A characterisation of Langgaard's music

Some approaches

Style and tone
One does not have to have heard many of Langgaard's works to notice that the style of the music is the primary factor. It is as if Langgaard's focal point, in musical terms, is to be found here, and that he builds his works up around such diffuse notions as 'tonal character' and 'mood'. Even works composed within the same short period of time can be so different in style and expression that one feels there could be fifty years or a whole century between them. The chameleon-like quality is one of the most unique aspects of Langgaard as a composer.

Another thing that soon strikes the observer is the international character of Langgaard's music. It strives to be expressive, monumental and visionary, and his musical idiom reveals nothing that is specially Danish or Scandinavian. The melodic aspect offers nothing particularly original, being chracterised by expressive, Wagnerian melodics.

The improvised and the irrational
In general, any work by Langgaard is characterised by its unique 'tonal universe', which is defined in the opening bars and typically maintained throughout the work. For this reason he liked works with one movement only. The internal cohesion of a composition is not primarily established by the melodics or the motif, but rather by the tonal expression, the 'atmosphere' of the work. Langgaard worked with 'blocks', which he put together on the basis of criteria relating to pictorial elements and sound (including tonality), and not on the basis of themes. His music may therefore seem improvised and irrational in terms of structure. In general, Langgaard was not much interested in scales and melodics in themselves, and rarely worked on the movements of a composition. In other words, the inner logic of a work is often based on elements that are very difficult to assess or measure with the traditional tools of musical science.

Moods and associations
It must have been important for Langgaard that his music could be seen in connection with the romantic tradition, with which he had no wish to make a definitive break. Often he so closely imitated such models as Gade, Schumann, Wagner, R. Strauss, Grieg and Liszt, that the listener experiences a sense of déjà vu. However, taking into account Langgaard's very special sense for style and sound, there is every reason to believe that he did this on purpose. For Langgaard, a particular style was a symbol, and one may imagine that he conceived of the history of music as store of 'common culture', from which the composer might borrow those expressions that suited his particular artistic aims. He must have discovered that one way to create specific moods was by association - especially with the familiar tonal universe of the romantic tradition. In other words, we are talking about conscious 'borrowing', and therefore also about distancing oneself from the original, a process which reminds one of later post-modernist aesthetics. Parallels to Langgaard, however, are rather to be found in the concept of 'historicism' that marked Victorian architecture, which allowed the architect to create associations and moods by the use of stylistic elements from different times and cultures.

Intensity and message
Langgaard's music is generally introspective; it gives the listener direct access, and is marked by a power of expression that is hard to define, but which can be called a sort of spiritual presence, an inner force - or perhaps simply the desire to communicate. One can use words such as intrusive, passionate, theatrical, affected, insistent or self-opinionated about his music, but it is never sentimental. One can feel that the composer has something to say, and that now and then he tries to communicate matters that perhaps lie beyond the scope of what music is able to express. Yet this was surely Langgaard's intention; his music is music with a message. Music was, in his terms, the most direct connection to the spiritual dimensions of existence that can be found.

Time and space
The message of music - which is basically religious - is transmitted through 'moods', and this explains Langgaard's special interest in such parameters as gesture, rhetoric and sound. Langgaard's music is not the expression of a musical process or the development of a particular type of musical material. On the contrary, we find in his works a very distinctive use of repetitive patterns, which makes one think of a phenomenon such as minimalism. In this way the individual piece of music is static - rather than dynamic or organic - in its expression (even though the music generally 'moves forward'). It is 'vertical' rather than 'horizontal', and for the composer the 'universe of sound' established in the course of a work a work is far more important than what takes place as the music moves on in time. Langgaard's music operates in the vertical dimension, From the Deep to Music of the Spheres - to use two typical titles from his works.

All in all, the factors mentioned here make it very difficult to determine Langgaard's place in the history of music.

Bendt Viinholt Nielsen, 1996.