Carl Nielsen, Symphony No. 2, “De fire temperamenter” (The Four Temperaments)

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert Human Elements, performed on Nov 18, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

While listening to the American Symphony Orchestra this afternoon, take a moment to scan the second violin section. Somewhere in there may be the next great composer.

Carl Nielsen toiled away for years with the second fiddles of the Royal Danish Theatre Orchestra and found his limited time for composition often eaten away by rehearsals. Although Nielsen wrote six wonderful symphonies, as well as operas and concertos, he never became internationally renowned during his lifetime, partly due to the travails of Germanic publishing houses in the years surrounding the Great War. Although his work created a boomlet in America in the 1950s and ‘60s, he has since returned to the status of a footnote to the history of twentieth-century music.

A confirmed absolutist, Nielsen did construct one programmatic symphony on the subject of the four temperaments. His inspiration was quirky: a piece of kitsch that was mounted on the wall of a tavern in the Zealand district. He and his friends made sport of the painting, but its naïve symbology haunted the composer until he set himself the task of realizing that quartet of humors in music. The key to his success was his judicious use of contrasting sections in each of his character studies.

The first movement, the Choleric, was suggested by the visual image of a swordsman heatedly flailing at the air. Nielsen himself writes about his creation that the “material is worked, now wildly and impetuously, like one who nearly forgets himself, now in a softer mood, like one who regrets his irascibility.”

Filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni has demonstrated a manner of thinking about art that is both useful and instructive and may be labeled the “Antonioni problem.” Simply put, when attempting to create an opus designed to communicate the essential tedium of life, how does an artist prevent becoming boring himself? Of similar complexity is the depiction of the Phlegmatic. Nielsen’s solution is ingenious.

He envisions a young man, the apple of his mother’s eye. The boy is one of nature’s noblemen and needs no stimulation to feel perfectly happy. He lolls all day at the water’s edge. Only once is there a loud noise, but unlike the crash in Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony, nobody stirs. All is forgotten in a shimmering envelope of languid peace.

The Melancholic begins with a theme that Nielsen describes as “a strong outcry of pain.” Torturous passages follow, but are somewhat mitigated by a central section in E-flat major that offers some respite. The composer pulls all of the musical material together “like the threads of a net” and ends with a restatement of the horrifying first subject.

Finally, the Sanguine describes a man to whom “fried pigeons will fly into his mouth without work or bother.” There is one episode wherein syncopated rhythms disturb his equilibrium momentarily. He quickly rights himself, however, with a new appreciation of his lucky state. The Symphony ends on a note of triumph with a joyful and noble march. Art imitates art imitating life.