Piano Works Vol. 4
Piano Works Vol. 4
Listening to Rued Langgaard’s works for solo piano is like reading an open book. All through his life, Langgaard had a close relationship with the piano and composed well over 50 works for the instrument, in which his development as a composer, and as a person, can be traced step by step. In this fourth volume of piano works, Berit Johansen Tange captures the fierce inner life of Langgaard, his charm and incomparable twists in colour and mood that are all part of the composer’s both delicate and visionary expression.
By Esben Tange
Listening to Rued Langgaard’s works for solo piano is like reading an open book. All through his life, Langgaard had a close relationship with the piano and composed well over 50 works for the instrument, in which his development as a composer, and as a person, can be traced step by step.
Sarabande and Stambogsblad (‘Family Album Leaf’), which are from Rued Langgaard’s early teens when, with a view from a late nineteenth century apartment in Copenhagen’s Gammelholm quarter just by the Royal Theatre, he wrote dreamy soulful music. These are followed by Scherzo and Sonata No. 2, Ex est, in which Langgaard turns towards the modern world while looking back towards older musical forms, then Flammekamrene (‘The Chambers of Flames’) and Expression, which glow with expressionism shot through with gothic unease and a longing for eternity.
Finally, there are the two sets of Blomstervignetter (‘Flower Vignettes’) which are, respectively the first and last great work Langgaard composed for the piano. The early set were composed shortly after the high point in his career, when the 19 year old composer had his Symphony No. 1, Cliffside Pastorals, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic with great success. The late set of Flower Vignettes was composed in 1951 in Ribe, far from Copenhagen, where as church organist, Langgaard had a late flowering. In this work, written the year before his death, the music is pared down, an entirely unpretentious music in which only pure thought is left.
It is true of all these works that they are music which has been composed ‘outside time and place’. They are aberrations from a sensitive soul who restored the nineteenth century’s Romanticism on the twentieth century’s ground.
Flower Vignettes, BNV 56 (1913)
Like the Dutch renaissance painters who loved to portray flowers as amongst the loveliest expression of Nature’s beauty and God’s creative power, Rued Langgaard had a special love of flowers. In the ‘Mountain Flowers’ movement of his Symphony No. 1, Langgaard paraphrases some of the most spiritual passages from Wagner’s operas, Tannhäuser and Parsifal, and in his visionary magnum opus, Music of the Spheres, in the section entitled ‘Blumenevangelium’ (‘Flower-Gospel’) he employs an orchestra in the distance to suggest a dream world full of happiness.
We can add that flowers possess all those qualities to which the sensibility of Romanticism relates. They shoot up suddenly, they are beautiful, often have strong colours – a picture of a fierce inner life – and their flowering is brief, as fleeting as a fickle mind. It’s agitation which is to the fore in ‘Rødtjørn’ (Red Hawthorn), the first movement of the early Flower Vignettes. It is uncompromising doom-laden music in which a four-note falling motive, whipped up by accents, is repeated again and again.
Using skewed rhythmic accents, Langgaard creates an unsteady swinging musical ground, a mad expression, familiar from the music of Robert Schumann. Actually Schumann, to whom Langgaard felt he was artistically related, provided a template for ‘Red Hawthorn’ in his Blumenstück : Schumann’s piece is also built from a four-note falling motive. But Schumann’s piece is tender, fragrant with happy love, where Langgaard goes his own way with a dark coloured and fatalistic expression.
The red hawthorn does indeed have thorns, and it is as though Langgaard, when he composed this music in May 1913, guessed that later, the following summer, he would experience an unhappy love that would follow him for the rest of his life. This connection between music and life did, at any rate, seem clear to Langgaard in the autumn of 1913, when he used a stanza from a poem by Frederik Paludan-Müller in his Flower Vignettes:
Out of the wounded heart
Thoughts flow whilst I bleed to death:
It is with those thoughts I feed,
Sounding children of the muted pain!
Seen from this perspective, the two following Flower Vignettes, ‘Aakande’ (‘Water Lily’) and ‘Forglemmigej’ (‘Forget-me-not’) have the character of aftershock and mourning. ‘Water lily’, which has to be played slowly and plaintively, is deceptively beautiful, with swaying melodic fragments circling around small but painful dissonances. ‘Forget-me-not’ resembles a chorale-hymn, with its cool major-mode sound, a quiet call to not be forgotten. Finally, ‘Tusindfryd’ (‘Daisy’) follows, a gracious, rapidly running music with soft nuances which spring up from below. It is cheerful spring music with splinters of sunlight that bring a signal of a return to life.
Sonata No. 2, Ex est , BVN 222 (1934–1945)
Langgaard gave his second piano sonata the title ‘Ex est’ (it is over) only late in his life. Earlier its title had been ‘Helsingborg’, a reference to the Swedish town which Langgaard had visited frequently on his journeys to Kullen, a regular source of inspiration and full of happy memories. The Swedish connection is especially evident in the substantial first movement. Over and over again, a short theme from Langgaard’s own song, Vergeblich (in vain), pops up; Langgaard originally took the theme from Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, known as the Rhenish. It is made of just three notes, B, G and A, which can be heard first at 10 seconds, where they answer the roaring opening chords.
Langgaard composed Vergeblich in August 1913 during a visit to the spa town Kyrkhult in Blekinge, southern Sweden, prompted by an unhappy love affair with a young woman called Dora From. The memory of Dora and the experience of losing her left its musical traces in a long line of Langgaard’s works, including this second sonata, which was composed more than 20 years after the events in Kyrkhult. The three notes that appear most frequently at the end of the phrases convey a bittersweet tone to the music, creating thoughtfulness in music which is otherwise lyrical and for its time adventurously dreamy. This change remains until the last part of the movement, when Langgaard, with majestically hard-striking sounds, introduces something that resembles a funeral march before allowing the piece to end abruptly with a series of repetitions of the Vergeblich-theme.
The pessimism, which has been standing ready to take power in the first movement, is released in the second movement, which is to be performed strepitoso (boisterously). Where the first movement was dominated by F major, which Langgaard associated with enjoyable things and to divine times, he drags the music down in a diabolically coloured minor world from the beginning of the second movement. Its expression is restless, characterized by rapid shifts between registers and crazy breaks which run into an absurd, halting dance. At the same time there is a reminiscence of salon music, and of the musical grotesques who appear in the opera, Antikrist. In this preposterous spirit, the music explodes at the end of the movement, burning up from the inside.
Sonata No. 2, which was first performed only in 1984, was composed in 1934, and then consisted of three movements. Langgaard’s manuscript was lost, as it was not returned to him after its submission to an art competition which was connected to the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. Langgaard recomposed the lost music in the early 1940s, in 1945 adding a wholly new movement. This now forms the third movement of the sonata and adds a new dimension to the work. It is a kind of eternity-music, with a swaying hymn-like melody, a movement rich in church voices. It is music made to rise beneath the arches of Ribe Cathedral where Langgaard now worked. Marked anagogico, which comes from Greek and describes an ascent of mystical character towards the ever-after, it introduces the hope of something different, and better, in the afterlife.
In the last movement, the finale, we have a thoughtful return to the land of memories. With music that is fiery, celebratory and capricious, Langgaard recalls the intoxicated expectant happiness of childhood and youth at the thought of an imminent journey, for him, most often, to Helsingborg.
Sarabande, BNV 6 (1906)
Rued Langgaard was 12 when he composed Sarabande. The piece was published by Wilhelm Hansen in an anthology which introduced the Copenhagen wonder-child to a wider public. The choice of this solemn dance, which the young composer unfolds in a romantically coloured musical language, shows him already in love with the serious. In a calm singing central section, the young Rued shows that the lyrical is also part of his musical character.
Stambogsblad, BVN 38 (1909)
Stambogsblad (‘Family Album Leaf’) was written when the now 15 year old Langgaard was occupied with composing his Symphony No. 1, Cliffside Pastorals. Like the symphony, the piano piece shows its Wagnerian inspiration. With long drawn-out bass lines that are played, at first, with a mute, Langgaard lays weight on the mystic and a holiday atmosphere. Add to that a distinctly dramatic sense that unfolds during the piece’s climax built up with tremolo, hinting at Langgaard’s affection for the ecstatic.
Scherzo, BVN 186 (1925)
Until he came to write his String Quartet No. 3 in 1924, Rued Langgaard cultivated a musical language that explored boundaries, in which the traditional musical forms were on the verge of dissolution. From then, Langgaard took a compositional U-turn which can be heard here in the Scherzo, as well as in other pieces. Originally conceived as part of the first sonata, the Scherzo was eventually separated and became a movement on its own. With an effective harmonic treatment, it is as though Langgaard was trying to resurrect the lost Romanticism. The Scherzo is a lightly running delicate piano piece, rich in charm and dramatic ripples and a central section to be played Giocoso baldo (with self-evident joy): this is a piece of playful music which paints a picture of the heroes and heroines of the past.
Flammekamrene, BVN 221 (1930-1937)
In the fantasy for piano, Flammekamrene (‘The Chambers of Flames’), Langgaard takes up his childhood fascination with Copenhagen’s gaslights and their flickering light, which also form a central part of the scenery in his apocalyptic opera, Antikrist. In The Chambers of Flames, we are in hell, where the flames consume poor souls as they do in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is the literary backdrop to Langgaard’s music.
The Chambers of Flames was composed in one of the darkest periods of Rued Langgaard’s life, when he fought in vain to get Antikrist performed. As though it was a kind of musical voodoo, in The Chambers of Flames he used the piece to attack his opponents, those who stood in the way of his music being performed. Right from the beginning, the music steps downwards on a musical ‘ladder’ swept with dark harmonies en route to the extreme. With a bloodless whirling music, we are cast down in the chambers in which ‘false counsellors’, as they are described by Dante, are doomed to burn like tongues of fire between the fissures in the cliffs. With virtuosity, musical garlands unfold as we see how the glowing red tongues of fire are consuming the poor sinners, for whom there is no in prospect. Towards the end, we find ourselves back to the same despondency as at the outset.
Expression, BVN 242 (1930, 1932, 1939)
In Expression too, Langgaard took a text as his starting point. This time it was ‘Elijah in the storm’ from the first book of Kings in the Old Testament, in which the prophet Elijah goes up on God’s mountain, Horeb. Elijah is struck by a storm, earthquakes and fire, and the Lord is nowhere to be found. He, meanwhile, is to be found in a quiet sound that follows. For Langgaard this narrative was a picture, showing that most of the music which caught the attention of his contemporaries lacked spirituality. The spirit hid itself, instead, in subdued music of the time.
At first Langgaard tackled this story in a work for organ called Elias i uvejret (‘Elijah in the Storm’). He then reworked the music so that it could be played on either harmonium or piano, and gave it the new title, Expression. Here we may believe that it was, especially, the beauty of the hymn which came from high, after the first three short sections, where Langgaard with shreiking dissonances and cascades of notes, paints the godless weather in its three forms (storm, earthquake and fire). It is in the closing music that God is revealed, a weightless swaying music that begins towards the end and rings out in peaceful F major, the key of the holy.
Blomstervignetter, BVN 424 (1951)
In June 1951, when Langgaard wrote another set of Flower Vignettes , he was casting a glance back towards his youth. He had been weakened by a stroke earlier in the year, and Flower Vignettes was to be his final significant work. The titles, keys, pace and melodic openings are the same as those in the first set of Flower Vignettes, written in 1913, but something is missing. The tempo, dynamic and phrasing is not noted in the manuscript. Langgaard had only composed a naked skeleton: the final form of the music had been left for his successors to complete.
The overwhelming impression the music creates is one of resignation, bathed in beauty. This is especially so in the first piece, ‘Red Hawthorn’, where Langgaard uses the notes D and C#, a minor second, to begin a descending figure which introduces a falling theme. That theme stretches over more than just four notes, as in Schumann’s Blumenstück and in the 19 year old Langgaard’s red hawthorn music. At 58, Rued Langgaard goes the whole way, and lets the music fall an entire octave. This is now music without thorns. With a calm accompaniment in which the pianist’s left hand travels up towards the right, the melody is decorated and creates a wonderfully beautiful though painful music.
In ‘Water Liliy’ Langgaard has created a unique, cool singing music in a bright major, a distant echo of the first ‘Water Liliy’. Langgaard limits the music’s outreach in time, but with a melody which stretches both up and down, sharing out the musical space.
As in the other movements, in ‘Forget-me-not’ Langgaard repeats the theme from the 1913 version. The wish to not be forgotten is now more urgent. The character of the music is still pleading, but now with a weaker and more humble voice. And this time the music aspires upwards. Despite his physical breakdown and increasing isolation, Langgaard cultivated the light to a greater degree in this, the last year of his life. His aspiration is strongest in his last symphony, Syndflod af Sol (‘Sun Deluge’), composed a few months before the late Flower Vignettes.
Flower Vignettes close happily with ‘Daisy’. The music is a sweet lullaby and unfolds a little trill motive which derives from the summer of 1913 and is tied to the naïve happiness that was a part of his love for Dora. At the close, the music evaporates in the highest register, as Langgaard leaves poetry and light with the last word.