Skip to content
BSO, Pops, Tanglewood, and Symphony Hall Logos

Violin Concerto

Carl Nielsen composed his Violin Concerto in Norway and finished it at home in Denmark in 1911. He wrote it for the Danish violinist Peder Møller, who premiered it in February 1912.

Carl August Nielsen was born June 9, 1865, in Sortelung, near Odense, Denmark, and died October 1, 1931, in Copenhagen. He wrote his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra with his friend Peder Møller in mind, starting to compose in summer 1911 in Bergen, Norway, where he was staying at the invitation of the composer Edvard Grieg’s widow Nina, and completing it in Copenhagen the following December. Møller gave the premiere two months later on his birthday, February 28, 1912, with Nielsen conducting the Royal Danish Orchestra at Odd Fellows Mansion in Copenhagen. The Boston Symphony Orchestra's performances of the concerto on February 29-March 2, 2024, with John Storgårds conducting and Pekka Kuusisto as soloist, are the orchestra's first.

The score of the concerto calls for solo violin plus 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone, tuba, 2 timpani, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The concerto is about 35 minutes long.

When it came to the question of artistic innovation, Carl Nielsen was something of a skeptic. He worried that in the rush to create something absolutely new, composers risked devaluing the fundamental qualities of beauty and goodness. “Nothing in all art is as painful as unsuccessful originality,” he cautioned in a 1925 essay. A preoccupation with what he rather grumpily called “so-called progress” threatened to divert attention away from “the alpha and omega of music…the tones, themselves, the tonal register, and the intervals.” He welcomed change, but he also thought it was vital to treat the past with respect. “Woe to the musician who does not have his eyes about him,” he admonished, “who fails alike to learn and love the good things in the old masters and to watch and be ready for the new that may come in a totally different form from what we expected.” Ultimately, Nielsen advocated for maintaining the integrity of one’s artistic vision: “It is up to you to listen, seek, think, reflect, weigh, and discard, until, of your own free will, you find what our strict fathers in art thought they could knock into our heads. We have the glorious badge of freedom and independence.”

These debates about old versus new were pressing concerns for Nielsen and other artists of his time, who worked in an era marked by the tumultuous transition from 19th-century Romanticism to 20th-century modernism. Born in 1865 (the same year as his celebrated contemporary, the Finnish Jean Sibelius), Nielsen worked in an epoch when the sumptuous, impassioned sounds of late-Romantic symphonies by composers like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Johannes Brahms were giving way to the more angular, fragmented style of composers like Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók. Similar upheavals were taking place across the realms of literature, visual arts, and dance. The sense of a definitive break with the past was so pervasive that it led the British writer Virginia Woolf to make the provocative statement that “On or around December 1910, human character changed.”

But did it really? While many artists embraced this surfeit of new creative possibilities, others—including Nielsen—had a more ambivalent perspective. His Scandinavian background meant that he worked outside the main hubs of modernist artistic activity, located mainly in central and western Europe. His creative inclinations meant that he was less interested in staking out new ground than he was in forging a voice that felt entirely true to himself. These factors have shaped the reception of his music: while he is widely celebrated in Denmark (for a time, he was even featured on the 100-kroner bank note), his international reputation has been more muted. Nielsen’s voice would not be mistaken for that of a maverick or enfant terrible. But he also would not be mistaken for anyone else. He developed a wholly individualistic style that one biographer has described as “playful, life-affirming, and awkward”: innately appealing, yet with a dash of the unexpected. Rejecting the faddish idea that tradition and originality were incompatible, he maintained that in the end, “the simplest is the hardest, the universal the most lasting, the straight the strongest, like the pillars that support the dome.”

Nielsen grew up on the Danish island of Funen, where he enjoyed a modest but seemingly idyllic childhood. He and his eleven siblings explored the stunning natural landscape, learned to play instruments, and inherited a love of music from their parents, both enthusiastic amateur performers. As a child, Nielsen learned to play the violin, horn, and piano, occasionally joining his father to play at local weddings and celebrations. After he joined an orchestra in Odense, the island’s largest city, his talents launched him toward Copenhagen, where he took up studies at the Royal Danish Conservatory. He developed a strong foundation in theory, composition, violin, and music history, but he also chafed against what he perceived to be an overly placid style in Danish music. “I wanted to protest against the typical Danish soft smoothing over,” he later reflected. “I wanted stronger rhythms and more advanced harmony.”

Nielsen put these convictions into practice throughout his career, often to idiosyncratic effect. While he embraced tonal harmonies, he resisted the conventional imperative to stay rooted in a single key, instead moving freely from key to key over the course of a work. In an era when many composers were moving away from traditional forms like the symphony, his devotion to working creatively within such forms set him apart: he wrote six celebrated symphonies, three concertos (for violin, flute, and clarinet, respectively), and an array of chamber music, including a widely performed Wind Quintet. Many of his works feature strong extramusical influences: the overture Helios (1903), for instance, depicts a sunset over the Aegean Sea, while his Second Symphony (1902) is on the theme of the “four temperaments” of human character. Yet even as he experimented with such ambitious conceits, Nielsen maintained a devotion to his Danish musical roots. Beginning around 1905, he began to publish collections of songs inspired by local folk music, many on patriotic or pastoral themes. Widely adopted by schools and community groups, these have become a mainstay of Danish musical life.

Nielsen’s Violin Concerto dates from 1911, around the midpoint of his career. When he began work on the piece at a summer retreat near Bergen, Norway (where he was hosted by the composer Edvard Grieg’s widow, Nina), he found that as a form, the concerto presented unique challenges. The solo violinist needed to be at the forefront, but the orchestral writing needed to be excellent as well. The piece needed to appeal to audiences, but it couldn’t be trite. Nielsen sought to write a concerto that was, in his words, “showy without being superficial”: music that could both dazzle its listeners and hold their attention.

From its very first moments, the concerto demonstrates Nielsen’s ability to craft a clever interplay between the old and the new, as well as his penchant for working creatively within well-established genres. It is sometimes described as neoclassical, a term emphasizing simultaneously its distance from and closeness to the past. The piece departs from the three-movement structure typical of concertos, instead offering two large-scale movements which each have a slower section followed by a faster one. The first movement begins with a quasi-Baroque “Praeludium.” The violinist immediately leaps into a series of virtuosic gestures with an improvisatory feel; sustained, drone-like notes in the woodwinds create a canvas for the soloist’s exploratory meanderings. Then the violinist ascends to a beautifully serene melody, high in the instrument’s range. After moving freely between these two themes, the Praeludium concludes with a sky-high melody that recalls the theme of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The movement segues into an “Allegro cavalleresco,” an unusual marking meaning “chivalrous.” The texture thickens as the orchestra takes on a more prominent role, and the violin responds with a confident, rather swashbuckling melody. There are abrupt shifts between this theme and a more lyrical counterpart—quick back-and-forth cuts which create a sense of excitement and anticipation, as if we are listening to the soundtrack of an action film with an intriguingly unpredictable plot. The movement breaks into a glittering cadenza before coming to a heroic, energetic conclusion.

The second movement evokes the Baroque era once again, this time by way of an openly retrospective gesture. The oboe plays the sequence of notes B-flat, A, C, B-natural (or, in German notation, B-A-C-H), offering a musical homage to the esteemed composer. The soloist joins in, offering an expansive, slowly paced melody that never quite relaxes into songlike lyricism. Its dotted rhythms and abundant use of half-steps give it a searching, unsettled quality, as if to emphasize the distance between Bach’s era and Nielsen’s own. The concerto concludes with a lively rondo. There is a hint of friendly antagonism in the back-and-forth between orchestra and soloist: after the orchestra presents a theme in earnest, the violinist elaborates on it with flashy harmonics and cheeky grace notes. A cadenza, full of cascading passagework, buzzing trills, and dramatic double- and triple-stops, recalls the freewheeling atmosphere of the concerto’s opening moments. After the orchestra comes back in to engage in an energetic dialogue with the soloist, the piece appears to be heading toward a peaceful conclusion—but Nielsen has one final surprise in store, capping off the work with a grand concluding flourish.

Although the Violin Concerto is not the most familiar staple of the instrument’s repertory, it was an immediate success at its 1912 premiere, which was conducted by the composer and featured the Danish violinist Peder Møller. It remained a deeply meaningful work to Nielsen, who programmed it at an important concert in London in 1923, alongside his Fourth Symphony. At the top of that symphony’s score, Nielsen wrote a sort of mantra: “Music is life, and like it, it is inextinguishable.” The Violin Concerto embodies this conviction, too, in its bold and bravura exploration of the instrument’s possibilities.

Lucy Caplan

Lucy Caplan is Assistant Professor of Music at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Her first book is Dreaming in Ensemble: How Black Artists Transformed American Opera, published by Harvard University Press in fall 2024.