Symfoni nr. 1, Klippepastoraler
Symfoni nr. 1, Klippepastoraler
Despite being eccentric and at odds with his fellow human beings for most of his life, Danish composer Rued Langgaard was convinced that his time would come – and so it did. In Symphony No. 1, we find the teenage Langgaard celebrating his love of beauty and harmony in the most hedonistic terms with a gigantic alpine symphony that predates Richard Strauss’s by two years. With this recording the symphony returns home to the Berliner Philharmoniker, the first orchestra to perform this masterpiece to great acclaim in 1913.
A Symphony Turns Homewards
By Jens Cornelius
10 April 1913 was a great day for the 19-year-old Rued Langgaard. Thousands of audience members clapped when his gigantic First Symphony was first performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker. The young Danish composer was called forward to the orchestra’s stage six times. His international debut was an overwhelming success.
In his hometown, Copenhagen, the symphony had been rejected as unplayable, and in Stockholm, too, they refused to perform the lengthy work. Langgaard’s first work in the genre was one of the most extensive symphonies ever composed in Scandinavia, and it seemed vast and unwieldy to its critics. There was, too, the symphony’s style, inspired by Wagner, which was regarded with suspicion in Denmark.
The same applied to Langgaard himself: he was already seen as an eccentric personality in his youth. InBerlin, by contrast, Langgaard’s late Romantic music was on the cultural home track.
Rued Langgaard was a wonder-child, born in 1893, and perhaps the greatest talent that had ever been seen in Danish music. His parents were pianists and regarded Rued, their only child, as a musical Messiah. His upbringing in an over-protective artistic home, with a religious focus on music, led to his extreme precocity: Langgaard made his debut as an improviser on the organ atthe age of 11, and Edvard Grieg, who attended the concert, was both impressed and frightened by the boy’s wholly unusual talent.
Langgaard began to write his First Symphony when he was just 14 years old. The first four movements were composed in 1908, and he began work on the great final movement at the beginning of 1909. A year later, he presented his work to the Danish Concert Society, which aimed to perform new Danish orchestral music. The Society had to recognize that in every sense, the symphony lay beyond the capabilities of the Society’s orchestra. In November, Langgaard travelled to Stockholm to discuss the possibility of a performance, but he failed to receive a positive response here, too. He spent his time waiting on polishing his score and was eventually satisfied in April 1911. The symphony was a completed work of art by the time Langgaard was 17, but no-one was equal to playing it.
Langgaard had to search further away to find other performance possibilities. Since 1908, his family had stayed in Berlin every December to enjoy the great musical offering there. As early as his first visit, his talent was recognised by the Berliner Philharmoniker’s assistant conductor, Ernst Kunwald. Langgaard took the score of his symphony with him on the trip to Berlin in 1911. Through the orchestra’s concertmaster, Julius Thornberg, who was Danish, the work was brought to the attention of the orchestra’s world-renowned chief conductor, Arthur Nikisch.
It was decided that the Berliner Philharmoniker should give the first performance of the symphony at a concert on 10 April 1913. The experienced conductor Max Feidler, who had just returned to Germany after spending some years in America as the chief conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was chosen as conductor.
The huge orchestra at the concert in Berlin comprised 102 musicians in all. The programme began with Langgaard himself, playing his organ piece, Preludio patetico, after which the orchestra performed his newly written piece, Sfinx, followed by the First Symphony.
As it turned out, this evening proved to be the highest achievement of Langgaard’s career. His music was met with praise, and he believed that an international musical life was opening up for him. But the rest of Langgaard’s life and career developed in an entirely different direction. The World War which broke out in 1914 stopped the immediate possibilities for following up an international debut, and after the war, the support for late Romantic music like Langgaard’s begantocrumble.
Langgaard himself was convinced that he was living in the time of the apocalypse, and that the increasing rejection of Romantic art was another sign of doom, which reinforced his artistic goals. In many of his later works, a cosmic battle between good and evil unfolds, in which he duels with modernism’s language and mode of expression. This is particularly evident in the apocalyptic church opera Antichrist, which was rejected many times by the Royal Danish Theatre during the 1920s.
Gradually the disappointed composer took up a contrary mode, digging himself into a conservative retro-style that was far older than he was himself. The former wonder-child became entirely isolated, and in 1940 he chose to leave Copenhagen, moving to the opposite end of the country to become cathedral organist in Ribe. From his exile in the provinces, he raged about the anti-Romantic culture of the time and became especially frustrated about the treatment of the ‘national composer’, Carl Nielsen, who had died in 1931 but whose dominance turned him into Langgaard’s arch-enemy.
Langgaard continued to compose with powerful energy, even though he had become a peripheral person in musical life. By the time of his death in 1953, very few of his compositions had either been published or performed and his later works, with their wild, absurdist breakdowns, were entirely unknown. It was only in the 1990s when the music researcher Bendt Viinholt Nielsen presented a minutely detailed summary account of Langgaard’s life and more than 400 compositions (amongst which were 16 symphonies) that we came to understand the enormous diversity of his works and their expression of an ecstatic Romanticism, the composer refusing to accept that he was working against the mood of the times in which he lived.
Langgaard was sure that his time would come – and so it has. His First Symphony has gradually received more and more performances worldwide, though Langgaard himself only heard the symphony once more after its first performance in 1913, in Copenhagen in 1928. He conducted that performance himself. Several attempts to get the benevolent conductor Max Fiedler to perform the symphony in Copenhagen failed, and the work was not printed.
Langgaard’s First Symphony, the great success of his youth, gradually came to haunt his life. This comes to violent expression in his Symphony No. 12 (1946), which contains an abrupt ‘recomposition’ of his debut symphony. It is boiled down to just seven minutes, with the marking at the close, ‘Amok! A composer explodes!’.
It was at this time that the First Symphony was given its title, Klippepastoraler (Cliffside Pastorals). Langgaard possessed an exceptional linguistic creativity and often renamed his compositions repeatedly to keep the titles in accord with his shifting thoughts on music and because the title was a part of the artwork as a whole. The symphony’s title, Cliffside Pastorals, refers to the mountainous peninsula Kullen, in southern Sweden, which can be seen from the flat Danish coast. Langgaard had been there on summer holidays as a child, and the title catches the beautiful and paradoxical in both the musical character of the work and in Langgaard’s own life: violent and lyrical at the same time.
The symphony symbolically expresses a mountain ascent which ends at the summit. This concept had a Danish musical predecessor, Victor Bendix’s First Symphony, Fjeldstigning (Mountain Ascent), a Liszt-inspired programme symphony that drew attention when it was first performed in Copenhagen in 1882. The Langgaard family admired Bendix (who wrote several recommendations for the young Rued Langgaard), and they were certainly familiar with Fjeldstigning, which describes a difficult ascent to a summit representing ‘a higher ideal’. Langgaard’s First Symphony follows that of Bendix in its layout. Still, it is twice as long and has five movements and a more substantial instrumentation, including Wagner tubas, two harps and a distanced orchestra of brass instruments. As far as the orchestration is concerned, Langgaard is actually quite close to Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony ), which was premiered in 1915, two yearsafter Langgaard’s First Symphony.
We can only be astonished by the virtuoso orchestration of Cliffside Pastorals, the extraordinary creation of a self-taught composer in his mid-teens. He handles the extended formal structure brilliantly and, in the great finale, gathers the musical threads beautifully in an apotheosis where the main themes from the first and fifth movements are united in a grandiose major key hymn of great splendour.
Langgaard described the specific programmatic content of the movements poetically for the Berlin premiere:
I ‘Surf and Glimpses of Sun’
At the foot of the mountain roars the surf against the rocks. The human soul strives out over the surf to see the dawn and the promised land.
II ‘Mountain Flowers’
The ascent begins. – The storm drops. – The mountain forest provides shelter, while the mountain’s flowers tremble slightly in a weak breeze which ghostly sweeps through the tops of the fir trees.
III ‘Voices from Days of the Past’ [later called ‘Legend’]
From the distance, the sea’s movement murmurs like voices from long-gone times – and leads the mind into a fairy-tale atmosphere.
IV ‘Mountain Ascent’
Away with dreams! Up the mountain! The wished-for goal, the mountain summit, beckons from a distance!
A cooling breeze sweeps through the mountain top. The view with the wide horizon, the high arching sky, and the distant blue sea with its white crests of foam fill the heart with new courage.
The symphony is religiously symbolic. According to Langgaard, it is the music’s mission to lead mankind’s spiritual development, and in Cliffside Pastorals, he is the prophet who goes first and shows the way. The mountains and the foaming sea are pictures of obstacles to the soul’s lifting and to life’s fulfilment. The ascent to the peak is a spiritual act, and the sunrise on the horizon is a vision of Paradise that strengthens people in the hard struggle ahead of them.
After the premiere of Cliffside Pastorals in 1913, the symphony maintained its connection to Berlin. In 1923, Langgaard donated the original manuscript to German music research as a sacrificial gift. It was stored in Berlin at the Staatliche Institut für Musikforschung, the State Institute for Music Research. At the end of the Second World War, the manuscript was stolen by Soviet troops and taken to Moscow, but Langgaard’s symphony seems to have been magnetically drawn to Berlin, and in 1959 the score was returned to the city; by then, the capital of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).
Here Cliffside Pastorals ended up among uncatalogued sheet music and was only rediscovered in 2004. In the summer of 2022, the symphony could be heard in Berlin for the first time since 1913, played by the Berliner Philharmoniker, the first orchestra that understood what a masterpiece the teenage Langgaard had created.