musings of a professional bassoonist

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Carl Nielsen: Serenata-Invano

 Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is Denmark's best-known composer.  Rumor has it that he had a lifelong fascination with the wind instruments, and one of his signature compositions is his Quintet, Op. 43 for woodwinds and horn.  His most mature works are his 6 symphonies, which feature very carefully written wind and brass passages designed to challenge the players and to show off the unique characteristics of each instrument.

He wrote the Serenata-Invano in 1914 when double bassist Anton Hegner asked him to write something light to add to a concert on which he and some colleagues from the Danish Royal Orchestra were performing the Beethoven Septet for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and bass.  Thus, Nielsen's "Serenade in Vain" was scored for Beethoven's winds (clarinet, bassoon and horn) plus cello and bass.  

At that time in history, there was apparently a revived interest in the serenade genre originated by  Mozart.  Dvorak, Brahms, Elgar, Strauss and Tchaikowsky had indulged in serenade writing shortly before Nielsen wrote Serenata-Invano.  All of these Romantic era composers, including Nielsen, borrowed Mozart's model of form and mood for their serenades.  

Serenata-Invano consists of 3 continuous movements: Allegro, Adagio, and a concluding March.  Nielsen himself provided these program notes:

Serenata-Invano is a humorous trifle. First the gentlemen play in a somewhat chivalrous and showy manner to lure the fair one out onto the balcony, but she does not appear. Then they play a slightly languorous strain (Poco adagio), but that doesn’t have any effect either. Since they have played in vain (in vano), they don’t care a straw, and shuffle off home to the strains of the little final march, which they play for their own amusement.”
I am studying Serenata-Invano for a performance with some Columbus Symphony colleagues in elementary schools in a couple of weeks.  These days, symphony jobs often include chamber music performances, especially in the realm of education and audience development.  Symphony fans of any age enjoy the opportunity to see and hear musicians in smaller settings.  

Serenata-Invano is unfamiliar to me, and frankly, I hadn't paid much attention to Nielsen and his works until now.  My research on Nielsen disclosed his brooding over his career.  He wrote this in his local newspaper in 1925:

“If I could live my life again, I would chase any thoughts of Art out of my head and be apprenticed to a merchant or pursue some other useful trade the results of which could be visible in the end.... What use is it to me that the whole world acknowledges me, but hurries away and leaves me alone with my wares until everything breaks down and I discover to my disgrace that I have lived as a foolish dreamer and believed that the more I worked and exerted myself in my art, the better position I would achieve. No, it is no enviable fate to be an artist. We are dependent upon the most capricious fluctuations in the public’s taste, and even if their taste is sympathetic to us ... what difference does it make? We hear applause and shouts of bravo, but that almost makes matters worse. And our publishers - well, they would rather see the back of us.”
The piece is charming, but the bassoon part is awkward, aptly demonstrating Nielsen's desire to challenge the bassoonist.  Take a look at the slurred triplet passages:

It's worth the effort though, because those slurs need to be practiced anyway!  

Here's a recording of the piece, although I don't know who the bassoonist is:
Nielsen Serenata-Invano 


TB said...

re: career choice: I wonder how many musicians wished they'd become plumbers last year... (there's a tuba joke in there somewhere)

I hope the students enjoy the Nielsen. I love the name, "Serenade in Vain"! I hope that they don't cancel school on those days, so that your efforts aren't in vain!

B.S. said...

Dear TB,

I agree- Serenata Invano is a great title! Sounds like something out of Saturday Night Live......

I wonder how many musicians end up becoming plumbers. The last plumber I met used to be a musicians!


TB said...

Hey... I haven't been able to get the links to the Devienne to work. I click on them but nothing happens. Is there any other way to hear it?

B.S. said...

Hey TB- I'm sorry I took so long to answer! Try turning up your speakers. The link works on my computer. I'm baffled if it's not your speakers. Let me know if it still doesn't work!