Langgaard in the context of the history of music

Some angles of approach:



A difficult matter

It is not possible to find a 'natural' position for Langgaard in the history of Danish music. He appears as a lonely, strange figure, who requires a separate chapter whenever the history of Danish music is to be written. Moreover, this Langgaard chapter is always hard to write, partly because the music itself is so variegated, and does not reflect traditional patterns of artistic development, and partly because the writer has to take account of the tragic story of Langgaard's life. Things went very wrong for Langgaard, not only because he kept himself apart, but because the world of music kept him out. This lack of acceptance gradually became for him the problem that overshadowed all others; it was this that disturbed his life and pushed him off course. He became restless, irritable and vulnerable to such an extreme degree that his creative abilities were affected. Looking back on all this, a certain measure of 'bad conscience' is unavoidable.


Danish and yet not Danish

Langgaard was not a 'typically Danish' composer. This idealistic artist, full of lofty, other-worldly ideas, was hardly suited to the down-to-earth Danish mentality. Moreover, Langgaard's musical idiom was more of an international than national nature. Typically, he never tried his hand at the popular, folksy Danish strophic songs, as did nearly all Danish composers who followed in the footsteps of Carl Nielsen.

Langgaard's isolation was not of his own choosing, and he was far more dependent on the changing tendencies of the time and on the world of Danish music that surrounded him than one might suppose. Time after time he reacted to influences from the world around him - sometimes in harmony with it, sometimes in opposition - and he always considered his own music to be exceptionally 'modern'. Many of his compositions may almost be seen as highly relevant contributions to the contemporary Danish debate about musical and aesthetic themes. Finally, Langgaard's constant striving to eschew florid and sentimental themes may perhaps be explained by the fact that it reflects the Scandinavian environment from which it grew.


Late Romantic...?

There has been a tendency to count Langgaard among the later Romantics, but it is hard to link his name to composers such as Bruckner, Mahler, Skrjabin, Pfitzner, Franz Schmidt, Elgar or Rachmaninov. These composers were all of an older generation than Langgaard, who in terms of age corresponded to such second-generation modernists as Hindemith, Prokofieff, Honneger and Milhaud. As in their case, he bore the marks of the accelerated tempo of the 20th century, of its wars, divisions, alienation and dissolution of values - and he was influenced by expressionism and modernism. Even though Langgaard often used a musical idiom which at first sight would be called Late Romantic, as regards the form and dimensions of his music he behaved not at all like one of these. Langgaard's music lacks completely the breadth of the Late Romantic movement, its organic pulse, the high points, the excitement and the release of tension. More often we find in him an attitude to his musical ingredients which brings to mind a composer such as Prokofieff and his ballet music, or Korngold and his film music. Langgaard, too, sought economy, precision and 'effectiveness' in his musical expression.


A French connection?

Since Langgaard's music seldom expresses a process, or the development of themes and motifs, but is static rather than organic, spatial rather than temporal, 'vertical' rather than 'horizontal' - it may (despite the Romantic flourishes) be said to possess a kinship with a 'tradition' in French music from Debussy (1862-1918) and Erik Satie (1866-1925) over Charles Koechlin (1867-1950 ) to Messiaen (1908-1992).


An "outsider"

Bo Wallner, attempting in 1968 to situate Langgaard within the framework of the history of music in Scandinavia, tellingly described him as an context "ecstatic outsider" [note 1]. And indeed, Langgaard does find a place among the motley crowd of outsiders, who musically have little in common, but share a common fate because they were forced to create their music in a sort of vacuum. They could only rely on themselves, and created their own universes based on personal experience - and they were often 'trail-blazers', who like Langgaard 'came to' write music that pointed forwards in time.

This company includes the American, Charles Ives (1874-1954), the Austrian, Josef Mathias Hauer (1883-1959), and the Englishman, Havergal Brian (1876-1972 ). These were all idealists and 'eccentric' individualists, who for various reasons were excluded from the inner circles and had no influence on contemporary developments. Not until much later was it possible to acknowledge their uniqueness. As composers they ploughed unattended furrows in the history of music, working apparently impervious to avant-garde trends in the direction of their own individual form of contemporary musical expression.


A child of the fin-de-siècle culture

Jørgen I. Jensen, theologian and writer about music, has presented a very intriguing view of the history of music that includes placing Langgaard in another relevant context [note 2].

Jensen's starting point is that the period around the turn of the century should not - as is usually the case - be seen as a period of transition between the 19th and 20th centuries, between Romanticism and Modernism, but that the whole culture around the year 1900 should be regarded as a completely independent epoch in all respects. Now it is true that Langgaard was only a boy when the new century began, but his artistic profile was created in harmony with the time, and throughout his life he judged everything on a scale that reflected (his own understanding of) the spiritual ideals of the fin-de-siècle period. When at the age of 26 he conceived the idea for his most avantgardistic symphony (No. 6), this happened to him while he was thinking back to the spring of 1894 - when he was only nine months old!

Jensen points out that the nineteenth-century tendency to concentrate on the inner life of the personality, on moods, feelings and the inspiration of the moment, became more intense around the turn of the century - delving deeper and deeper into the subconscious. One of the tendencies that appeared in this subject-centred culture - in conformity with symbolism, the dominant ideology of the time - was the idea that the artist (and not least the composer) was endowed with a special ability to provide the human race with spiritual insight, a glimpse of the new world to come in the future. Artists influenced by thus culture came to feel an almost superhuman responsibility, which in turn led to an ambitious striving towards the total, all-embracing, religious and philosophical work of art. Mahler's 8th Symphony (1907), Delius' A Mass of Life (text by Nietzsche; 1904-08), Schönberg's Die Jacobsleiter (unfinished; 1917), Ives' Universe Symphony (begun 1911, unfinished), Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony (1919-27), and the opera, Antikrist (1921-23), by Langgaard.


Music as message

Another clear anchorage point for Langgaard's music is the tradition begun in the history of music by Berlioz, Schumann and Liszt, and which moves in the direction of linking especially instrumental music with religious and philosophical programmes and ideas. This idea was further promoted by Wagner in his writings about art and religion, which also influenced Rued Langgaard through his father, Siegfried Langgaard. A German musicologist, Constantin Floros, has dubbed this tendency "music as message" [note 3]. Music is the medium, the message behind it is what really matters. In many ways symbolism in music was enhanced around the turn of the century by influences from symbolism in literature and painting. As examples of this could be mentioned Liszt's Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (1881), Richard Strauss' Tod und Verklärung (1888) and Also sprach Zarathustra (1896), Josef Suk's Asrael (1905-06), Skrjabin's Le poème de l'extase (1905-08), Carl Nielsen's Det uudslukkelige (Symphony No. 4; 1916) and Korngold's Sursum corda (1921).

Among Langgaard's works we could mention Sfinx (1909-13) and Sfærernes Musik (Music of the Spheres) (1916-18), but also works of a more narrative musical character, such as the autumn symphony, Løvfald (Fall of the Leaf) (Symphony No. 4), which not only contains a depiction of nature, but also, and primarily, a programme of a psychological, religious and conceptual content. Løvfald was originally entitled Natur og Tanker (Nature and Thoughts).

The 'meaning' of the music is revealed by the musical idiom, by the 'mood', and especially by the use of figurative elements of musical imagery, such as described by Constantin Floros in his books on Mahler [note 4]. This means, for example, types of movement such as funeral marches and chorale, motifs of lamentation, symbols of the abyss, and so on. This musical vocabulary was developed in the 19th century, and formed a sort of common cultural heritage well into the 20th century where it was staken over by film music composers. This is particularly true of Langgard's music, because he draws on, and constantly refers back to, the heritage from the 19th century. This special symbolism and its points of reference in the history of music are therefore fundamental for an analysis of the conceptual content of Langgaard's music.


Music and the philosophy of life

Langgaard's Christian beliefs form the background for all his creative activity, and his music, on one of the many levels of analysis to which it is open, offers an interpretation of this religious conviction. In Langgaard's time, "philosophy-of-life music" was a derogatory term, but today we can see a connection between Langgaard and other composers whose musical idiom offers an attitude to life by the use of stylistic contrasts and unmistakable references to tradition - this is, for example, true of Russian composers such as Sofia Gubajdulina (b. 1931) and Alfred Snittke (b. 1934). In the case of Langgaard, it may be said that his music revolves round two poles, which we may signify with the terms beauty and decline.



The fact of the matter is that if we wish to characterise Langgaard's music, or approach the ideas that lie behind it, we have to conclude that in a strange way Langgaard represents a transverse current running through his own age. This is a valuable insight, but in itself it tells us very little about the artistic value of Langgaard's works.

In the case of Langgaard - just as in the case of Ives, for example - it is incredibly difficult to see what works will be important and will endure in the long run. It is as if both these composers built up their own mythical universe with its own laws and associations, and which is beyond the reach of an objective evaluation, because the various statements made by the works elucidate and supplement each other within a particular, almost 'private' frame of reference. Yet at the same time these composers cast light on traditions and tendencies in the history of music - summarising them, commenting on them, and placing them in a visionary context.

There are composers who write flawless works, perhaps even masterpieces, but who remain within the shallows of predictability, never reaching beyond to the deeper water where they might put their artistic reputation seriously at risk. And then there are composers such as Langgaard, who perhaps never wrote a masterpiece, and yet who were exceptionally brave, and whose importance reaches beyond that of a conventional and purely musical, artistic evaluation. They have moved out into the deep waters of art, where even failure can have a greatness which leaves a lasting impression. It may well be that Langgaard is more 'interesting' in terms of psychology and the history of music, and that in the long run he will not survive artistically, but it cannot be denied that all that is unpredictable, multi-dimensional, provocative, unpolished, irrational and absurd, in short, all that is 'different', also exercises a fascination and an attraction of its own, especially when formulated with such musicality as in the case of Rued Langgaard.


[note1] Bo Wallner: Vår tids musik i Norden. Från 20-tal till 60-tal. (Contemporary Music in Scandinavia. From the 20's to the 60's). Stockholm, 1968.
[note 2] Jørgen I. Jensen: Opad mod undergangen. Musikalsk form og religion hos den unge Rued Langgaard (The Rise towards Decline. Musical Form and Religion in the younger Rued Langgaard). In: Undr; no. 50, 1987, pp.66-78.
Århundredeskiftet og musikken (Music and the Fin-de-Siècle); In: Nordisk Tidsskrift för vetenskap, konst och industri; Vol. 71, 1995, Book 1 (special edition on "Musiken i Norden" (Music in Scandinavia)), pp. 1-13.
[note 3]Constantin Floros: Musik als Botschaft. Wiesbaden, 1989.
[note 4] Constantin Floros: Gustav Mahler II. Mahler und die Symphonik des 19. Jahrhunderts in neuer Deutung. Wiesbaden, 1977.