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What Do Inside Out and Nielsen Have in Common?

Posted February 19, 2016

Pixar Inside Out Nielsen NY Philharmonic

We were surprised and delighted to learn that Danish composer Carl Nielsen — subject of our multi-year The Nielsen Project — is somewhat behind the inspiration for Disney/Pixar’s latest creation, Inside Out, about the emotions (joy, fear, anger, disgust, and sadness) in the mind of a usually joyful 11-year-old girl reeling from her family’s move.

As Inside Out director Pete Docter told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air:

Childhood is a sacred, special kind of point in time that has a real joy and purity to it. We long on a daily basis to reach back and grab onto that in some way. So this idea of moving seemed like a good way to represent that metaphorically. ... When I was in fifth grade, my folks moved us to Denmark. ... My father was working on his Ph.D. on the Danish choral music of Carl Nielsen. ... And so not only did I have all new friends and all new surroundings, I didn't even understand what they were talking about, which was very difficult and kind of started me, I think, on my path to animation. It was a lot easier to draw people than to talk and interact with them. ... I remember falling into this melancholy.

As it turns out, Nielsen’s Second Symphony is a sort of Inside Out in symphonic form. Titled The Four Temperaments, the symphony depicts the four "humors" that medieval theory said governed human personality: The Choleric (angry, irritable), The Sanguine (extroverted, optimistic), The Melancholic (sad, quiet), and The Phlegmatic (calm, peaceful). The composer wrote that for the second movement, depicting The Phlegmatic, he:

Visualized a young fellow. ... uncommonly lovable, and everybody was attached to him. He was about 17–18 years old, with sky-blue eyes, confident and big. His real inclination was to lie where the birds sing, where the fish glide noiselessly through the water, where the sun warms and the wind strokes mildly round one's curls. ... I have never seen him dance; he wasn't active enough for that. ... What’s that? Did a barrel fall into the harbor from a ship, disturbing the young chap lying on the pier dreaming? Maybe. So what?

Nielsen got the idea for the symphony while enjoying a beer with friends at a country inn, where he saw:

A most comical picture, divided into four sections in which ‘the Temperaments’ were represented. ... I burst into laughter. … my friends and I were highly amused by their naively and exaggerated expressions and comical gravity. But how oddly things turn out! I who had laughed loudly and derisively at these pictures found my thoughts constantly returning to them, and one fine day it was clear to me that these simple paintings contained a core of goodness and … even a musical possibility into the bargain.

Check out Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic’s recording of Nielsen’s The Four Temperaments (selected by The New York Times as one of the Best Classical Music Recordings of 2012) here or in the complete box set (also available as a download). And if you haven’t already, see Inside Out (bring tissues).