In the realm of classical music, Rued Langgaard (1893–1952) is a composer who continues to surprise. Each encounter with his arch-Romantic oeuvre promises a departure into uncharted territory, a testament to his ever-evolving creative spirit. This holds particularly true of his songs to Danish texts, many of which are recorded here for the first time, performed by Louise McClelland Jacobsen and Kristian Riisager. In these songs, from his early days as a hyper-talented teenager through to his first works as a young visionary in his early twenties, we draw near to the essence of Langgaard, not only as a musical genius but as a human being.
The Soul-Ringing of Distant Bells
By Esben Tange
Rued Langgaard is a composer who surprises. Having experienced one of his works, it is very likely that the next one you encounter will be entirely different. This is true of his songs to Danish texts, some of which are now available for the first time on record. In these songs, from his early days as a hyper-talented teenager through to his first works as a young visionary in his early twenties, we come close to him, both as a composer and as a human being.
During this period Langgaard achieved the greatest success of his life, when his lengthy Symphony No. 1, Cliffside Pastorals was performed by the Berlin Philharmonic when he was just 19. A few months later, during the summer of 1913, Langgaard found himself in Kyrkult in Sweden, where he fell in love with Dora From, who was the same age as him. Their affections appeared mutual, but in the real world, Rued and Dora never became a couple. Instead, this encounter became a landmark, a bittersweet experience filled with melancholy and a dream about redemption. It is this potent range of emotions that can be found, in particular, in his songs to Danish texts.
Louise McClelland Jacobsen and Kristian Riisager during the recording of Songs © Alexander Banck-Petersen
In Fire sange (Four Songs) and Russiske sange (Russian Songs) we witness Rued Langgaard as a Romantic expressionist. Even if the musical language is backward looking, towards the world of yesterday in which Langgaard had been born, as an only child in a Victorian religious home in Copenhagen in the 1890s, he shows himself to be a composer filled with bold storytelling and strong emotional eruptions. This is most originally illustrated in the first of the Fire sange, in which we are thrown into an ecstatic dream world from the beginning of the first song, ‘Du blomst i dug’ (You dew-drenched flower).
In Sommer (Summer) and Sange af Jenny Blicher-Clausen (Songs by Jenny Blicher-Clausen) we experience, to a greater extent, Langgaard as an artist of mood, in which space and time are as one, and the eternity of the moment presents itself. As an impressionist, he allows his music to devour a single word, a thought or an image. Here, anything can happen. This is especially so in the song tone pictures of Sommer, for which Langgaard himself wrote the texts. In ‘Luften er svalet af torden og regn’ (‘The air is cooled by thunder and rain’), we sense the magic of a deserted room with gently fluttering curtains in the evening breeze.
Finally, there is also a selection of earlier songs that provide a glimpse into the thought-world that shaped the pure young Langgaard. Here, too, love is a keyword, but in contrast to the songs from a few years later, deeply felt love is not questioned.
Life stands at the ready in ‘Hvad lærken sang!’ (‘What the Lark Sang!’), composed by Langgaard when he was 15 years old. This Romantic text by Carl Andersen takes the viewpoint of a lark soaring high in the sky on a spring day, observing two lovers picking red roses. Upon closer examination, it becomes evident that the young man is plucking roses from the girl’s red mouth. With a text-aligned vocal line and a sparkling, brilliant piano part, Langgaard demonstrates his mastery of the Classical-Romantic song tradition perfectly.
Fire sange (Four Songs) originate from the early phase of Langgaard’s songwriting journey which had begun with his unhappy love for Dora, only to be followed by the death of his father, Siegfried, a few months later. This constituted a significant loss in multiple ways, given that Siegfried was the person with whom Langgaard had the strongest artistic connection. During this very period, Langgaard started to nurture a musical world that was both poetic and intimate, fostering a distinct appreciation for the emotional depth and spirituality inherent in poetry.
In the course of just a few years, Langgaard composed about 120 songs, and with Fire sange we are whirled directly into some of the most important of his themes: painful longing and farewell. It’s very clear in the first two songs, both to texts by the young J.P. Jacobsen. In the first composition, the verses are inspired by Jacobsen’s inaugural novella, offering us a glimpse into the profound yearning for love through the perspective of the young woman Thora, as she experiences the delicate sensation of a dew-covered flower. In the second song, the perspective is diametrically opposite. Here we find ourselves at the beloved Asalis’s grave, where all is lost, and nature laments the love that never came to fruition.
Purely musically, Langgaard conveys the two poles of ‘Du blomst i dug’ (‘You dew-drenched flower’) by crafting an aspirational, porous music in which the voice moves between extremes, from the ethereal to the most heartfelt. And in ‘Alle de voksende skygger’ (‘All the Deepening Shadows’) he allows the music to tiptoe stealthily, with a restrained, hovering piano accompaniment, adding an air of mystery to this graveside scene.
Langgaard originally imagined a trio of songs, in which ‘En sommerklang’(‘A Summer Sound’), featuring his own words, would follow the pair to texts by J.P. Jacobsen. With refined and ‘nacreous’ music, Langgaard unveils the fleeting nature of the poetic phrase, ‘summer sound’, turning himself towards distant horizons as he bids a nostalgic farewell to the summer.
Finally, Langgaard included ‘Gammel melodi’ (‘Old Melody’) as the penultimate song. Thor Lange’s text narrates a loving encounter on the dance floor. Still, it is intriguing that we hear the waltzing music as if through a veil. Despite the music’s sensuality, Langgaard was looking back in Fire sange: they represent a dream of a love that barely existed.
© Alexander Banck-Petersen.
In the eight Russiske sange (Russian Songs) we meet figures who are in thrall to their senses, each representing an emotional extreme. The texts are adaptions of poetry from, predominantly, Ukraine. They have the character of folk songs, engaging in a play with masks that has evidently resonated with Langgaard’s dramatic instincts. This is already clear in the first two songs.
The musical language in ‘Intet ly’ (‘No Shelter’) is archaic, chilling, and exudes deep loneliness. Grief sings out while two lost souls perish on the wild heath. ‘Sigøjnervise’ (‘Gypsy Song’) features, by contrast, explosive music. A sparkling piano voice ignites the singer and sets the cosmos in motion. With a text which tells of an ‘I’ who ‘stands on Heaven’s arch, igniting Earth and Sea in bright flames’, a direct line is drawn to Langgaard’s doomsday opera, Antikrist, in which ‘the great whore’ makes the stars to fall into a ‘nocturnal abyss’.
In the two songs which follow, we meet a Rued Langgaard in great mental form. ‘Flugt’ (‘Flight’) offers furious light music, in which we follow a young girl who sprints through whipping rain to meet her lover. In ‘Mens du kan, kys mildt på mund’(‘While You Still Can, Kiss on the Lips’) the sun breaks through, accompanied by mild rocking bells ringing as the girl recounts a heart that blossoms and the joy of being kissed tenderly on the mouth as long as love endures. All this is swept away in the following song, ‘Sus ikke for mig’ (‘Don’t rustle for me’), in which a mournful soul, accompanied by a tragic, dark musical backdrop, implores nature to be quiet.
In the next two songs we experience two widely different portraits of young women. ‘Dansemelodi’ (‘Dance Tune’) is about a girl with many lovers, and the mood is high. Lively accents drive the music forward until the exuberant narrative reaches an abrupt ending when the girl’s parents grab and physically punish their disobedient daughter. In ‘Stakkels, stakkels lille pige’ (‘Poor, Poor Young Girl’), all hope is lost from the very first note. To an accompaniment in the sombre minor, in which the notes fall like heavy steps towards the grave, we meet a disillusioned young girl for whom love has been lost. In the last Russian song, ‘Ak, du tid’ (‘Ah Time’), the point of view is once again that of a lark, singing joyously high in the sky. But this time, the happiness is only present as a contrast. Despite the proud waltzing music, we are confronted with a defeat: the 23-year-old Langgaard looks back, here, at the time that has passed and the love that remained unfulfilled.
In the autumn of 1915, Langgaard composed a series of songs to poems by the Norwegian Vilhelm Krag who, as a neo-romantic, cultivated subjective experiences, feelings and imagination. This is notably so of ‘Vi tænkte slet ikke på nogen ting’ (‘Our thoughts were simply on nothing at all’). In this work, Langgaard crafted a melodramatic scene. In the introduction, where the music is light and lively, we meet an untroubled pair of lovers in the midst of a bright summer evening. But the next day, everything has changed. Now dark autumn shadows envelop the musical setting, and death takes the deserted young man by the arm. This is Gothic eeriness in a miniature form.
‘Min moder’ (‘My Mother’) and ‘Jeg beder ej om guldets glød’ (‘I do not ask for gold’s bright glow’), are love-filled songs composed by Rued Langgaard as a young teenager. Filled with tenderness, ‘Min moder’ focuses on a mother’s love and pure-hearted gratitude for life. ‘Jeg beder ej om guldets glød’ was composed a year later when Langgaard was 14 and reveals Langgaard’s future expression of an inner yearning for love. Through the interplay between the harmonically rich piano part and the vocal line, this song exemplifies authentic Lieder-art. It serves as a pivotal piece, bearing witness to the depths of Rued Langgaard’s heart.
In the four song-tone-pictures Sommer (Summer), Rued Langgaard takes us on holiday to Skåne in Sweden. The texts of the first three songs were written by Langgaard in July 1917, in the Swedish health-spa town Tyringe, and in the final song, we find ourselves on the ferry approaching the harbour in Helsingborg. Langgaard started composing the music in November, looking back at the summer as though through a shaken mirror. One moment, we witness a realistic reportage; the next, perception turns into pure emotion. In ‘Byger drager med regn og plask’ (‘Swiftly showers pass splashing by’), which Langgaard originally marked, ‘Smiling with an undercurrent of ecstacy’, the focal point is the anticipatory excitement before the reception of a guest who arrives on the train in showery weather. With animated repetitions in the piano, the composer builds excitement, prompting the singer to gaze upward, dreaming of the blue sky and an early dance.
The glance is also turned towards the sky in ‘Aftnen svøber sin skumringskåbe’ (‘Evening wraps its cloak of twilight’). The piano creates the illusion of bell-ringing while, with paper-thin music, Langgaard quietly conjures a magical atmosphere. With an upward-striving melodic line and a text that speaks of a ‘muted oscillation from the soul-ringing of distant bells’’ we find ourselves immersed in a religious sphere.
The magic culminates in ‘Luften er svalet af torden og regn’ (‘The air is cooled by thunder and rain’). With a solemn piano accompaniment in which the notes flow continuously, the music gains weight. At the same time, the composer paints a picture of an empty room and lost love. We find ourselves in the transition between evening and night, where nature ‘hums of summer and farewell’. The sensation of abandonment is monumental.
In the closing song, ‘Solblink, vajende flag’ (‘Glinting sun, waving flags’), the grip is loosened. With gently rippling music, Langgaard gives himself up to a childhood’s excited arrival in Helsingborg. It’s a blend of nostalgia and modernity, infused with humour. The underlying tone is Romantic, but with a sudden leaping melody and a whimsical advertising slogan, ‘Mazettis Ögonkakao’ (‘Mazetti’s Eye Cocoa’), we are transported into a Cubist world, where reality is turned on its head in delightful surprise.
© Alexander Banck-Petersen
The five Sange af Jenny Blicher-Clausen (Songs by Jenny Blicher-Clausen) are profound soul music with finely crafted poems originating from Blicher-Clausen’s verse novel, Violin. Et nutidsdigt med et forspil og intermezzoer (Violin. A Poem of the Present with a Prelude and Intermezzi) (1900). This romantically charged text is about a woman who, bound in a marriage, feels stifled as an artist, which clearly resonated with Langgaard, who, after a year of dramatic emotional fluctuations, now faced the experience of loneliness.
The songs were sketched in the course of three March days in 1914; not having composed songs to Danish texts for six years, Langgaard now combines language and song in a refined manner. Like a hypnotist, Langgaard works with repetitions and minimal shifts, which appeal to a broad range of senses. In the first song, ‘Det rinder med dug’ (‘The dew is running’), this is expressed through the imagery of dew, which flows gently in both the piano and the text, revolving around tears and drops of blood, catching ‘a thousand colours in the shadow’. From here it opens into the mind’s innermost part, where all thoughts vanish in a ‘cry for happiness’ in an art form in which nature and the psyche are closely bound.
This also applies to a high degree in the third song, ‘Du natsværmerdronning fine’ (‘You queen moth so fine’), where we experience a poetic synthesis as the most delicate, fragile dreams merge with the dust from nocturnal moth wings. Here, in the midst of the night, mystery prevails, and the musical language is hushed. Before and after ‘Du natsværmerdronning fine’ Langgaard has placed two songs with the same text: ‘Alle de små klokker de ringe i dale’ (‘All the small bells they ring in the valleys’). In the first, we hear an illusion, the sound of bright morning bells, and in the other, the sonorous bells of the evening, that chime again and again at a tranquil pace. This is music of eternity, painting a landscape, a valley in a distant mountain region. Nature becomes a church in which one can immerse their soul.
The final song, ‘Og det var den mørke blåregn’ (‘There was dark wisteria growing’), is an elegy in which thoughts of the unhappy are gathered in a dense, dark blue rain, pierced by rose thorns. The piano is, again, the vehicle for a bell-concert, this time with the finest silver bells which gradually die down and become one with the stars – at the same time a crucifixion and a resurrection in the hereafter.