String Quartet No.3 in E flat Major, Op.14
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.
The opening measures of the first movement, Allegro con brio, have an uncompromising quality which has led later day critics to consider the quartet as a descendent of Beethoven’s Late Quartets. Full of contrapuntal effects, the music is boldly assertive. The second movement is characterized by lyrical introspection. After a brief, hesitant and chromatic Andante sostenuto introduction, the first violin states the main theme at the Andante (our soundbite starts here). From this quiet and restful theme, Nielsen builds an edifice which at times rises to great dramatic heights of considerable harmonic complexity. The third movement, Allegretto pastorale, is a striking intermezzo made so by its wayward chromaticism in the theme given out by the first violin against a very imaginative accompaniment in the other voices. The trio consists of an incredible Presto. Stormy and exciting, the music plunges ahead dragging all in its wake. The first violin is given a racing series of triplets against powerful double stop chords, sometimes syncopated, in the other voices. This is then followed by a very beautiful, lyrical interlude before the return of the main section. The main theme of the finale, Allegro coraggioso, begins in a fashion which would allow it to serve as music to a cowboy western movie, something of the sort Aaron Copeland was later to write. Then, after the full statement of the main theme, Nielsen introduces a second theme upon which he begins a series of fugues followed by an appealing and original pizzicato intermezzo section.
Although it dates from 1898, nonetheless in spirit, it can be hailed as one of the most important string quartets of the early 20th century.
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