Carl Nielsen’s Aladdin Suite

Notes by TŌN cellist Jinn Shin

Although Carl Nielsen’s music may be considered foreign and unexplored in the United States, nearly everyone in Denmark can hum at least one or two of his folk-like songs. He was one of the country’s finest musicians and played a vital role in finding and establishing the Danish nationalistic sound. His first international breakthrough, however, was not until 1962, thirty years after his death, when Bernstein recorded his Fifth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic.

Born to a poor but musical family in 1865, Nielsen joined a military band before attending The Royal Danish Academy of Music. It was not until the premiere of his First Symphony in 1894 that he received recognition and started getting commissions, which were mostly for incidental music.

Nielsen composed his incidental music to Aladdin on a commission from the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. Its first performance was a disaster; Nielsen found out that the producer had made significant cuts to his music and had crammed the entire orchestra under a staircase onstage. Furious and disgusted, Nielsen demanded his name be removed from the program. However, he regularly conducted extracts from Aladdin in his concerts, which seemed to be very popular with his audiences.

Nielsen’s orchestral voice was initially inspired by Brahms and Grieg, then he started to develop his own voice by combining progressive tonality, folky melodic richness, and energetic rhythms. This is apparent in his Aladdin Suite; although not as experimental and dramatic as some of his symphonies, his originality stands out even in this more light-hearted genre. The suite opens with a bombastic march, which originally appears in Act III of the play. Then, the serene, delicate sound of muted strings portrays “Aladdin’s Dream,” which is paired with a sparkly waltz, “Dance of the Morning Mists.” The outer sections of the “Hindu Dance” are slow and exotic, while the wind-dominated middle section is more flowing and familiar-sounding. The “Chinese Dance” does not sound authentic, but the charming, fast ornaments in the winds and the violins allude to an Oriental sound and create a perky character. The “Prisoners’ Dance” begins with robust, stubborn brass statements and ardent string sounds. The dramatic, dark atmosphere sustains throughout the movement with repeated notes in different instruments. Last but not least, the “Negro Dance” ends the suite energetically with pounding rhythms and syncopated tunes.