This week's listening is brought to by not-entirely-forgotten Danish composer Carl Nielsen. Though Nielsen is likely best-known for works such as his Wind Quintet, Clarinet and Flute Concerti, and, to a much lesser extent, his fourth symphony, I have found his Aladdin Suite to be one of his more imaginative works, containing the best of his compositional output in one condensed work. If you are not already familiar with the piece, give it a listen here.
A brief overview of Nielsen
Nielsen was no slouch. His compositional output consists of 419 works as compiled by the Royal Library of Denmark, including but not limited to six symphonies, three concerti, a huge number of songs and solo piano works, two operas, and a healthy collection of other orchestral works and chamber music. Originally trained as a violinist, Carl Nielsen served more as a conductor and performer than as a composer for the majority of his life.
His compositions have a fun energy to them—they are not as heady so much of the German Romantic music that is force-fed to us in academia, but has maybe a little more... intellect, for lack of a better term, than his Scandinavian counterparts Sibelius and Grieg. Aesthetically, he is very much a mid to late romantic, while his orchestration technique is more wildly creative and "unorthodox" to his contemporaries. His music was in much more demand in the theater than for the concert stage, implying a more operatic approach to his use of the orchestra.
Though his works were considered a success during his life time, he was not without criticism. Humorous by today's standards, he was hammered by critics for not ending movements of his symphonies in the same key which they had started (scandalous!). A comment that definitely stuck out to me when asking a colleague why Nielsen's orchestral works are not programmed more, he said without hesitation, "because it is so f***ing hard!"
Despite his notable absence from most of the American academic institution, Nielsen and his music is rightly preserved as national treasures in Denmark. There is a rather informative biography of Nielsen put out by the Carl Nielsen Society that I would encourage everyone to read who is searching for more information.
A bit about the piece
The Aladdin Suite is actually a set of excerpts from a much, MUCH larger work called Aladdin: Fairy Tale Drama in 5 Acts. The latter, completed in 1919, is his largest-scale work, and is only beaten by his operas in duration. Not unlike many of his contemporaries, the drama is heavily influenced by what Nielsen thought would evoke the Middle and Far East, and is packed with questionable movement titles such as Negro Dance, and Hindu Dance (a sign of the times, I know, and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker has a similar issue yet remains the most performed piece of music ever).
The suite was actually published after Nielsens death and released in 1940, meaning that, while the fairy tale drama is public domain, the suite is not. The seven parts of the suite were actually slightly reordered from where they appeared in the drama—likely to create a more cohesive piece—and consist of the sections that Nielsen enjoyed conducting the most.
What I do find interesting about this suite is that it is one of those pieces where you listen to and then look a score and think, "well, that is unexpected simple, but how else would it be notated?" I liken it to Dvořák's music in that the music on the score looks... well... dumb, but the audial experience is quite compelling. A great example of this is The Marketplace in Ispahan, which consists of several loops of music that are played on top of each other and then subtracted. How is it notated? It is different sections of music with repeat bars around them with the instructions to cue them in as desired. Nothing remarkable but, again, how else WOULD it be notated?
I do not know if there is a recording of Nielsen himself conducting it—as stated above, he did die before it was published—but performances and recordings of this piece seem to vary widely. Tempo is all over the place, and even some major orchestral elements are modified, most notably the addition or subtraction of the choir. The good thing about that is that if you do not like the recording I posted above, you can likely find a different one that suits your needs better.