On the work with and recording of the quartets
by Tim Frederiksen
Neither in his own time nor later have Rued Langgaard’s string quartets been performed much on the musical scene, although in the course of time the second and third quartets have occasionally been in the repertoire of Danish string quartets both in Denmark and abroad. It has been said of Langgaard that he was born fifty years too late, and that his musical idiom, according to the taste of the time, did not follow the robust innovations that Carl Nielsen in particular represented. Thanks to that slightly derogatory attitude Langgaard’s works more or less disappeared from the awareness of the Danish musical establishment. With the re-emergence of the symphonies on the international scene the time has also come for a new generation to experience Langgaard in his own right as a composer, instead of the eternal opposite pole to Nielsen.
With the three CDs containing all the works of Langgaard for string quartet, it has been our aim to show what a striking personality and outstanding composer Langgaard is, and that his string quartets are an important contribution to Danish chamber music.
There is no doubt that in these works Langgaard shows that he is a great master of instrumentation for the string quartet, even though very many passages in the individual instruments may be particularly challenging. With an expressive register ranging from the lushly romantic to eruptive high drama, his string quartets make great demands on ensemble technique as well as the artistry and sonority of the performing musicians’ interpretation.
As teacher and coach of the Nightingale String Quartet and artistic producer on the three CDs, I have conducted close readings with the quartet of all the available musical material in order to achieve as authentic a result as possible: the composer’s manuscript scores and his wife’s transcriptions (in the Royal Danish Library); earlier printed scores and individual parts. Seven of the works that have never before been printed as sheet music have been produced by the Rued Langgaard Edition in parallel with the recording process. The project has thus also had the result that there is now a body of written music that has been played through and corrected and is ready for use.
In the interpretation of a work the performing musician must constantly assess whether the composer intended his slurs as indications of phrasing or articulation. At the same time it may now and then be necessary to make certain changes in the slurs to render it practically possible to play a demanding passage – of course without changing the overall content. Apart from String Quartets nos. 2 and 3 this has been a very comprehensive process in the other works, where many possibilities have been tried out and compared. Since Langgaard’s lesser known string quartets, as mentioned before, have been performed very little, there has been no living tradition to draw on.
It has therefore been unknown territory to explore, and to many questions it has been necessary to find an answer – our answer – along the way. The sometimes inadequate indications of dynamics in the score have given us the freedom to point up our own contrasts, in order to demonstrate Langgaard’s special artistic format; for example in the first quartet, third movement, bars 25-41 and 102-118, where a misleading piano in the viola part is the only indication in a musical progression that develops from a quiet beginning towards a very dramatic climax with a natural rise in the dynamics. We have also chosen to emphasize the intense explosion that suddenly interrupts the intimate atmosphere by playing molto furioso at a fast tempo, for example in the same movement, bar 57, allegro. In other places there have been such alien notes in the chords that we have had to discuss them and finally apply our sound musical sense to determine whether this was innovative thinking from Langgaard or an error in the transcription of the score.
When one is playing the collected works it is tempting to follow a habitual chronology. In this edition we have chosen to do it differently, and to gather the works in terms of their musical atmosphere. CD 1 has a strong dramatic element (Quartets nos. 2 and 3), while poetic and idyllic expression is predominant in the works on CD 2. In the two quartets on CD 3 Langgaard draws on both aspects, and it was a pleasure after such long labour to sum up the whole expressive register of Langgaard’s composite personality.
As a performing musician I would venture to say that music lives through its interpretation. It is our hope that these interpretations will inspire new ideas, and that Langgaard will thus gain a place in the musical awareness of the present.
Tim Frederiksen, professor of chamber music and viola, The Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen.
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 revision 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 Langgaard 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 chronological overview:
String Quartet no. 1 (BVN 68)
E major, 4 movements. Composed in 1914-15, partly rejected but revised and reconstructed 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 furnished 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 movement.
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, Expressionist 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 Rosengaardsspil), 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.
In 1913 the 20-year-old Langgaard spent the summer in the small spa town of Kyrkhult in Blekinge, Sweden, where he lodged in a house called ‘Rosengården’ (The Rose Garden). The two-month stay there was to have lifelong significance for the composer – first and foremost, we must believe, 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 5-6 years he created a wealth of songs, piano and chamber music works whose texts, titles and musical substance refer to the memorable days at Rosengården. This is true not least of the four string quartets which were all called Rosengaardsspil (Rose Garden Play). Later, though, three of them were given other titles. The first of these four ‘Rose Garden Quartets’ is String Quartet no. 1 (1914-15); then come Rosengaardsspil (1918), String Quartet (A major) (1918); and finally Quartet no. 6 (1918-19). The last three have been recorded by the Nightingale Quartet on vols. 1 and 2 of this series.
At Rosengården Langgaard composed three love song to texts by Goethe. A few months later a fourth song was added to the collection Lieder von Goethe (BVN 60). Langgaard gave the new song the title Vergeblich (“In Vain”). It is about two young people who are constantly in each others thoughts, but – in vain. A motif from the song appears as a “memory motif” in innumerable of Langgaard’s works. Another song from Lieder von Goethe is Gleich und Gleich, and motifs from this are also quoted frequently in Langgaard’s music. The beginning of the song is used as the main theme in the scherzo movements in both String Quartet no. 1 and no. 4.
String Quartet no. 1
The quartet is Rued Langgaard’s first major chamber music work. It was begun in May 1914 and finished on 15 January 1915 by the then just 21-year-old composer. To date the work has only been performed once, on 30 November 1916. The musicians were members of the Royal Danish Orchestra, and the first violin was Axel Gade, Rued Langgaard’s uncle. Since this was not a real public concert, no reviews appeared. The original name of the quartet was String Quartet in E major, but around 1918 it was renamed Rosengaardsspil like several other string quartets that Langgaard composed at this time.
In 1927 Langgaard scrapped movements 3 and 4 in a fit of dejection, and at the beginning of the 1930s, when he reviewed and numbered his string quartets, his first quartet was not part of the picture. He apparently considered it ‘used up’ inasmuch as he had re-used the last movement in an abridged form as the final movement of String Quartet no. 5 (1925), while the second-subject section from the first movement and the theme from the second movement were used in String Quartet no. 4 (1931). A few years later, however, he looked out the first two movements of the old quartet and revised them. At the same time he regretted that he had scrapped the last two movements, and in 1936 he wrote them down again “from memory”. In this way Langgaard’s first quartet was recreated under the title String Quartet no. 1. The revision of the first two movements involved many details, but the original form of the movements was preserved. In both movements there are personal references to the Rosengård summer of 1913 in the shape of quotations from the above-mentioned Goethe songs. In the first movement, for example, the small “memory motif” from Vergeblich is quoted in the passage 3:08-3:30. The same bars can also be heard in Langgaard’s sixteenth symphony, fourth movement (1951). The scherzo movement (second movement) is based on the song Gleich und Gleich, while the memory motif also emerges in this movement (for example at 1:33). The slow grave movement, which as mentioned – like the fourth movement – is a reconstruction from 1936, is one of Langgaard’s strong-willed original creations. Static, in reality subjectless music is interrupted by ‘agitated’ eruptions that come like bolts from the blue. They can be understood as destructive comments on the surrounding music. In the final movement (whose initial sostenuto reappears in String Quartet no. 4, last movement), the main theme is a hymn-like melody that could be a quotation from a Romantic Danish hymn tune.
String Quartet no. 5
The quartet is the last conceived of all Langgaard’s string quartets. The first version of the work is from 1925, but movements 1 and 3 in particular were considerably revised in 1926-28 and in a later phase up to 1938. A version of the quartet was performed in 1929 under the title “Faraway Melodies”, and it was very well received by the press, which emphasized the composition’s natural melodiousness, the relatively contrastless progression and the “beautiful and fresh musicality” of the work. The final version of the quartet was performed on Danish radio in 1942 with the title “Moods of Forgetfulness”, a title Langgaard later abandoned.
The work was written in 1925 after Langgaard had turned his back on “the horrors of modern music” and set out to create uncomplicated works based on Classical and Romantic ideals. The musical idiom is anachronistic, in the style from around 1850. It was undoubtedly Langgaard’s intention to transport the listener into an undisturbed Romantic-nostalgic atmosphere. And the key is in fact the idyllic, ‘pastoral’ F major.
String quartet movement “Italian Scherzo”
From time to time in the thirties and forties Langgaard wrote down small draft subjects for string quartets of which nothing more came. In 1948 he created a small piece which has unfortunately disappeared, and which has the title In the Chapel of Holmens Church (Sigh at the grave of Gade). On the other hand Langgaard’s very last contribution to the string quartet genre is preserved – the movement recorded here with the title “Italian Scherzo”. It was written in Ribe on 21 October 1950 between 7 and 7.30 a.m. On the sketch the disillusioned composer wrote: “Can’t be bothered composing the remaining parts, perhaps to no avail!”
© Bendt Viinholt Nielsen, 2014