Nielsen - Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, op. 7

by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1st doubles piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings

Duration: 27 minutes in four movements.


THE COMPOSER – CARL NIELSEN (1865-1931) – Nielsen was born on the island of Funen in the Baltic Sea and, like any high-minded young artist, he was thrilled when the opportunity came to leave his country home for the bustling sophistication of the Danish capital Copenhagen. Nielsen was able to parlay his modest success at the conservatory into a decent freelance career and eventually a full-time position in the second violin section of the Royal Chapel Orchestra.  

THE HISTORY – Nielsen’s ambitions would soon take him much further, further on the map and further into the life of a professional composer. One year after winning his place in the orchestra, he received a scholarship that allowed for travel and study throughout Europe. The trip was pivotal in two ways. Most importantly, he met his future wife Anne Marie. He also began sketches for what would become his first symphony during those two years and Nielsen, a humble man, could not have imagined that this latter inspiration was the beginning of a critical personal contribution to the future of a genre. Nielsen would compose a total of six symphonies over the next few decades and they hold an important position in the historical development of the symphony form. It was not always thus but after WWII, a significant resurgence began for Nielsen that is still approaching its full bloom. In Symphony No. 1 (1894) we hear a composer that seems to have been in possession of his unique voice for some time already. Indeed, as is often the case with Nielsen’s symphonies, the opening of the 1st also sounds as if someone has “dropped the needle” on music that has been underway for a while. As listeners, we are shaken awake into a fully formed tableau and the momentarily unmoored feeling is a thrill. Nielsen made a powerfully individual statement with his Symphony No. 1. He had no interest in choosing sides in the great Brahms/Wagner debate, deciding rather to follow a path of his own making. One of the highlights of the Copenhagen premiere was Nielsen’s graceful acceptance of the composer curtain call from his seat in the orchestra.       

THE WORLD – 1894 was the year of the First Sino-Japanese War, the beginning of the Dreyfus Affair in France, the establishment of Uganda as a British protectorate and the publication of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.  

THE CONNECTION – These concerts represent the Utah Symphony premiere of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 1.