String Quartet No.2 in f minor, Op.5
That Nielsen's String Quartet No.2 has a lower opus number than his First Quartet was due to an error on the publisher's part. It was, in fact, composed the year after the First Quartet.
Although Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) achieved international recognition as a composer and even today is regarded as Denmark’s most important 20th century composer, this is largely due to the reputation of his symphonies. Unfortunately, his excellent chamber music has remained almost unknown outside of Denmark.
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.
Completed in 1889, the Second Quartet exhibits all of the traits of his later works and was far ahead of most everything being written at the time. This fact will be driven home if you listen to the sound-bites and keep in mind that Mahler was 30; Verdi, Bruckner and Brahms were all still alive and composing. Within ten years, in part because of this work, Nielsen’s name was internationally known. During his lifetime, it was performed with some regularity in northern Europe.
The opening movement, Allegro non troppo ma energico, begins with turbulent urgency, created by the main theme’s syncopated rhythm and the 16th note accompaniment in the middle voices. The second theme, first heard in the cello and then completed by the violin is highly romantic. The slow movement, Un poco adagio, is a deeply felt, mildly sad lied. A very attractive and playful Allegretto scherzando comes next. The finale, Allegro appassionato, is filled with what was surely very adventurous tonality for 1890. It would have shocked the ears of his contemporaries, for whom Bruckner was outer tonal limit. The somewhat relentless opening is theme given out by the first violin. The development is quite exciting, using the same off-beat harmonic accompaniment that is in the first movement.
This is an important quartet, fresh and original. It deserves to be heard in concert but is within ability of experienced amateurs.
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