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Playful, life-affirming and awkward are three epithets that Daniel Grimley seizes on upfront to introduce the music featured in this book, and fair enough: they all apply. But modernist is another matter. Nielsen wouldn’t have attached that label to himself; and knowing so, the author has been careful not to do so either, in a direct way – hence the side-stepping obliqueness of his chosen title.

It’s an engagement with the idea of modernism as a framework for interpreting the Nielsen oeuvre that this book addresses. and if so subtle a distinction leaves you baffled, well there’s 300-odd pages of exegesis here to put you right – although be warned that much of it comes in the tortuously overwrought language that academics like to think lends weight and substance to their ideas but is actually unreadable.

To be fair, the book presents some fascinating source material that will interest anyone (like me) who believes Nielsen to be one of the truly distinctive geniuses of latter-day symphonic writing. it’s high time his stature was acknowledged with more serious academic study outside Denmark. and never purporting to be a standard life-and-works, the book instead provides a useful survey, organised thematically around issues like Nielsen’s Danishness, his notion of a vital force in music, and his engagement with a Hellenist neo-classical movement that was popular in the Nordic countries during the 1920s and innocent enough until it got hi-jacked by Nazism. a fate that Nielsen himself happily avoided by dying in 1931 before things turned bad.

With in-depth analysis of the third and sixth symphonies and targeted examination of the opera Maskarade, Grimley lays down his credentials as a penetrating and insightful musicologist. But in broader terms, this is a book whose purpose gets lost in its own rhetoric. I've read it carefully but still don’t know what it was meant to achieve; and the final chapter, marked ‘Conclusion’, doesn’t help. a rigorous and ruthless edit might have offered some assistance.

MICHAEL WHITE Read the full review on Agora Classica


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