Carl Nielsen

Portrait of Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen was a Danish composer, conductor and violinist who is widely recognised as his country’s most famous composer. He was a child prodigy taught by his parents. He was born on 9th June 1865 in Norre Lyndelse, Denmark and died on 3rd October 1931 in Copenhagen aged 66.

Major Works

Six Symphonies
Four act Opera “Saul og David” (1902)
Violin Concerto (1911)
“Fynsk Forår” (1922)
Flute Concerto (1926)
Clarinet Concerto (1928) 

Biography Timeline

Carl Nielsen was born on 9th June 1865, in Nørre Lyndelse, a small village south of Odense on the island of Funen in Denmark. He was the seventh of twelve children. His father, Niels Jørgensen, was a house painter as well as a musician. His mother was the daughter of a prosperous sea captain who sang folk songs. He studied the violin and piano as a young boy but he was apprenticed to a shopkeeper as his parents didn’t think he had any talent as a musician.

1879: The shopkeeper goes bankrupt so Nielsen takes up a position in October as a bugler and trombonist in Odense’s 16th Military Regiment.

1881: He begins to study the violin more seriously and has private lessons with Carl Larsen at Odense Cathedral. He begins to write quartets for brass instruments.

1884: Niels W. Gade, the Director of the Royal Academy in Copenhagen sees Nielsen has talent and arranges for him to leave the band and study at the Academy with a scholarship.

1886: He graduates from the Royal Academy with good but not outstanding results and returns to Odense to lodge with the merchant Jens Georg. 

1887: He falls in love with the family’s fourteen-year-old daughter Emilie Demant. He has the first public concert of his works in September when he plays the violin in his “Andante tranquillo e Scherzo” for strings at the Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen.

1888: In January his son Carl is born. On 25th January his String Quartet in F major is played at the Privat Kammermusikforening (Private Chamber Music Society). The “Suite for Strings” is premiered by the Tivoli Symphony Orchestra on 8th September and receives great applause. In October Nielsen makes his debut as a conductor.

1889: He is awarded a place as a second violinist in the Royal Chapel Orchestra, a position he would hold for 16 years.

1890: He wins the “Ancker Grant” and goes on an educational trip through Germany, France and Italy.

1891: Hemeets the Danish sculptor Anne Marie Brodersen whilst in Paris who was also travelling on a scholarship. After a whirlwind romance he marries her on 10th May in St Mark’s English Church in Florence. Their first daughter Irmelin is born in December. He meets the composer and pianist Ferucio Busini in Leipzig and they continue to write to each other for the next thirty years.

1894: His First Symphony is premiered on 14th March conducted by Svendsen with Nielsen playing in the second violin section.

1896: The First Symphony is a great success when played in Berlin.

1897: His Cantata “Hymnus Amoris” for soloists, chorus and orchestra is first performed at the Musikforeningen  (The Music Society) in Copenhagen on 27th April.

1898: He considers taking over the running of Thygesminde farm, his wife’s birthplace near Kolding, but it is sold the following year.

1889: He gains a position with the second violins at the prestigious Royal Danish Orchestra, conducted by Johan Svendsen. He is present at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen when Giuseppe Verdi’sFalstaff” and “Othello” are given their Danish premieres.

1901: His wife Anne Marie is commissioned to create the reliefs for new bronze doors at Ribe Cathedral in Denmark. Nielsen receives a small state pension and this allows him to stop taking on private pupils to supplement his income.

1902: On 28th November, Nielsen conducts the world premiere of his opera “Saul and David” at the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen. His Second Symphony “The Four Temperaments” is given its premiere on 1st December.

1903: The “Helios Overture” is premiered in October. He begins to receive money from his publisher Wilhelm Hansen Edition.

1904: He makes his first visit to Fuglsang Manor on the small island of Lolland in Denmark. This would be a place of peace and quiet for his composing for years to come. His marriage hits a troubled patch and Anne Marie goes to Athens where she stays for some time.

1905: He gives up his post as a violinist at the Royal Theatre and becomes the second conductor. He suggests to his wife that they divorce but despite several periods apart they never officially go through with it.  

1906: He conducts the first performance of his opera “Masquerade” at the Royal Theatre. Svendsen retires and Nielsen increasingly acts as main conductor.

1907: In the spring, Anne Marie is seriously ill and has to be go to hospital. In the summer he spends time at the Damgård Estate near Fredericia on the coast in Jutland where he composes and seeks relaxation.

1908: Anne Marie wins the competition to create a monument to King Christian the Ninth who had died two years before.

1910: In April he completes the first movement of his Third Symphony “Espansiva”. He is officially appointed as Assistant Conductor at the Royal Theatre. 

1911: He writes his Violin Concerto for his son-in-law Emil Telmányi.  

1912: The Third Symphony and the Violin Concerto are premiered at the same concert on 28th February and the symphony in particular marks him out as Denmark’s leading composer. In October, according to legend, he fathers an illegitimate daughter without his wife’s knowledge.

1913: Anne Marie’s monumental statue of Queen Dagmar is unveiled in Ribe in August. Nielsen feels that his conducting is interfering with his composition and offers to resign from the orchestra but they keep him on.

1914: Anne Marie realises that her husband’s infidelity has involved one of her closest friends and this triggers another marital crisis. In May, Nielsen leaves his position at the Royal Theatre for good and becomes the conductor for the Musikforeningen Orchestra. He begins his collaboration with Thomas Laub to write Danish songs with popular appeal.

1915: Together with Laub he publishes “En Snes Danske Viser”, a collection of twenty-three popular songs.

1916: On 1st February, Nielsen conducts the premiere of his Fourth Symphony, “Det Uudslukkelige” (The Inextinguishable). During the summer he composes his “Chaconne for Solo Piano”. He takes up a post teaching at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. He and his wife start official separation proceedings.

1918: His son, with learning difficulties, Hans Børge moves in with foster parents near Damgård. In April, Nielsen becomes conductor of the Concert Association in Gothenburg. Nielsen buys a summerhouse in Skagen. He composes the incidental music to Adam Oehlenschläger’s play “Aladdin”.

1919: The couple’s separation is officially granted in June.

1921: He is commissioned to write the choral work “Springtime on Funen”.  He begins work on the Fifth Symphony.

1922: The Fifth Symphony is premiered on 24th January with Nielsen conducting. In April he completes his Wind Quintet. In May he has his first major heart attack, and Anne Marie decides to resume her life together with him. “Fynsk Forår”  is performed in Odense in July with 900 singers and an audience of 8000.

1924: During the summer, both Nielsen and his wife take driving lessons in Skagen and pass their tests. A patron gives Nielsen a Renault car. He begins working on the Sixth Symphony.

1925: His 60th birthday is celebrated with a concert in Copenhagen followed by a banquet in Tivoli gardens and a torchlight procession. He publishes an essay collection entitled “Levende Musik” (Living music) and in October, despite suffering another heart attack finishes his Sixth Symphony.

1926: He has a more major heart attack and now needs to watch his health and visits spa towns for potential cures. In the summer, while staying in Tuscany, he begins work on his Flute Concerto. A benefit concert is held for him in Paris on 21st October featuring many of his works.

1927: He publishes “Min Fynske Barndom” (My Childhood on Funen). On 15th November Anne Marie’s equestrian statue of King Christian Ninth is finally unveiled. 

1928:  He writes “Preludio e Presto for Solo Violin”, the “Three Piano Pieces” and the Clarinet Concerto.

1929: “Saul and David” is re-staged by the Royal Theatre. Nielsen composes his “Three Motets” for choir.

1930: He begins his last major work, “Commotio”, written for solo organ.

1931: On 1st October he is admitted to Copenhagen’s National Hospital (Rigshospitalet).

Carl Nielsen died on 3rd October 1931 of angina pectoris heart disease. He was buried in Copenhagen’s Vestre Cemetery.

Further Information

List of compositions by Nielsen.