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Composed: 1916

Length: c. 35 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 sets of timpani, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 25, 1973, Zubin Mehta conducting

About this Piece

The often raging Fourth Symphony, finished in 1916, might be interpreted as a reaction to World War I. Nielsen, however, did not suggest this specifically, but pointed to a universal conception when he said, “Music is life, and, like life, inextinguishable.” The composer’s title, no more than a philosophical guideline to the Symphony, is an unnecessary appendage if the music does indeed arouse vaulted thoughts about mankind, futile if it does not. Music and life, Nielsen might have said, are inexplicable.

In his own life, Nielsen, like Mahler, was occupied in a career as a conductor, and, like the Austrian musician, composed compulsively between public appearances. Since he was daily immersed in the music of other composers, there are glimpses in his own works of men like Brahms, Dvořák, Sibelius, etc., but fewer than one might expect. “The Inextinguishable,” in four interlinked movements, is complex in the way it accumulates ideas and sonorities, but ultimately simple in the reaching of its desired goal.

In the first movement, the thrust of demonic energy that is hurled out seems incapable of being contained; first the winds, with timpani interjections, insist repeatedly upon a declamatory three-note motif and then rush into a vigorous triplet figure. When they enter, the strings eliminate the third note of the motif, and from this point on, both the three-note motif and its economy-sized version are important, elemental presences in the movement. The initial extended outburst is finally calmed by a descending, repeated-note figure in flutes, then clarinets; in time, the latter instruments present a gentle secondary theme in Sibelian thirds that also employs that composer’s familiar melodic grace notes. This theme assumes the nature of a motto: it gives rise to material in the third movement, and becomes, in the finale, the Symphony’s conciliatory element. After much tumultuous working out, violins, urged on by timpani, lead into an Allegretto that, with its Brahms-like woodwind and string pizzicato scoring, takes on the character of an intermezzo.

With clarinets alone clearing the path, the third, slow movement begins intensely, a broad song in violins over throbbing timpani presenting material which will also figure prominently in the finale. Agitated repeated notes, a Nielsen fingerprint, dot the dramatic landscape. The bridge to the fourth movement, an avalanche of violin activity, leads to the main theme — a synthesis of the first movement’s lyric theme and portions of the slow movement.

The finale has its early moments of exaltation (marked “Glorioso” in the score) interrupted by a fierce drama in which two pairs of timpani are impressively deployed. The climax of the work (expressive of its inextinguishableness, if you will) is carried to ultimate triumph by the motto theme (the first movement’s secondary, clarinet theme) intoned by winds, brass, and low strings. These closing pages are in the grand 19th-century symphonic tradition, powerful and engaging.

— Orrin Howard