Friday, June 22, 2018

the four temperaments

Carl Nielsen in 1884, aged 19

[Image source:]

Carl Nielsen 1865 - 1931

Carl Nielsen, a native of the island of Funen, came from rural working-class roots; he was the seventh of twelve children (he wrote a well-loved   memoir Min fynske barndom  - "My Funen Childhood").

His most simply irresistible symphony, No 2, was composed in 1901-02. It was titled De fire temperamenter (The Four Temperaments); the four movements of the symphony are respectively choleric, phelgmatic, melancholic and sanguine.

I had the idea for ‘The Four Temperaments’ many years ago at a country inn in Zealand. On the wall of the room where I was drinking a glass of beer with my wife and some friends hung an extremely comical coloured picture, divided into four sections in which ‘the Temperaments’ were represented and furnished with titles: ‘The Choleric’, ‘The Sanguine’, ‘The Melancholic’ and ‘The Phlegmatic’. The Choleric was on horseback. He had a long sword in his hand, which he was wielding fiercely in thin air; his eyes were bulging out of his head, his hair streamed wildly around his face, which was so distorted by rage and diabolical hate that I could not help bursting out laughing. The other three pictures were in the same style, and my friends and I were heartily amused by the naivety of the pictures, their exaggerated expression and their comic earnestness. But how strangely things can sometimes turn out! I, who had laughed aloud and mockingly at these pictures, returned constantly to them in my thoughts, and one fine day I realized that these shoddy pictures still contained a kind of core or idea and – just think! – even a musical undercurrent! Some time later, then, I began to work out the first movement of a symphony, but I had to be careful that it did not fence in the empty air, and I hoped of course that my listeners would not laugh so that the irony of fate would smite my soul. I tried to raise the idea of the pictures to a different plane ...

(Carl Nielsen, from a programme note for a 1931 performance at the Stockholm Konsertföreningen)

I was hoping to find the pub paintings online, but couldn't. Perhaps they have been long destroyed, or perhaps the exact location of the pub is not even known.

[Image source:  These (and other) grimasses are now in the Royal Library of Copenhagen. They were taken at a studio in Odense in the mid-1880s when Nielsen was about 20.  They were connected with playing all the parts in an entertainment for a girlfriend.  Nielsen's good looks got him into trouble; he already had an illegitimate child before his marriage; he was later a fond husband but not a faithful one.]

Carl Nielsen in 1908, aged 43

[Image source:]

Continuing with Nielsen's 1931 Note:

 .....    and now – since that is what is wanted – I will give a modest explanation of my Symphony No. 2, ‘The Four Temperaments’, op. 16.

The first movement, Allegro collerico, immediately sets in fiercely with the following motif (see No. 1), which is developed with a later small motif (No. 2) in the clarinet, and rises to a fanfare that leads into the second subject (No. 3), which sings very espressivo but is soon interrupted again by extremely turbulent figures and rhythmic thrusts. After a fermata the second subject sings ƒ and expresses itself with greater breadth and power, which gradually wanes, then the modulation section begins, working with the motifs described above, now wildly and violently, like a person almost carried away, now in a gentler mood like one who regrets his irascibility. At the end comes a coda (stretto) with intense passages in the strings, and the movement ends with the same character as it began.

The second movement was conceived as the complete opposite of the first. I do not like programme music, but it may still interest my listeners that when I was working out this piece of music, something like this happened: A young man appeared to me. He seems to have been his mother’s only son. The mother was nice and amiable, she was a widow and she loved him. He too was extraordinarily nice, and everyone liked him. He was 17‑18 years old, his eyes were sky‑blue, confident and large. At school he was loved by all, but the teachers were at the same time dismayed and gently resigned; for he had never learned his lessons; but it was impossible to scold him, for everything that exists of idyll and Paradise in nature was reflected in this young man, so one was completely disarmed. Was he merry or serious, was he lively or slow in his movements? He was none of these! His inmost nature was there where the birds sing, where the fish glide silently through the water, where the sun warms and the wind gently brushes ones locks. He was blond; his expression could be described as happy, but not self‑satisfied, rather with a small touch of quiet melancholy, so you felt an urge to be kind to him. When the air shimmered in the heat he usually lay on the pier at the harbour with his legs out over the edge. I have never seen him dance; he was too inactive for that, but he might well rock his hips in a slow waltz rhythm (No. 4) and it is in this character that I have completed the movement Allegro comodo è flemmatico and tried to maintain a state of mind that is as far from energy, ‘Gefühl’ and similar feelings as is really possible.

Only once does it rise to an f (No. 5). What happened? Did a barrel fall in the water from one of the ships in the harbour and disturb the young man as he lay dreaming on the jetty? Who knows? But no matter: a brief moment, and all is calm; the young man falls asleep, nature dozes, and the water is again as smooth as a large mirror (No. 6).

The third movement attempts to express the basic character of a grave, melancholy person, but here as always in the world of music, a title or a programme is only a hint. What the composer wants is less significant than what the music, on its own terms, from its inmost being, demands and requires.
After one and a half bars of introduction the following theme begins (No. 7) and is drawn heavily towards an intense burst of pain ( ƒ ); then the oboe enters with a small, plangent, sighing motif (No. 8) which gradually develops into something immense and ends in a climax of woe and pain. After a short transitional passage comes a milder, resigned episode in E flat major (No. 9). A long, rather static thematic development now follows, and finally the parts enmesh like the strings of a net, and everything fades out; then the first theme suddenly breaks out again in full force, and now all the different motifs sing with interruptions, and the end approaches, falling calm with the following motif (No. 10).

In the finale, Allegro sanguineo, I have tried to evoke the basic character of a person who storms thoughtlessly on in the belief that the whole world belongs to him and that roast pigeons fly into his mouth without work and care (No. 11). There is however a brief minute when he becomes afraid of something, and he gasps for breath for a moment in violent syncopations (No. 12); but this is soon forgotten, and although the music now goes into a minor key, his happy, rather shallow nature is still manifested (No. 13).

Just once, though, it seems that he has encountered something really serious; at least he meditates over something that is alien to his own nature (No. 14), and it seems to affect him, so that while the final march may be happy and bright, it is still more dignified and not as silly and smug as some of his previous bursts of activity (No. 15).”

(Sourced from

Danish extracts of these texts, taken from various sources :

(the Zealand pub paintings)

Anledningen fik jeg […] i en Landsbykro på Sjælland. Der hang på Væggen et højst komisk koloreret Billede, som var inddelt i fire Felter, hvori ”Temperamenterne” var fremstillet og forsynet med Titler: ”Den Koleriske”, ”Den Flegmatiske”, ”Den Melankolske” og ”Den Sangvinske”. [...] En skønne Dag gik det op for mig, at disse tarvelige Billeder dog indeholdt en slags Kerne eller Idé og – ja tænk – oven i købet en musikalsk Undergrund

(1st movement)

… arbejdes snart vildt og heftigt, som et Menneske, der næsten forløber sig, snart i en blidere Stemning, som én, der fortryder sin Opfarenhed.

(2nd movement)

(modernized Danish)

...Jegholder ikke af programmusik, men det kan måske alligevelinteressere mine tilhørere, at jeg under udarbejdelsen af dettemusikstykke oplevede omtrent følgende: En ung mand viste sig formig. Han var vist sin moders eneste søn. Moderen var sød ogelskværdig, hun var enke og hun elskede ham. Han var ogsåualmindelig sød og alle mennesker holdt af ham. Han var 17-18 år,hans øjne var himmelblå, trygge og store. I skolen var han elsketaf alle, men lærerne var samtidig fortvivlede og mildt opgivende;han kunne nemlig aldrig sine lektier, men det var umuligt at skændepå ham, thi alt hvad der findes af idyl og paradis i naturenafspejlede sig i dette unge menneske, så man var fuldkommenafvæbnet. Var han lystig eller alvorlig, var han livlig ellerlangsom i sine bevægelser? Ingen af delene! Hans grundvæsen lå der,hvor fuglene synger, hvor fiskene glider lydløst igennem vandet,hvor solen varmer og vinden stryger mildt omkring ens lokker. Hanvar blond; hans udtryk var nærmest lykkeligt, men ikkeselvtilfreds, snarere med et lille drag af stille melankoli, så manfølte trang til at være god imod ham. Når luften dirrede af varme,lå han i reglen på molen ved havnen med benene ud over bolværket.Jeg har aldrig set ham danse, dertil var han for uvirksom, men hankunde godt finde på at gynge i hofterne i langsom valserytme og idenne karakter har jeg gennemført satsen: Allegro comodo èflemmatico og forsøgt at fastholde en stemningstilstand der liggerså langt borte fra energi, ”Gefühl” og lignende rørelser som velmuligt.

Kun en eneste gang kommer det til et f. Hvadskete der? Faldt der en tønde i vandet fra et af skibene i havnenog forstyrrede den unge mand, som ligger og drømmer på molen? Hvemved det? Men lige meget: Et kort minut så er alt roligt; den ungemand sover ind, naturen blunder og vandet er atter blankt som etstort spejl.

(original Danish)

paa Molen ved Havnen med Benene ud over Bolværket. en Stemningstilstand der ligger saa langt borte fra Energi, ”Gefühl" og lignende Rørelser som vel muligt. Kun en eneste Gang kommer det til et stort f [forte]. Hvad skete der? Faldt der en Tønde i Vandet, og forstyrrede den unge Mand? Hvem ved det? Men lige meget: Et kort Minut, saa er alt roligt...

(3rd movement)

forsøger at udtrykke et tungt og melankolsk Menneskes Grundkarakter


I Finalen har jeg forsøgt at skildre Grundkarakteren af et Menneske, der stormer tankeløst frem i den Tro, at hele Verden tilhører ham, og at stegte Duer flyver ham ind i Munden uden Arbejde og Omtanke. ...

En eneste Gang synes detalligevel, som om der er mødt ham noget virkelig alvorligt; i hvert fald mediterer han over et eller andet, som ligger hans Natur fjernt, og det synes at paavirke ham, saaledes at Slutningsmarchen vel nok er glad og lys, men dog værdigere og ikke saa fjollet og selvtilfreds som i nogle af de forrige Afsnit af hans Udfoldelse

Carl Nielsen in 1931, from a portrait by Sigurd Swane

[Image source:]

Complete performance of Symphony No. 2, by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Herbert Blomstedt  (No video)

Complete concert performance (with video) by the Estonian Festival Orchestra under Paavo Järvi:

Carl Nielsen's childhood home at Sortelung, near Nørre Lyndelse on Funen

[Image source:]

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