Symphony No. 4, The Inextinguishable

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)

By Finn Gravesen, writer and editor, 2006

Optimistic, life-enchancing symphony 

No sooner had Carl Nielsen quit his intrigue-ridden post as chief conductor of the Royal Danish Orchestra than he embarked on work on his Inextinguishable Symphony. It was a time when he was deeply tormented by thoughts of divorce, problems with colleagues, and feelings of general doubt. Nonetheless, he was able to throw himself into the composition of this life-glorifying, positive symphony - giving it the preface: “Music is life and as such inextinguishable”. 

From chaos and conflict to life 

You’re immediately thrown into the work. From the very start the music in the symphony is characterised by bustle and turmoil, angular rhythms, blaring bassoons and fiery brass playing. The contrasting elements in the music manage to keep up a dialogue, and the intense start to the work gives way eventually to a more lyrical theme, which develops into a hymn. 

The drums play a predominant role throughout, ending right up front in the last movement - the tympany is always threatening, staging open war with the lyrical theme. The work abounds in excitement until the very end, with the little, almost defensive tune growing all time until it at last becomes victorious. 

Not programme music 

“This is not programme music, there is no programme only a pointer to the proper domain of the music,” the composer wrote in the programme notes for the première performance. Nielsen did not want listeners to “translate” his music into some sort of plot. Music must speak directly - without having to account for itself on an intermissive basis.
This means that the symphony should not be interpreted either as the tale of a crisis in Nielsen’s marriage nor as a comment on the First World War, which was raging at the time. In a letter dated May 1915, the composer describes very precisely the nature of his project with The Inextinguishable. “I have wanted to represent all that has the will or desire to live, an urge which cannot be held down. This does not mean that I intend to debase my art by making it an imitation of nature, but instead to attempt to let it express what lies behind.” 

Caricature drawing from B.T. on Carl Nielsen's 60th anniversary in 1925. Designed by Herluf Jensenius.
Carl Nielsen. Det Kongelige Bibliotek.
Score Music

Did you know?

Source: Carl Nielsen: Min fynske barndom, Fischer & Schou, 1994 (1927).

The flutist Herbert Gilbert Jespersen (1890-1975), who made the first performance of Carl Nielsen's flute concert in 1926 in Paris, mentioned for uncertain reasons the well-known piece "Tågen letter" - as "Tågen tætter".

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Music, 2006

In fact, all of Carl Nielsen’s six symphonies, his three instrumental concertos and several of his choral works could have been included on the list. These works, and in particular the symphonies, have long since crossed Denmark’s borders and can be found in many recordings by foreign orchestras and conductors, especially in the English-speaking parts of the world. However, in general, the fourth and fifth symphonies are considered to be the most challenging and original. The fifth symphony, with its unconventional construction in two major movements, is felt to be Carl Nielsen’s real contribution to the 20th century’s international concert hall culture. 

However, the Fourth Symphony is favoured here due to the fact that each movement opens with fifths, giving a sense of continuity and that there is ‘predictability’. It is broken into movements, but the continuity itself, rhythmic, mechanical and musical forms are intact. In the Fourth Symphony however, we can hear that we are applying discontinuity – with a sudden, surprising beginning and other antiphonal interjections. During a chaotic time during the First World War and in the middle of a tumultuous private life, in the transition between two centuries’ musical mentality, Carl Nielsen unifies the new power and great refinement in the one and same work, with a sense of yes, let them compete with one another and create a whole, where disruption and interference in the music can end up in a meaningful form.

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