Symphonies 2 & 6
Symphonies 2 & 6
Rued Langgaard (1893–1952) was the major Danish late-Romantic composer who did not gain recognition in his mother country. His greatest successes took place in Germany and Austria, where his Symphonies Nos. 2 and 6 were met with considerable acclaim. Back home, he never received that kind of backing. He died a careworn and despairing individual. At the same time things were going swimmingly for his colleague Jacob Gade (1879–1963) whose ‘Tango Jalousie’ has become the absolutely most frequently played piece of Danish music for almost a century.
Langgaard in Vienna
by Jens Cornelius
Rued Langgaard (1893–1952) was the major Danish late–Romantic composer who did not gain recognition in his mother country. There were many reasons for this, Langgaard’s personal idiosyncrasies in particular, but especially the fact that in a modern age he retained a Romantic conception of art.
His greatest successes took place in Germany and Austria, where such works as his Symphonies Nos. 2 and 6 were met with considerable acclaim. Back home, he never received that kind of backing. On the contrary, his position in Denmark went from bad to worse, and he died a careworn and despairing individual, with practically no support in Danish musical life. On this recording from Vienna, one is, therefore, able to hear Langgaard’s music ‘return home’ to a central European musical culture which in many ways was more congenial to him than the anti-Romantic Denmark in which he lived.
Symphony No. 2 ‘Awakening of Spring’
Rued Langgaard was born to be a composer. He possessed an exceptional musical talent and he never forgot his first intense encounter with Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ – which he heard in his pram at the age of one! His parents, who were musicians and fired by religious visions, soon came to the conclusion that their son had a prophetic flair. Rued, their only child, was to fulfill music’s mission.As a composer, he was practically self-taught, and already at an extremely young age, he was a master of his craft. His gigantic Symphony No. 1, ‘Pastorals of the Rocks’ written when he was a teenager, was given its first performance by the Berlin Philharmonic and Max Fiedler at a triumphal concert in 1913. Langgaard felt that the world was open to his art.
Langgaard’s Symphony No. 2, ‘Awakening of Spring’ from 1912–14 differs considerably from his Symphony No. 1, but nevertheless, it clearly bears his personal stamp. Here the episodic is the characteristic trait, as is often typical of his music, and the dichotomy that makes his life’s work so compelling: the split between norms and unrest, between the real and the spiritual world.
In a short note on Symphony No. 2, Langgaard takes as his departure the famous final lines of Goethe’s Faust: “ ‘Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis’ [All that is transient is merely a parable] could almost have been written as a motto for the symphony,” he writes, expanding this idea in comments about the first movement, which represented the immature human soul: “On the basis of its sphere of ideas, the child animates its world, and hurries forward, open, communicative – for how long, how far, it does not know.”
It is an unorthodox first movement, in which Langgaard, instead of a development section, has inserted a section at a slow tempo as well as one reminiscent of a Sibelius-like scherzo section. On the other hand, the recapitulation merges with the development, and the movement is crowned with fanfares, ending like a festive march.
In the second movement, he deals with religious reflections on the transformation of the world. The first theme paraphrases the Danish Christmas hymn ‘Julen har bragt velsignet bud’ [Christmas has blessed tidings brought], presented as a chorale for strings. The mood is fervently meditative – to cite Langgaard himself: “Quietly listening to the inner voices, the human soul sits humbly waiting, and hope rises up to a home of peace.”
After the theme comes a series of variations, and when the chorale theme returns, the listener thinks that the movement must nearly be over. But here Langgaard inserts a strange section that mixes a light ‘spring motif’ with the Christmas hymn, a violin solo, a timpani roll and quivering strings as a vision of the beyond. Only subsequently does the movement come to rest.
In early 1914, while Langgaard was writing his fair copy of the score, his father died, and the second movement was dedicated to his memory.
The final movement of the symphony is in the form of an orchestral lied for soprano (an idea that could possibly have been taken from Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, although it is uncertain if Langgaard knew of the symphony at the time). The text is by the German poet Emil Rittershaus, and the song part is meant to show that man is now able to come forward with a new awareness. The high voice also represents the song of the larks referred to in the poem – as Langgaard himself put it: “Thought follows the larks, who seem to disappear into the eternal blue of the sky. ‘Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis.’ ”
‘Awakening of Spring’ was performed in Copenhagen in 1914, 1917 and 1920. It was not enthusiastically received. The reviewers criticised the fact that Langgaard had leant too much on his Romantic idols Wagner and Strauss, and that the construction of the symphony was odd. The work was even called ‘a monstrosity’. Things were very different indeed when it was subsequently played in Germany and Austria: first in Essen in 1921, where Langgaard was called onto the stage five times, then in Berlin in 1922 with the Blüthner Orchestra (now the Konzerthausorchester) and ten days later with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in the ‘Golden Hall’ of the Musikverein (designed by the Danish architect Theophilus Hansen). All performances were conducted by Hans Seeber van der Floe, who was also behind a German radio broadcast of the symphony in 1925.
But after the successes in Germany and Austria, Langgaard’s career took a downward turn – both at home and abroad. In the latter half of the 1920s, he seemed to be in a depressive mood, entrenching himself as a Romantic artist in a modern world he refused to accept. He started to compose in a demonstratively retro style and carried out revisions of works that he apparently thought had gone too far. He removed, for example, the ethereal section of the second movement of ‘Awakening of Spring’. On this recording, one can hear the original, complete version that made the work the most frequently performed of Langgaard’s symphonies during his lifetime.
Symphony No. 6 ‘The Heaven-Rending’
The world was moving in a direction, not at all to Langgaard’s liking. He regarded his own age as the fulfillment of the prophecy about the Antichrist. Langgaard sensed the Antichrist everywhere – in the World War, the din of machinery, greed and the desire of sexuality. Later in life, he turned his colleague Carl Nielsen into an abhorred symbol of the spirit of the age, one who placed human will above God. But for a brief period around 1920, Langgaard was creatively provoked by Nielsen, especially his radical Symphony No. 4, ‘The Inextinguishable’. Langgaard’s Symphony No. 6, ‘The Heaven-Rending’ from 1919–20, can be seen as a riposte. Not only because of the alluding title but also since they share the same musical building blocks: The emphasis is on polyphony, atonal features, strong dissonances and two sets of timpani that carry out a battle of cosmic proportions. But Langgaard’s aim is actually diametrically opposed to that of Carl Nielsen.
Langgaard did a draft version of the entire symphony in the space of a mere fortnight. The first performance took place in 1923 in Karlsruhe, with Hans Seeber van der Floe conducting the Badisches Landestheater-Orchester. It was highly successful, and the periodical Die Musik remarked that the symphony especially thrilled “the young Karlsruhe musical audience, who enthusiastically applauded this beautiful, distinctive and highly modern work.”
Large parts of the contents of the symphony Langgaard later re-used in his opera ‘Antichrist’, which was turned down by the Royal Danish Theatre. When, later that same year, Langgaard conducted the first performance of the symphony, it had the subtitle ‘Based on motifs from Antichrist’. This, however, also failed to create any interest in Langgaard’s thoughts – only further scandal associated with his name in Denmark: “Along the rows of seats tittering, hissing and the gnashing of teeth could be heard,” one newspaper wrote. “Some people groaned, others spat, an elderly lady collapsed and had to be carried out. Shrieks and outbursts of laughter drowned out a half-hearted applause.” Another newspaper stated more dryly that the symphony was “a fanatically yearning musician’s terrible struggle to express the inexpressible – with the confusing and miserable result that there was practically no one who understood him, and that it was frightful to listen to.”
The symphony is constructed in a highly original way as a theme with variations. The theme has namely two faces or aspects, a light and a dark – or more symbolically: Christ and Antichrist, who co-exist. The first version is a hymn-like theme for strings that develops into a beautiful five-part polyphony. After disquieting timpani rolls, Theme II sounds like a sickly splitting-off, accompanied by doomsday bells. This is interrupted by a signal from the brass, based on the three first notes of Theme I, which forms the point of departure for the subsequent ‘variations’.
Each variation gets its name from a classical type of form, and the technical designations deliberately point away from a programmatic interpretation of the music. The music is purely abstract – on paper. In Variation I, Introduzione, light, and tonality still prevail. Variation II, Fuga, on the other hand, is close to being atonal music, in a constant fortissimo and with the indication Frenetico marziale (‘Insanely warlike’). Variation III, Toccata, aggravates the situation in virtuoso, blaring orchestration, leading the breathless figures on to the central section of the symphony, Variation IV, Sonata. Here the material develops into a major war that is both unbridled and yet strictly polyphonic.
Variation V has the disarming title Coda but is the actual ultimate aim. Not with something as simple as the victory of good over evil, but with an amalgamation of the two opposing forces into an absolute dominance. The effect is overwhelming when Langgaard finds a new, unsuspected level of intensity with a doubling of the number of trumpets from four to eight, which, according to his directions, “are to be placed in such a way in the orchestra that their sound cuts shrilly through that of the orchestra.”
Langgaard revised the symphony in 1928–30. It was not until 1949 he stated that the work depicts the struggle between Jesus and “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”. The title ‘The Heaven–Rending’ he had compiled from words by the Danish hymn–writer Brorson and Paul the Apostle, and he followed it with a motto: “Then Jesus intervened with power, wrestling against the heaven-rending army of evil.”
‘The Heaven-Rending’ is an apocalyptic symphony that is both Langgaard’s most religious and most modernistic. The tonal language is stretched to breaking point in order to combat the enemy with its own weapons. A risky project, but paradoxes were always one of Langgaard’s preferred methods. As when he explained that the symphony “sounds like modern music, but it is not”. And when, in 1944, he added this note to the score: “If it absolutely always has to be Carl Nielsen! It can also be done my way. Personally, I prefer my ‘Awakening of Spring’ Symphony from 1914.”
Langgaard knew that with ‘The Heaven–Rending’ he had got very close to the Antichrist. It must not, for all in the world, create misunderstandings about his own attitude – he simply related what visions he had seen.
Unnoticed Morning Stars
The last three of Langgaard’s 16 symphonies were written around 1950, and like many of his late works, this one is characterised by stark contrasts. Sometimes as a polemic debate about ‘true’ and ‘false’, at other times as an expression of absurdist humor or merely nostalgia. One example of this is his Symphony No. 14 (1947–48) with the Romantic title ‘The Morning’. It develops into a suite where one finds some of Langgaard’s most bizarre (and best!) movement titles, e.g. Radio-Caruso and Compulsive Energy and ‘Daddies’ dashing off to the Office. In the midst of this sudden bullet-like spray of ideas, we find a tiny miracle, the second movement, called ‘Unnoticed Morning Stars’, where Langgaard gazes at the beauty of the universe. To Langgaard, ‘morning’ is the same as the resurrection and eternal life, while also noting that for those around him it is simply the time of day when one gets up.
Compared to other contemporary symphonies, it is definitely retrospective music. But the movement is far from being a repetition of Langgaard’s earlier style, and as a swansong, it is no more out of step with the times than what, for example, Richard Strauss wrote during the same period.
Langgaard noted that ‘Unnoticed Morning Stars’ can be played on its own. This did not change the fact, however, that he never got to hear the music – the symphony was first performed in 1979, 27 years after Langgaard’s death.
Jacob Gade: Tango Jalousie
While Langgaard hit a musical wall of crises in the mid–1920s, things were going swimmingly for his colleague Jacob Gade (1879–1963). Gade emigrated to New York in 1919, where, among other things, he was a violinist in the National Symphony Orchestra. After a couple of years, he returned home and became the principal conductor of the orchestra of Copenhagen’s largest cinema. ‘Tango Jalousie’ (sometimes known in English as ‘Jealousy’) was written in 1925 for the Douglas Fairbanks silent film ‘Don Q, Son of Zorro’. After the first recording with Arthur Fiedler and his Boston Pops Orchestra the tango really became famous, and, on the basis of the vast copyright earnings, it was evident that ‘Tango Jalousie’ had become the most widespread Danish piece of music ever.
Jacob Gade performed as a ‘Stehgeiger’ in front of his orchestra when he played his tango. The same applies to this recording, where the conductor Sakari Oramo plays the major violin solo at the start of the piece.
Jens Cornelius, 2018