Carl August Nielsen (1865-1931) is generally regarded as Denmark’s greatest composer. Nielsen is best known for his six symphonies, which composer Robert Simpson described as “Progressive tonality, the practice of beginning a work in one key and ending in another and, in Nielsen’s case, to convey the outcome of a symphonic struggle.”[1] Nielsen’s First Symphony characterizes personal strength. His second symphony, inspired by a painting, is soulful, paralleling the augmentation of the human characteristics: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine “with the dolfulness of Mahler.” [2]

Nielsen wrote two operas, the first of which was “Saul & David” written in 1902 to a libretto by Einar Christiansen. Nilesen sketched the outlined plot from which Christiansen, an accomplished playwright, worked from. Nielsen and Christiansen worked closely together throughout the four months of the libretto’s composition. Christiansen sought to give expression to Nielsen’s ideas. “This great and strange subject stirred and haunted me, so that for long periods I could not free myself of it no matter where I was”[3] said Nielsen.

“Saul & David” has never been in the standard repertoire. Musicologist David Hurwitz offers up a theory, “It’s amazing that this superb biblical opera isn’t better known. Nielsen’s symphonies are firmly in the international repertoire, and given their high level of drama and energy, you would think that his opera would receive at least the occasional performance outside of Denmark. The lack of a conventional female love interest may be what keeps this piece from becoming more popular. Handel solved this problem in his oratorio Saul by giving the David role to a woman, but Nielsen wasn’t into anything that kinky.”[4]

The biblical text appealed to Nielsen both psychologically and aesthetically. Nielsen identified with both figures. The composer had been subjected to an onslaught of professional criticism for his progressive musical experimentation. He saw a mirror-like personality in David, the underdog who came from modest roots and displayed exceptional musical gifts. “The portrait of David is strongly drawn, both brightly shining and lyrical, as he blazes through the opera world of battle, turmoil and love and it is he, who as the opera nears its close, points towards a new epoch.” [5]This description of Nielsen’s David springs from the biblical text of Samuel, “He is a skilled player, a brave man and a fighter, well spoken, good-looking and Yahweh is with him.” [6]

Yet, Nielsen also identified strongly with Saul’s impatience and independence of mind. To Nielsen, Samuel’s anger towards Saul was unreasonable. Saul is on the eve of battle and has been instructed by Samuel to wait seven days to offer sacrifice. However, the text tell us that Saul “waited seven days, the period fixed by Samuel, but Samuel did not come and the army, deserting Saul, began dispersing.”[7] Desperate, Saul sacrifices the burnt offering himself, after which, of course, Samuel arrives. The timing is suspect. Naively, Saul tries to explain to Samuel, “I saw the army deserting me and dispersing, and “you had not come at the time fixed.”[8] Samuel rebukes the king, telling him “You have acted like a fool. You have not obeyed the order which Yahweh your God gave you. Now your sovereignty will not last.”[9] Like Nielsen, it is easy to find Samuel’s anger to be nonsensical. Perhaps Saul thinks so as well since he offers no reaction to this initial rejection and goes to join the warriors.

Samuel rejects Saul a second time. Oddly, the text almost reads like it is the first rejection and the narrative point for the second rejection is unnecessarily repetitive. Saul is told to utterly destroy the Amalekites. He supposedly fails to do so by sparing the cattle and King Agag. Saul explains that he was going to kill the cattle during sacrifice but Samuel is unwilling to listen. We might assume that Saul also intended to sacrifice Agag but, curiously, neither Saul nor Samuel address the presence of Agag, at first. Samuel again acts as the mouthpiece of Lord and rejects Saul as he did before, with slight variation, “Since you have rejected Yahweh’s word, he has rejected you as king.”[10] Despite the incredulous unfolding of angered events, Saul remains humble and repents. Shockingly, Samuel/Lord rejects Saul’s repentance and, after Saul asks Samuel to forgive him, Samuel rejects Saul’s act of contrition. Pathetically, Saul reaches for Samuel’s cloak an unintentionally tears it. Samuel seems to take arrogant pride in the symbolism, “ Today Yahweh has torn the kingdom of Israel from you and given it to a neighbor of yours who is better than you.” [11]Samuel then brutally hacks Agag to pieces in front of Saul, “Samuel then butchered Agag.”[12]

It is no surprise then that Saul begins to go mad. What is surprising is the explanation given by the text, “ An evil spirit from Yahweh afflicted Saul with terrors.” [13]Nielsen psychologically reacts to this text with a dramatic, haunting aria in the opera when Saul sings, “The Lord is evil and evil am I because evil has made me.”[14] Nielsen found much to admire in Saul’s devotion to his people and Lord and, despite traditional painting of Saul as villainous, the actual biblical text supports this characteristic of Saul, “And there, at Gigal, they proclaimed Saul king before Yahweh; they offered communion sacrifices before Yhaweh, and there Saul and all the people gave themselves over to great rejoicing.” [15]Nielsen also identified strongly with Saul’s “impetuous decisions and moody self-doubt. One cannot imagine this impertinence from David, whose less complex character presented the librettist with fewer problems.” [16]

The premiere conductor, Johan Svendsen, intentionally or not, in his assessment of the opera, painted Nielsen in Saul’s independent coloring, “A highly interesting work, “ “bearing throughout the stamp of an independent, gifted artist. The composer goes his own way with clarity, dramatic action, and original characterization.” [17]

However, some critics did not share Svendsen’s appraisal and the four act opera was premiered in 1902 to decidedly mixed reactions. The conservative music critic Gustav Hetsch wrote, “ Ni e l s e n, who seems to compose by virtue of an urge and will matched by no fertile creative gift, should learn from Tchaikovsky to sing from the lungs. If he has something to say, with his talent he should say it straightforwardly, and refrain from seeking the oddest expression, speculating in the most ingenious combinations. He should write music with air in its lungs and blood in its veins, and not sit down to construct contrapuntal exercises. There was much in this opera that sounded most odd, even ugly”

The musical language of “Saul & David” is free of the romantic pronunciations which traditional operagoers were comfortable with. Critic Charles Kjerulf was far more open to Nielsen’s modernist expression, “The sounds of Nielsen’s Saul & David rose stately and passionately and appeared as a tonal painting full of beauty and character. Nielsen is taking a great step forward, for the independence and novelty of this music at no moment turned into the distortion of these grand qualities, as has happened before to the impetuously onrushing composer.” [18]

David’s expressions compellingly contrast to those of Saul. While David sings in melodious articulation, Saul’s arias are sweeping and far more unconventional. It is a fascinating, almost jagged, cubist-like dialogue interaction between the two characters. Although Nielsen’s sympathy for Saul is without question, the composer and librettist are equally clear in their view for the tragic necessity of Saul’s downfall, followed by David’s succession. In this, Nielsen and Christiansen do not ignore the postlude to the Saul and David narrative and they acknowledge that with admiration and a touch of cynicism, “God’s new blue-eyed boy is the perfect combination of selfless bravery and subservience. To the history of civilization the winner, the Davidic dynasty, was attributed with everything from the invention of the harp, the “composition of the psalms, the Temple of his son, Solomon, and the liturgy through to the birth of Christ and thus the New Testament.” [19]

There is exhausting rage in Nielsen’s dying Saul, who acclaimed David and curses God as he, like Mozart’s Don Giovanni on the brink of death, declares his individuality, “Jonathan is Slain! Slain! See how greedily the earth drinks his blood. Soon shall I lie with death’s stone-hard door over my mouth. My Lord and My Tempter! You eternal mocker up there, who laughs at my agony, see now I splatter my blood on your heaven. Wash myself clean of my sin if you dare!” [20]

Saul’s breathy lament is followed by David’s exaltation, “ Strong as lions, swift as eagles were Saul and his son. Israel’s daughters, weep with me. Israel’s pride lies slain. The “Lord is King, high above all men. Honor is his to all eternity, might and power. Children of men are merely feeble clay in his hand.”[21]


[1] Simpson, Robert Carl Nielsen: Symphonist. London: Hyperion, 1979. P. 36.

[2] Ibid. P. 25

[3] Fanning, David Nielsen. United Kingdom: Cambridge University, 1997. Excerpt from Nielsen interview.

[4] Hurwitz, David. “Nielsen’s Saul & David.” Classics Today 1992.

[5] Krabbe, Niels. Carl Nielsen Studies. Ed. Jorgen Jensen. Copenhagen: Royal University of Denmark, 2009.

[6] New Jerusalem Bible: 1 Samuel. New York: DoubleDay, 1985. P. 376

[7] ibid. P. 370.

[8] Ibid.

[9] ibid.

 [10] ibid. P. 375

[11] ibid.

[12] ibid.

[13] ibid. P.369

[14] Krabbe, Niels. Carl Nielsen Studies. Ed. Jorgen Jensen. Copenhagen: Royal University of Denmark, 2009.

[15] New Jerusalem Bible: 1 Samuel. New York: DoubleDay, 1985. P.369

[16] Hansen, Wilhelm. Carl Nielsen Works. Ed. Johan Svendsen. Copenhagen: Carl Nielsen Library, 2002.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Krabbe, Niels. Carl Nielsen Studies. Ed. Jorgen Jensen. Copenhagen: Royal University of Denmark, 2009

[20] Nielsen, Carl. Saul & David. Record. With Aager Haugland and Peter Lindroos. Cond. Neeme Jarvi. Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra & Choir. Chandos. CHAN 8911/12, 1990.

[21] Ibid.

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