Academic journal article Notes

A Survey of the Written Reception of Carl Nielsen, 1931-2006

Academic journal article Notes

A Survey of the Written Reception of Carl Nielsen, 1931-2006

Article excerpt

The word "reception" in the title of this article naturally evokes the more exacting term "reception history." Having been a kind of fashionable discipline within our subject for a few years, the cultivation of a reception-history approach to a composer or a repertoire has now become a quite legitimate concern--for some music historians even the only legitimate concern. Yet there is little consensus on either the object or methodology of this field. There seem to be crucial shades of difference in the perception of the issue between a Germanic and an Anglo-American tradition. This is not the occasion to enter into a proper methodological discussion of reception history. I will simply suggest that in the German understanding the primary object of the reception historian is a work or a repertoire. In this case the historian analyses how changing times have "received" a particular--often canonized--work or type of music. In this understanding there is a close connection between Rezeptionsasthetik and Rezeptionsgeschichte: the interaction between the aesthetic effect and the aesthetic reception is put into historical perspective, not in order to proclaim a particular type of reception as the correct one, but to question the emphatic, so to speak, one-dimensional work concept. Prominent German reception historians in this sense include Carl Dahlhaus, Friedhelm Krummacher, and Hermann Danuser, to mention but a few. (1) Put simplistically, the effect and reception of the music, rather than the circumstances of its creation and the reflection of the composer's inner and outer lives, is the music historian's object, just as it is the judgement of the individual rather than of the collectivity that takes center stage.

In Grove Music Online, the Anglo-American understanding of "reception" and "reception history" is a little broader. Jim Samson's article "Reception" leaves scope for a more social-historical approach. It makes themes like the composition and behavior of the audience, the composer's social position, concert planning, the refunctionalization of individual genres, changing views of the composer, etc., legitimate fixed points for analysis. In this case reception covers much more than the actual sounds or the written work; in certain respects reception history in this sense approaches social history. But in both the German and the Anglo-American understanding of reception history as discipline and method, we still have an undermining of the idea of the autonomous, uniquely meaningful work of art. This does not mean that it is not the individual work of art that constitutes musical history, but that the work eludes a single, definitive determination.

A special corner of reception history that is not really covered by either the German or the Anglo-American position could be characterized as the reflective review of the written presentation of a composer: his character, his changing significance, his music, and the relationship between his life and his works. Whether we acknowledge that such things can be called "reception history" or not, it is an approach that is gradually gaining ground when it comes to Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). It appears that two conditions have to be met before an analysis of this kind becomes meaningful: the composer must have achieved a certain "age"--presumably at least 100 years--and he (or she) must be among the composers who belong to a "canon," to use another fashionable expression.

No such reception-history analysis of Carl Nielsen in this sense has been conducted until recently, nor will one be offered here. That is a much more ambitious enterprise than can be incorporated into a brief survey like the present one. But I believe that the time is ripe for such an analysis for the following reasons:

* Nielsen has now definitively been canonized, both as part of a recognized group of composers from the first half of the twentieth century, and (since autumn 2005) as part of the Danish "music canon" of twelve musical works identified at the behest of the minister for culture (I will return to this below). …

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