Overture to Maskarade

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            Carl Nielsen is now acknowledged as Denmark’s most distinguished composer, and more than deserving to take his place with Grieg and Sibelius in the pantheon of Scandinavia’s long-revered composers.  It was not always so, of course, and it was not until the middle of the twentieth century that his music enjoyed broad admiration, study, and performance.  Not that he ever languished in obscurity, for by his forties, he was regarded as Denmark’s leading musician.  He grew up in modest circumstances—certainly not a prodigy—studied assiduously, played in several unpretentious ensembles on various instruments, and began composing in small forms.  He was intellectually curious, reading and pondering philosophy, history, and literature, and it must be said, was profoundly aided in his overall growth as a composer and in general intellectual sophistication by his long marriage to a remarkable woman.

            His wife, Anne Marie Brodersen, was a recognized major sculptor, a “strong-willed and modern-minded woman” who was relentless in the pursuit of her own, very successful career as an artist.   Her independence—and penchant for frequently leaving the family to pursue her own career—impacted the tranquility of the marriage, without doubt.  But, she was a stimulating, strong partner that unquestionably aided in his development into an artist of spiritual depth and sophistication.

            Nielsen’s reputation outside of Denmark is largely sustained by his six symphonies—Leonard Bernstein was an influential international champion of them—but he composed actively in almost all major genres.  From song and choral music to chamber works, he left behind a rich musical legacy.  His musical style, rooted early on in the model of Mozart and Beethoven, and later, Brahms, evolved with the times, as the nineteenth century yielded to the twentieth.  By the nineteen-twenties his works explored many of the progressive harmonic and structural innovations of late-Romanticism and Neo-Classicism.  But, it was only after the hegemony of Schoenberg and his disciples waned after World War II that his works began to be respected internationally, and not dismissed as hopeless examples of naïve, of out-of-date musical style.

            Notwithstanding his reputation as a symphonist, he did write two operas, the second of which, Maskarade, premièred in 1906 in Copenhagen.  It was a spectacular success, and to this day is more or less the national opera of Denmark, in similar fashion to The Bartered Bride of Smetana in the Czech Republic.  It’s a comic opera of mistaken identities, and—especially the first act—is now regarded as one of the finest comic operas of the twentieth century in any country.  The vivacious, scintillating overture is a perfect representation of the ingratiating music of the opera, and is now an audience favorite worldwide.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2019 William E. Runyan