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The son of a humble artisan, Nielsen was enabled by the help of friends to study at the Copenhagen Conservatory, and from his mid-twenties he was for fifteen years a second violinist in the Royal Orchestra, which introduced his First Symphony in 1892. This was to some extent influenced by Brahms but was nevertheless already a very personal work, embodying a tug-of-war between two keys which was to become habitual with him. He began to conduct his own works -- his now popular Second Symphony ("The Four Temperaments") in 1901. These temperaments are primarily concerned with human beings and their condition. They depict divergent personalities of the players for whom he wrote it. All Nielsen’s six symphonies should not be regarded as in any sense programmatic.
It was only after his post at the Royal Orchestra that he was able to give himself more fully to composition. "Music, like life is inextinguishable", he declared, and this characteristically vigorous and positive attitude, besides giving the Fourth Symphony its title, imbues most of his work, in which a quirky sense of the grotesque is often to be founded. In the Flute Concerto, for example, the soloist is teased by vulgar intrusions by the bass trombone; the sterner Clarinet Concerto is all but disrupted by a freely aggressive side drum. This gratuitous introduction of an element of struggle is seen at its most violent in the Fourth Symphony, in whose finale two sets of timpani fight out a duel, and the two movement Fifth Symphony, whose existence at one point seems threatened by a militant side drum; but another aspect of it is the progressive tonality (an initial key being overcome by another) which Nielsen favoured.