From Hommage to “Oh My!”

June 26, 2015
 

If you weren’t looking for him you’d probably pass him by. He’s a young boy – a herd boy with a flute. He’s sits at the side of the road in the central part of Denmark on the island of Funen (or Fyn, as it’s known in Denmark), just south of the city of Odense. Across the road there’s a white 19th Century house with a thatched roof. The boy has been sitting there for the greater part of a century.

There’s a man on horseback at the side of a busy avenue in Copenhagen. He’s been there for a while too, like the boy near Odense. He’s playing panpipes on a wingless Pegasus. Turns out the boy and the man are one and the same. In fact, both bear a resemblance to the late 19th, early 20th Century Danish composer Carl Nielsen. They’re sculptures by Anne Maria Carl Nielsen. She was a well-known Danish sculptor of the 20th century. She created them in the early 1930s in memory of her husband, who died in 1931.

Carl Nielsen was born 150 years ago on June 9, 1865.  He continues to be recognized as Denmark’s most famous composer. The Carl Nielsen Museum is in the same building as the Carl Nielsen Concert Hall in Odense. It’s a hefty stone’s throw from where Hans Christian Andersen was born. The 19th century house I mentioned above is where Nielsen lived as a child. Today it too is a museum of sorts. There’s also a Carl Nielsen Society and above all, Nielsen’s musical legacy. 

Carl Nielsen helped to pave the way for Danish composers who came after him. It brings to mind a song that even many Danes think is a folk song, but actually was written in 1907 by Carl Nielsen with a text by Jeppe Aakjær. It’s titled: “Hvem sidder der bag skærman?,” which is translated: ”Who’s there behind the shelter?”  It’s about poor Jens Vejmand – or Jens the road maker, whose entire life was spent as a physical laborer, laying stones for roads. When he died he was so poor that there wasn’t even enough money for a grave stone for Jens.  

I learned at the DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation) website that Carl Nielsen himself grew tired of the song’s popularity during his lifetime, He wanted people to explore his classical music – his symphonic and chamber music. It sounds like a variation on the Jens Vejman story. There was Nielsen feeling poorly recognized for all his work, with that one stone – the song – appearing to be an obstruction in the road.

Carl Nielsen’s songs remain unknown to most music listeners outside of Denmark. Audiences around the world have come to know Nielsen through some of his symphonies or concertos, even as the musical language of those works can be a bit challenging.  Those who have come to know Nielsen’s music in Denmark have had the chance to be charmed by the many songs he wrote.  A recent recording by the ensemble Ars Nova Copenhagen includes 20 of Nielsen’s songs, arranged for 4-part choir by the group’s director Michael Bojesen (dacapo 6.220569).

Carl Nielsen wrote nearly 300 songs. We’re reminded in the recording notes by Jens Cornelius that most of them are simple songs, meant to be a part of community singing. Many of those songs have ended up in what’s known as the Danish Folk High School Songbook. The folk high schools were established so that adults could educate themselves about Danish language and culture at their own pace. Carl Nielsen was one of the editors of the very first songbook back in 1922. The book includes some folk songs, but also many popular songs. Though the book has been revised over the years with songs added that are better known to contemporary audiences, Cornelius points out that there still are 36 songs by Nielsen in the most recent edition. Conductor Michael Bojeson himself was a recent editor of the songbook .

I’ve become acquainted with a number of Nielsen’s songs. While I never really expected them to catch on with audiences in our time, I never imagined that an indirect contact with Nielsen’s vocal music would cause a young person grief. The day after Nielsen’s 150th birthday anniversary, I heard a portion of a radio interview with Pete Docter, director of the new film Inside Out, on the program Fresh Air.   Docter shared a disturbing chapter from his childhood.  He told of his family moving from Minnesota to Denmark for a year so that his father could study the choral music of Carl Nielsen. The difficulties that 11-year-old Pete had adjusting to daily life in Denmark apparently were devastating.  His recollections of that period in his life came to play an important role in the new animated film.

I was rather startled when I heard that portion of the interview. I had just celebrated the 150th anniversary of Nielson’s birth with Classic Mornings listeners and had been revisiting an English translation of Carl Nielsen’s book My Childhood (Min fynske barndom) about his years of growing up near Odense in Funen. He begins the book with an observation that children have a poetic sense and that impressions from their childhood may well remain permanently in their memories. As Nielsen describes it:                    

Poetic talent, I imagine, is fundamentally the faculty, the gift of distinctive observation and perception.  Thus we have all at one time been poets and artists, each after his manner. The rough way in which life and adults summon the child from its beautiful world of poetry and out to harsh matter-of-fact reality must, I think, be blamed for the fact that most of us forfeit these talents, with the result that the divine gift of imagination, innate in the child, becomes mere day-dreaming or is quite lost.

His book relates some of those childhood impressions which he was able to recall years later. One of those was amusingly musical. He and his brother had discovered that pieces of wood had different sounding pitches when you hit them with a hammer. With chalk he wrote the letter equivalents of musical notes on the ends of the pieces and began to play tunes, hopping around and hitting them rhythmically. A neighbor who observed it all was quite impressed. Other stories told by Nielsen reveal that it wasn’t an easy life there among the poor farm villages. Playing a violin for dancing at local celebrations and serving as a military bugler in nearby Odense from the time he was 14 served as the primary musical foundations for the one who was to become Denmark’s most beloved composer.

I’m sure Pete Docter had his own poetic impressions before, during, and after his time in Denmark.  I wondered whether he had learned anything about Carl Nielsen, Nielsen’s story-telling or the stories of Nielsen’s elder contemporary Hans Christian Andersen during his year in Denmark. Perhaps he has in more recent years. I hated to think that his only association with Carl Nielsen remains a traumatic one.

Then I realized that Docter is a story-teller himself, with or without the help of Nielsen or Andersen. His medium is animation. There’s a suggestion that he retreated into his little world of animation while in Denmark. Interesting, though, that his film was released within a week of the Nielsen 150th anniversary, given his indirect encounter with Nielsen’s music. It’s due in Danish theatres in late August with the title Inderst Inde, which is more like “at heart” or “deep down”  than “inside out.”  Oh, and by the way, his father David Reinhardt Docter did publish a study of 20th century Danish choral music. I’m guessing there won’t be a film version of the book like there was of Nielsen’s Min fynske barndom in Denmark back in 1994.

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