Carl Nielsen's 'Folk-like' Songs and the 'Danish National Tone'
Carl Nielsen Studies
The notion of 'Danishness' remains a sensitive issue in Denmark, not only in reference to music, but also within the broader socio-political arena, in part because of the tensions caused by the influx of Middle-Eastern immigrants. The recent public debate, rash of publications on national identity, and creation of a Danish cultural canon are surely no coincidence. Against this backdrop, it is perhaps not surprising that Karen Vestergard and Ida-Marie Vorre's 2006 study on Danishness in
... ishness in Nielsen's folk-like songs sparked controversy, since the authors conclude that there is actually nothing inherently Danish about them, challenging the conventional wisdom that Nielsen's folkelige songs express the 'Danish national tone'. Yet even if one cannot verify Danish traits in these songs, it is possible to separate features of the European folk song tradition from Nielsen's distinctive compositional practices. For example, whereas the songs' folk-like character is mostly concentrated in the melody, their expressive quality derives largely from the harmonic language, an aspect not considered by Vestergaard and Vorre in their purely melodic analysis. Indeed, many songs manifest in miniature the shifting diatonicism that has been found to thwart expectation in Nielsen's large-scale compositions. So even if these songs do not exhibit uniquely Danish traits, they do bear Nielsen's stamp. This begs the question: if a country's foremost composer has written songs that, for various extrinsic reasons, have become part of the collective folk heritage, cannot his stylistic characteristics, by extension, be considered nationalistic? Perhaps there was no Danish national tone before Nielsen, but over time, specifically through association with his music, these traits have come to represent Danishness, a perspective I argue in this article.