Music about music


An attempt to answer the question:
"What is Langgaard's music basically 'about'?"


If one is to reach a comprehensive interpretation of Langgaard's oeuvre, one has to begin by regarding the whole of his widely diversified production under one heading, as a unity. This can be done if one accepts that the common denominators of Langgaard's music are to be found at the level of ideas rather than at the level of the music itself.

There are two dominating themes that run through and permeate the whole of Langgaard's production, each at its own level in terms of ideas. The first is that Langgaard's music is basically centred on a theme which we may call Beauty and decline. The second theme can be called MUSIC ABOUT MUSIC.

If one conceives of Langgaard's music as one large, comprehensive statement, the most direct consequence of this is that the individual work cannot, or perhaps should not necessarily be seen as an isolated phenomenon, but in relation to the rest of Langgaard's oeuvre, and to the romantic tradition that inspired him.

Langgaard's works each have their own individual relationship to this romantic tradition; they elucidate it, discuss it, question it, or stretch it to the limits. Typically, any work of Langgaard's enters into a dialogue with the time in which it was composed, though not an intellectual dialogue, as in his music Langgaard frees himself of an intellectual way of listening. His is an artistically determined form of expression, interacting with the history of music, and especially with the romantic tradition on which it is based. It is a result of the idea that music is a universal, spiritual language, which has developed through the centuries, reaching its present peak at around the year 1900. Langgaard felt that it was his task to vary, repeat and further elucidate this music, to add new aspects to it and to break new ground with it without losing the connection to the past.

In this sense, therefore, Langgaard's music is 'about' music, and can, to use a professional term, be called "metamusic". This term has first come into use after Langgaard's time, and has often been linked with less well-founded forms of expression - music representing a particular view of art. In the case of Langgaard, however, the concept is inseparable from the composer's artistic physionogmy. As far back as 1916, an historian of music, Godtfred Skjerne, was aware that this metamusical aspect was part of Langgaard's uniqueness; he wrote about Langgaard's music that it was: an inexhaustible source of enrichment and renewal of the standard view of music. It could not be said better today.

The symphonies as examples
Langgaard's 16 symphonies may be used as examples to further illustrate this point of view. It is as if Langgaard's real ambition with regard to his symphonic cycle was continually to add new aspects and shades of meaning to the symphonic tradition. In the case of Symphonies Nos. 7, 8 and 9, one may perhaps feel that Langgaard had lost touch with this ambition, but Nos. 11, 12 and 15 widen our view in a decisive way, referring backwards and forwards to Langgaard's own oeuvre and to the history of music.

Each individual work in the series only receives its final meaning when related to the other works. In the case of Langgaard, the juxtaposition of contrasting themes and movements which characterises the symphony as a genre is revealed to a greater extent between the works themselves than within the individual work. To put it another way: the sum of the symphonies creates deeper prespectives that any selection of the works could do on its own. Several of the works may find it difficult to state their claim to our interest as independent efforts to produce symphonies in the 20th century, but in the context of Langgaard's complete oeuvre we cannot do without them.

Bendt Viinholt Nielsen, 1996.