Monday, June 23, 2014

Does Carl Nielsen's Symphony #5 anticipate John Williams's "Star Wars" in the way the work ends?

Recently, someone commented to me on Google+ (in response to a comment on a video) that Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony (Op. 50)  inspired the motto theme that John Williams used for the “Star Wars” movie franchise.

I got out the BIS recording (1987) with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Myung-Whun Chung, and listened to the two-movement, five section 33-minute work today.  The first section is practically atonal, but so skillful that it sounds like hyper-chromaticism.  But the second section, Adagio, while brief, rises to Brucknerian grandeur with a simple hymn theme, in G Major (an unusual key for romantic slow movements, although I used it in my own second sonata).  The third section (starting the second movement) starts with a robust scherzo that becomes a jumpy fugue.  Then there is another slow section, leading to the coda, where the fugue theme returns, and now it does resemble “Star Wars”, although it isn’t identical.  The symphony ends in glory in E-flat.  (I think the Star Wars theme is in C Major.)   

The CD also has the Nielsen Violin Concerto (Op. 33), with Dong-Suk Kang, violinist.  Every composer worth his salt, at least if with any pretense of romanticism or post-romanticism, composes a D Major violin concerto, right?   Well, the Prelude starts with a G Minor chord, but then shifts to D Minor and then major as the dominant key.  But the real “allegro” is the second movement, “Allegro cavalleresco” (fast and chivalrous) in G Major, with a huge, triumphant climax to end the movement (resembling the way Tchaikovsky ends his violin concerto first movement).  Then there follows a sweet adagio movement in A Minor.  The Finale finally asserts D Major.  It seems odd to call a finale “Allegretto scherzando” (Beethoven used “allegretto grazioso” to close a couple of piano sonatas, like #4), but Nielsen, as some other composers (d’Albert, Rachmaninoff) shows that scherzo-like music can turn triumphant.

I also played the Symphony #3, the “Sinfonia espansiva”, Op, 27, a 1989 Sony recording by Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Swedish Radio Symphony.  The work is nominally in A Minor.  It opens with tremendous energy, pretending it’s centered on D Minor before switching to the dominant A. and the movement ends in triumphant, major key.  The second movement, Andante pastorale, follows the example of Mahler with two vocal parts, but here voiceless, a soprano (Pia Maria Nilsson) and baritone (Olle Persson). It’s in the tritonal key of E-flat (but Mahler did the same thing in the Sixth).  There is a passage near the end of the movement that recalls the slow movement of the Sibelius Fifth, so it’s a curious mixture of post-romantic styles.  Then there is a scherzo in C# Minor, with a slow middle section, before the grand finale, which is also controversial.  It is said to be a theme and variations, but to me it sounded more like a Haydn monothematic sonata-allegro with a fugal development section. It starts in D Major but goes through two dominant exposition key transpositions to reach E Major, which is the normal Sonata key for a second subject in an A Major movement.  The whole movement will end with brazen triumph in A Major at the end. 

I won’t get into the Sinfonia Semplice (#6) right now (I don't get the work at all), but I have a DG of the 4th (the “Inextinguishable”), in E Minor, which I heard performed in Minneapolis around 2000 while I lived there. 

Nielsen’s third and fifth symphonies, particularly, contain a lot of percussion and military march-like passages, perhaps inspired by Mahler, a bit like Shostakovich, and probably prescient that WWII would come.  Leonard Bernstein made Nielsen popular in the 1960s, particular with a record he did of the Third for Columbia with the New York Philharmonic around 1966.

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