Complete Works for Violin and Piano Vol. 1
Complete Works for Violin and Piano Vol. 1
“Wondrously played experimental works from a unique Danish talent” The Strad
In the veritable musical frenzy that struck Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) near the end of his life he composed several violin sonatas – a genre he had not paid much attention to since his early days. In this first in a series of three recordings presenting Langgaard’s complete works for violin and piano the award-winning violinist Gunvor Sihm and the Langgaard expert Berit Johansen Tange perform three late, incitingly Romantic works in addition to the unfinished sonata of Langgaard’s youth, which is given its world premiere recording.
Gunvor Sihm and Berit Johansen Tange during the recording of the first volume of Rued Langgaard’s complete works for violin and piano.
by Bendt Viinholt Nielsen
Rued Langgaard was born on 28 July 1893 in Copenhagen and died on 10 July 1952 in Ribe. At the early age of 11 he made a remarkable debut as an organist and organ improviser, and when he was 19 his first symphony was premiered in Berlin by the Berlin Philharmonic. At the beginning of the 1920s Langgaard experienced a brief period of interest in his symphonic works in Germany, where his most progressive compositions, Music of the Spheres (1916-18) and Symphony No. 6 (1919-20), were premiered. In Denmark, however, the musical establishment regarded the introverted outsider composer with considerable scepticism. No artistic breakthrough materialized, and in the mid-1920s, after Langgaard’s opera Antichrist had been rejected by the Royal Danish Theatre, he reacted vehemently by turning his back on modernism and openly criticizing the Danish music scene. Langgaard’s religiously and symbolistically coloured view of music was an ill match for the antiromantic, sober attitude that predominated in Denmark after 1930. The musical world followed the norms and the aesthetic paths that Carl Nielsen had laid out, and there was no place for an eccentric Romantic like Langgaard. After many years struggling to find a post as an organist in the Danish Church, in 1940 Langgaard was appointed cathedral organist in Ribe. After his death in 1952 it looked as though he would remain a parenthesis in Danish musical history. However, a performance in 1968 of Music of the Spheres initiated a renaissance for Langgaard’s music, and today, now that his major works have become known, he is counted among the most important Danish composers of the 20th century.
Rued Langgaard’s music is characterized by great stylistic variation. His works are often composite and unconventional in form, borne up by an aspiration towards evocative, imagistic, visionary expression. In his music one finds elements that point forward to the 1960s and the avant-garde, minimalism and postmodernism of subsequent decades.
Rued Langgaard’s works for violin and piano 1907-50
Langgaard’s compositions for violin and piano stand as fixed points of reference in his oeuvre, inasmuch as all four major phases of his development are represented in this series of works. A sonata in three movements with the title Digtning – Rosengaarden in memoriam (Poetry – Rosengaarden in memoriam) (1918) would have been an interesting supplement, but the work has simply disappeared and we must consequently do without it in this three-volume recording of Langgaard’s collected compositions for violin and piano. The early, unfinished sonata, present here, and the peculiar Sunday Sonata are released on CD for the first time.
Langgaard had lessons on the violin as a child, but only briefly, for as early as the age of 10 he took up the organ, which became his real instrument. The incitement to write violin works, however, was close at hand. Langgaard’s paternal aunt was married to the violinist Axel Gade, son of Niels W. Gade and for many years the leader of the Royal Danish Orchestra – as well as a composer himself. Langgaard’s first violin work, Aubade (1907), is dedicated to Axel Gade and was given its first performance by him. The first major chamber music work on which Langgaard began in the wake of his grandiose B minor Symphony (no. 1), was a sonata for violin and piano (also in B minor), which he worked on in 1909-11. Only the first two movements were completed. They were separately premiered as independent movements in 1911 by Axel Gade and the then 18-year-old composer. Four years later Langgaard composed what was to be his largest chamber music work, the 40-minute Violin Sonata No. 1. The sonata was created in the course of just four days in June 1915. Like the unfinished sonata and the almost contemporary String Quartet No. 1, the musical language and form are oriented towards classical ideals. Sonata No. 1 was given its first Danish performance by Axel Gade in 1918 and was posthumously dedicated to his memory. But the premiere in Stockholm two years earlier saw the 25-year-old Danish violinist Gunna Breuning-Storm as the soloist with the equally young composer at the piano.
Breuning-Storm was one of the few musicians who cultivated Langgaard’s music, and it was very likely with her in mind that Langgaard wrote another sonata for violin and piano (no. 2) in 1920-21. Breuning-Storm premiered the sonata with the composer in 1922 and played it a couple of times more in the 1920s, for example at an official Danish concert in Paris in 1923. Langgaard was not present there, but Carl Nielsen, who also had a work on the programme, was. In Sonata No. 2 Langgaard was clearly inspired by Nielsen’s robust musical idiom, which was integrated, however, in an experimental work in one movement, with stark contrasts. The sonata, along with other works from the years 1920-24 – Symphony No. 6, the opera Antichrist and String Quartet No. 3 – is one of Langgaard’s major works. It was published in Berlin in 1922.
Almost 25 years were to pass before Langgaard again contributed to the violin sonata genre. In the meantime he had changed course drastically and chosen on a neo-Romantic path, along lines laid down by composers like Schumann, Wagner, Grieg and Niels W. Gade. In 1940, with his wife Constance, he had moved from Copenhagen to Ribe to take up the post as organist and precentor in Ribe Cathedral. The 1930s had been a disheartening decade for the composer, and he had come to a halt as a composer. In Ribe his creativity returned, and in 1945 he wrote an ultra-short violin sonata in one movement consisting entirely of repetitions, a work which in subsequent years was expanded again and again until, in 1949, it appeared in five movements as Sonata No. 3. This is Langgaard in the one-sidedly Romantic, nostalgic vein. But the work was followed up by a succession of new works for violin and piano works, inspired by playing with the violinist Håkon Raskmark, who came to Ribe in 1946 as a teacher at the Ribe Teacher Training College. Langgaard and Raskmark played together privately, especially Romantic sonatas by among others César Franck and Schumann, whose late sonatas were clearly a source of inspiration for Langgaard. In the veritable ‘musical frenzy’ that struck Langgaard in 1947-49, he created 14 movements for violin and piano. The movements were composed singly or in pairs and partly incorporated in the above-mentioned Sonata No. 3, partly grouped in Sonata No. 4 and in Écrasez l’infâme, which are both ‘key works’ in Langgaard’s late production. Added to these was Short Violin Sonata (1949), and in 1950 followed Andante religioso, which was performed in Ribe the same year. Apart from this piece the works from the 1940s were not performed in public in Langgaard’s lifetime. Sonata No. 3 was given its first performance as late as 1995, and at the Rued Langgaard Festival in 2016 in Ribe one could for the first time hear the Sunday Sonata from 1949-50. The first two movements are for violin and piano, the last two for organ and orchestra.
Only Aubade and Sonata No. 2 were published in Langgaard’s time; the other violin works are recorded here from the Rued Langgaard Edition’s critical musical material published in 2002-04. The BVN numbers used refer to Bendt Viinholt Nielsen: Rued Langgaards Kompositioner. Annoteret værkfortegnelse. Rued Langgaard’s Compositions. An Annotated Catalogue of Works. With an English Introduction. Odense Universitetsforlag, 1991.
Écrasez l’infâme (1949)
In his later years Langgaard worked towards a succinct, concise mode of expression and made use of ‘extremification’ of the music as a device. All five short movements in Écrasez l’infâme thus have the character designation “Precisely and emphatically”. At the same time one finds ‘ theatrical’ features where utterances of various kinds confront one another as reciprocal comments or as expressions of contradictory ‘attitudes’. The title means “Crush the abomination” and is a quotation from François de Voltaire (1694-1778). With this battle cry Voltaire attacked superstition and fanaticism and – more generally – the power of religion. There can be no doubt that Langgaard uses the quotation in a polemical or ironic sense, for he is unlikely to have agreed with the views of the rationalist Voltaire. The oppositions inherent in the music can be said to reflect the paradox in this. A Romantic gesture à la Brahms (in the first movement) is bizarrely contrasted with an unpredictable, ‘wild’ gesture which must be conceived as representing destructive forces. But there is also a gleam of humour in all this. In the last movement a little melody makes a cautious appearance on the scene – as simple and pure as a children’s song – and in C major too. The melody perhaps symbolizes hope or ‘a new beginning’. But the composition seems to end in an open and unresolved way.
Movements 1-2 were composed in Ribe on 10-13 August 1949, and on 3 September at five in the morning the present fourth movement was completed. A couple of weeks later the third and fifth movements were added. The composition had its first performance in 1979.
Sonata (unfinished) (1909-11)
The first movement was written in 1909-10 and had its first performance on 12 February 1911 at a charity concert given in Copenhagen by royal concertmaster Axel Gade (Rued Langgaard’s uncle), who was accompanied by the composer. A new, revised fair copy was drawn up in the summer of 1911, when the sonata’s second, third and fourth movements were also sketched out. Of these only the Andante was completed, in October 1911. This movement was given its first performance separately by Axel Gade and Rued Langgaard – this was at a concert with an all-Langgaard programme at the church Garnisons Kirke in Copenhagen on 10 November 1911. Langgaard performed the piano part on the organ. The reviewers were by no means kindly inclined to either one or the other of the two violin movements, and neither of them was performed again in Langgaard’s time. At an early stage the sonata was called “unfinished” by Langgaard himself. Typically for the composer’s early works, the piano plays a rather dominating role. The first movement, in sonata form, is in B minor, and the rhythmically marked first subject recalls Carl Nielsen, but with the second subject Langgaard soon goes in a more Romantic, fantasizing direction. The Andante con espressione in D major is characterized by the ‘dark’ theme that is played on the G-string of the violin. One must assume that there is a point in the way the violin constantly makes the attempt to reach further upward and in the final apotheosis of the movement attains the purest clear light.
Short Violin Sonata (1949)
Langgaard’s ‘extremification’ of musical expression resulted in ultra-short works, including Symphony No. 11 (1944-45), which lasts less than six minutes. Short Violin Sonata is compacted in the extreme inasmuch as the ingenious composition comprises all the traditional sonata’s four movement types within just 57 bars: Allegro – Adagio – Scherzo – Finale. The succinctness of form is underlined by the way all the movements are repeated at their full length. Only the finale – with the character designation Frisk! (brisk, lively) has a decidedly pastiche-like character.
The composition was sketched out on New Year’s Day 1949 and fair-copied between 3.45 and 5 a.m. on 4 January. The violin part was given the following concluding comment: Whole fair-copy piano and fiddle finished 4/1 49 5 a.m. precisely. The work was given its first performance in 1981.
The title was originally Four Violin Psalms, meaning that each movement interpreted a biblical quotation from a Psalm of David. Langgaard gave the Bible references in his manuscript, but erased them later, although not consistently. It may therefore be relevant to know these quotations, which seem to have a highly personal background:
Allegro (Psalm 1, verse 6): “For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.”
Adagio (Psalm 2, verse 5): “Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.”
Scherzo (Psalm 3, verse 6): “I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about.”
Finale (Psalm 4, verse 7): “Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased.”
Sonata no. 4 (1949)
The first movement (in C major) begins with an ascending theme characteristic of Langgaard, which only falls calm after rising two octaves. The Romantic mood is soon shattered by disturbing elements in the form of rhythmically abrupt or ‘skewed’ motifs. A whole five times the movement starts over in an attempt to re-establish the idyll. It is as if a serious discussion of music is being held within the music, in which at one moment both instruments are promoting a common cause, while either the violin or the piano comes out with aggressive or offensive comments. The agenda for discussion concerns ascending versus descending melodic lines, and towards the ending the upward-climbing main theme finds its opposite in a simple descending scale. The movement ends on a chord of the seventh, a Langgaard specialty and presumably a symbol of the unfinished or the infinite. The following movement with the title Bøn (Prière) begins convincingly in F major and reaches a climax – after which it moves, searching uncertainly, in a new direction, also tonal, and ends rather surprisingly in a place as remote as C sharp major. After two short, humorous scherzo movements comes a final movement where the ‘unproblematic’ Romanticism is again confronted with certain ‘modernist’ features. The movement quotes the beginning of a well known Danish hymn tune – Du, Herre Krist, min Frelser est (Thou, Christ the Lord, my Saviour art) (A.P. Berggreen, 1852) – which is suddenly interrupted. The religious symbolism in this should perhaps be understood in connection with the title Parce nobis, Jesu! (Spare us, O Jesus) – taken from the Litany of the Sacred Name of Jesus of the Roman Catholic church. Belief (in the Romantic music) is challenged, but the final movement ends with great conviction in C major. The composition was begun at 4 a.m. on 18 February 1949, when the first and second movement were written, and ended as a three-movement form with the creation of the fifth movement on 27 February 1949. The third and fourth movements, which had been intended at the sketch stage as an independent work with the designation Sonata furiosa, were composed on 29 September 1949 (between 3 and 7 a.m.!) and shortly afterwards incorporated in the sonata. The first performance took place on Danish Radio in 1957.
© Bendt Viinholt Nielsen, 2016