09 June 2009

Of Danes & Moonlight

A season or so ago, a quondam ‘virtual acquaintance’ came up to Boston (thereby becoming a friend forsooth, and beyond mere ‘virtuality’) for the premiere of Elliott Carter’s Horn Concerto. (In this post I shall respect his anonymity.) Today I learn that an early literary effort of this friend’s, was a fanciful drama centered upon the composer Carl Nielsen.

He writes:

It was a one-act that took place just as Carl was completing his Clarinet Concerto in the late 1920s. It dealt primarily with his disillusionment over his career. I don’t know what inspired it: we were sitting in class talking about subjects, and I suddenly got the image of Nielsen destroying a bust of himself with his cane. The bust was in progress, still soft, and was intended as a gift from his wife, Anne, a sculptress. It was kind of a hokey script, and re-reading it years later, I was amazed I got an A for it. Probably the best thing to come out of the class was that I introduced my prof to Nielsen’s music.

There wasn’t much information available on Nielsen’s family back in the 1970s. [In the one-act] I made his daughter, Irmelin, a homebody who bakes in her spare time. Turns out she was a well-known choreographer, quite prominent in Denmark, every bit as arty as her parents.

The creative life is the hardest thing to depict onstage, I think. How does one portray the labors of a writer or painter or composer in a way that’s dramatically interesting? . . .

Years after writing the play, I read about her [Irmelin] in Jack Lawson’s pictoral biography, the one published by Phaidon, and the only complete bio in English. I also learned that Nielsen and his wife were separated in the early 1920s. Carl had several affairs and fathered five or six illegitimate children during the marriage.

Irmelin died in 1974, just about the time I was discovering her father’s music. Nielsen's other daughter, Anne Marie, nicknamed Sos (or sister), lived until 1983, age 90. I was in Copenhagen in 1978, and had I known at the time she was still living, I would have tried to look her up.

Anne, Carl’s wife, died in February 1945, just before the end of the Nazi occupation.

I often wonder if Victor Borge’s family knew the Nielsens.
I confess myself simply delighted by the thought of my friend (a) finding literary inspiration thus, and (b) already familiar with the music of Nielsen then . . . there is an elated fantasy in wondering what effect that invigorating music might have had upon myself, had I heard it at so tender an age.

(This friend also played an April Fool’s joke which backfired . . . he drew up a wry “article” announcing that Carter had “repented” of his erroneous, atonal ways . . . and it was taken up as gospel by gullible atonality-haters. IIRC, it got as far as a referent in actual newsprint. So take the lesson of the dangers of misinformation which may propagate as a result of, as Prokofiev might say, “teasing the geese.”)

Lastly for today, in my in-box there appears an announcement, addressed to a mailing-list of which my address is apparently a member, from a chorus who specialize in new music — but whose director, it turns out, did not much find himself drawn to the scores I sent him.

— I suspect that folks are genuinely seeking to be helpful when they mention other living composers whose work they do find themselves drawn to. But, I’m a listener with my own likes, too, and I may not find the music associated with the name that they mention clearly somehow superior to my own; and, well, I have been all these years establishing my own musical voice — I must decline the invitation to throw that all over, instead to try to write like a faux-whomever.

That preamble done, I do not necessarily despair of making my music a flint to such a someone’s steel; and the arrival of this mass-mailing reminds me that I offered this director another score. And it’s an idea I just may act on. Taking a piece which I wrote (actually) for brass quintet, and adapting it as a choir piece.

It would be a way of both keeping the music purely my own, and yet I should have a private (mild) joke as to the other fellow’s musical expectations.

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