Svend E. Nielsen is a thoroughly lyrical composer. In his music he constantly seeks to pin down delicate nuances. Yet his compositions do not lack intensity, for since his lyrical sensibility is all his own, it is no problem for him to be lyrical without being idyllic, as the composer Karl Aage Rasmussen has remarked. It is not without significance in this context that Svend Nielsen has a solid theoretical background which can counterbalance his poetic nature. He studied musicology at the University of Copenhagen, where Webern's modernist economy of material caught his attention at an early stage. Alongside his university studies he also trained in music theory at the Royal Academy of Music, where the composers Vagn Holmboe, Finn Høffding and Per Nørgård were his teachers. As a basis for expression Modernism did not retain its hold on him, but Svend Nielsen still works within a tight structure when he composes. Some have called him a constructivist. He sees himself as an "emotive composer reined in by structure". But it is the emotive mood, not the underlying structure that draws the attention of the listener to his music.
Rather than Modernism, Romantic and Impressionist currents have had an obvious influence on Svend Nielsen's works. His Romantic Piano Pieces recall Chopin, while French titles like Nocturne and Nuages call to mind Debussy. Svend Nielsen has often set Danish poetry to music. Perhaps there is actually a direct connection between his interest in the Danish Symbolist poet Sophus Claussen, whose text he used for the choral work Imperia, and the French connection which can be traced in the sinfonietta and orchestral works. At any rate Svend Nielsen's way of orchestrating is clearly Impressionist-influenced: refined, often light and airy. In that respect it obviously relates to French music. The allusions to the element of air in titles like Nuages (clouds) and Aria (which also means "air") are in fact not accidental. Meteorology has been Svend Nielsen's hobby for many years. The dynamics of the clouds - the tension between the apparently static and the latently violent - appeal to his nature.
In the past the threatening element at most formed an undercurrent in his music. But as the instrumental works have become dominant at the expense of vocal music, the violence has broken through the surface and become audible. But even when Nielsen works at the darker end of the expressive spectrum - not least in the works of the 1980s - the drama never dispels the basic lyrical tone of the music.