by Walter Simmons
Nielsen: Little Suite, Op. 1
Warlock: Serenade: “To Frederick Delius on his Sixtieth Birthday”
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), the great Danish symphonist, was born in the small town of Nerre Lyndelse, the son of a poor house-painter. As a child he learned to play several musical instruments from local teachers and, when he was 19, the help of friends enabled him to enter the Royal Conservatory at Copenhagen, where he became a composition student of the erstwhile luminary Niels Gade. However, after only two years at the Conservatory, Nielsen left to take a job as second violinist in the Theatre Royal orchestra, which enabled him to pursue composition on his own.
Despite the convenient historical categories of music appreciation classes, the aesthetic poles of romanticism and classicism have always co-existed simultaneously in a dialectical tension. Of course, one may predominate at a particular time, but never to the exclusion of the other. Hence, although the 19th century is conventionally known as the “Romantic” period, a strong classical tradition persevered throughout the century at the hands of many composers, both great and mediocre. This tradition, with its emphases on formal structure, the regulation of intuitive impulse, and the rejection of extra-musical encumbrance, can be traced from Beethoven, through Brahms and Reger, into the 20th century. The six extraordinarily individual symphonies of Carl Nielsen, with their dynamic, streamlined vigor, also represent this aesthetic outlook, setting them apart from much of the music composed at the turn of the 20th century.
However, to suggest that these qualities can be found in Nielsen’s Little Suite for Strings, Op. 1, would be rather far-fetched. Not by any means Nielsen’s first work, it was composed in 1888, just two years after he left the Conservatory, and four years before the completion of his first symphony. Premiered that same year at Tivoli, the Little Suite was well received from the first, and it is still one of Nielsen’s most popular pieces with Danish audiences, despite the fact that few of his distinctive melodic and harmonic traits are evident in the work. Nevertheless, its elegance and graceful poise are instantly ingratiating, and the appearance of a waltz in the second movement initiates a frequent Nielsen device for creating a moment of relief.
The Little Suite isin three movements: a brief, slightly elegiac “Praludium,”in which the cellos introduce the main theme of the work; “Intermezzo,”a waltz in rondo form; and “Finale,”in which a somber introduction is followed by an exuberant allegro in sonata form. Nielsen’s concern with formal integration can be observed in the skillful manner by which the cello theme from the first movement is recalled in the introduction to the third movement, and then in the development section of the allegro. Even more subtle is the way the central episode of the “Intermezzo”is transformed in the “Finale”into the main theme of the allegro.
While the Little Suite is anearly and less demanding entry among Nielsen’s works, Rakastava, Op. 14, of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), dates from the period of that composer’s most demanding work, his Symphony No. 4. Despite its diminutive dimensions and its less-frequent appearance on concert programs, it is ranked by Sibelius authorities as of comparable artistic stature. Actually, Rakastava provides a unique insight into Sibelius’ development as a composer, as its thematic substance derivesfrom 1893, the period when he was occupied with Karelia and other works inspired by Finnish mythology. In fact, Rakastava (The Lover) was originally composed as a setting for male chorus a cappella of selections from Lönnrot’s 1840 collection of Finnish folk-poetry, Kanteletar. Entered in a choral competition, the work won second prize, and in the following year Sibelius rearranged it, adding strings. In 1898 the composer rearranged it again, this time for mixed chorus a cappella, and in this version the work became popular throughout Finland. Then in 1911, while at the zenith of both his productivity and his international popularity, Sibelius re-wrote Rakastava completely, scoring it this time for only strings, with triangle and timpani. While retaining the original thematic material, this final version clearly reflects the terse understatement and laconic austerity that characterize the inscrutable Fourth Symphony. The three movements of Rakastava are entitled: Where is My Beloved?; The Path of My Beloved; and Good Night, My Love! Farewell!
When the 17-year old musician Philip Heseltine heard Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony inthe year of its composition, he found it “absolutely original… genuine ‘Nature music’…very strange and mysterious, but at the same time a work of great beauty …” However, his older friend Frederick Delius dismissed the work, finding it “too complicated and thought out…The English like that sort of thing…Now it’s Sibelius, and when they’re tired of him they’ll boost up Mahler and Bruckner.”
Actually, the personal relationship between Philip Heseltine (1894-1930), who composed under the name “Peter Warlock”, and Frederick Delius (1862-1934) is part of one of the most fascinating stories in musical history. Not until the age of 16, when he heard a performance of Delius’ unaccompanied part-song On Craig Dhu, did music hold any interest for young Heseltine. But the discovery of Delius’ music was a revelation for the boy, who had until then lived a sheltered, isolated and lonely existence. From then on, music became Philip’s consuming passion. He began a correspondence with the elder composer that lasted for years. Delius, greatly impressed by the perceptiveness of the young man’s musical observations, reciprocated Philip’s enthusiastic interest. Their relationship grew to resemble that of a father and son, and Delius counseled the young man on matters of religion, sex, and other problems of adolescence, as well as music. He praised Philip’s first insecure compositional efforts and encouraged him to follow his natural inclinations at all cost, in an effort to foster the boy’s self-confidence as well as his development as an independent individual.
Too uncertain of his own creative gifts, however, Heseltine turned toward music criticism. But his unconventional idealism, his withdrawn personality, and unfortunate circumstances brought him little but frustration and discouragement, both professionally and personally.
Around 1921, shortly after a sojourn in Ireland where he involved himself in the occult, he began writing music under the name “Peter Warlock.” At first the pseudonym was only a professional convenience. But gradually a whole new personality began to emerge with the new name. This new persona was the antithesis of everything that Philip Heseltine had represented. Peter Warlock was a reckless carouser—cynical, bitter and brash. Remarkably, not only did his new compositions win great praise, even from those who had- been his musical enemies (until his identity became known), but Peter Warlock became the social success that Philip Heseltine had never been. Despite the fact that Heseltine completed one of the major studies of the music of Frederick Delius, the Warlock persona began to despise Delius’ music. These two personalities continued to coexist in a strange alternating conflict, though toward the end Warlock had taken over almost completely. Finally, at the age of 36, during one of many periods of depression, he took his own life.
It is extraordinary that on this psychological battle-ground a musical career that lasted barely a dozen years could have produced so much of value in the fields of musicology and criticism as well as composition. In addition to writing the book on Delius, Heseltine collaborated with Cecil Gray on the first investigation of the life and work of the then-unknown master Don Carlo Gesualdo. Warlock’s own music reflected his interest in the pre-Baroque, and he discovered and transcribed much music of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. His main contribution as a composer lies in his songs, which have been compared to those of Wolf and Fauré, and number more than one hundred. In addition are a score of choral and instrumental works.
The Serenade: “To Frederick Delius on his sixtieth birthday” was composed in 1922, during Warlock’s most fertile creative period, a period that saw the completion of the book on Delius, the song cycle The Curlew—one of his most ambitious works—twenty-five songs, and many piano arrangements of pieces by Delius. The touching Serenade naturally emulates Delius’ style more than do Warlock’s other mature compositions, yet his approach, even in this work, is more linear and less coloristic than Delius’. The Serenade stands as a charming piece on its own, and as an enduring testament to the unique friendship of these two unusual men.