The story of how Nielsen conceived his Second Symphony beautifully illustrates this composer’s unique blend of urbane sophistication and rustic simplicity. Aside from his wide – and ever-expanding – musical knowledge, Nielsen drank in the world’s great literature: Shakespeare and Goethe, Greek and Norse myths; he is said to have kept a copy of Plato’s Republic by his bedside in place of the customary Bible. He would have been thoroughly acquainted with the Ancient Greek notion of the ‘Four Temperaments’, the idea that the emotional characteristics of human beings can be categorised as four types or ‘humours’: ‘Choleric’ (angry or impetuous), ‘Phlegmatic’ (laid-back, or simply lazy), ‘Melancholic’ (self-explanatory) and ‘Sanguine’ (cheerful).
But it was the discovery of a na.ve but vivid painting of the Four Temperaments on the wall of a village pub that set him thinking in musical terms. By 1901 this had become the basis of a four-movement symphony. Nielsen doesn’t present us with any value judgments here: the fact that the Sanguine character has the last word doesn’t mean that the composer sees him as in any way superior to the others. The range of human character is his subject here, portrayed sometimes with stirring emotional directness, at other times with delightful irony.