Rued Langgaard (1893-1952)

By Bendt Viinholt Nielsen

An outsider rediscovered

Rued Langgaard is a unique case in the history of Danish music. He was a loner, a visionary and an uncompromising idealist between the polarities of Romanticism and Modernism. As a very young man he could create works that pointed fifty years ahead in time - and at a mature age he wrote music that sounded at least fifty years out of date. Behind this paradox lies a tragic artistic destiny, for Langgaard staked all on music, but against his will was frozen out on the periphery of the Danish artistic milieu. He was given no posts of any significance in musical life, received no commissions for works, and had no pupils. Only half of his works were performed during his lifetime, most of these only once - and almost always with himself as musician or conductor. After Langgaard's death his music was forgotten. Only the stories about an odd character remained.

This situation changed in 1968, when the Swedish musicologist Bo Wallner published a history of Nordic music in which Langgaard was singled out and aptly described as an "ecstatic outsider". The same year saw the performance of his Sfærernes Musik (The Music of the Spheres) (1916-18) for the first time since 1922. It was this work that made György Ligeti, one of the most important composers of our time, to call himself - with a twinkle in his eye - a "Langgaard disciple". For in Sfærernes Musik Langgaard had astonishingly anticipated Ligeti's pioneering music of around 1960. This discovery, along with the renewed interest of the sixties in Bruckner and Mahler, helped to put Langgaard in the spotlight, and since then his richly varied output has gradually become known, at first through broadcasts by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation and then from recordings on LP and CD, mainly by Danish artists.

Around the centenary of Langgaard's birth in 1993 his career and artistic development were presented in book form, and all sixteen symphonies were released on seven CDs, which aroused some international attention. The main problem after this was that most of Langgaard's more than 400 works remained unpublished, so musicians and conductors to a great extent had to use photocopies of the composer's manuscripts, which were often difficult to read. However, in 1998 a publishing contract was signed, specifying the continuous publication of the works over a period of years. Thus Langgaard's remarkable and often thought-provoking and fascinatingly "different" music could now become freely available to the international music scene.


From nature romanticism to apocalyptic visions

Rued Langgaard grew up in the Copenhagen of the bourgeoisie. His parents were both pianists - his father was also a philosopher of music - and as an only child with natural musical talent the boy had the best possible development potential. The results appeared soon: at the age of 11 he made his debut as a fully fledged organist and organ improviser in Copenhagen. And when he was 14 in 1908 he had his first orchestral composition played. He was given private tuition in music theory, but as a composer he must be considered self-taught. In his teenage years in 1908-13 he drew important musical inspiration from trips to Berlin. He made contacts with the Berlin Philharmonic, resulting in an all-Langgaard concert with the orchestra in 1913 under the baton of the then famous conductor Max Fiedler. It was a great evening for the 19-year-old composer. But the event was to prove the climax of Langgaard's whole career. The outbreak of the Great War the next year precluded the possibility of an international breakthrough, and in Denmark the musical world made a point of taking a wait-and-see, sceptical attitude to the gifted young composer. The performances were few and scattered, and Langgaard's most ambitious youthful works - the Symphony No. 1 (first performed in Berlin), the theatre work Sinfonia interna, The Music of the Spheres, Symphony No. 6 and the opera Antikrist - were either not performed or had a negative reception from the press and audiences in Denmark. He did experience something like success at the beginning of the 1920s, when several orchestral works were presented in Germany and Austria. In Karlsruhe in particular Langgaard found a responsive public, and both The Music of the Spheres and Symphony No. 6 were launched there with success.

Langgaard's early compositions were written in the Late Romantic spirit and bear the stamp of Schumann, Wagner and Richard Strauss. The musical idiom strives optimistically for beauty and expresses the harmony of the human soul with nature and an elevated quest for the divine - according well with his father's Theosophical and Symbolist musical thinking, which in the main also gave Rued Langgaard his artistic and ideological terms of reference. The far more personal and melancholy Symphony No. 4 Løvfald (Autumn), which Langgaard wrote at 24 in 1916, marks the first shift in the composer's anything but regular artistic development. Dissonance and expressiveness rear their heads, while Langgaard's imaginative sonorities unfold, as in the minimalistic piano suite Insektarium (1917), where - presumably for the first time in musical history - he asks the pianist to knock on the piano top and play with his fingers directly on the piano strings. In the String Quartet No. 2 (1918) we find a locomotive rendered as 'futuristic' machine music (a few years before Honegger's famous Pacific 231), while The Music of the Spheres (1916-18) is a highly original study in the 'fourth' and 'fifth' dimensions of music, a music in space and outside time. The spatial aspect is outlined quite literally, since the orchestra is divided into a smallish distant orchestra (with a singing soloist) and a main orchestra with choir and organ (as well as a piano that is only played directly on the strings).

The years 1916-24 were Langgaard's 'modernist' and artistically most fruitful period. Although he had an ambivalent attitude - to put it mildly - to the leading composer of the day, Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), it was Nielsen who set the agenda for modern music in Denmark, and Langgaard followed suit - in his own way. The confrontation between 'constructive' and 'destructive' forces became a major theme in Langgaard's music, for example in Symphony No. 6 Det Himmelrivende (The Heaven-Rending) (1919-20, later rev.), which is a kind of counterpart to Carl Nielsen's Fourth Symphony, The Inextinguishable. But in his one-movement symphony Langgaard goes a radical step further, and in polyphonic passages the composition recalls the music his contemporary Paul Hindemith wrote - later.

Typically of the religious commitment of Langgaard - and of the spirit of the age after the First World War - the music was associated with apocalyptic themes. This is true of the violin sonata Den store Mester kommer (Behold, the Master Cometh) (1920-21), the piano sonata Afgrundsmusik (Music of the Abyss) (1921-24) and not least Langgaard's only opera Antikrist (1921-23, reworked 1926-30). Langgaard conceived these works as part of the notion of a future ideal society based on a community of music and religion where the church and art were to play an equal role in the communication of the religious spirit, with the result that the artists would at last win a recognized position in society. Antikrist is an allegorical music drama with a religious moral and is about "our time", about the decadence, spiritual decay and destruction of western civilization. The composer had written his own libretto - obscure, Biblical, expressionistic and to some extent grotesquely satirical. The work was the culmination of Langgaard's efforts so far, and large sections of both The Music of the Spheres and Symphony No. 6 form part of the opera's composite music, which can be said to have Richard Strauss as the stylistic common denominator. The Royal Theatre refused to perform the opera, and the first complete performance took place on Danish radio in 1980. Six years later there was a concert performance in Copenhagen and this was recorded, but it was not until 1999 that it was played on the stage - in Innsbruck.


From the Neoromantic to the Absurd

From 1925 on Langgaard's music changed radically. This must be one of the starkest changes in style known from any composer. Just on the borderline we find the furious String Quartet No. 3 (1924), which in places recalls Bartók but at the same time exhibits an ironic distancing from 'modern music' (an attitude that can also be traced in the contemporary Symphony No. 6 of Carl Nielsen). Langgaard's new works - the Piano Sonata No. 1, the String Quartet No. 5 and Symphony No. 7 - are four-movement Neoromantic pastiches, couched in an intentionally anonymous tonal idiom with, among others, Niels W. Gade (1817-90) as a model. The reaction accorded well with the tendency of the period that led some composers to Neoclassicism, while others took up the so-called "new objectivity". Langgaard's ideal was now classical purity, simple music that was elevated like a Greek marble statue above the artist's private need for expression and view of life. In the 'Roaring Twenties' Langgaard found himself unable to carry on in a Expressionist direction with its complex manifestations of mental and religious conflict. But his mission with these works had also failed, in the sense that his visions and messages had not brought him a single artistic success on Danish soil.

This stylistic change ushered in the twenty 'lean' years in Langgaard's output, while external and internal conflicts also came to a head. Even while Carl Nielsen was alive Langgaard began publicly to criticize Nielsen's aesthetic supremacy in Danish music. Langgaard felt betrayed by the Zeitgeist, and in the 1930s his life took an unhappy, tragic turn. His fervent desire was a position as a church organist, but no one wanted to employ him, and there were on the whole no performances of his music. This neglect was intensified by the pathetic, martyred attitude Langgaard adopted towards the outside world. An exhausting struggle for acceptance took centre stage and affected his music, which more and more assumed the character of commentaries and protests against the prevalent functionalist and anti-Romantic view of art. In the period 1925-44 only the piano fantasia Flammekamrene (The Chambers of Flames) (1930-37) and the almost two-hour-long organ trilogy Messis (Høstens Tid) (Messis - Harvest Time) (1935-37), stand out. Messis, which makes generous use of the whole Romantic expressive register, is however a central work in Langgaard's oeuvre. It is a recomposition of moods from the composer's childhood. Langgaard's idea was that the decades around the turn of the century were a spiritual-artistic golden age - which inevitably carried within itself its own ruin, the disastrous cultural upheavals of the twentieth century. In this duality Langgaard found not only a connection between the music of the period and the fate of humanity, but also a key to the 'music of the future', in the sense that all serious musical creation must necessarily take the Romantic form of expression as its point of departure.

In 1940, when Langgaard was 47, he was at last given his first and only permanent post, as cathedral organist in Ribe in South Jutland, where he moved with his wife Constance. In the small provincial city the parish council and the churchgoers had their difficulties with Langgaard, who could behave provocatively and tolerated no trespasses whatsoever into his professional domain: the liturgical music in the church. Langgaard's artistic productivity now slowly returned, and in the Ribe period he composed among other things the last eight symphonies, of which he was able to hear Nos. 9 and 10 performed. They were both given studio performances by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, which in the 1940s was bombarded with approaches from Langgaard and in return gave him some attention. The radio was in reality his only possible way of reaching an audience, and he reacted very emotionally whenever a work was rejected, as if every time was a disavowal of his whole artistic mastery and distinctiveness.

In the mid-40s the isolation in which Langgaard had ended as a composer had unexpected artistic consequences. Bizarre, absurd and self-contradictory features added new dimensions to his music, and the improvised and eccentric were intensified. After the inspired Symphony No. 10 Hin Torden-Bolig (Yon Dwelling of Thunder) (1944-45) the tendency is evident in Symphony No. 11 Ixion (1944-45) with just one theme - and four extra tubas that take part at the end as a kind of 'anti-soloists' in the just six-minute-long composition. The subsequent 'large-scale' - but equally short - Symphony No. 12 really tests the limits of the symphonic genre. The composition soon disintegrates into fragmentary episodes and comes to an unexpectedly abrupt end with the instruction "Amok! A composer explodes". The work is a challenging, autobiographical expression of powerlessness - beyond the 'permissible' and with no artistic safety-net. In other late works too Langgaard went to the outer limits, where his music, which otherwise so eagerly sought to give answers, suddenly began to question the meaning of everything. In the piano sonata Le Béguinage (1948-49) Schumann attitudes are confronted by 'negative' forces in an almost self-destructive, collage-like style with many meanings, pointing forward to the avant-garde of the 1970s and with an element of musical Theatre of the Absurd too. What we hear is the struggle of Romantic beauty for survival in the meaningless, schizoid reality of the twentieth century.

The apocalypse inspired Langgaard again in the organ piece Som Lynet er Kristi Genkomst (As Lightening Cometh Christ Again) (1948) and Symphony No. 15 Søstormen (The Storm at Sea) (1949), while the answering celestial music is represented by demonstratively unproblematical major-key works like Symphonies No. 13 Undertro (Belief in Wonders) (1946-47) and 14 Morgenen (The Morning) (1947-48), which stylistically do not go much further than Tchaikovsky, but in the concept and the emphasis of the formulation send out quite different signals. The latter of these symphonies incidentally has one of the most beautiful string movements in Danish music, entitled Upåagtede Morgenstjerner (Unnoticed Morning Stars). The last major composition Langgaard finished was the choral work Fra Dybet (From the Deep) - his own requiem - where brutal, marching Dies Irae music recalling Shostakovitch clashes directly with sounds from the hereafter. With this last work Langgaard underlines that 'destruction' versus 'beauty' is the main theme of his music.


Musical symbolism

Langgaard is a composer of surprises who makes havoc of the usual notions of the musical development of the twentieth century, and whose fate and art put the 'official' history of music into perspective. The original and forward-pointing stand side by side with straightforward Late Romantic works, eccentric surprises and pastiches that can be difficult to accept from an artistic point of view. Langgaard did not wish to develop an original tonal idiom of his own, and he made no break with the major-minor system. National feeling in music meant nothing to him. He drew freely on the well known international heritage and serenely imported clichÈs or references to other composers' music into his own works. This kind of borrowing, especially from all the shelves of Romanticism, was done with a mixture of stylistically aware distance and religious reverence, and this is precisely the point underscored by the affected, theatrical and extreme in his music. We find parallel features in Mahler and in postmodernism.

To this we can add Langgaard's unconventional view of form, time and space. His symphonic music sounds much of the way like post-Wagnerian Late Romanticism, but hardly ever exhibits such characteristics of this epoch as organic development, dynamic swellings and great breadth as in Bruckner, Mahler or Richard Strauss. But then Langgaard also belonged to the generation of Prokofiev and Hindemith and was not simply ay, to the twentieth century's musical and existential challenges. An even more important artistic factor was his anti-academic attitude, which permitted him to accept the role of the irrational bolt of inspiration.

Today's renewed interest in the Symbolist culture of around 1900, to which Langgaard refers almost throughout his output, has led to a far deeper understanding of the composer's universe with its conflicts and subjective values. Symbolist tendencies can be traced well into the twentieth century, and there are spiritual affinities between Langgaard and figures as different as Scriabin (1872-1915), Messiaen (1908-92) and Arvo Pärt (b. 1935). This is music as a kind of religious programme music and 'mystical' link between humanity and the spiritual dimension of existence. In Langgaard's case the image-evoking gift, the outward-looking urge to communicate and the transcendent luxuriance are all qualities that underline this.

Bendt Viinholt Nielsen, 1998.

English translation: James Manley.