The last few weeks, in what little spare time I’ve had, I’ve been on a Nielsen binge, and by that I mean I have listened to every recording of his symphony 3 on youtube. His music is just so different from everything else that I’ve heard. The word that always comes to my mind is fresh; the music sounds so new and original. It has a certain Danish sound which is hard to exactly pin down, but it just is.
His third symphony, like most of his symphonies, has a subtitle: “Espansiva.” It obviously looks like expansive, which I think is fitting for most of the work. The tempo marking of the first movement is Allegro espansivo. The leading Nielsen scholar, Robert Simpson, believes the title refers to the “outward growth of the mind’s scope.” Don’t really know what that means, but sure. Another proposition is that it is a corruption of the German word for exciting, which is fitting.
The present symphony opens with an explosion of unison A’s. Similar to another symphony 3 you may have heard of (Beethoven). It goes on for 14 measures becoming more and more syncopated, with the exact beat becoming more obscure, until the winds give us the first theme. The whole opening movement is one wild ride, that grabs you from the opening bar and holds you until you get to the final chord. In this movement Nielsen employs so called progressive tonality, starting in one key and ending in another.
The second movement, marked Andante pastoral, would be the most “expansive” of the movements. The first theme is played by strings in octaves over a drone C in the horns. This peaceful mood is broken by woodwind interjections. There is some rapturous string writing in the middle section, which is definitely a high point for me. The opening mood comes back, but just when we think that it couldn’t get any more gorgeous, two human voices come in from a distance. It ends quietly with some low flute murmurings.
Nielsen starts the scherzo with the horns announcing the key of C#. The oboe presents the melancholy main theme (the oboe seems to do that a lot. Ex. every symphony ever written has some gorgeous oboe solo). The movement isn’t in the traditional scherzo-trio-scherzo form as far as I can tell. Although in a moderate tempo, it seems quite a bit faster, with the primary subdivision being 16ths as opposed to 8ths. This movement would lead credence to the whole “espansiva” means exciting idea.
My favorite movement, by far, is the finale. It starts with a gorgeous chorale type thing, with the violins playing up high on the low G-string, proving just the right kind of strain and color the music needs. The idea of the opening is so simple, a falling fourth followed by short-short -long. That pervades most of the movement. The B theme is another melancholy theme played by the, yes, you guessed it, oboe. I’m not going to provide a blow by blow, but the whole movement has you sitting on the edge of your seat. Why doesn’t every orchestra everywhere play this music? Good god, it’s amazing! It’s breath-taking, and if you disagree, I may have to take your breath away for you.
In conclusion, here is one of the about 10 different versions of this symphony done by Herbert Blomstedt available on youtube. Good for him bringing this music everywhere.