Carl Nielsen: Clarinet Concerto


Composed in 1928 for Danish clarinettist, Aage Oxenvad, Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto is a smorgasbord of different moods. Written at a difficult point in Nielsen’s life, because of his career and his health, the Clarinet Concerto features some darker undertones. Critics and musicologists alike have tried to understand Nielsen’s influences whilst writing this concerto, but with little success. After the first public performance in Copenhagen, a barrage of positive reviews came in saying “Nielsen has liberated the soul of the clarinet, not only the wild animal aspect, but also its special brand of ruthless poetry.” 


The Music

The concerto is performed in one big continuous movement but features four main sections. 


Section I – Allegretto un poco

The opening section is bold and powerful, leading the clarinet to run between long lyrical lines and shorter quirky melodies. Nielsen’s soft touch adds a new dimension to the music, with the vivacious character only rearing its head when absolutely necessary. Throughout this section there is an evident tussle between the soloist and orchestra, who playfully go through call and response figures at different dynamics to create light and shade. The two main keys are pitted against each other to create some fruity harmonic language. 


Section II – Poco adagio

The token slow section shows off Nielsen’s lyrical and sensitive style. The rich sound of the clarinet moulds well into the rich orchestral sound, with Nielsen inserting small interludes of fast-moving music. These faster sections add an unsteadiness to this section, leaving the audience wondering where the music will go next.


Section III – Allegro non troppo 

The third section combines the previous two characters together, creating sweeping string melodies that lead to a light and bouncy clarinet solo. Nielsen’s quirky writing here adds to the uniqueness of the concerto, with the music bouncing between all sections of the orchestra, although the strings take a big slice of the foundation throughout. The virtuosic side of Nielsen’s writing is more at the forefront near the end of the concerto, with fast scalic runs and intricate solos from the orchestra popping up. 


Section IV – Allegro vivace

The final section is full of energy and power. The snare drum plays a big part at the start of this section as it drives the tempo, whilst also adding a militaristic edge to the music. By far the most dramatic of the four sections, the finale is full of big bursts of sound that completely fill the atmosphere. After going between quiet and loud sections, the concerto concludes with a deathly quiet statement from the strings and soloist. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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