Tage Nielsen

Composer whose career reflected the evolution of modern Danish music
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The Independent Online

Tage Nielsen, composer, teacher and music administrator: born Frederiksberg, Denmark 16 January 1929; married 1950 Aase Grue-Sorensen (one son, two daughters); died Copenhagen 23 March 2003.

The compositions of Tage Nielsen reflect in microcosm the evolution of Danish music in the second half of the 20th century, moving from a gruff neoclassicism, influenced by his better-known namesake Carl Nielsen, via atonal modernism to a more catholic openness to other musical traditions.

But most of the time Nielsen could have spent composing was given over to teaching and music administration. And, even when he did sit down to write, he was too fastidious a craftsman to allow himself a large output. In the words of his fellow composer Karl Aage Rasmussen, he was "an unusually self-critical, careful, almost finicky composer who [was] not attracted by the facile or quick solution".

Born in Frederiksberg, near Copenhagen, Nielsen grew up in Ribe, on the other side of Denmark. At that time, the organist of Ribe Cathedral was the Great Outsider of Danish music, Rued Langgaard, seen then more as an impossible eccentric rather than the enlightened visionary he is now acknowledged to have been. Nielsen's parents sang in the cathedral choir, and the young Tage was a frequent visitor to Langgaard's house; later, he was one of the very few Danish composers to acknowledge Langgaard's influence.

After graduation from Ribe High School in 1947, Nielsen studied Musicology and French at the University of Copenhagen, graduating in 1955, whereupon he was claimed by military service in the Danish Army Medical Corps.

He began his career in music administration almost immediately, becoming deputy head of the music department of Danmarks Radio (1957-63). Thereafter, for 20 years, he served as Director of the Royal Jutland Academy of Music in Aarhus, with other activities running in parallel: as music adviser to the programme committee of Danmarks Radio (1967-71); as chairman of the board of the Danish State Art Foundation (1971-74); and as board member of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra (1974-83). His dedication to Danish music was rewarded with a six-year posting as head of the Accademia di Danimarca in Rome (1983-89) and, upon his return, he was made chairman of the board of the Society for the Publication of Danish Music.

Nielsen's own composing was inevitably confined to the few moments of leisure he enjoyed. Initially, he spoke with a neoclassical voice influenced by Bartók, writing a string quartet in 1947, a sonata for two bassoons in 1948, a piano sonata in 1949-50 and a rhythmically alert Intermezzo gaio for orchestra in 1952. But this early burst of activity was followed by several years of silence and it wasn't until, at the advent of the 1960s, when he discovered the "Darmstadt Revolution" of modernists such as Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono, that he picked up his pen again, beginning with the freely atonal Two Nocturnes for piano (1961).

His major work of the 1960s was the luminous orchestral score Il giardino magico (1967-68) - a mere eight and a half minutes long, but ample evidence of Nielsen's fascination with colour and his ability to generate power in a remarkably short space of time. Its quotations from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde are explained by the "magic garden" which inspired the work, in a small mountain village above Amalfi, when Nielsen was staying in the Danish-owned monastery of San Cataldo: just over 80 years earlier it had likewise been Wagner's inspiration for Klingsor's magic garden in Parsifal.

Nielsen learned from the musical currents of the day. Just as Il giardino magico reflected an interest in Witold Lutoslawski and Gyorgy Ligeti, two other compositional trends among Danish composers - a fondness for quotation from music of the past and what was labelled "the New Simplicity" - left their mark on his next two orchestral works, the 1978 Lamento and an imposing, Bergian Passacaglia from 1981.

Retirement at last allowed him to concentrate his energies on writing music, resulting in the most important score of his last years, the full-length chamber opera Laughter in the Dark, written over five years from 1986 and premiered to loud applause in 1995. It was a source of pride to Nielsen that the work scored a considerable success when it was produced in Berlin in 1996.

Martin Anderson

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