Several people were struck by the quotation from Carl Nielsen's book Living Music (trans. Reginald Spink, Hutchinson, 1953) that I put on the blog last week. I thought I'd reprint here Nielsen's essay "The Fullness of Time," which for me is one of the most radically sensible statements any twentieth-century composer made on the always fraught question of the old, the new, tradition, and innovation. The last two paragraphs are just as relevant — maybe more so — than they were in the 1920s. Take it away, Carl:
It is right that the historian should indicate the summits of achievement in art (the poetry, architecture, and sculpture of ancient Greece, sixteenth- and eighteenth-century music, Renaissance painting, etc.); but in a sense this is of little use to us. The claims of life are stronger than the sublimest art; and even were we to agree that we had achieved the best and most beautiful it is possible to achieve, we should be impelled in the end, thirsting as we do more for life and experience than for perfection, to cry out: "Give us something else; give us something new; for Heaven's sake give us something bad, so long as we feel we are alive and active and not just passive admirers of tradition!"
There may, therefore, be some sense in the thesis, said to be current in certain artistic and musical circles in Paris, which, if I have understood it aright, declares that it is not so much a question of turning out good art in the accepted sense as of creating a stir and putting life into things. I find it tempting to draw the logical conclusion and strive to achieve something bad. This may sound a paradox, but it is no use trying to apply generally accepted ethical standards to art. Perhaps its very nature is the reverse of the ethical; do we not say that art is free? Now if we were to strive intensely to achieve the opposite of what has previously been deemed good, we should at last come full circle and no harm would be done. So-called progress, it should be remembered, is in rings and circles. It is the color of the rings and not their shape or course which varies with the times.
This brings us to the very interesting question of originality. Movements like the one mentioned spring from an intense desire for something different, something fresh, original, and surprising. The creative artist will not tolerate continued neglect and indifference. This instinct for display lies so deep in our nature that it is a tremendous driving force to those made of the right stuff. But it is exacting, and the smaller and slenderer the talent, the more careful must it be to abstain from seeking great originality. Nothing in all art is as painful as unsuccessful originality. It is like the twisted grimaces of vanity. We see the spirit everywhere. Some of us know it, but have no word for it; we exchange looks and shudder, like children at the sight of a skeleton. We see it in houses, paintings, statues, music; and most of all where artists have wanted to express strong emotion. Joy howls, Cupid squirms and writhes, mirth is stylized on stilts, and sorrow and grief look like the mask of some sphinx with great hollow eyes. This is what happens when a man of insufficient talent tries to be original and do things for which he has neither the feeling nor the powers. Oh, you artists, see how Albrecht Dürer painted a blade of grass, how Schubert composed a little song! Learn that the smallest shall be the greatest; that two colors, three notes, two right-angles and a circle sufficed for the man who found delight as a humble servant of art!
There was a time in music, not long ago, when the pursuit of originality led to monster orchestras. Imagine the incredible naïveté of trying to get a greater effect with bigger orchestras! It is not more than 15-20 years ago and there are composers still living who took part in the movement. But of course the limit was soon reached. Orchestras of one, two, three, and four hundred players were the cry, and the mass display culminated with a thousand at a concert, I think, in Vienna. [Munich — ed.] And what then? That was far as it could go; and clear-headed people outside the profession — not conductors and musicians — began to react in speech and print. A new and equally absurd cry went up, this time for small orchestras at any price. Wind ensembles with one stringed instrument, harp duets with a percussion instrument, and so forth. While citing the old masters, their advocates overlooked the essential point that they wrote for the orchestras they had on hand or were commissioned to write for. This last movement is already outmoded. What will be the next? These cults of giant orchestras on the one hand, and pygmy ensembles on the other, are concerned with the externals of music, its garb, the surface, and the fullness or meagreness of musical sound — and of course music must sound right to the musical ear. But, as I have repeatedly pointed out, what we must consider, the alpha and omega of music, is the tones themselves, the tonal register, and the intervals. These have been clean forgotten in all the experiments with so-called tonal color and other externals.
Are we to return to something old, then? By no means. We should cease to reckon with either old or new. But woe to the musician who does not have his eyes about him; 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.
Theories and prophecies are irrelevant. Some believe in and hope for a new Messiah in art; others think that all is in hopeless decline. Both are unrealistic. The former believe in miracles and want to witness them; the latter, that life may be extinguished to the last flicker. They both forget that art is human and that humanity will not die out in fifty or a hundred years. There is hope for the new generation if it will work from within and not seek originality in externals, biding its time like the mother who carries the fruit of her womb within her until the great day dawns. And let us not forget that every single creature is different from his neighbor, though all must have time to realize the fine strong growth which perfects itself.
Every musician is entitled to use tones as he thinks fit. Old rules may be accepted or rejected at will. Schoolmasters no longer take their scholars by the ear; whipping and thrashing have been abolished, abuse and scolding silenced. But let no man assume that he can relax his efforts on that account. 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. And should our path take us past our fathers' houses, we may one day allow that they were after what we are after, we want what they wanted; only we failed to understand that the simplest is the hardest, the universal the most lasting, the straight the strongest, like the pillars that support the dome.
More: A few years back Rich Atkinson posted another choice quote from Nielsen, this one advising against premature consumption of Mozart.