His family was relatively poor, but he was still able to learn the violin and piano as a child. He also learned how to play brass instruments, which led to a job as a bugler in the 16th Battalion at nearby Odense. He later studied violin and music theory at the Copenhagen Conservatory, but never took formal lessons in composition. Nonetheless, he began to compose. At first, he did not gain enough recognition for his works to support him.
During the concert which saw the premiere of his first symphony on 14th March 1894 (conducted by Johan Svendsen), Nielsen played in the second violin section. However, the same symphony was a great success when played in Berlin in 1896, and from then his fame grew. He continued to play the violin at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen until 1905, by which time he had found a publisher for his compositions. In 1916 he took a post teaching at the Royal Danish Conservatory in Copenhagen, and continued to work there until his death. On 10th April 1891 Nielsen married the Danish sculptress Anne Marie Brodersen. They had met just a month before in Paris.
The couple spent their honeymoon in Italy. They remained married until Nielsen's death, despite a long period of marital strife including a lengthy separation and mutual accusations of infidelity. He suffered a serious heart attack in 1925 and from that time on he was forced to curtail much of his activity, although he continued to compose until his death. Also during this period he wrote a memoir of his early life called My Childhood on Funen. He also wrote a short book called Living Music.
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