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Program Note: Nielsen’s Helios Overture

Carl Nielsen

(Born in Sortelung, on Funen Island, Denmark in 1865; died in Copenhagen in 1931)

Helios Overture, Op. 17

Carl Nielsen is arguably Denmark’s greatest classical composer, but his reputation was won slowly. His progressive thinking and his quirky ways of working with harmony and melodies made him seem like an “outsider” from the traditional composers in his day. Nielsen nevertheless remained prolific and he gradually acquired fame at home and abroad, and today his six great Symphonies, his very popular Wind Quintet, and three excellent Concertos are celebrated the world over. His Helios Overture, composed in 1902, was written fairly early in his career, and is one of Nielsen’s most life-affirming works.

In 1902, Nielsen’s wife, Anne Marie Broderson, a gifted sculptor, won a rarely-granted authorization to copy bas reliefs at the Acropolis in Athens, and Nielsen was able to join her. Their lodgings were idyllic, overlooking the Aegean Sea, and surrounded by antiquity, Nielsen’s musical interests then turned to the ancient myth of Helios who, as legend told, ferried the sun across the sky in a chariot. It fired Nielsen’s compositional imagination, and thus was born his Helios Overture.

Helios begins with low swells sounding in the basses evoking the inky black Aegean Sea before dawn.  Soon the horns build upon those timeless swells in a series of wide, rising intervals, aurally portraying the beginnings of the arch of the sun, while the strings begin to stir like morning breezes.

Radiance is at the heart of Nielsen’s Helios. Near mid-work (mid-day), the sun and its music are ablaze with brass fanfares and a rousing, lyrical hymn in the strings and winds, ultimately leading to an exciting fugue at about seven-and-a-half minutes in. Of course, Helios and his sun-chariot must descend again to the west, and the music follows its arch accordingly, at last returning to the swells in the darkness where everything began.

Program note by © Max Derrickson