Carl Nielsen: Symphony No.2 ‘The Four Temperaments’


Carl Nielsen was born in 1865 on the island of Funen (the third-largest island that is a part of Denmark). The Nielsen family were incredibly poor, however, his parents were keen musicians, with his father playing cornet and his mother, a singer. His parents gave him that violin and he began learning that as well as the piano. 

Nielsen began composing lullaby’s and polkas at age nine, although his family did not believe that music was a fulfilling career. Instead, they got him an apprenticeship with the local shopkeeper. However, this was short-lived as the business went bankrupt, and Nielsen returned back to the family home. From his father’s influences, he began learning various brass instruments and became a bugler and alto trombonist in the Danish army band.

Nielsen never gave up his violin studies and by 1881 he started taking private lessons. He focused more on performance in this time than composition. It has been documented that Nielsen found it difficult to get his around the fact that brass instruments are tuned differently. His efforts in performance did not go a miss, because in 1884 he was accepted into the Royal Academy Copenhagen. Interestingly, Nielsen was never an outstanding student whilst studying at the Academy, but he was a solid performer and he learnt a lot in terms of music theory. 

It became clear that due to his peasant upbringing, Nielsen was behind in his general education. He graduated with average marks from the Academy in 1886, and from then he went to stay with a retired merchant and his daughter, whom he had an affair with for the next three years of his life.

Nielsen began taking composition more seriously, and many of his chamber works were premiered between 1886-1889. Nielsen’s violin technique also progressed and he earned a seat in the very prestigious Royal Danish Orchestra. He stayed in employment with the orchestra until 1905 and by 1910 he was appointed conductor. Nielsen earned his money by teaching private violin lessons and by being in the orchestra. With this money he was able to travel around Europe.

Travelling around Europe was perhaps one of the most eye-opening things that Nielsen could have done at this point in his life. He began culminating musical opinions on orchestras, conductors and composers, which inevitably aided him in his own art. He discovered, and then turned against the likes of Wagner due to the politics behind his musical dramas.

While away, he also met the woman who was to become his wife, sculptor Anne-Marie Brodersen. She spent months away from the family home, leaving Nielsen with their three young children, whilst he was trying to compose and fulfil his duties at the Royal Theatre. Due to both of them wanting to make successful careers, this put a strain on their marriage, and Nielsen very artistically vented his annoyances within his music. This part of his career is known as his ‘psychological period.’ Nielsen was fascinated with the human personality and his opera Saul and David along with the Second Symphony really emphasised this.

Nielsen’s compositions were not all that popular when premiered. The premiere of his First Symphony was a success however in 1894 and he became increasingly more in demand. He was often asked to write incidental music based on a given theme. This also shows within his original compositions, such as some of his symphonies, which take abstract ideas and create vivid images. After more turbulent times with Anne-Marie and the at the height of World War I, Nielsen began having a ‘creative crisis’. In 1925 Nielsen suffered a heart attack and was forced to compose less, although he did compose a few works until his death. Nielsen died in 1931, surrounded by his family.

Nielsen has been compared to composers such as Jean Sibelius, due to his composition style which includes musical messages embedded within generous orchestration and energetic spirit. Nielsen is perhaps best-known for his symphonic works, which he wrote six of in his lifetime. This blog will be looking into his Second Symphony. 


The Music

Nielsen wrote his Second Symphony between 1901-1902, and is dedicated to his lifelong friend, Busoni. The subtitle for this work is De fire Temperamenter, which translates into The Four Temperaments. The four temperaments relate to a psychological theory that there are four fundamental personality types – each of which have been paired with an element. Listed below are the temperaments, their paired element and a personality overview:


Sanguine – Optimistic and Social – Air

The sanguine temperament is associated with air element as usually it tends to be lively, talkative and pleasure-seeking. Optimism is a key idea that is paired with someone with this temperament.


Choleric – Short-tempered/irritable – Fire

This temperament is associated with fire because of the extroverted nature of the personality. This temperament is impulsive and restless, who may become aggressive due to blind passion. Strong-willed leadership is a trait of someone with this temperament.


Melancholic – Analytical and quiet – Earth

The melancholic temperament is paired with the element Earth due to the cautious nature it holds. This personality is susceptible to depression. An unsociable temperament, this personality is far from social and would prefer to undergo tasks alone.


Phlegmatic – Relaxed and peaceful – Water

The final temperament is associated with water due to its relaxed, peaceful and calm ways. This personality has much patience and seeks a peaceful atmosphere. Phlegmatic temperaments tend to be faith friends as they are steady within themselves and their lives.

It is possible for somebody to have a mixture of different temperaments. Nielsen uses these four temperaments as the titles of the movements within this symphony. Although the Second Symphony is programme music, it is written in a traditional symphonic style – i.e it is a representation of moods, rather than a narrative-led story.


Nielsen wrote this as part of his published programme notes:

“I had the idea for ‘The Four Temperaments’ many years ago at a country inn in Zealand (another Danish island). On the wall of the room where I was drinking a glass of beer with my wife and some friends hung an extremely comical coloured picture, divided into four sections in which ‘The Temperaments’ were represented and furnished with the titles: ‘The Choleric’, ‘The Sanguine’, ‘The Melancholic’ and ‘The Phlegmatic’. The Choleric was on a horseback. He had a long sword in his hand, which he was wielding fiercely in thin air; his eyes were bulging out of his head, his hair streamed wildly around his fave, which was so distorted by rage and diabolical hate that I could not help bursting out laughing. The other three pictures were in the same style, and my friends and I were heartily amused by the naivety of the pictures, their exaggerated expression and their comic earnestness. 

But now strangely things can sometimes turn out! I, who had laughed aloud and mockingly at these pictures, returned constantly to them in my thoughts, and one fine day I realised that these shoddy pictures still contained a kind of core or idea and just think! Even a musical undercurrent! 

Some time later, then, I began to work out the first movement of the symphony, but I had to be careful that it did not fence in the empty air, and I hoped of course that my listeners would not laugh so that the irony of fate would smite my soul.”


Nielsen uses various composition techniques to create a different atmosphere for each movement. Most prominently  is his use of progressive tonality. The first movement is in B minor, the second G major and the third Eb minor – these three movements are in descending thirds. The fourth movement doesn’t comply with this, however, and is in a bright and cheerful D major, which ends in an A major (dominant) march. This is the running order of the symphony:

1. Allegro collerico (Choleric)

2. Allegro comodo e flemmatico (Phlegmatic)

3. Andante malincolico (Melancholic)

4. Allegro sanguineo – Marziale (Sanguine)

The symphony echoes techniques from the likes of Brahms, however it bears its own quirky nature, which is part of the reason Nielsen is so popular in the modern-day. The symphony full of exciting twists and turns and is incredibly clever in the way that is puts across the emotions of the temperaments.

I. Allegro collerico (Choleric)

The short-tempered and somewhat aggressive personality traits of this movement is resonant through the change in meter, textures and tonalities. The lower strings play some aggressive low-range interludes below the upper woodwinds, which gives a sparse texture. The brass introduce a fanfare motif which is passed around the orchestra. This opening movement is full of excitement and pressurised anger, which can be heard, for example, in the extremities of ranges played on instruments.

II. Allegro comodo e flemmatico (Phlegmatic)

The second movement represents Phlegmatic temperament and it has been suggested that it is how Nielsen was visualised a teenager who is loved by all. This complies with the relaxed and peaceful nature of a phlegmatic personality. The tempo is in 3/4 for the most part and reflects a waltz-like movement. Nielsen commented on this movement saying that “He [the teenager] was fair; his expression was rather happy, but not self-complacent, rather with a hint of quite melancholy, so that on felt impelled to be good to him.”

III. Andante malincolico (Melancholic)

The third movement is the most beautiful movement, and represents the melancholic temperament. The mystery, suspense and heartache that seems to be thread through this movement is incredibly beautiful and moving. The powerful message of this meloncholic personality is the what shines through in this movement.

IV. Allegro sanguineo – Marziale (Sanguine)

It is said that this movement symbolises a cheerful man. Nielsen suggests in his programme notes that:

“I have tried to sketch a man who storms thoughtlessly forward in the belief that the whole world belongs to him, that fried pigeons will fly into his mouth without work or bother. There, though, a moment in which something scares him, and he gasps all at once for breath in rough syncopations: but this is soon forgotten, and even if the music turns to minor, his cheery, rather superficial nature still asserts itself.”

This movement modulates to the dominant of A major at the end and the symphony ends with a simple, but impactful march.

When Nielsen’s Second Symphony was premiered in 1902 with the composer conducting and it generally received positive reviews. Although there was some dispute whether it was actually a suite based on moods, rather than a symphony.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4


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