Our second Nielsen symphony on the list is another symphony about conflict and struggle. Nielsen’s Fifth symphony was written in the aftermath of World War I; his Fourth would be written in the midst of it. The idea for the symphony began forming in his head in early 1914 and in May, just a few months before the start of the war, he wrote a brief synopsis to his wife Anne Marie.
“I have an idea for a new composition, which has no programme but will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestations of life, that is: everything that moves, that wants to live … just life and motion, though varied – very varied – yet connected, and as if constantly on the move, in one big movement or stream. I must have a word or a short title to express this; that will be enough. I cannot quite explain what I want, but what I want is good.”
The title Nielsen was searching for would turn out to be uudslukkelige, or The Inextinguishable as it has been translated; a metaphysical, primordial will to live inherent in all living things; a quality many probably feared humanity would lose in its self-destruction. Nielsen finished the piece in early 1916. It premiered in February around the time British and Ottoman Empire forces clashed in present-day Iraq, German zeppelins were bombing Paris, and Austria-Hungary was fighting Montenegro in the Battle of Mojkovac. The piece is similar to the Fifth in many regards. They are both heavy with conflict. They both use percussion to express the conflict (the snare drum in the Fifth, the two opposing Timpani in the Fourth). But while the Fifth symphony is about equally matched opposing forces, the Fourth represents something that is always fighting; that can be beaten down but never destroyed. It was a message from Nielsen that the war would not last forever, and one day the fields scorched brown by the war would be green again. Even if man one day destroys himself, Life itself is outside our control, and Inextinguishable.