Carl Nielsen began writing his fifth symphony in 1920 in the aftermath of World War I. He says he was not consciously thinking of the war when he wrote it, but “not one of us is the same as we were before the war”.
World War I changed the world forever. It rearranged borders and redistributed wealth. It uprooted old ways of thinking and gave birth to new philosophies. Despite spending the war in neutral Denmark, the magnitude of the war was inescapable. Nielsen’s symphony is a symphony about conflict. Conflict between light and dark, good and evil, order and chaos. Besides the universal consciousness of these themes created by the war Nielsen was also going through a time of conflict in his personal life. Stresses in his competitive career called him away from home much of the time, and a number of infidelities had began creating a rift between he and his wife Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen.
It was in this context that Nielsen wrote his turbulent and aggressive symphony; a very modern piece for it’s time that saw several audience members walk out at the premier. The idea of conflict is present throughout by use of competing themes. It is most obvious towards the end of the first movement when the snare drum begins to play loudly at a quicker tempo than the rest of the orchestra. Nielsen intended for the drummer to improvise and instructed him to play “as if at all costs he wants to stop the progress of the orchestra”. The snare eventually melds with the rest of the orchestra and the climax devolves into peaceful quiet.