Carl Nielsen, String Quartet No. 4 in F major, Op. 44

March 8, 2012

Carl Nielsen, 1865-1931

String Quartet No. 4 in F major, Op. 44, 1906, revised in 1919

Carl NielsenThough Carl Nielsen was an exact contemporary of Jean Sibelius, his recognition and acceptance into the repertoire came much later. During the 1930's, Sibelius was widely regarded as one of the great living composers while Nielsen would have been largely unknown outside of Denmark. It was primarily under the aegis and baton of Leonard Bernstein in the 1960's that Nielsen came to light as another significant 20th century European composer now celebrated for his five symphonies, some concerti and a reasonable clutch of chamber compositions including four string quartets and a one-movement quintet. As with Sibelius, Nielsen's style is largely rooted in late romantic tonality though marked by a more contemporary freedom of tonal migration (sometimes called "progressive tonality") and well as relaxed formal plans. Beyond these vague generalizations, Nielsen's music is well-crafted, superbly scored and very much of a unique, individual style. His final String Quartet No. 4 in F major, Op. 44 is a well-kept secret: rarely played but well worth appreciating.

Nielsen originally composed this quartet in 1906 under the title Piacevolezza, meaning a pleasantry, something simply pleasing. Nearly thirteen years later, he revised it for a fresh premiere in 1919 with publication following in 1923 as Op. 44. The notion of a pleasantry suggests a serenade or divertimento, and the quartet has an overall gestalt of something genial, gallant and almost literally classical in the manner of Haydn and Mozart albeit with Nielsen's "neoclassical" transformation. But some of the pleasure is a direct reflection of Nielsen's own delight in having composed the piece. He wrote, "I am starting to know the true nature of string instruments. It is indeed peculiar that one can court and cajole a tender being such as a string quartet for many years before she surrenders. Only now do I consider myself to have reached some sort of accord with its chaste, fugitive character."

The originality of Nielsen's quartet is immediately evident from the beginning. Rather than a rousing first movement sonata form, possibly with pregnant introduction, the quartet begins with a moderate triple-meter dance with the character of a middle movement scherzo or slow movement in a rondo form. Swaying with pleasant languor that is rich with changing textures and colors, it sustains a continuous evolving development producing a wealth of material in a seamless sweep. Nielsen is a skillful contrapuntalist throughout the quartet beginning with a prominent fugato section midway through the Allegro. His love of Viennese classicism is particularly evident in this opening movement though it is given a modern tartness of both harmony and sonority.

The Adagio is a beautiful slow movement very much in the character of Nielsen's title, con sentimento religioso. It begins with the four-part blended unity of a hymn sounding far older than 1906. The texture soon splits into top and bottom with a mellifluous exchange of melody, accompaniment and imitation that suggests a serenade for string orchestra. But the music grows more introspective and probing as the opening four-note motive returns for a contrapuntal exploration (another fugato section) and a dissolve back into the chaste hymn that continues to flower further over time until it meets a reverent conclusion featuring soft, individual voices.

Nielsen continues his exploration of diverse textures and sonorities with the third movement Allegretto, an atmospheric and mercurial scherzo in a relaxed, brief form suggesting a little intermezzo within the serenade. Despite is deft vigor and scherzando character, it is not in a triple meter (like the first movement) but based entirely on two and four counts evenly subdivided.

The finale is lively and lyrical mixing contemporary quirkiness with sections that sound nearly like Dvořák. Nielsen's consistently fine scoring for rich color, sonority and rhythmic gesture is the connection. But his surface piacevolezza is darkened with a return to contrapuntal meditation with a third fugato section along with the dissolution of the quartet into fragmented solo voices and a fascinating breakdown of rhythm alla Beethoven. But nothing is quite as serious as its sounds and the occasional use of almost "sour" dissonances injects a fleeting levity that is almost ironically neoclassical. Nielsen's music is neither "traditional" nor forbiddingly modern. Its exact "vintage" is elusive but its successful originality is entirely clear.

© Kai Christiansen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.