TCS Daily

The Most Important Nielsen Rating

By Lee Harris - February 17, 2006 12:00 AM

In the wake of the Cartoon Jihad, as Daniel Pipes has called it, Danish embassies have been attacked and burned, while Moslems are calling for a boycott of Danish products. Meanwhile, those of us who feel sympathy for Denmark are at a loss to know how we can stand up for this tiny and beleaguered nation. There are those who had urged us to buy Danish. But how many Danish plum hams and delectable Danish butter cookies can you eat before endangering your waistline, and possibly even your health? Certainly, there must be a low-calorie alternative.

In fact, there is a simple and less fattening way of standing firm with Denmark. Buy one of the marvelous symphonies of the Danish composer, Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). By doing this, you will not only be showing your support for the Danes, but you will be discovering the music of one of the most neglected of all the great composers. And don't just buy one for yourself; buy some for your friends; or, alternatively, urge your friends to buy their own. Send out urgent emails to all you know, and tell them that they must stop whatever they are doing, and buy Nielsen. Then, after you have all bought a Nielsen symphony, sit down in front of your stereo, turn the volume up, and listen to it. Pry your kids away from their TV, or computers, or video games, and make them listen with you. Or take a copy of a Nielsen symphony to work, and take a Nielsen break where everyone gathers around to listen to this humane, exhilarating, and ennobling music. You cannot listen to Nielsen, and not become a better person for it.

I first encountered Carl Nielsen's work when I was a boy of fifteen. Delving through the classical section of a local music store, I chanced to come across Leonard Bernstein's now legendary recording of Nielsen's Third Symphony: Bernstein, who was a great champion of Nielsen's music, was conducting, appropriately enough, the Danish Royal Orchestra.

At that time, I had never even heard of Nielsen, and my curiosity was piqued. A young salesman, who was also an enthusiast for classical music, recommended the recording, and that was enough for me to pay my five dollars and take it home.

The music held me spellbound from the first few notes -- and what notes they were! Great hammer blows from the whole orchestra, abrupt and startling -- jabs of fortissimo that each came as a shock: there was no rhythmic pattern to them, so that you could not tell when the next was coming. Each fell like a thunderclap -- and then suddenly you see that the music is actually going somewhere -- you feel it literally springing to life, taking form right before your eyes (or ears.) And all at once you are swept away: the music soars and expands. You feel that you are on a roller coaster that swings you from side to side, flips you over, and whirls you around, so that you never know exactly where you are going -- you only feel the breathless excitement of the wild and thrilling ride.

Only minutes into the first movement, I caught myself thinking: "This is the music I have always wanted to hear," and I felt as if I had never heard music before. And today, over forties years later, having listened to the Third Symphony many times, I still feel the same thrill I felt when I first heard it.

The Third Symphony is nicknamed Sinfonia espansiva, the expansive symphony, and this title catches Nielsen's genius at creating music that continually expands and transforms itself like a living breathing organism -- unpredictable, forever flowing forward, irresistible, inextinguishable.

Which brings us to Nielsen's Fourth Symphony, entitled "The Inextinguishable," or, in Danish, Det uudslukkelige. This great symphony was written in the years between 1914 and 1916, and it is Nielsen's response to the horror of the Great War into which European civilization had been plunged. But it is not a work of despair, but one that insists that the human spirit cannot be extinguished -- and by the time you come to the end of this one movement symphony you will feel that Nielsen, by the power and grandeur of his music, has indeed proven that the human spirit is inextinguishable.

Few of us possess the genius to affirm the nobility of the human spirit by writing works of such profundity and power. But all of us have the ability to order a Nielsen symphony from or iTunes. All of us have the ability to send emails to our friends and family urging them to go to Borders or Tower Records and to buy one, or all six, of the Nielsen symphonies. All of us have can email this article to those they know, urging them to stand up for Denmark while at the same time we stand up for the best and highest that Western culture has produced. Let all the world know that Carl Nielsen was right -- the human spirit cannot and will not be extinguished, neither by the ghastliness of war, nor by acts of terrorism, nor by threats of Jihad.

Buy a Nielsen symphony, and do it today. Let Jennifer Lopez and Brittany Spears eat their heart's out, while the Nielsen's symphonies ascend triumphantly to the top of the charts. Show what stuff we are made of. Affirm the greatness of the human soul.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.



carton offensive
I'm not in favor of burning embassies or killing people, but doesn't it bother anyone that the celebrated cartoons are offensive to millions of Muslims around the world? The newspaper should have the right to publish them and politicians should have the right to denounce them as they would anti Jewish or anti Christian cartoons.

It's one thing to disturb the sensibilities of a culture you don't understand by accident. The cartoonist probably did not know that depictions of the Prophet are offensive. Once you learn that your fellow citizen is offended, the Emily Post reaction is an apology, even if your fellow is angry. The right wing's gleeful celebration of Muslim anger is positively unmannerly.

Post Abu Grab photos?
Should the media publish abu Grab photos or (false) accounts of Koran's being 'desicrated'?
Do you let the magnitude of the response to offensive remarks control your actions?
If so, then all Christians need do is riot when they are offended and the media will stop publishing offensive material. Right.
Conversely, the media in Muslim countries as no qualms publishing offensive cartoons of Jews and Christians (people of the Book, BTW). Why aren't Christians and Jews rioting in Saudi Arabia or Indonesia. (The would be tossed in jail by the muslim majority.)
It is easy to understand thier culture. They want the rest of the world to submit to their law. Easy.
The prophet of the muslims used the sword to make converts.
The prophet of the Christians had the sword used upon Himself so his converts would not have to feel it.

The Harris Surprise.
As an amateur of classical music I found this piece pleasantly surprising - and a good idea. Will try to do my part though I would not expact mass effect. Thank you.

The Most Important Nielsen Rating
Bravo, Lee - a most enlightened idea. I immersed myself in Nielsen a few years ago until my mental orchestra could play each of the symphonies from memory. The Third will always be a favorite. Unfortunately, I lent all my Nielsen CD's out to a percussionist friend last year. I don't know If I will see them again. Maybe it's a good excuse to reinvest...

Great idea, Lee!
I'd recommend that anyone who's unfamiliar with Nielsen's symphonies begin listening with nos. 3 and 4, both brilliant. No. 1 is closest to 19th century romanticism; I haven't heard no. 2 in a long time but remember liking it.

Nos. 5 and 6 veer toward extreme expressionism in places; I can never quite make up my mind about them.

As for performances, you can start by checking out what is available on Denmark-based labels if you want to support the country's economy. There are quite a number of recordings of no. 4. There's one by the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra on Da Capo, which I haven't heard, and another conducted by Paavo Berglund with the Royal Danish Symphony, probably a better bet. Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony (coupled with 5) is much admired. I very much like Neeme Jarvi and the Gothenburg Symphony on the Swedish BIS label, possibly the best for sound quality.

Rick Darby
Blog: Reflecting Light (

Listening to symphonies can be quite fattening...
If concern for staying lean is a priority, better to pick something you can get up & dance to! Any good Danish Rock & Roll? Anything that encourages getting up & dancing instead of sitting & listening? What good does it do to avoid food if you're just going to set around listening to classical music & getting fat? Get up & DANCE...

Same symphony, same reaction, and fairly close to the same age when it happened. (Although an earlier recording than the Bernstein; I remember it was on the old Epic label.)

Like much Nielsen, it's music that never loses its freshness. The "Espansiva" especially always leaves me ready to take on the world. And the Fifth is every bit as charged as Beethoven's.

I'm still amazed Nielsen's not better known. I think Bernstein tried to do for him what he did for Mahler, but it just didn't take.

If anyone wants to dig deeper, I'd recommend the Violn Concerto, the Wind Quintet, and the Helios Overture.

Yeah, your feet may not dance to it. But your soul sure as hell will.

Danish Rock
Yes! THere is a great Danish rock band called "The Raveonettes." Their latest album is a combination of postpunk and 50s rock that is quite brilliant and a lot of fun, and their second album sounds a lot like the Velvet Underground. They have fun playing around with rules -- the entire first album is in B major, while the entire second album is in B minor.

All For The Olforbundet
I'm all for Holger Danske re-enlisting in the Crusades, but we alrady have Fortinbras on deck.

What we really need is to sign on the Olforbundet, the legendarily proactive Danish Prohibitionist group sworn to make the world dry as
Riyadh in Ramadan by drinking down all the ale and akavit on the planet before it can tempt others .

By forceably converting the shrillest mideastern theogogues to facing the holy elephant of Carlsberg and offering libations thrice nightly and twice by day , the Olforbundet hopes to demoralize bioterroriist seeking to unleash fireproof tobacco genes and re-elect anti- smoking Mayor Bloombergen, whose dour contenance betrays a man who has not touched a Danish butter cookie in years.

I am offended that they consider a cartoon of Mohammed to be blasphemy
It doesn't bother me that they consider a depiction of Allah to be blasphemy. That is comparible to the ban on "graven images" in the 10 Commandments.

However considering a depiction of Mohammed to be blasphemy is making the Prophet equal to God and therefore blasphemy in itself.

A Dane myself, holding an old degree in classic music, standing up for my country and warmed deeply by the US support, I just want to thank you for the most touching and accurate description of Espansiva that I've ever come cross.

Great idea, and best of luck.


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