Carl Nielsen

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String Quartet No.1 in g minor, Op.13

From the opening bars of Carl Nielsen's String Quartet No.1, he immediately serves notice on the listener that this is not your typical late Romantic string quartet. His four string quartets are trail-blazing works, which long before Bartok began to write his, paved the way for some of the new paths into which chamber music flowed during the 20th century. They are engaging, fresh and new sounding.

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) achieved international recognition as a composer and even today is regarded as Denmark’s most important 20th century composer. For many years his symphonies were widely performed. Unfortunately, this was not the case with his fine chamber music.

Nielsen was born on the island of Fyn (Funen), the seventh of twelve children. His father was a painter by trade, who also played the violin and cornet and as a result was much in demand as a village musician. Nielsen exhibited a talent for music at an early age. His father suggested he study a wind instrument so that he might pursue the career of a musician in a regimental band. Nielsen followed this path briefly but decided he wanted to study violin and to compose. So with the financial help of friends, he was able to attend the Royal Conservatory in Copenhagen where he studied with Niels Gade.

String Quartet No.1 was composed during 1887-1888, but it did not receive its first public performance until 1898. It was published two years later. In the opening movement, Allegro energico, the music boldly bursts forth and assertively displaying its tonal newness. A pulsating background of 16th notes accompanies this lyrical melody and gives it a surprisingly Italian quality. The attractive second theme has a heroic quality. The lyrical second movement, Andante amoroso, is completely different in style with regard to its very traditional use of melody and harmony. It begins quite slowly in choral fashion with a highly romantic melody. Nothing could be further in mood from this than the thrusting Scherzo, Allegro molto,which follows. The main theme is stormy and powerful, but the trio section has a gentle melody over a rustic drone in the cello. The finale has the interesting title, Allegro inquieto (meaning restless). True to its title, it starts in an agitated fashion. The first violin is given a highly dramatic subject, accompanied by off-beat pizzicati in the other voices. The excellent elaboration cleverly uses grace notes and unexpected twists in rhythm. The quartet ends with an exciting coda.

Here is a first rate quartet, fresh-sounding and original in conception. It deserves to be heard in concert but is well within ability of the amateur player.


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