Gade – Nielsen, Landmarks of Musical Eras.


This paper is a preliminary study of the personal and musical relations between Denmark’s two major composers, that in musical history have gone down as the two most important Danish composers. They are, of course, also major figures in the sense, that have achieved the widest international recognition – Gade especially in his own lifetime, and Nielsen primarily posthumously, playing a still larger role in the general repertoire of “classical music” around the world.

It is a striking fact, that it is almost impossible to find any musical relation between the two, although they knew each other, and that Gade for almost a year (1885) was Nielsen’s teacher of musical history at the conservatory of Copenhagen. Being 48 years older, with an international career and principal of the conservatory, Gade was of course and in every sense young Nielsen’s superior, and furthermore he did not live long enough to really get an impression of the young composer’s potential. So even if we cannot expect any collaboration or just friendly inspiration from the older to the younger, Gade, however, must have been aware of one of his students’ first public appearances in Copenhagen 1887-1890 including Nielsen’s works, e.g.: Andante tranquillo e Scherzo, the String Quintet, the G-minor String Quartet, and the Suite for Strings. But the only account of any such awareness is from an interview in 1913, where Nielsen told a newspaper, that he discussed the quartet and the suite with Gade.

In Nielsen’s life, his personal meetings with Gade, however, had the most determining importance: from Nielsen’s Min fynske Barndom (: My Funen Childhood) about his childhood and youth on his native island of Fyn, we know about his first encounter with Copenhagen’s most influential musician: Nielsen was encouraged to visit Gade as part of his endeavour during 1883 for being accepted as a student at the conservatory. This first meeting turned out to be a very short one, where Gade hastily looked through a string quartet and stated, that the young man seemed to have good sense of musical form, and that – if he proved adequate skills in playing the violin – he probably would be accepted. At the conservatory, Nielsen had no direct contact with Gade for the first two years, until they met in the class of musical history. In a late account by Nielsen of these classes – and seconded by others – he stated that the 69-year old Gade did not seem very ambitious as a teacher, and that the students really did not get much exact learning. From this account, however, Gade seemed to have been more interested in presenting the students for major personalities and important historical facts from European cultural tradition.

Nowhere does Nielsen himself draw a line from these early impressions to his own deep and lifelong interest in the “classics” of European art and literature – and even Greek philosophy – but it may hardly be an exaggeration to conclude, that Nielsen must somehow have been inspired by the time spent with Gade. It may be seen in the works below, where Nielsen did not as much interpret the actual contents, but rather the unfolding of his own ideas and set in the classical framework, that he knew from Gade’s lessons:

  1. Hymnus Amoris (1896) was allegedly inspired by Tizian and deliberately made Latin carry the content, although Axel Olrik’s original text was in Danish

  2. Saul and David, opera (1902) took its plot of youth meeting old power from the Old Testament

  3. Helios, ouverture for orchestra (1903) takes its idea from the personification of the Sun in Greek mythology

  4. Saga Dream (1908) is based on the Icelandic epos, The Saga of Njal, from the 13th century.
  5. Pan and Syrinx (1918): another Greek theme

  6. Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (1926) – its inspiration can hardly be understood without including the idea of “Arcadia”, the classical tradition of an unspoiled Utopia – in the Renaissance and later abstractly located in Tuscany

In addition, Nielsen especially in the last 15 years of his life often stylistically relied on the strong pre-classical tradition of musical forms such as above all the principle of variations (Theme with Variations for finale of Symphony no. 6) and towards the very end of his life: the Three Motets and Commotio for organ.

Nielsen’s inspiration from the main European traditions is to a somewhat larger degree more obvious than

at most of his Danish contemporaries, where subjects whenever included tended to be drawn from Danish cultural traditions, e.g. Danish history and legends, Nordic mythology or the fairy tale world of Hans Christian Andersen, c.f.: Louis Glass’ Koldinghus, Elverhøj and Skjoldungeæt, Fini Henriques’ Vølund Smed and The Little Mermaid (ballet music), and August Enna’s today most well-known music, the opera The Little Match Girl.

Two of Nielsen’s later encounters with Gade had a profound impact on the young composer: the last one took place only the day before Nielsen, on 3 September 1890, left for Germany on his great European journey, taking him to Berlin, Dresden and to Paris, where he among many important experiences also met his future wife(!). We know of this last encounter with Gade from a short notice in Nielsen’s diary and a more extensive account from 1930. Nielsen went to see Gade at his summer residence in Fredensborg – some 40 km North of Copenhagen – and in Nielsen’s own words (1930), it turned out to be an “unforgettable experience”. Gade invited Nielsen to lunch with him, his wife, and mother-in-law, the awe-inspiring Madam Erslev. After lunch, Gade and Nielsen walked extensively in Fredensborg Gardens, and on Nielsen’s departure, Gade presented Nielsen with introductory letters to major musical personalities in Germany. Furthermore: Madam Erslev gave him a rose as a souvenir of this special day in Fredensborg. Of course, it would have been wonderful to know, what the two composers were discussing during their walk in the gardens, but Nielsen only sums up the important day in, that this day eventually meant a “certain tone” to him, because it turned out to be the last day he spent with this “rare man”.

We know much more of another similar meeting in January, the year before, where Nielsen paid Gade a visit, after he had applied for the Ancker Travel Grant. This first application was not granted, but Nielsen took the opportunity to meet Gade who was on the board of the grant, and writes extensively about it in a letter from 17 January 1889 to his girl-friend of his youth, Emilie. In Nielsen’s words, this meeting is in many ways a description of both composers at the time, pointing forwards to Nielsen’s future ambitions as a composer, and retrospectively describing Gade’s self-perception as an artist over the previous more than 40 years:

[…] Yesterday, I visited Gade. On my arrival, he had lunch, so I had the opportunity to look around in his room: a true artist’s chamber with reproductions of works and drawings by Rafael and Rembrandt and sketches by famous dead and living artists. On his desk, there was a recently started work for chorus and orchestra, and around there were separate pages with small sketches and melodies out of context. At last, Gade came in, loudly clearing his throat, just as always. The I said that I had applied for the travel grant and paid this visit to ask the professor to take an interest in me on the matter of the committee’s ruling. First, he started to make a fuss and said that nowadays, everybody wanted to be composers, and it would be so much better, if they took up the task to work for the dissemination of classical works among the general public; but nowadays, everybody wanted to put themselves forward and show off their usually poor products. Then I said, that it was no personal ambition that made me compose, and the fact that I only wrote larger works of a serious character proved this – no publisher was well served in printing this kind of music, so I would gain no fame and glory among the public. He liked that and said: “Alright, you seem to carry a true serious endeavour. You should always engage in big tasks: nowadays, any dilettante or fool may write songs and small piano pieces.” Then for a long time, we discussed music and art, and believe me: that was interesting! He also entered the question of religion, and he asked if I had anything to do with the modern faith; to which I answered, that I could not deny that. You should have heard him then! He rushed the room up and down and made a thunder. It was damned filth, and I, who composed myself, by the Devil himself had to know, that inside you, there is something divine, something spiritual, that cannot die! I had to back down a little and said that, possibly, it was a transition stage, that anybody experiences during their youth. Then he calmed down. And showed me some more of his sketches for new works, that I, of course, was eager to see.

Finally, he had to leave. I helped him with his coat and accompanied him down the stairs […]. – We walked together into the city, and I cannot deny that I got a big and lasting impression of him. I have never been too fond of Gade’s personality, but now I experienced, that he is truly a big and original spirit and extremely interesting.

This account is almost an outline of the two Danish composers’ place in history, and all together it is like a crystal prism of the two composers previous and future careers, respectively. The beginning is more or less a follow-up to Nielsen’s later account of the lessons in musical history at the conservatory: like Gade’s teaching, also his study is filled with great personalities of European culture. In the following, and in Nielsen’s words, Gade shows off his patriarchal prejudice towards contemporary music, almost beforehand including the young composer. However, Nielsen easily evades the indirect rebuke, stating that he only writes music that no publisher dares to publish, thus declaring that he is not “in it for the money”! And you may only wonder how Nielsen carried Gade’s following remark with him – after the meeting and far beyond: “You should always engage in big tasks”! At least for the following approx. 25 years, this became Nielsen’s identity as a composer, as well in his own mind as in the eyes of the public. Until 1915, he primarily wrote symphonies, a violin concerto, string quartets, choral works, music for theatre, and other orchestral works – music on a large scale except for two early collections of piano pieces, four collections of songs (of which several are quite demanding), and very rarely, small pieces (really only the Phantasy Pieces, opus 2, and the Festive Prelude). The large production of popular songs later on may actually not be contradictory to this, if you simply regard them as all together building a cohesive and totally new project. But this is a discussion beyond this paper.

Gade, the international composer

Maybe not surprisingly, the 72-year old Gade is not too keen on the music of contemporary composers: he finds the musical milieu filled with unimportant songs and small piano pieces. In other words: music in Denmark is not what he hoped it to be. And he could hardly think of anyone else but himself, who for 40 years had worked more to develop the musical life of his native country, especially in his capacity of musical organizer and conductor, but also – as will be discussed below – as a composer. However, there are really no evidence to Gade possibly being a disappointed old man: though not conducting abroad for several years, in 1889, he keeps up many duties and is still principal of the conservatory, head of the Musical Society, furthermore organist at the Church of Holmen, and indulges in all sorts of tasks as e.g. being on the board of the Ancker Grant, corresponding extensively and internationally, planning new editions with Breitkopf and Härtel, and – as we have seen – still meeting and counselling young musicians. All in all, Gade is and may also quite rightly regard himself above the everyday competition, gossip, and envy of the Copenhagen musical life. This is also a decisive difference between him and Nielsen, who exactly now had to find himself a place in this very same musical environment as well as a composer in his own right.

An important part of Gade’s significance in Denmark during the last decades of his life dwelled upon his well-known international reputation, founded in his Leipzig years 1843-1848. Back in Denmark in the 1850’s, this short, but important period of his career became an integral part of consolidating his position in Denmark, e.g. in developing the Musical Society. Apart from his personal tragedy of losing his young wife and soon after also a small daughter, the 1850’s became a decade of complete success – including a new marriage – where his music was repeatedly performed without delay, whether first performed at home or abroad. Moreover, his reputation abroad as well as in Denmark still lingered to the profile of his impressive breakthrough in Leipzig: a classic romantic with a Danish/Nordic tone to it, i.e.: in Denmark, he had the accepted role of defining Denmark in musical terms, and in Germany, he was still the young master of original and authentic music from the North. Producing quite a few piano pieces and songs – occasionally in collaboration with his good friend, Hans Christian Andersen – intended for private use, he quickly became a household name in all middle and upper class Denmark, thus like Andersen being a cultural bridge between Danish identity and the cultural world of Europe.

Gade’s Danish legacy

Already in his own life-time and almost conclusively in the 20th century, it has been widely acknowledged, that Gade so to speak lost his artistic “grip” after returning to Denmark and especially with The Elf King’s Daughter (Elverskud) behind him. Of course, this is nothing more than a prejudice, and it will prove futile trying to determine any “loss” of artistic competence or musical skills in the last symphonies or even more so in the large-scale choral works from the 1860’s onwards. But in a modern 21st century perspective, Gade being part of Danish cultural history lacks one thing: the ability to take in and make the changes of society and historically defined ideologies a living part of his art. His production of the 1840’s is in many ways integral and musical symbols of the romantic era, even with an original sound (especially in terms of melodic form and development) to it. But once established in Leipzig also as a highly skilled conductor and organizer, his later music bears no trace whatsoever of the impressions of his own rather dramatic age. He simply composed new music, but the obvious differences between e.g. 3rd and 4th symphony cannot to any meaningful conclusion be attributed to his returning to Denmark.

This is of course a striking fact around Denmark’s “hour of destiny”, the catastrophic defeat of 1864. There seems to be no evidence of Gade’s personal reaction firstly to the growing bad news from the Danish-German confrontations or secondly to the outcome of the military defeat and political consequences. In fact, in the dramatic year of 1864, we only know of two letters from Gade: one of them to Peter Heise in February, referring that the latter’s Genoveva had been performed at the Musical Society “despite its German text”, and the other in the autumn to his sister-in-law commenting on the 7th symphony that was the outcome of the summer of 1864:

As I know, you take an interest in what my Muse is doing, I can tell you that this summer she brought to me a new symphony; and accordingly, a happy thing: a fresh and cheerful symphony. In truth, it has neither to do with war and peace, and even less with politics, but I am certain that it nevertheless will be interesting for you to hear it. […].

This is decisive in understanding, not only Gade’s production, especially the later part of it, but also understanding most of the music in the romantic era: in this letter, Gade shows that he is very much aware that a real war with all its devastating consequences has taken place, and he knows that his sister-in-law (representing the public) is relating to it. But he deliberately chooses not to make the music represent anything beyond the music itself. In this, Gade was far from alone: apart from a number of early romantic operas in the decades 1830-1850 – and perhaps also some of Verdi’s operas – dealing with plots that might have revolutionary associations, e.g. Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (1829), Auber’s La Muette de Portici (1830), there are neither inspirational nor associative links between music and politics of the time and cannot be found in any music from Mendelssohn to Wagner and Brahms. The reason is, that romantic music was regarded as a world of meaning in itself, and that music’s highest purpose was to present an opportunity to transcend the outer world into a deeper understanding of human life.

Therefore, Gade chooses his new 1864 symphony to continue the mendelssohnian tradition and thus presenting exactly an alternative to Denmark’s tragedy: in music, the healing of troubled souls can take place. Though Hans Christian Andersen in his letters and diary showed much more agony because of the war and also suffered a real artistic breakdown, he returned to writing stories by insisting on exactly a similar ambition: that poetry and art had to be an alternative to the sufferings of the world. This is the content of such stories like Andersen’s first attempt after the breakdown, “The Will-o’-the-Wisps Are in Town”, that defines the importance of poetry and inspiration, or the war-story “Golden Treasure”, about how art and love survives the atrocities of war.

Gade’s mature ambitions

Gade takes this musical and romantic ideal to even greater lengths in his revival of the “dramatic poem”, a genre first used in “Comala” (Leipzig 1846), and now reused in The Crusaders (Copenhagen 1866) and Kalanus (Copenhagen 1869). Probably shortly after finishing The Crusaders, Gade decided to make it a part of a trilogy with The Crusaders as the final work. We do not know if Gade at the time already had ideas for the next two, but when “The Crusaders” was published in the winter of 1866/67, he had it marked as “opus 50” leaving opus 48 and 49 for the two following – or in content rather: two preceding works. While working on Kalanus in 1868, Gade finished the outline of the trilogy and explained it in a letter to his Swedish composer friend, Jacob Axel Josephson, in September 1868: Kalanus, that he is just about to finish, will be the first part of the trilogy and is about “paganism, where the longing for the true light senses as a clue in a single individual”, the second part – in 1868 still without a name, but when composed in 1874 called Zion – will take its theme from the history of Jews, “where a people has learned about the promise”, and The Crusaders – in 1868, performed and published two years before – will make the trilogy’s keystone “where the light has come into the world, but where suffering and perils on one side and temptations and illusions on the other often may lead from the right path until you by the the difficult and weary pilgrim’s path are brought to the heavenly Jerusalem”.

Thus, The Crusaders became the first step in Gade’s answer to the troubled times: a philosophical and epistemic built-up of ideas presentng a universal truth – no more, no less! By this, he introduced a new identity as Danish composer with an international background: previously, he had the identity of a composer with a fine international career, thus making his outstanding position in Denmark more than legitimate. With these new “dramatic poems”, he set his ambitions as a composer and as a leading cultural personality in Denmark even higher. Separately, these became his largest works – only Comala has the same dimensions – and being parts of a trilogy, Gade had really embarked on his largest project ever, finally leaving his “Nordic” identity and Leipzig fame behind.

The qualities of The Crusaders are really beyond questioning, whereas Kalanus arguably has some drawbacks regarding the outline of the characters and perhaps also regarding the musical moods of certain parts. But still, these works could have secured Gade a unique position when offering the listeners this universal cognition, corresponding intimately with Gade’s own Christian conviction. Also, he did not later waver in this, as was seen in Nielsen’s account of the meeting in 1889. However, he was too late in making this philosophical and religious standpoint valid as an artistic answer to the challenges of time, including the reconstruction of Danish identity in the years following 1864. In fact, only a few years later, romanticism was no longer the basis for artistic or philosophical thinking in Denmark, and the “golden age”, that had produced so many artists, writers and composers, was inevitably fading. More artists saw it coming, e.g. Hans Christian Andersen, who still wrote stories until 1872, but published his last novel “Lucky Peer” in 1870, in fact summing up the poetics of Andersen together with his life-long artistic ambitions. Like Andersen, Gade in The Crusaders and Kalanus tried to overcome the changing conditions by summoning all of his musical skills and at the same time in the content of these works by including his beliefs as a composer and as a person.

Nielsen and modernity

Strangely enough, it is difficult to find or to create a comprehensive outline of what happened in Denmark during these years regarding literature, philosophy, and the whole mindset among people. Only, it is obvious that a number of developments, the Constitution of 1849, the defeat of 1864, the liberalization of commerce, organising new rural enterprises, the popular movements, the upcoming of new classes etc., all together contributed to a new cultural environment, that neither Gade nor Andersen found it easy to comply with. This new environment may be hard to define, but it has got a name: “the modern breakthrough”. The term is associated with Georg Brandes’ university lectures in 1871, where he defined Danish literature of the past and highlighted new literary and ideologic movements abroad, thus pointing out what he saw as deficiencies in the cultural traditions of 19th century Denmark. The present age no more needed to define literature and art as ways of transcending into the “blue flower of poetry”, now art was rather defined as being much more realistic and attaching itself to the real world, e.g. making art – and the understanding of art – dependent on its exterior conditions.

This was the environment that the young Nielsen became part of. His personal background was so to speak the embodiment of Brandes’ definition of the contemporary realism. Though Gade was not born into a wealthy family, Nielsen’s social conditions had been far worse with no possibility of formal musical training, until he competed himself into the military music in Odense, and his further musical development was the result of his professional military life combined with adequate talent and youthful ambitions (and support from at least one financial source!). His own strong mind overcame the traditional scepticism of his family, and from his arrival at the conservatory in 1884 and nourished by fellow students and their educated and wealthier background, he opened up to the modern thinking of the Copenhagen intelligentsia. We do not know much about the religious life in his family home, but Nielsen’s childhood memories bear no trace of anything particular. From a Christmas letter to his young girl-friend, Emilie, in 1887, we learn, that he is already on the “modern side” in the matter of religion, which in fact may be defined as him being an atheist – although with an expressed respect for true believers. Discussing religion with Gade 13 months later, he is still a non-believer, and he stayed that way even after marrying the religiously more positive Anne Marie.

In this respect, Gade and Nielsen did not share personal values, but on the other hand, Nielsen – maybe unwittingly – lived to fulfil one of Gade’s ambitions: to make music an ideological part of people’s lives. Where The Crusaders and Kalanus did not in time reach the minds of the audience in order to offer a musical frame for understanding the secrets of life, Nielsen became the most important composer of his generation to interpret the big questions of his own age. When a religious cantata was out of the question for young Nielsen, he turned to symbolically unfolding other big issues of life: love (the choral work Hymnus Amoris), the nature of man (the symphony The Four Temperaments), the vivifying daylight (Helios, ouverture for orchestra), and the nourishing resting (the choral work The Sleep).

In spite of Gade and Nielsen’s seven year long acquaintance in Copenhagen, as we have seen, they really lived in very estranged ages. But Gade’s work and personality still made such a strong impact on all young composers, that Gade in fact was the personification and to some extent a role model, not only regarding an impressive musical career, but regarding what being an artist and a composer was all about. So, Nielsen from an early age was under heavy influence of Gade’s legacy, as it e.g. can be seen from Nielsen’s many musical tasks: besides composing also conducting and organising – also in Nielsen’s eyes, this was the way a professional musician should be working – but first of all, he carried on Gade’s ambition on behalf of the symphonic importance. Never did Nielsen neglect Gade’s encouragement of “always to engage in big tasks”!

Without Gade, Nielsen would have been a totally different composer.