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The Mother, Op. 41 – A Play in a Prologue and Seven Scenes

Carl Nielsen

The Mother, Op. 41 – A Play in a Prologue and Seven Scenes

Adam Riis, Palle Knudsen, Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Philharmonic Choir, Odense Symphony Orchestra, Andreas Delfs

Carl Nielsen’s incidental music for The Mother was written for a gala celebrating the reunification, in 1920, of Southern Jutland with Denmark. The complete score first appeared in print in 2007 and has never been recorded in its entirety. This recording places the music in its right context for the first time, thus providing us with a new picture of Carl Nielsen as a composer for the theatre.

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© Det Kongelige Bibliotek
Det är ett förtjusande verk, där både musik och text bärs fram av en ljus och ibland även narraktig ton av kärlek til fäderneslandet och modersmålet
Martin Nyström, Dagens Nyheter
Album of the Week
DR P2 Ugens Album
Going way beyond mere nationalism in its storytelling flair
Erica Jeal, The Guardian
With its finely tuned passages, the music gives a good sense of how the landmark event in Copenhagen was celebrated
Eva Hvidt, Carl Nielsen Selskabet
Rune Most play a superior ‘Tågen lighter’, the Odense Symphony Orchestra plays just fine, the DR Vocal Ensemble sings brilliantly, and the Philharmonic Choir from Odense ensures popular breadth
Thomas Michelsen, Politiken
The recording is excellent in all respects, well balanced and full, and the singers are all very fine
Jim Westhead, MusicWeb International
El director Andreas Delfs, que ha sabut extreure tot el potencial líric i expressiu de l’obra
Marcal Borotau, Sonograma
It's a joy to hear Adam Riis' beautiful treatment of line play and timbre
Valdemar Lønsted, Information
The music for The Mother is entertaining and seemingly made with great and sincere love
Sten Wistrand, Kulturdelen (Svensk tidskrift)
Official Charts
It’s all enchanting. If you’re a Nielsen fan (and if not, why not?) you need this disc
Graham Rickson, The Arts Desk
An exciting and horizon-expanding album that no one with an interest in Carl Nielsen and that chapter of Danish history should cheat himself of
Peter Dürrfeld, Kristeligt Dagblad
A holistic experience that is highly recommended
Lars Geerdes, Flensborg Avis
The music for The Mother has a magical power
Henry Larsson, Capriccio
Danish nature, culture and mentality in lyrical densification
Carl Håkan Larsén, OPUS
Nielsenites such as myself will lap this up and hope that it may herald further explorations of the composer’s plentiful unrecorded incidental music
David Fanning, Gramophone
This is a terrific discovery whose appeal should be universal
Roger Hecht, American Record Guide
Tempi and dynamics handled with vibrant, life-affirming gusto
Gerald Fenech, Classical Music Daily
Complete with a medley of national anthems, this incidental music for a 1921 patriotic gala is a quirky affair
Jeremy Pound, BBC Music Magazine
Truly a recording with a historical and artistic perspective
Peter Dürrfeld, Kristeligt Dagblad
Total runtime: 
72 min.
The Mother – A Play in a Prologue and Seven Scenes

by Jens Cornelius

One of Carl Nielsen’s most popular compositions, the idyllic work for flute Tågen letter (The Mist Is Rising), originates from the play Moderen (The Mother). But what The Mother actually is is not as well known, one of the reasons for this being that the entire score for the piece first appeared in print in 2007 and has never been recorded in its entirety. This recording places the music in its right context for the first time, thus providing us with a new picture of Carl Nielsen as a composer for the theatre.

Some historical background is essential to an understanding of this. From the Middle Ages until 1864, the Kingdom of Denmark included the southern duchies of Slesvig (Schleswig) and Holsten (Holstein) with their mixed German and Danish populations. The situation was complicated by the fact that the role of duke was filled by the same regent who was king of Denmark. In the mid-1800s, Danish National Liberal forces attempted to incorporate Schleswig into the Kingdom of Denmark, whereas the pro-German people in the duchies wanted to sever Schleswig and Holstein completely from the union. The conflict led to the two Schleswig wars in 1848-50 and in 1864, in which the Danish army ultimately suffered a fatal defeat. Schleswig and Holstein were handed over to Prussia, and the Kingdom of Denmark thereby lost not only two historic and wealthy areas but also 40% of its population.

Denmark was smaller than it ever had been and was forced to redefine itself. Its language now became crucial to the definition of the nation, and Denmark’s countryside and national treasures – as symbols – were studied in detail. The Danish minority south of the new border, however, experienced many prohibitions against their national identity, and 6,000 Danes lost their lives during the First World War during mandatory active service for Germany.

After Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the situation changed, and in 1920 a referendum was held among the inhabitants of Schleswig and Holstein in order to decide where the border should be drawn. The decision was clear and in accordance with the demographic structure: the most northerly part, North Schleswig, in Denmark called Southern Jutland, became Danish after 56 years. South Schleswig and Holstein, with a predominantly German population, became German. The people had spoken and democratically chosen the border that endures to this day.

Denmark’s reunification with Southern Jutland was one of the most important events in Denmark in the 20th century and was of course celebrated in every conceivable way. The Royal Theatre decided to put on a gala performance. The greatest talents were in charge of the play: the distinguished poet Helge Rode (1870-1937) wrote the text, and Carl Nielsen, who had established himself as Denmark’s leading composer, was to write the music.

Nielsen hesitated for a long time, thinking it would be better to accompany the stage play with well known melodies and patriotic songs. “A potpourri of Danish songs is what is needed, as far as I can see, and I have very little ability in that field and no desire either,” he told the theatre. However, he finally said yes on the condition that he was paid a high fee and did not have to attend the rehearsals, so that he could travel to Paris and London as he had planned. He also wanted to spend time on an entirely different work that he had just begun writing, namely, his 5th Symphony. But, as was typical for Carl Nielsen, he nevertheless ended up by being captivated by the task of The Mother when he had actually got down to work on it, and he wrote to the theatre: “It is a beautiful piece, and it interests me to be a part of it.”

Carl Nielsen had previously composed music for both stage plays and works with historical subjects for special occasions, and he had also previously set texts by his contemporary Helge Rode to music, which the poet greeted with great enthusiasm. And not least he had developed, in the preceding 10-15 years, simple, strophic songs of a new kind that could be sung by any individual or group of people. The Mother unites these diverse trends: the national interest, the popular song and the cooperation with the Royal Theatre, where Nielsen himself had begun his career as a violinist and had later become a principal conductor.

The leitmotif in The Mother is the final song, Som en rejselysten flåde (There’s a Fleet of Floating Islands), Rode’s brilliant poem about Denmark’s geography, countryside and language that, with its sweeping poetic style and Nielsen’s majestic melody, could be a brilliant national anthem for the new, reunited Denmark. The melody is even used in the prelude to Scene Seven and, in a paraphrased form, in the song Søndret folk er vokset sammen (Grown Together, Sundered Nation).

Funnily enough, Carl Nielsen himself returned to the counter-argument about using familiar songs in the play. We hear, among other things, the Danish national anthem Der er et yndigt land (This Fair and Lovely Land) (composed by H.E. Krøyer in 1835 and reproduced by Nielsen with its original harmonies) and the folk-song Roselil og hendes moder (Roselil and Her Mother). To this must be added a curious use of the national anthems from the allied countries that, with their attacks on Germany, determined the fate of Southern Jutland. Nielsen supplemented with new melodies in a popular style, and some of them were so popular that they slipped into the Danish repertory of community songs, for example Som en rejselysten flåde (There’s a Fleet of Floating Islands) and Min pige er så lys som rav (Like Golden Amber Is My Girl) – the most sacred moment of the entire play.

The premiere of the performance was postponed several times because Carl Nielsen was pressed for time, and parts of the music had to be orchestrated by the composer Emil Reesen (Vildt går storm mod sorte vande (Wild the Storm on Blackened Waters), Som en rejselysten flåde (There’s a Fleet of Floating Islands), Ekkosang (Echo Song) and the prelude to Scene Seven). We do not know whether it was lack of time that was the reason why Nielsen reused his tone poem Saga-drøm (Saga Dream) of 1908, but the piece serves as an excellent introduction to the fairy-tale atmosphere.

The performance was not staged at the Royal Theatre until 30th January 1921. As a festive play on a very special occasion, The Mother was a success, due in particular to Carl Nielsen’s music, which was praised and singled out as the most special feature. One of the reviewers commented very precisely on Carl Nielsen’s contribution: “In form and content we find, once again, his best, most characteristic individual qualities as a composer, his extraordinary and captivating mixture of that which is immediately accessible and popular and that which is strongly artistic and concentrated, the fresh straightforwardness and groundedness on one hand, juxtaposed with the contrapuntal dialect that informs the teeming life of his music.”

The play was performed quite a number of times in Copenhagen and Odense that year but did not live on as a play – and that was hardly the intention either. But parts of the music have certainly lived on in the 100 years that have passed, and Tågen letter (The Mist Is Rising) has almost become Carl Nielsen’s theme tune. It is a model example of his characteristic way of oscillating between major and minor, partly inspired by folk music, partly an expression of tonal openness and the changeableness that is also appropriate in this context.

Some years later songs and pieces of music from the work began to spread into Danish musical life. Several of the songs were published in songbooks for community singing. Carl Nielsen himself conducted excerpts from The Mother at a concert in Sweden in 1928, and in the only existing sound recording of him he plays Som en rejselysten flåde (There’s a Fleet of Floating Islands) on the piano. His original rejection of the festive play The Mother resulted in music that was very close to his heart.

The Plot

Helge Rode gave The Mother the subtitle “A Play in a Prologue and Seven Scenes”. The performance begins with a festive march, March, before the prologue sets the narrative framework for The Mother. It takes place in a Danish school classroom, where an old teacher teaches his pupils the geography of Denmark. The teacher is in such a good mood that he interrupts his teaching to tell a fairy tale about a mother who loses her son – only to have him returned to her again. The mother is of course Mother Denmark, a symbol of the country.

The work then continues with the symbolic fairy-tale narrative in seven scenes.

Scene One

Saga Dream. A fog has descended upon a part of the country, so that the King can scarcely make out what it looks like. The King’s Scald warns that the fog is but a warning of an ice wall that will be built across the country. The King and the Scald discuss whether the worst thing is to forget the lost country or to face up to the loss. The King’s other companion, the Fool, sings a fragment of the old prankster song, Roselil og hendes moder (Roselil and Her Mother), where a mother quarrels with her daughter about her future prospects. The cynical Fool tells the King that everything will be alright again only when the westerly wind overturns the mountains, and when the dry tree blooms.

The Scald and the Fool play their instruments, a flute and a guitar, and then the fog lifts, Tågen letter (The Mist Is Rising). One can now see the lost country where a young man and his mother are sitting on a burial mound. His clothes bear the coat of arms of Southern Jutland. The mother and son are to be separated because he may no longer be Danish. She promises him that he again will be free, Melodrama. With them are two little angels of love, Faith and Hope. The son goes with Faith into the fog, while the Mother remains on the other side in her little yellow house along with Hope, Faith and Hope Are Playing. Then the ice wall breaks through as forewarned.

Scene Two

At the royal palace, the atmosphere is uneasy. The Scald sings a sad song about the difficult situation, Vildt går storm mod sorte vande (Wild the Storm on Blackened Waters), that is immediately parodied by the Fool. The King is in despair. So, the Scald offers to travel around the country to find some hopeful people who can strengthen the belief in the future. The Scald’s little son asks if he may join him on the trip.

Scene Three

In a surprising scene the Scald and his son suddenly arrive at a pub in the present, that is to say, 1920. Here decadent city people are dancing to gramophone music and drinking champagne, Grammofon-vals (Gramophone Waltz). The appreciation of eternal values seems to have been lost entirely. The Scald sings about a fair young woman, who represents all that is most lovely about Denmark, Min pige er så lys som rav (Like Golden Amber is My Girl).

The Scald’s poetry is again parodied by the Fool, who turns up at the public house, Ved festen fik en moder bud (A Mother at the Feast Was Told). The Scald tells of his difficulties in gathering capable people together, and the Fool sings his bitter song about hatred, taking the greatness of the genuine talents down a peg, Dengang ørnen var flyveklar (When the Eagle Would Fly to Rule).

The best bet for a chosen person of the people, the farmer Lars, gets drunk when he arrives in the town and has to go home again. The despondent Scald sings, Tidselhøsten tegner godt (Thistle Crop Looks Promising). His little boy offers to lead the journey from now on.

Scene Four

Prelude. The Scald and the Boy stand once again by the ice wall, where a cross has been erected for the fallen who fought in a foreign country for a foreign cause. The Scald sings of his belief that a better time will come, Så bitter var mit hjerte (My Heart Was Truly Bitter). The little angel Hope turns up over the ice wall and she helps the other children, including a little girl in the national dress of Southern Jutland, over onto the other side to the Scald’s boy.

In the little yellow house, the Mother is waiting, and from the other side of the wall the old psalm about waiting patiently is heard, Her vil ties, her vil bies (Life Is Lower, Life Is Slower).

All the children play, while Hope sits on the ice wall and plays his flute, Børnene leger (The Children Are Playing).

Scene Five

A storm is brewing, and in the wind we hear the national anthems of France, Great Britain, Italy and the USA – the allied forces during the First World War. The storm overturns the ice wall, and in the distance, we hear the Danish national anthem. Spring bursts out, and red and white roses wind around the cross on the burial mound – the dry tree blooms again. Faith and Hope turn up hand in hand with the long-lost son, who is dressed in a tattered prison uniform and has sawn-off chains on his arms and legs.

The reunion is celebrated at the Mother’s coffee table, and the Scald sings of the reunification of Denmark, Søndret folk er vokset sammen (Grown Together, Sundered Nation). The King’s steward arrives and asks the Scald to report to the palace to show whether or not he has found some decent people. The Scald says that the Mother and her son shall go with them.

Scene Six

Minuet. At the palace, no one expects that the Scald will return with a good result. The Fool stands ready with a whip to chastise him, and he sings one of his sneering songs, Dengang døden var i vente (Testament, as He Was Dying). The King and Queen step forward, Fanfare Music, and the court dance begins, Minuet. Then the Mother arrives with her son. The King understands what has happened, and he takes his crown off and kneels before them. The Mother asks them all to go outside with them; there is something she wants to show them.

Scene Seven

Prelude. In the sunny Danish landscape, we hear music from all the four corners of the world, Ekkosang (Echo Song). The people come together, and everyone sings the song about the reunited kingdom and its beautiful Danish language, Som en rejselysten flåde (There’s a Fleet of Floating Islands). Southern Jutland has come home.

Release date: 
June 2020
Cat. No.: 
Super Jewel Case
Track count: 


Recorded at Carl Nielsen Salen, Odense Koncerthus, on 27 January-1 February, 2020

Recording producer: Preben Iwan
Engineering: Preben Iwan
Technical assistant: Stefan Søe Iwan
Editing: Preben Iwan & Mette Due
Mix and SACD mastering: Preben Iwan

& © 2020 Dacapo Records, Copenhagen

Liner notes: Jens Cornelius
English translation of liner notes: Mary McGovern
Proofreader: Svend Ravnkilde

Publisher: The Carl Nielsen Edition, The Royal Library, Copenhagen,
Distribution: Edition Wilhelm Hansen,

Dacapo Records acknowledge, with gratitude, the support of the Carl Nielsen and Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen Foundation