Music of the Abyss
Music of the Abyss
★★★★★ »Simply the most beautiful piece I have listened to in a very long time« Sydsvenskan
Nominated for the P2 Prize 2022, Classical Album of the Year
Rued Langgaard’s (1893-1952) inner division can be experienced at its extreme in the chamber music written between 1913 and 1924, in which the secure world of his youth is undercut by a dark musical understream. This is most apparent in the work for piano, Music of the Abyss, which is presented here in a transcription for chamber ensemble by Allan Gravgaard Madsen (born 1984) of which this is the first recording. This meeting between Langgaard and Gravgaard brings to a climax the work’s view of modern man’s destructive strength in a crazy ride towards the abyss.
Music of the Abyss
By Esben Tange
Rued Langgaard was divided, both as man and as composer. We experience this, manifest to an extreme, in the chamber music for winds, strings and voice he wrote between 1913 and 1924, while he was in his 20s. During this period his personal view of the world changed radically, following his upbringing in the protected bourgeois milieu of Copenhagen, characterised by romantic ideals.
Rued Langgaard experienced the greatest success in his life, in the Spring of 1913, when he was 19. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra performed his large-scale Wagner-inspired Symphony No 1, Cliff Pastoral , to an excited audience and he received high praise in the descriptions in the press following the event. After an international debut like this, it was clear to everyone that the young Copenhagen composer was an unusual compositional talent at the beginning of an adventure.
But when Rued Langgaard’s greatest supporter, his father Siegfried Langgaard, died in January 1914, his circumstances changed, and the young composer was hit by both personal and artistic difficulties which continued into the following year.
In the two works for string trio, Augustinusiana. A musical joke and Scherzo on the Motifs C A and ‘Ach du lieber Augustin’, we are still in the safe world of his youth. This is also true of the Septet for winds, which incorporates an element of Danish folk music and is backward-looking, written in the language of the musical classics, a compositional preference of his which, to the surprise of his contemporaries, he maintained for the rest of his life.
Things had changed a few years later. In Lenau Moods and Mountain Flowers for voice and string quartet, atmospheric art of the most refined kind, the personal crisis Rued Langgaard lived through can be sensed as a dark musical understream. As in his visionary great work from the same period, Music of the Spheres, Langgaard immerses himself in a magical dream world in which nature’s sights, his inner existential battle and religious presentiments are all part of his musical texture.
Music of the Abyss , originally written for piano, is presented here in an arrangement for the Esbjerg Ensemble. It and Humoresque were written at the beginning of the 1920s, when Langgaard was deeply absorbed in work on his apocalyptic opera, Antichrist. Using expressionistic words and sounds, Langgaard flayed modern human delusions of grandeur while at the same time setting himself apart from Danish musical life more and more. From his position as an outsider, Langgaard now composed music in which the demonic played a leading role in stretching between ecstatic manifestations of life and the deepest existential fall into the abyss.
During the course of three summer days in 1915, while he was staying in the beautifully set Tyringe Bathing Sanatorium in Skåne, Southern Sweden, Langgaard composed his Septet for wind, which has the character of a carefree summer fantasy. The presence of an extra clarinet and a horn added to the normal classical wind quintet give the work a somewhat orchestral quality, apparent from the outset, while the music is driven forward by marked rhythms.
The traditional sounding music can sound, at first, musically anachronistic, but each section is sharply separated by clear fractures which resemble similar elements in contemporary cubist art.
When the Danish psalm melody, ‘Nu hviler mark og enge’ (built on Heinrich Isaac’s ‘Innsbruch, ich muss dich lassen’) is heard in an organically formed andantino section, it is with a moving intensity that reflects the old texts’ confidence and belief in a heavenly peace in the hereafter. There is both witchcraft and whispering in the treetops when, in other sections, the wind instruments are set free in their shared journey.
Despite the work being a compound of various elements, the music of the Septet for wind has its own internal balance. In sharp contrast is a letter Langgaard wrote a few days after completing it: he signs off a letter to his cousin with the words, ‘You and many others are lucky to be healthy, normal people who ride bicycles and just live their life’.
Augustinusiana, a musical joke
Like the Scherzo on the Motifs C A and ’Ach du lieber Augustin’, Augustinusiana is written for the unusual combination of two violins and cello. Both works were written with private performance in mind, at the home of the tobacco manufacturer Christian Augustinus in Charlottenlund, north of Copenhagen. Augustinus and his wife, Louise were related to Langgaard, who had often stayed with them as a child. Augustinus was a patron of Langgaard’s, for example supporting the first performance of the first Symphony in Berlin.
Augustinusiana comprises a series of grotesque scenes from the Augustinus family’s home, ranging from a ball scene with a lusty waltz to a situation characterised by great sadness in the movement Andante tranquillo sostenuto, whose end is marked ‘to be played as though in a deep sleep’.
Augustinusiana is music of the moment, whose musical expression is frequently transformed radically, without warning, and in which the cello especially appears as the principal disturber of the peace, with sudden marked musical commentaries. It is a musical character sketch of the Augustinus home, filled with a friendly humorous mood and at the same time a lively picture of the unstable mental state that was, for good or bad, possessed by its composer.
At flowering time
From the age of 20 and in the years which followed, Langgaard composed a wealth of songs in widely differing styles, from the stormy romantic to the most intimate. The songs recorded here, ‘At flowering time’ and ‘Lenau Moods’, are distinctive because the four accompanying strings give the composer the opportunity to write an especially deep and nuanced music which closely reflects the spiritual content of the texts.
In the two hymns which make up ‘At flowering time’, we find ourselves in a religious sphere: the texts by the Norwegian author Alvilde Prydz originate from a group of poems originally called ’Devotion’ and ‘In church’. In the first song, now beginning with the words ‘Bells ring over the town’, the music is rich in light and shade, a refined synthesis in which bells, twilight and fantastic images run together, being praised by the arrival of summer.
In the second song, ‘Calm Organ Sound’, Langgaard expresses himself on a subject with which he had a close relationship: he was not just an organist; he also had a clear sense that the organ played a decisive role in the religious atmosphere. In an interview many years later, he said, ‘Church music must be atmospheric’, and ‘the organ is the poetry in the church’.
At any rate, ‘Calm Organ Sound’ is characterised by its dynamics and contrasts, which serve a higher objective that has to do with a happy unease which culminates in a proclamation of the organ sound’s capacity to carry a ‘strong dream about God!’.
Scherzo on the Motifs C A and ‘Ach, du lieber Augustin’
The sister work to Augustinusiana is more convivial in tone, and contains a flash of salon music. It is a chamber musical idyll which can remind us, in miniature form, of those of Richard Strauss’s tone poems in which he paints a picture of his own family’s private life. Here, with Langgaard, we’re back at the home of the Augustinus family. The notes C and A (chosen to represent the host, Christian Augustinus, who is thus literally woven into the music) are at play, in retrograde too, at the beginning of the main theme, and are presented as early as the second bar. The experience of bourgeois harmony is challenged, however, when Langgaard asks the two deepest voices to be phrased in an ‘indignant’ way, in contrast to the main melody which, with natural self-confidence unfolds in broadly singing long melodic lines. The Viennese folk melody ‘Ach, du lieber Augustin’, which also popped up briefly in Augustinusiana, and which H.C. Andersen quotes in his adventure, Svinedrengen (The Swineherd), introduces a contrasting and alien energy.
But like the bitter-sweet story about the cheerful ballad singer Augustin, we find that everything suddenly falls away, so Ach du lieber Augustin only has our musical attention for a brief moment. When the notes C and A return, played with an affectionately gentle sound in both violin parts, peace returns, even more than at the outset.
With texts by Thor Lange, who was inspired by the romantic poet Nikolaus Lenau, the religious plays an important part in the Lenau Moods, as it did in ‘At flowering time’. Here, though, it is experienced through a veil of decay characterised by ‘weltschmerz’, melancholy and religious trust.
The first of the Lenau Moods songs paints a sensitive picture of an autumnal scene, touched by a longing for death. The musical language is quiet, with rocking melodic fragments which are repeated again and again in parallel to the text, which describes the leaves that gently fall. The effect is suggestive, and with music dominated by light transparent harmonies which circle around the subject of longing for death, and come to rest in a transfigured translucence in Bleg, stille falmen alle vegne.
Something similar is in evidence in the last of the songs, Sol derovre går til hvile, which also focuses on the mental state of saying farewell, with thoughts of a youth which has passed, while the sun goes down. In musical terms we are guided downwards towards the night by a steadily falling song of eternity. With a quartet movement resembling a psalm and the text’s promise of a star’s fire in the distance, the song is born of a deep religious trust.
In the central song of the group, the religious is exchanged for a nerve-stretched decadence. In Gennem krat og dunkle bregner we are witness to a night scene by a deeply wooded lakeside that harbours a ‘flood of half-forgotten song’ and is sensed from ‘sukkes boblelyd på stille vand’ (sighs’ bubbling sound on still water). Speaking purely musically, too, we are on uncertain ground with pizzicato notes which start in the depths of the cello, rise into the air and enter a dynamic exchange with the other deep voices below the melody.
Following the decadent mood of foreboding which dominatesGennem krat og dunkle bregner, the nervous mood carries over to Vindstød over søen fare, where the sonic picture is agitated and the music is whipped up by quivering instruments. In this crisis-music, we experience a searching soul, one who has lost their orientation on a stormy night. ‘God’s starlight’ gives way to ‘black shadows, cold shivers’.
Humoreske is unusually double-edged music, composed in a period when Rued Langgaard had just finished Antikrist. He was waiting, excited, for an answer from the Royal Danish Theatre saying whether they would perform the opera, which would later be seen as one of his most important works. Langgaard waited in vain.
Langgaard’s original title for this new piece was ‘Symphony’, but he changed the name to Humoreske while waiting to hear from the Royal Theatre. The choice of instruments is unusual: a wind quintet in which the horn is replaced by a cor anglais, giving extra intensity and a dark colour to the sound. Langgaard also added a military drum. Like the side-drum in Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5, which received its first performance with great success shortly before Langgaard wrote Humoreske, the drum has a destructive role in the piece.
It was during this year that Carl Nielsen’s standing as Denmark’s great composer was established, while Rued Langgaard was perceived as a musical eccentric, despite the fact that during this period he composed some of his most weighty and innovative works. In a way, we find all of this here, in Humoreske. The world’s evil, in play in Antikrist, and the experience of a personal rejection, appropriate themes for a symphony, but here they hide behind the more non-committal title Humoreske, allowing free play to the absurd.
First we hear a chorale, marked ‘Solenne Crudele’ (really ugly), far from peaceful, more like the introduction to a black mass. Then follows a series of variations, but not cheerful ones like those in the variation finale of Carl Nielsen’s wind quintet, based on the well-loved chorale, Min Jesus, lad mit hjerte få. At the climax of Langgaard’s movement is a ‘Fuga con disperatezza’ (Fugue with desperation) in which the flute is isolated amongst a crazy, hysterical run in the high register, in conflict and competition with the other instruments. This is a picture of a soul in pain.
In the second part of Humoreske, which begins with a clarinet solo, the music flows with a charming lightness, but something lurks below the surface. It is to be played ‘Semplice lusinghiero’ (simply, flatteringly). It is music that awakens false hope, and which, in the end, bears the commentary of the military drum, ‘Lento minaccioso’ (slow and threatening). Humoresques are most frequently humorous and innocent. That is not the case here.
Music of the Abyss
Like Humoreske, the piano piece Afgrundsmusik is closely related to Antikrist. Rued Langgaard’s first inspiration for the opera came to him on a trip to Venice in early Spring, 1921. It was during his stay in the city of canals that Langgaard began to compose Music of the Abyss, and as with the opera, in it he engaged with some of the most destructive cancers of his time, of existence.
‘The Abyss is taken here as the strongest expression of the idea of evil. “The philosophy” is not immediately brought to the idea that Music is a spontaneous expression of “life” ’, said Langgaard in 1924.
This statement by Langgaard, made when Music of the Abyss had been completed, expresses a contradiction: this description of the abyss is closely related to the idea of ‘the individual’s megalomania’ which Langgaard presents in Antikrist. Here, for a time, he lets Antikrist rule in the world, in the hope that evil and human egocentricity will die, once and for all. At the same time, Langgaard is referring to Carl Nielsen’s motto in relation to his Symphony No. 4, that ‘music is life, which cannot be extinguished’, which contains the belief that music has a strength of its own.
A drama unfolds in the first section of Music of the Abyss, in which Langgaard introduces an aggressive motive borrowed from Liszt’s B minor sonata, hammered out, which stands, unintegrated with the loudly played choral theme. The religiously-coloured music is torn apart by foaming insanity which concludes in the Liszt motif towards the end of the Music of the Abyss, swiping everything else away during the course of a hysterical ride.
Music of the Abyss is amongst Rued Langgaard’s most expressive works; it is as if he sought to blow apart its instrumental movements from within, to overstep the physical possibilities of the piano. Allan Gravgaard Madsen’s transcription for the Esbjerg Ensemble’s members (wind quintet, percussion and string quartet) adds new dimensions to this inner tension.
The richly coloured exchanges between the wind instruments and the strings in the first movement emphasise the music’s flattering and attractive character, and in the strength of the xylophone, which according to Gravgaard Madsen can sound ‘ghostly, like dead bones that rustle’, a Gothic shiver can be felt to an even higher degree. The restless manic repetitions in the second movement have a more all-encompassing character because of the strengthened instrumental setting. As the musical space widens, so the music feels more claustrophobic: it is clear that an inextinguishable craziness of fire is burning in this music.