Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) by Bendt Viinholt Nielsen
Rued Langgaard is an outsider in Danish music. His Late Romantic and Symbolist background and his passionate views on art and the role of the artist brought him into conflict with the sober, anti-Romantic view of art that reigned supreme in Denmark in the 1920s and 1930s. Langgaard did not shrink from the visionary and experimental, the eccentric and extreme, and his music ventured into areas where the outlooks, musical styles and qualitative norms of the twentieth century clash.
Rued Langgaard was born in 1893, the son of a highly respected Copenhagen piano teacher, Siegfried Langgaard, who was also active as a composer and was greatly preoccupied with musical/philosophical speculations along Theosophical lines. Langgaard’s mother was a pianist too, and he had his basic musical education from his parents. In 1905, at the age of 11, he made his debut as an organ improviser in Copenhagen, and when he was 14 his first major orchestral and choral work was performed. But the young composer got off to a bad start, since the reviewers gave it the thumbs-down; and in fact Langgaard never succeeded in being properly accepted either by the press or by the musical powers-that-be in Denmark.
So in 1911, when Rued Langgaard had completed his hour-long First Symphony, it proved impossible to have the work performed in Denmark. Langgaard had been on several study trips to Berlin, accompanied by his parents, and the Langgaard family’s contacts with conductors like Arthur Nikisch and Max Fiedler led to a world premiere of the symphony in 1913 in Berlin by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Max Fiedler. Yet the overwhelming success enjoyed on this occasion by the 19-year-old composer did not result in a performance of the symphony in Denmark, and the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 made it impossible for Langgaard to follow up his success in Germany itself.
The scepticism of the Danish musical establishment towards Langgaard meant that he had difficulty getting his compositions performed, and had to organize his own concerts to present his music. The expansive artistic development he experienced in the 1910s therefore went unnoticed by both critics and audiences at home. Important experimental works like Sinfonia interna (1915-16), Sfærernes musik (The Music of the Spheres) (1916-18), Symphony No. 6 (1919-20) and the opera Antikrist (1921-23) were either not performed or not understood in Denmark.
In his native country Rued Langgaard was alone in striving for a visionary musical idiom as a continuation of the Romantic tradition with a Symbolist basis of the kind one finds in the works of Scriabin. The tendency in Denmark was towards a questioning of the whole Late Romantic spirit, and Langgaard had to go to Germany – at the beginning of the 1920s – to experience successful performances of his symphonies. Yet there was no question of any widespread or general interest in Langgaard in the south, and the performances soon ebbed out.
The years around 1924/25 marked a major turning point in Langgaard’s life and music. After many years of openness and responsiveness to currents in the most recent -music – not least in Carl Nielsen’s progressive works – Langgaard changed tack and -turned to a Romantic, pastiche-like style with Niels W. Gade and Wagner as his exemplars. He indicated that he felt betrayed by the age and by the musical establishment, and he hit out at Carl Nielsen, who in his view had a status that was far too guru-like. The result was that Langgaard was now given the cold shoulder for good. After 1930, concert performances of his works became rare indeed (they were however given quite a few radio broadcasts, especially in the 1940s). He was unable to find a job as a church organist, although he applied for innumerable posts all over the country. He did not succeed until 1940, at the age of 47, when he was given the position as organist at the cathedral in Ribe in South Jutland. In Ribe Langgaard’s music entered a new phase in which the defiant, the jagged and the absurd became more prominent.
After Langgaard’s death in 1952 his name seemed threatened by oblivion; but in the 1960s the renewed interest in ‘neglected’ Late Romantics shed new light on Langgaard: it was discovered that although Langgaard had fundamentally been a conservative composer, there were features in his music that strangely prefigured the static music, collage music and minimalism of the 1960s and 1970s.
Today innumerable of his 431 compositions have been recorded, his output and life have been recorded in book form, and his works, most of which remained unprinted, are being published.
Rued Langgaard’s string quartets
Rued Langgaard’s contributions to the string quartet genre were mainly written within an interval of just eleven years, from 1914 until 1925. In this period he composed eight quartets, four of which were created in the course of only twelve months (1918-19). The works were thus written in the composer’s productive and extremely expansive youthful years, when he also created major works like Symphonies 4 and 6, The Music of the Spheres and the opera Antichrist. In the next phase, from 1925 until 1940, when his composing almost came to a halt, he took several of the eight quartet works up for revi-sion and reworking, and thus new versions saw the light of day. However, no entirely new contributions to the genre came from Langgaard’s pen, except for two small pieces written around 1950: on the one hand a small piece that has disappeared today, written in memory of the composer Niels W. Gade, and on the other an ultra-short Italian Scherzo.
The catalogue of his works lists ten known, independent compositions by Lang-gaard for string quartet. The composer’s typical way of working, characterized as it was by ‘recycling’ and repeated revisions, has meant that whole movements and certain themes recur in different works. Further confusion is created by Langgaard’s own numbering of the string quartets in the 1930s, which does not include all the works, nor does it correspond to the order of their creation. The following list gives a chronolo-gical overview:
String Quartet no. 1 (BVN 68)
E major, 4 movements. Composed in 1914-15, partly rejected but revised and recon-structed in 1936. Fourth movement incorporated in reworked form as fourth movement in String Quartet no. 5.
Variations on “Mig hjertelig nu længes” (BVN 71)
E major. Introduction and seven variations. Composed in 1914-15, revised and fur-nished with a new introduction in 1931/1940.
String Quartet no. 2 (BVN 145)
D minor, 4 movements. Composed in 1918, revised in 1931.
Rosengaardsspil (Rose Garden Play) (BVN 153)
E major, 4 movements. Composed in 1918. First and fourth movements re-used in revised form as first and third movement in String Quartet no. 4.
String Quartet (A flat major) (BVN 155)
A flat major, 4 movements. Composed in 1918.
String Quartet no. 6 (BVN 160)
D minor, one movement. Composed in 1918-19.
String Quartet no. 3 (BVN 183)
3 movements. Composed in 1924.
String Quartet no. 5 (BVN 189)
F major, 4 movements. Composed in 1925, revised in 1926-38. The fourth movement is a reworked version of String Quartet no. 1, fourth movement.
String quartet no. 4 “Sommerdage” (Summer Days) (BVN 215)
F major, 3 movements. Composed in 1931 (on the basis of material from 1914-18). The first and third movements are revised versions of the first and fourth movement of Rosengaardsspil; the second movement is based on String Quartet no. 1, second move-ment.
String quartet movement “Italian Scherzo” (BVN 408)
F major. Composed in 1950.
Rued Langgaard did not write his string quartet works for particular ensembles – with the exception of no. 3, which was composed for one of the best chamber ensembles in Denmark in the 1920s, the Breuning-Bache Quartet. String Quartet no. 3 is also the only one of the ten works that was published during the composer’s lifetime, in 1931. The others have only been published after 1993, the last six as late as the present recording project and under the auspices of the Rued Langgaard Edition. Three of the works on the list were not performed in Langgaard’s time, and all in all there were only ten concert performances of the remaining quartets in his lifetime. Quartet no. 3 was performed four times, the last time by the Gerhard Rafn Quartet during the festival Nordic Music Days in Oslo in 1934. In addition, in the 1930s and 1940s there were sporadic radio performances of nos. 2, 3 and 5. After this, interest in Langgaard’s string quartets ebbed out. In 1972 the first recording of one of the quartets, no. 3, was released featuring the Copenhagen String Quartet, and a -milestone was reached in 1984, when the Kontra Quartet recorded six of the works and made Langgaard’s string quartets known in innumerable performances in Denmark and abroad.
The remarkable thing about Langgaard’s music for string quartet is the wide stylistic spectrum covered by the works as a whole. They were written in the time of new -departures between Late Romanticism and Modernism, and it is in fact a typical feature of the period that in his musical idiom Langgaard veers off now in the ‘retro’ direction, now in the avant-garde direction, but without abandoning the classical formal norms. In Langgaard’s quartets we thus find Classicist, Romantic, Neoclassical, Expres-sionist and Modernist features – in short, the tonal idioms of the music span the whole scale from Mozart to Bartók. The Neoclassical tendency, which has no counterpart in Langgaard’s symphonies, makes its impact in the movement “Mozart” (of Rosengaards-spil), and colours the string quartet in A flat major throughout; the latter is almost a pastiche of Vienna Classicism. At the other extreme we find String Quartet no. 3, which with its aggressively Expressionist tonal idiom represents the wildest avant-garde in Danish music in 1924. One characteristic feature of the quartets, unlike Langgaard’s symphonic music, is that among the total of 29 movements we find both decided (and humorous) scherzo movements and some of the weightiest slow movements Langgaard wrote.
The Rosengård Quartets
In 1913 the 20-year-old Rued Langgaard spent the summer in the little spa town Kyrkhult in Blekinge, Sweden, where he was lodged with his parents in a house called “Rosen-gården” (The Rose Garden). The two-month stay there was to prove of lifelong signifi-cance to the composer, first and foremost, we must assume, because he met and fell in love with a girl, a certain Dora, whose identity is unknown today. The young Langgaard was immediately emotionally awakened, and over the next few years wrote a quantity of songs, piano works and chamber music pieces whose texts, titles and musical substance refer to the memorable days at Rosengården. This is true not least of the four string quartets, all of which were called Rosengaardsspil (Rose Garden Play). Later three of them were given different titles. The first of these four “Rosengård Quartets” is the present String Quartet no. 1 (1914-15; recorded on vol. 3), then come Rose Garden Play (1918), the string quartet in A flat major (1918) and the Quartet no. 6 (1918-19; on vol. 1). The final passage in the last of these works is based on the Swedish folk song “Och hör du unga Dora, vill du gifta dig i år?” (‘Oh tell me now, young Dora, is it married you would be?’), a song of unrequited love. On this CD we hear Rose Garden Play and the A flat major quartet and the string quartet no. 4, added in 1931, which is based on material from Rose Garden Play and Quartet no. 1. If we count Quartet no. 4, the complex of string quartets related to the Rosengård summer of 1913 thus consists of no fewer than five works.
At Rosengård Langgaard composed among other things three love songs to texts by Goethe, and immediately after his arrival back home in Copenhagen he added a fourth song to the collection Lieder von Goethe (BVN 60). The new song, entitled Vergeblich (‘In Vain’) is about two young people who are constantly in each other’s thoughts – but in vain. A motif in the song appears as a ‘memory motif’ in very many of Langgaard’s works, including three of the string quartets. In the same three works there are also quotations from another of the Goethe songs, Gleich und Gleich – about a flower and a bee that are made for one another! The beginning of that same song is used as a theme in the scherzo movements of String Quartets no. 1 and 4.
Rose Garden Play
We know nothing of what actually happened in Sweden in 1913, but the music Langgaard wrote five years later in the light of his memories is typified by great contrasts with reflection and melancholy on the one hand and youthful optimism on the other. The com-plex emotions and moods are particularly expressed in the quartet Rose Garden Play, which was written in June-August 1918 during Langgaard’s stay that summer in the fishing hamlet Kerteminde on the island of Funen. The four movements – Interiör, “Mozart”, Drop Fall and Rococo – suggest that the music programmatically describes quite specific situations or moods related to Rosengård. The first movement has a first subject and a second subject, but otherwise an improvisation-like course in which quotations from the two above-mentioned songs to texts by Goethe are interspersed. The leaping triad motif from Gleich und Gleich can be heard in the cello part at 2:37, 2:59 and 7:06, while the little turning motif (four notes) from Vergeblich comes at 6:18, first in the cello, then in violin I. In the second movement there is Mozart being played. Langgaard calls the movement “Mozart”, and the quotation marks in the title of course make a point in relation to this slightly parodic Mozart pastiche. The slow movement in C sharp minor, Draabefald (Drop Fall), shows the composer in a melancholy mood one rarely sees persisting throughout a whole move-ment. The title is cryptic, but surely refers to a tear being shed. The minimalist motivic material consists of a theme in a folk-like style (cello) and a ‘painful’ motif (designated espressivo dolente), which moves from part to part in shifting transpositions. In the final movement, Rococo, the good mood returns, although there is also room for an ethereal chorale theme before the movement is rounded off by a coda with an unambiguous refe-rence to the music of the eighteenth century. The composition was only performed once in Langgaard’s lifetime (in 1919); performance no. 2 took place in 2002.
String Quartet (A flat major)
The neoclassical continues with even more consistency in this quartet, which was com-posed at the same time as Rose Garden Play – and was given the same title. The work was not performed in Langgaard’s lifetime and was not included in the numbered series of quartets. The present title comes from the 1940s, and the first performance was given as late as 1993. The work exemplifies how for Langgaard specific musical styles are compo-sitional tools just like form, tonality and themes. Musical history offers a wealth of moods and references from which the composer can choose freely, and which he can exploit for his own artistic purposes. The Rosengård summer was clearly under the auspices of the Rococo and Vienna Classicism. But at the same time interest in the classical epoch was part of the spirit of the age, and it seems reasonable to see Langgaard’s A flat major quartet as a parallel to Prokofiev’s Sinfonie classique, given its first performance just a few months before Langgaard wrote his work. Langgaard kept rigorously to the Vienna Clas-sical idiom with reminiscences of Beethoven in the first two movements. The third move-ment (C minor) with the designation Lento dolente has a recurring funeral-march theme that is played pizzicato, and two weighty contrasting sections. The last time the pizzicato theme is presented, it is in E flat minor. It comes to a halt before it is finished and sequen-ces downwards into darkest despair (where it ends in the key of the movement, C minor). The final movement, Allegro agitato, has a similarly original Langgaardian fingerprint which saves the quartet from pure stylistic imitation. In the middle section of the energetic movement a space opens up where time stands still and beauty is held in inward-looking contemplation.
String Quartet no. 4 “Summer Days”
Around 1930 the four Rosengård quartets from 1914-18 were at the bottom of Lang-gaard’s piles of music. He had even scrapped the last two movements of Quartet no. 1.
However, in the spring of 1931 he looked out two of the old works and on this basis created a new quartet in three movements. The outer movements from Rose Garden Play were re-used as movements 1 and 3, and as movement 2 Langgaard inserted a short, re-composed version of the scherzo from String Quartet no. 1 – all now presented in the main key of F major, Langgaard’s ‘bright’ key (he wrote a whole eight symphonies in F major!). The first movement is by and large identical to the first movement of Rose Garden Play, while the final movement has been considerably expanded from the fourth move-ment of Rose Garden Play. Besides a new introduction and a new coda Langgaard has interpolated a ‘second subject’ which has been cut out of the first movement of String Quartet no. 1. The result was that Quartet no. 4, unlike Rose Garden Play, emerges as some-thing homogeneous and ‘Late Romantic’ in expression. We understand that over the years the memories of Rosengård have come to stand in a different light. It is striking that on the one hand the three movements are all designated scherzoso, and on the other that the two motifs from Lieder von Goethe have been given a more prominent place. The second movement is based on Gleich und Gleich, and the elegiac motif from Vergeblich is now also heard in the second and third movements: in the scherzo at 1:03 and 2:20, in the first bars of the third movement and in the coda at 8:48. In the first performance of 1933 (the only performance in Langgaard’s lifetime) the quartet was called Lacrimetta – that is, ‘the little tear’. In the end, as late as around 1950, Langgaard chose the title Summer Days.