‘I am about to outrage five million readers…’

‘I am about to outrage five million readers…’


norman lebrecht

December 18, 2014

The big composer anniversaries of 2015 will be Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius, both born in 1865. Nielsen, I write in the new Standpoint, flickers in the shadow of Sibelius. Comparison is inherently unfair since the Finn enjoyed much greater success than the Dane.


That said — and I’m about to outrage five million Finns — Nielsen is, as a man and a composer, more interesting than Sibelius. He is more authentic, more expressive, easier to approach and appreciate.

Read the full essay here.

nielsen car2



  • Mark Stratford says:

    I think this is pertinent:

    ==Few musicians anywhere can whistle (Nielsen’s) tunes

    I can’t remember a single one of his melodies. Maybe just a snatch of the violin concerto.

    • Halldor says:

      Mark, now you’ve said that, I’ve got the Maskarade overture whirling round my head…

    • MacroV says:

      I might agree that the average layperson might not be able to whistle any Nielsen tune, but musicians should be a different matter. Lots of good tunes in the Flute Concerto or Clarinet Concerto. But it’s true that Nielsen’s music is compelling more for its overall impact rather than tunes you can hum.

    • William Safford says:

      Now I have the clarinet theme from the 2nd movement of the Wind Quintet stuck in my head…

  • Halldor says:

    I often wonder if Nielsen’s unpopularity is related to his sheer positivity; his realism, his absolute insistence on facing life head-on, and his profound optimism. We’re a sentimental, self-regarding age that prefers to wallow in angst. Nielsen’s a constant, bracing reproach to all that. No easy answers – but utter honesty.

    What’s fascinating – and important – about the way Sakari Oramo has programmed his current BBCSO Nielsen cycle is that it places the symphonies in their international contemporary context (“Bolero” next to the 5th, for example – inspired!), and Sibelius barely figures. And why, necessarily, should he? Both are major, entirely distinctive figures; one currently has a higher profile than the other.

    But I’m not sure that a welcome and necessary Nielsen revival absolutely has to be coupled with Sibelius-bashing. Sibelius’ place is assured (and Julian Anderson, Thomas Ades, James MacMillan, John Adams, Wolfgang Rihm, and Magnus Lindberg, to name but six, have all cited Sibelius as a major creative influence – sorry!). Audiences have always responded, and still respond to him, and the further we get from his lifetime, the more it seems that the critics of the 1920s and 30s were right: Sibelius’s last four symphonies genuinely stand with Beethoven. Fashion’s no longer a factor. He’s bigger than ever and he’s not going away.

    But anyway – the point is, it’s not a contest. It’s not like there can only ever be one Top Scandinavian Symphonist. I hope you’re not just sore with Sibelius because he got the better of Mahler in that famous argument about the symphony?

  • Nigel Harris says:

    Quite agree – if ever there were a composer ripe for re-assessment, it’s Nielsen. And pretty much across the whole spectrum – symphonies, concertos, two fantastic operas, unjustly neglected string quartets, choral pieces (if you want tunes, try Springtime in Funen – and/or the simply gorgeous end of the Thirds Symphony).

  • Mikey says:

    Every french Canadian over the age of 40 can hum at last one “tune” by Nielsen: the Finale of his 3rd symphony was the theme of one of french-language CBC television’s best known programmes “les Beaux Dimanches”.

    That said, I don’t see how being “more authentic, more expressive, easier to approach and appreciate” makes any difference in which composer is more “interesting”. It always remains a subjective matter. Both Sibelius and Nielsen are great symphonists, of this there is no doubt.

  • Hilary says:

    Important that Norman highlighted their year of birth. In, general the 1860s were an advantageous time to be born if you were a composer as posterity has been favourable. Sibelius,Mahler,Strauss, Nielsen and Elgar (1857)were all born within similar proximity of each other.Easy to forget as their lifespans differed hugely.

  • Hank Drake says:

    Comparing Nielsen and Sibelius is like comparing a Kia and a Hyundai. Serviceable but not much going on in either case.

  • Farhan Malik says:

    Scriabin surely belongs in any list of big composer anniversaries in 2015

  • Matthew Whittall says:

    As valid and welcome as some of Mr Lebrecht’s points about Nielsen’s merit may be, I’d be hard pressed to find many colleagues in Finland – modernists and traditionalists alike – who wouldn’t admit to being influenced by Sibelius in some way, myself included. The “Shadow of Sibelius” may have been a very real artistic and aesthetic concern for his contemporaries, and most definitely for the generation or two that followed, but his influence is still very much felt and acknowledged here, in structure and in sound. To write such a thing is as good as admitting you don’t know Jean about Finnish music.

    • Martin Malmgren says:

      Let’s add a little quote by Magnus Lindberg from an interview that I find very fitting here, in the context of Sibelius and his legacy:

      “Q: You have often mention Sibelius in connection with some of your works. Do you feel a particular affinity for his music?”

      “I have often said that is is a pity Sibelius was Finnish! His music has been deeply misunderstood. While his language was far from modern, his thinking, as far as form and the treatment of materials is concerned, was ahead of its time. While Varése is credited with opening the way for a new sonorities, Sibelius had himself pursued a profound reassessment of the formal and structural problems of composition. I do not think it is fair that he has been considered as a conservative, even if the surface of his music remains highly dependent on traditional tonal thinking.
      In his last symphonic works the development and thematic work are particularly interesting. Each theme gives rise to another, according to genuine cycles of metamorphosis. The work – the whole work – is in perpetual evolution. At the same time, this method of proceeding via successive associations is bound up with a narrative conception. His harmonies, while tonal, have a resonant, almost spectral quality. You find an attention to sonority in Sibelius works which is actually not so far removed from that which would appear long after in the work of Gérard Grisey or Tristan Murail, who were both very interested in Sibelius’ music ten years ago. I wonder if they still are. In any case, the Seventh Symphony, in particular, was truly a cult work at that time!
      For me, the crucial aspect of his work remains his conception of continuity. In Tapiola, above all, the way genuine processes are created using very limited materials is pretty exceptional. Few composers, before or after him, have pursued this direction.”

      Lindberg or Lebrecht? In this case, I can’t think of anyone I know who would agree with the latter.

      • Halldor says:

        Indeed. While I always enjoy it when Mr Lebrecht sets out to put a fox in the henhouse, his comment about no 21st century composer looking to Sibelius as a model is fairly bizarre. Wolfgang Rihm says he never goes anywhere without a score of Sibelius 4 in his pocket. Julian Anderson has said that his (only, so far) Symphony is directly inspired by Sibelius. Thomas Ades talks at length (in Tom Service’s book) about how Sibelius has shaped his thinking on musical form. Philip Glass quotes Sibelius 5 in “Glassworks”. Magnus Lindberg and James MacMillan have talked about his influence on their language. George Benjamin based “At First Light” on “Tapiola”. Maxwell Davies’ more recent symphonies are powerfully Sibelian. John Adams has written in “Hallelujah Junction” about the influence of Sibelius on is own work (and compares those who’d deny it to ‘gnats swirling around the visage of a noble beast’).

        I could go on, but really – do I need to?

        • Paul Pellay says:

          And I believe David Matthews is another figure known for holding Sibelius in the highest esteem. Morton Feldman was another big admirer, from what I gather.

          • Martin Malmgren says:

            Since you mentioned Feldman – I found this quote on Wikipedia: “In 1984, American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman gave a lecture in Darmstadt, Germany, wherein he stated that “the people you think are radicals might really be conservatives – the people you think are conservatives might really be radical,” whereupon he began to hum Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony.”


      • Martin Malmgren says:

        So with the Lindberg quote in mind, a person claiming that “no composer in the 21st century looks to him as a role model, least of all in Finland” might need to substantiate such a statement. Which Finnish composers is Lebrecht referring to? I’d love to see some quotes.

        It is interesting to say the least that in one and the same article he manages to say that a) all inhabitants of Finland love Sibelius, and b) that no composer in Finland looks to Sibelius as a role model. How does that make sense, anyone?

  • Joel V. says:

    I would attribute some of Lebrecht’s admiration with Nielsen to his great respect for Mahler.

    I do have a great respect for Nielsen as well, especially for his middle symphonies. Still I would wish to defend a bit of Sibelius. Of course I think it is hard to dispute and compare issues like this, after all it is a matter of taste. I think Nielsen is more Mahlerian – Sibelius, on the other hand, is more Beethovenian. Nielsen is un-romantic, Sibelius is romantic. Two different world views.

    Just few short comments on Lebrecht’s text:

    “Nielsen, by contrast, has no imitators. Few musicians anywhere can whistle his tunes.”

    A year ago I actually played Nielsen’s 4th symphony to a colleague unfamiliar of his music, after a couple of minutes he asked me: “But where are all the tunes…?” Indeed, I think Nielsen is more about the architecture, actually.

    “Sibelius did not achieve a symphony until he was 34.”

    Kullervo Symphony was completed in 1892 – Sibelius was 27. Also the Four Lemminkäinen Legends, originally written in 1895, have been described as “a symphony”.

    “The age of Sibelius is over. No composer in the 21st century looks to him as a role model, least of all in Finland where two generations of creative musicians have asserted a fertile, polytonal independence. Sibelius is dead.”

    Maybe also the age of Beethoven is dead? Age of Mozart?

    Looking past I find it hard to find a single 20th century American composer (Barber, Hanson, Hovhaness, etc.) or British (Vaughan Williams, Bax, Moeran, etc.) 20th century composer who wasn’t influenced by Sibelius.
    Regarding the 21st century – Maybe a bit too early to say? Of course they might be a counter-movement, but I think it depends also if the 21st century will see any new symphonies or not.

    I found it interesting that Lebrecht did not mention Sibelius 4th symphony, in my opinion the most personal and honest composition written by Sibelius. Just in 10 minutes you can actually hear several of the techniques used in today’s contemporary music.

  • Martin Malmgren says:

    I am writing this from Helsinki, and let me confirm that since the appearance of the article above, life here continues as peacefully as ever. I haven’t taken note of any riots on the streets or ‘outrage’ towards Lebrecht or his article, because most people here don’t have a clue about who he is in the first place. And I don’t know what makes him think that this is a nation of unanimous Sibelius-defenders – it’s as absurd as believing that there are no Poles that dislike Chopin, or that there are no Germans that couldn’t care less for Bach.

    • Will Duffay says:

      Given that it’s “five million readers” in one place and “five million Finns” in another, Lebrecht seems either to be over-estimating his readership or assuming that all of Finland is a close follower of his writing.

      • Pirkko says:

        And why not take the Finnish ex-pats into account? There are 1,6m of them, which means there are ca. seven million Finns altogether… I hear there are riots starting in front of the Helsinki Musiikkitalo right at the moment, with people burning Union Jacks and shouting supportive chants for Sibelius. 😉

    • Paul Pellay says:

      Or that there are no Danes who can’t stand Nielsen. Rued Langgaard, anyone?

  • Chris Walsh says:

    Lots of lovely tunes in Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony.

  • Eli Bensky says:

    If beauty is in the eye (and brain) of the beholder then music is in the ear (and brain) of the listener.

    Now, who is the better composer?

  • Brian says:

    They’re both great but for the majority of people Sibelius is easier to approach. Why denigrate either to promote the other? That’s childish. The Sibelius backlash of the 1950s and the decade following his death is or should be long over.
    My very personal feeling is that Sibelius’s Fourth is the most haunting and powerful symphony written in the first half of the last century. But after that, I’d be tempted to rank the middle three of Vaughan-Williams above any of the Dane’s. But all this is very personal.
    And Brahms didn’t achieve a symphony until age 42. So what?

    • Brian says:

      …”Sibelius’s Fourth is the most haunting and powerful symphony written in the first half of the last century.” I should have had an asterisk there–Mahler aside.

      • Joel V. says:

        Vaughan Williams 5th symphony is dedicated to Sibelius. And so is also Bax’s symphony, if I may add…

        Recently the Danish composer Per Norgård also talked about Sibelius as a model and inspiration for his symphonies. Here we have one major 21st century symphonist from Nielsen’s own country – please read the liner notes of the new Da Capo recording with Wiener Philharmoniker.

  • Brian says:

    I don’t personally hear much of any Sibelian influence in the symphonies of RVW; but the Walton 1st is virtually Sibelius’s 8th (mixed with a draught of RVW’s fourth), ditto Hanson’s 3rd. I do think you are right, the Sibelius 4th is of tremendous importance in the development of 20th century music in its spare textures, allusiveness,economy, and aphoristic qualities.
    I hope the upcoming Proms will pair both composers in the same concerts.

  • Hilary says:

    Not a composer I’ve ever been much enticed by but Robert Simpson was influenced by Nielsen and very audibly.

  • MacroV says:

    As a clarinetist it’s hard for me to think of Nielsen as somehow obscure: He wrote the greatest clarinet concerto after Mozart, the greatest flute concerto (period), the greatest wind quintet, and his Serenata Invano is a lovely little septet. And I’ll put his 4th and 5th symphonies up against anything written by his contemporaries – I don’t know for the life of me why the 4th isn’t a major touring piece for orchestras; few pieces pack a bigger visceral wallop.

    But there’s no need to consider Nielsen and Sibelius as a zero-sum game; the world is big enough for the both of them.

    • James of Thames says:

      “But there’s no need to consider Nielsen and Sibelius as a zero-sum game; the world is big enough for the both of them.”

      Quite so. I’m happy we have them both.

  • Alasdair Munro says:

    As Bernstein discovered Nielsen, is this why I often confuse the overtures to Candide and Maskarade when I hear either piece?

  • JAMA11 says:

    I guess when someone asks you to write an opinion piece, you are allowed to make ridiculous statements like “Sibelius is dead.” Rather than use this opportunity to cheer Nielsen, you spend half of it explaining why it’s foolish to enjoy Sibelius as though it were a zero-sum game. He was a drunk, he didn’t write a symphony until he was 34 and it was no good, his work wasn’t forward thinking enough, he was too dominant an influence on later composers, his late works betray his “truculent individualism,” etc etc. Perhaps you didn’t intend to sound so down on Sibelius, but that was my overwhelming impression.

    I absolutely love Nielsen, and would be overjoyed it if his symphonies in particular became part of the standard repertoire. But I find the approach in the essay, like a lot of your writing, needlessly negative.

  • paul durrant says:

    No mention of Sibelius’ 6th? The least ambitious perhaps but sheer perfection, the composer’s testament and the seventh only confirms he had already said all he needed to. And no hummable tunes in Nielsen? I have been whistling the allegro from his first symphony for some 50 years and find it as compulsive as ever..