *(A Score of Danish Songs) published in two volumes between 1915 and 1917, of which one the most popular songs is “Se dig ud en Sommerdag” (Behold You on a Summer’s Day); and Folkehøjskolens Melodibog* (The Folk High School Melody Book) in 1922, which gained widespread use in the homes, schools, and congregations - a delightful example from this collection is “Som en rejselysten flåde” (There’s a Fleet of Floating Islands).

Nielsen was acutely aware of how his songs stirred feelings of national pride in his fellow citizens, and as he once reflected, “It is strange that, when I am writing these plain and simple melodies, it is as if it was not me who composed them; it is as if - what shall I say - the people from my boyhood on Funen or, as it were, the whole Danish people demanded something through me. But these are perhaps too big words when the matter is so plain and simple, at least to me.”
And yet, despite the indelible association of these songs with Danish culture, there is nothing in their melodies or rhythms that makes them inherently Danish; it is only through their widespread use over the past one hundred years that these songs have become imprinted on the national consciousness, and have become associated in the hearts of many with feelings of identity and community. As Nielsen himself stated, “only the people can make art into something national, the artist can’t.”

Chapter 2: Nielsen the Modernist

Progress and rapid change were the order of the day at the turn of the 20th century - progress in society, in science and technology, and in the arts. Though Carl Nielsen was not the most radical composer of his time - he made no bones about his disdain for the avant-garde, such as the music of Arnold Schoenberg - he was nonetheless profoundly inventive, and explored new possibilities of form and harmony through his works. During the period in which tonality was the established harmonic practice in Western music, which spanned the mid-Baroque era (around 1650) until the beginning of the 20th century, it was conventional for a work in an established key to begin and end in the same key - a symphony in F major, for example, would begin and end in F major, and all key changes would be calculated in relation to F major. Though Nielsen never abandoned tonality in his music, as some of his contemporaries did, he instead made progressive tonality, whereby a work ends in a key different from that in which it begins.

When Nielsen completed his Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7 in 1892, progressive tonality was a novel concept in symphonic music, and musicologist Robert Simpson declared this symphony to be “possibly the first to end in a key other than that in which it started”. This symphony involves a tussle between G minor and C major that persists until C major emerges triumphant in the final measures.

Thirty years later, Nielsen premiered his Symphony No. 5, Op. 50, by far one of his most radical works and considered by many to be his masterpiece. Divided into two movements rather than the usual four for a symphony, and again utilizing progressive tonality, this work is best known for the battle that takes place in the first movement between the orchestra and a rogue snare drummer. The drummer is even instructed at one point to play ad libitum in an attempt to halt the forward momentum of the ensemble and tear the music to shreds. The drums go silent only when the full weight of the orchestra is brought to bear against them near the end of the movement.

The Disappearing String Quartet

The Danish String Quartet plays Nielsen's Quartet Nr. 3

Composed between 1897 and 1898, Nielsen’s String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 14, is evidence of his full embrace of a more modern style and his utterly unique musical voice. As critic Hother Ploug wrote in his review after the first public performance in Copenhagen in 1901, “A strange work, like everything that comes from his hand, but more a work for connoisseurs than for the general public.” It is easy to understand why this quartet would have been hard to stomach for those “bottle-fed day in and day out with ‘romances’ and romance-like music” as Ploug put it - there is nothing sentimental about the heavily contrapuntal first movement, which leaps out of the gate with multiple musical lines intertwined around each other like a tangled mass of vines. Meanwhile, the third movement demonstrates Nielsen’s penchant for writing oddball melodies, as the first violin’s opening gesture descends from a G to land on a D-sharp, completely upending the C major tonality of the movement - almost as if the composer is thumbing his nose at the listener!

Nielsen’s Third Quartet was also the subject of a bizarre theft in 1898 when, as Nielsen was bicycling with the score to the home of his music copyist, he stopped to help a horse that had fallen in the street. To free up his hands, Nielsen handed the roll containing the score to a young boy in the crowd, who promptly ran off with it as Nielsen was helping the horse get back up! Nielsen never managed to retrieve his score, and so had to completely rewrite the Quartet from various sketches and fill in any remaining blanks from memory.

Bourgie Hall

Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
1339 Sherbrooke Street West
Montreal, Quebec H3G 1G2

About Bourgie Hall

View on Google Maps

Ticket office

Buy your tickets

Online
By phone: 514-285-2000, option 4
In person: at the Museum Ticket Counter, during regular Museum hours

How to get there

Public transit
Bus: #24
Métro: Guy-Concordia or Peel station

Parking
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts does not have a parking lot. There are many public parking spaces in its vicinity.

Cloakroom available

A touch of culture to your inbox
Subscribe to the Museum newsletter

Bourgie Hall Newsletter sign up

This website uses cookies in order to optimize your browsing experience and for promotional purposes. To learn more, please see our policy on the protection of personal Iinformation