Nancy Dalberg: String Quartet No.1


Nancy Dalberg (1881-1949) was a Danish composer. A trained pianist, Dalberg had dreams of attending the Royal Conservatory in Copenhagen, but sadly her father refused her this. After being treated for a medical complication in her arm, Dalberg took up composition instead. She took private composition lessons with Johan Svendsen, Fini Henriques and Carl Nielsen. Dalberg does not have a huge output of music as she mostly composed between 1914 and 1935. She is remembered for being the first Danish woman to compose a symphony and for her three string quartets, which are still popular today. Although she was influenced by Svendsen and Nielsen, Dalberg’s music has stood the test of time as she has woven her own voice into the music. 


The Music

Dalberg’s First String Quartet was composed in 1915 and was the first work she ever premiered in public. The quartet is split into four movements, each one showcasing Dalberg’s unique style of writing. 


Movement I – Allegro appassionate 

The opening movement is rich in textures and showcases Dalberg’s fine ensemble writing. This movement certainly lives up to it’s appassionate subtitle, as the placement of unison playing and solo playing lays down the core of this section. The theme is passed around the ensemble, being pulled in all manner of ways before another unison section moves the music along again. The sweet violin melody in the central section is passed to the viola, who is then accompanied by the cello. These nuanced changes create the excitement in this movement. 

Although there is some urgency in the tempo, the manner in which the music is played gives it a slightly more laid back feel. The culmination of all the themes and changes of this movement begin to tie together during the last minute of the movement. As the playing begins to get more aggressive, the unison playing is even more prevalent. These strong outbursts all head towards the dramatic final chords of this opening movement. 


Movement II – Scherzo

The short and perky scherzo movement shows Dalberg’s innovative melodic writing. From the opening violin melody, the ensemble band together to create effective unison call and response sections as well as intricate solo lines. A short lyrical section plays out before the build up to the end of the scherzo is set into motion. A reprise of the opening melody leads to the witty final passage.


Movement III – Adagio

The deeply moving third movement slowly unfolds over the course of around 5 minutes. The slow moving lines are often borne from the bottom upwards, so the cello initiates a section and the rest follow. Dalberg’s shimmering harmonies lead the way throughout this reflective movement, with her rich textures also playing a large part in the overall effect of the piece. Lots of unison playing is also heard in this movement, as the ensemble comes together to share passages of music. This introspective movement comes to its solemn close after a passage played in unison. 


Movement IV – Finale

The quick-paced finale is initially marked as Vivace. This fast pace creates a fizz of excitement between the instruments as intricate passages fly between the parts. The violin takes the melodic lead to start, as the other parts build up a countermelody. The character of the music carries the pace along as Dalberg’s highly intricate web of melodies begin to fuse together towards the end of the movement. Fiery unison passages break the tension for a short period before resorting back to melody and accompaniment. After a reprise of the opening the Finale comes to an epic conclusion as Dalberg places aggressive unison chords until finishing back in the home key. 


Final Thoughts

Nancy Dalberg was one of the first successful female composers from Denmark, and her legacy lives on through her string quartets. From her attention to detail to the rich and sonorous textures and timbres, her String Quartet No.1 was just the start of her musical journey. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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