Composers Datebook®

Nielsen's simple symphony

Composers Datebook - 20231211


The adjective most commentators turn to when describing the six symphonies of Carl Nielsen is “quirky.” Certainly, the great Danish composer had a wicked sense of humor and loved poking fun at anything pompous and pretentious — including the conventions of writing a symphony. Just when the audience members think they know what is going to happen next — or should, in a conventional symphony — Nielsen delighted in throwing them a curveball.

For example, as any seasoned concertgoer knows, in most cases when the strings start playing what sounds like a fugue theme, you have a reasonable expectation that the end must be near.

But in Nielsen’s last symphony, his Sixth, titled Sinfonia semplice or A Simple Symphony, which premiered in Copenhagen on today’s date in 1925, all sorts of crazy things happen in the last movement. And, since everyone knows the bassoon is supposed to be “the clown of the orchestra,” Nielsen’s parting shot is to give that instrument the last word — deflating any lofty expectations of a grand Romantic symphonic finale with what most politely could be described as giving that idea the raspberries.

Music Played in Today's Program

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) – Symphony No. 6 (Sinfonia Semplice); San Francisco Symphony; Herbert Blomstedt, cond. Decca  425 607

On This Day


  • 1803 - French composer Hector Berlioz, in Côte-St.-André, near Grenoble;

  • 1876 - Polish composer Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, in Wiszniew (Swiecany district), Lithuania;

  • 1908 - American composer Elliott Carter, in New York;


  • 1726 - Bach: Secular Cantata No. 207 ("Vereinigte Zwietracht der wechselnden Saiten") for the installation of philologist and jurist Gottleib Kortte as Professor of Law at the University of Leipzig;

  • 1873 - Brahms: String Quartet in c, Op. 51, no. 1, in Vienna by the Hellmesberger Quartet;

  • 1908 - Delius: "In a Summer Garden," by the London Philharmonic;

  • 1925 - Nielsen: Symphony No. 6 ("Sinfonia semplice"), by Royal Orchestra in Copenhagen, with the composer conducting;

  • 1935 - Cowell: "Mosaic Quartet" (String Quartet No. 3), by the Modern Art Quartet at the 7th of the WPA Composers' Forum-Laboratories, at the Midtown Community Center in New York;

  • 1950 - Hindemith: Clarinet Concerto, by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting, with Benny Goodman the soloist;

  • 1959 - Dutilleux: Symphony No. 2, by the Boston Symphony, Charles Munch conducting;

  • 1981 - David Diamond: Violin Sonata No. 2, at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., by Robert McDuffie (violin) and William Black (piano);

  • 1985 - Philip Glass & Robert Moran: opera "The Juniper Tree," at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.;


  • 1721 - J.S. Bach's employer, Prince Leopold of Cöthen (age 27) marries Frederica Henrietta von Anhalt-Berngurg (19) at Bernburg; The new Princess of Cöthen does not share her husband's passion for music, and one year later, Bach applies for a new job in Leipzig;

  • 1918 - Russian-born conductor Nikolai Sokoloff leads the first concert of the Cleveland Orchestra at Gray's Armory, presented as a benefit for St. Ann's Church; His program included Victor Herbert's "American Fantasy," Bizet's "Carmen" Suite, two movements of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, Liadov's "Enchanted Lake," and Liszt's "Les Préludes";

  • 1928 - The Society of Friends of Music organized by The Library of Congress;

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®