Rued Langgaard is an outsider in Danish music. His Late Romantic and Symbolist back-ground 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 inter-war years. 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 break down.
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 un¬noticed by both critics and audiences. 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 this 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 mentors. 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 in earnest. 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 are still unprinted, are being published.
Further information: www.langgaard.dk
Langgaard as symphonist
One has to look hard through the music of the twentieth century to find as long, distinctive and varied a series of symphonies as Langgaard's. With 16 numbered symphonies - composed in 1908-1951 - he has only been exceeded quantitatively on Danish soil by Niels Viggo Bentzon (1919-2000), who reached number 24. Langgaard's symphonies vary enormously in duration, form and tonal idiom. No clear development from No. 1 to No. 16 is evident, but there are interfaces between Symphonies 3 and 4, 6 and 7 and 10 and 11. The formal extremes are the great Late Romantic Symphony No. 1 (60 mins.) and the monothematic one-move¬ment Symphony No. 11 (6 mins.). There are vocal elements in Symphonies 2, 3, 8, 14 and 15, and Symphony No. 3 is in reality a piano concerto. In the musical style, the Romantic and Late Romantic preponderate, but there are striking examples of forms of expression that are a match for the progressive idioms of the period (Symphony No. 6 and the beginning of No. 15).
Langgaard had no wish to create an independent, original, modern musical language. On the contrary, he deliberately took his point of departure in the legacy of Gade, Wagner, Tchai¬kov¬sky and Richard Strauss. On the face of it some of the works in fact sound as if they were composed 50-75 years too late. But viewed as a whole Langgaard's symphonic cycle is an original and thought-provoking contribution to the musical history of the twentieth century. In the first six symphonies he tries out the possibilities of the genre in very different styles. From Symphony No. 7 the outsider emerges in earnest with the paradoxical and hazardous project of demonstrating the continued relevance and potential of the Romantic aesthetic in a modern, secularized age.
The tonal idiom of the Romantic epoch exhibits ‘truth' in Langgaard's view, because it communicates a spiritual message that is generally comprehensible. Langgaard therefore culls all the shelves of Romanticism uninhibitedly, but often gives the familiar a special new emphasis and puts it in an unconventional setting, such that the demonstrative, abrupt and theatri¬cal emerge. One feels a sense of awe, but also of distance from the Romantic clichés. In order to be understood, Langgaard felt that he had to go to extremes, and with Symphonies 11 and 12 in particular the concept of the symphony is pushed to the point of absurdity. Thus Lang¬gaard sacrifices his own role as declared exponent of a harmonious message of beauty. The conservative, nostalgic composer at the same time becomes a modern ‘divided' composer who relates with seismographic sensitivity, if not desperation, to his time and his isolated situation.
The concept of Late Romanticism is not adequate to Langgaard's symphonies if in using it one thinks of organic breadth, great contrasts and symphonic climaxes. Langgaard is as a rule firm and succinct in his formulations and rhapsodic in his form. One can see an affinity with ‘effective' utility music like Korngold's film music or Prokofiev's ballet music; but unlike Korngold, Langgaard eschews all sentimentality. It is characteristic that the symphonies begin pithily and clearly - there are no slow, searching introductions. And it is the mood and character of the beginning that institute the development of a work, not a predetermined form such as sonata form. With the one-movement form he often uses, Langgaard can maintain an evocative world peculiar to the work throughout its course.
The colourful titles express an insistence that music has a meaning beyond the musical, a mission religious in nature. Although Langgaard only began his career after the Symbolist epoch around 1900, it has proved fruitful to see Langgaard as a Symbolist artist. Each of the various stylistic idioms has its own symbolic meaning, and the sixteen works shed light on one another, together forming a universe with its own fascinating coherence.
Symphony No. 4 "Leaf Fall"
Symphony No. 4, which was sketched out in March 1916 within a week and completed in July, a few days before the composer's 23rd birthday, marks the beginning of the most significant phase in Langgaard's music, 1916-24. The decidedly beauty-seeking, backward-looking and contrastless music familiar from Symphonies 2 and 3 is superseded by a more personal musical language which in Symphony No. 4 has a complex, shifting, almost nervous character. At the same time Langgaard takes a further step in the direction of formal experiment. This is probably one of the first one-movement symphonies that is quite independent of conventions like the sonata form etc. It is a true attempt at a renewal of the symphonic genre, although the Romantic symphonic poem is an obvious precursor. The coherence of the symphony is ensured by certain repetitions of passages and of detached motifs, but is primarily constituted by the highly distinctive fundamental character that is maintained throughout the work. The restless tremolo of the strings, the natural sounds of the French horns, and the thundering of the timpani help to create this special mood. The directly ‘onomatopoeic' is on the whole a salient feature - for example the imitation of the church bells towards the end. The orchestra is incidentally strikingly small, with only two of each woodwind and no trombone or tuba. The key of E flat minor, too, - six flats - is unusual, but Langgaard associated this particular key with dark moods and the drama of nature (it is also used in Symphony No. 10).
After the first performance in 1917, which Langgaard himself conducted, the reviewer Hagen Hohlenberg characterized the work as follows: "true subjects hardly appear at all in Langgaard's work [...]; on the other hand he exploits his fragmentary leitmotifs in the spirit of Wagner with great aplomb and from these he creates his tonal weave, multicoloured and diverse as a flowery tapestry. For if one misses in Langgaard an integrated architecture and sculptural poise [...] - on the other hand the purely coloristic effect is all the greater; in this symphony one had all the colours of the October forest, all the dull-red, yellow and violet, the trembling and fall of the leaves, the long soughing and the far cry of the birds of passage; and out of all this there finally emerged something like a solemn nature chorale."
One could call the symphony an "autumn diary" with depictions of shifting weather conditions and their concomitant moods. The summer is irrevocably over, and it is decay, despair and a valedictory atmosphere that hold nature and thought in thrall. In fact for a short period after its completion the symphony was entitled Nature and Thoughts, and the connection between the drama of the autumn landscape and the melancholy moods - with the music as the artistic, symbolic vehicle - was underscored by the headings above the sections that Langgaard gradually formulated.
In 1920, after two performances in Copenhagen, Langgaard abridged the work by almost a third, and the next year it was performed at concerts in Heidelberg and Darmstadt in Germany, where the symphony was very well received. The esteemed Neue Musikzeitung, for example, emphasized the clarity in the presentation of the ideas and the grandly conceived, earnest and profound nature of the work. A further three performances were given in Langgaard's lifetime, in 1939, 1940 and 1950 - all by the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Launy Grøndahl. But it was only in 1940 that there was a concert performance - the other two were radio performances without an audience. Prior to the radio production in 1950 Langgaard carried out a number of minor retouchings in the score and changed several of the headings: Fortvivlet skovbrus (Despairing forest murmur) - Solstrejf (Sunbeam) - Torden (Thunder) - Høstligt! (Autumnal!) - Træt (Tired) - Fortvivlelse (Despair) - Søndag-morgen-klokkerne (The Sunday morning bells) - Forbi! (Over!).
No. 4 was the first Langgaard symphony to be recorded on an LP (1973), and since 1981 it has been performed a number of times by Danish and foreign orchestras. A critical edition of the score was drawn up with the support of the Carlsberg Foundation with a view to the present recording.
Symphony No. 5 (1st and 2nd version)
Symphony No. 5 is in a much more extroverted musical idiom and in Langgaard's ‘light' key, F major. The programmatic content is vague, but the various titles Langgaard attached to the work suggest that we are in a fantasy world, a legendary ‘Nordic' summer landscape.
There are a total of four versions of the work, but only the last two are entitled Symphony No. 5. The original form is the orchestral fantasia Summer Legend Drama, composed in 1917-18 (revised in 1940-41 under the title Only a Saga). Then came the title Symphonic Festival Play (1920) with a good deal of new material. In 1926 Langgaard shortened and revised the original version and presented the result as Symphony No. 5 (one movement) in a concert of his own works in Copenhagen in 1927. The composition was thus interpolated in the numbered sequence of symphonies between Symphony No. 4 and the present Symphony No. 6, which had hitherto been called No. 5.
At the beginning of the thirties, this 1926 version of the work was called Symphony No. 5 "first version". For in 1931 Langgaard had composed a new "second version" based on Symphonic Festival Play from 1920, but with newly composed passages. The two versions of the symphony are about the same length, but the common musical material is limited to less than half of the playing-time of the works.
Version I is untitled, but has a motto from the songwriter Erik Bøgh (1822-99):
"The nix plays for the small stars,
he knows that Heaven will never be his."
In folk tradition the nix is a supernatural being who haunts streams and lakes, and tries to lure humans to their death with his violin-playing. The music is thus attributed with supernatural powers here - it can actually be perilous! - and this in fact fits very well with Langgaard's views. But it is also very conceivable that the composer could identify with the nix, whose ‘artistic' dilemma is described with haiku-like precision in the motto.
The chromatic runs in the strings which surround the symphony in both versions must have a programmatic meaning. In Version 1 it seems very reasonable to think of the eddying of a stream, while the solo violin at the end of course represents the nix's desperate playing. In Version 2 one can imagine the introductory and concluding string runs as a kind of fog or mist, through which one must go to enter and leave the musical fantasy landscape of the symphony. The original title of this version was Elf Land, and it is presumably the dance of the elf maidens in the summer night that one witnesses at the end, before they disappear into the mist and the listener is brought back to reality. Langgaard must have changed the title to Steppe Landscape because for him the steppes represented something alien and exotic. But it also has a relevant musical reference, since a "Russian bell motif" is said to be used in the composition (it is also used in Version I).
he reason Langgaard took the work up again in 1931 was probably that he wanted to give it a more regular symphonic form instead of the first version's episodic, block-like character. The second version thus comprises a "Sonata" - although with a very free approach to the sonata form - and an appendix designated "Sonata con variazioni", in fact a theme from the first section of the work and a set of variations.
Version I has hitherto been performed only once (1927), but the work is now available in a critical edition, also produced with support from the Carlsberg Foundation with a view to the recording of this CD. Version II was recorded from the manuscript material and the orchestral material produced for the first performance by the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra under Launy Grøndahl in 1937.
Bendt Viinholt Nielsen, 2002