Langgaard’s Complete Symphonies

DACOCD404 cover

Vol. I / LANGGAARD: Symphony No. 1 / Danacord DACOCD 404

Vol. 2 / LANGGAARD: Symphonies Nos. 2* & 3 + Drapa / *Roma Owsinska, sop; +Tadeusz Chimielewski, pno / Danacord DACOCD 405

Vol. 3 / LANGGAARD: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 6. Interdict. Heltedod [Death of a Hero] / Danacord DACOCD 406

Vol. 4 / LANGGAARD: Symphonies Nos. 5, 7 & 9 / Danacord DACOCD 407

Vol. 5 / LANGGAARD: Symphonies Nos. 10-12. Sphinx / Danacord DACOCD 408

Vol. 6 / LANGGAARD: Symphonies Nos. 8, 14 & 15* / add Chorus, * Jan Wolanski, baritone. Danacord DACOCD 409

Vol. 7 / LANGGAARD: Symphonies Nos. 13 & 16. Prelude to “Antikrist” / Danacord DACOCD 410. All of the above: Arthur Rubinstein Symphony Orch.; Ilya Stupel, cond.

When conductor Thomas Dausgaard gave a concert with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra of Rued Langgaard’s Prelude to Antichrist and Symphony No. 4 on March 19, 2017, it was quite possibly the first time his music had been heard in England. Dausgaard further enhanced this concert experience by having Stephen Johnson join him in giving a talk about the composer’s music beforehand, and during the intermission interval members of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland performed his Humoreske, followed by the piano suite Insektarium played by Xiaofen Song. But, alas, to little avail…Langgaard’s music is still a rarity in concert halls, particularly outside Denmark.

Dausgaard is also one of only two conductors to record the complete set of 16 Symphonies by Langgaard as well as one of only two conductors to record his bizarre 1921-24 opera, Antichrist, but although I greatly admire him for promoting the composer (as well he, or anyone else, should), his are not really the most visceral or exciting performances. That honor goes to the much lesser-known Ilya Stupel, music director of the Arthur Rubenstein Symphony Orchestra of Łodz, Poland, who also recorded these works for Danacord, thus it is this set that is under review here. For despite being issued nearly 30 years ago, in 1991-92, they remain the benchmark in Langgaard symphony performances. And it is telling in terms of the classical community that they made absolutely no impact on the composition of concert programs, which continued to feature—you guessed it—the symphonies of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and, occasionally, Nielsen…but absolutely no Langgaard.

And what strange and gripping works they are—the first symphony particularly, written when the composer was between 15 and 16 years old. I daresay that it is the most original first symphony in history other than Berlioz’ and Mahler’s. Yes, the first symphonies of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms were also great works, but the key word here is original. Those other composers all sounded like others of their time, at least in thematic material and structure. Langgaard, like Mahler, created a first symphony that sounded like no one else’s of his time. Melodic but not “tuneful” in the accepted sense, passionate and emotional with those trademark mood swings that rivaled Mahler’s but were not BASED on Mahler. If anything, this symphony sounds like a cross between Richard Strauss, Mahler and late Nielsen (of the 1920s) despite the fact that it was written in 1908-09.

His second and third symphonies, subtitled “Break of Spring” and “Rustle of Youth,” were written between the ages of 19 (1912) and 23 (1916), though both were revised in the years 1926-1933. They, too have a sweeping power and drama that is immediately visceral, still harmonically dependent on Strauss but using some melodic forms and rhythmic patterns that would not have occurred to Strauss; and once again, the mood swings in the music (such as the one at 8:40 in the first movement) are unexpected and startling. In this respect he is like Berlioz, but Langgaard used a more lyric sweep in his music, not so much the angular stepwise motion that so startled Berlioz’ audiences (and annoyed more conventional composers like his friend Mendelssohn, who couldn’t understand how Berlioz could admire Beethoven and yet write in such a radically different style). Like Mahler, Langgaard also achieves a certain massiveness of sound that went beyond Strauss; his orchestra sounds absolutely gigantic, an effect achieved largely by his ear for orchestration. Though this first movement starts out hot and heavy, the last few minutes of it are calm and pastoral; one might be forgiven for thinking that we had already moved into the second movement, but we haven’t. And indeed, the second movement is not slow, but a rather energetic and somewhat schizophrenic-sounding “Moderato” with more unusual shifts of gear—and a soprano solo! (Our soloist, Roma Owsinska, has a somewhat pretty but nasal voice.) And that, as they say, is that: no third or fourth movement.

But the Third Symphony is perhaps even more unusual, a one-movement piano concerto lasting nearly a half hour (28:03). This is another exuberant, youthful work, and if I criticize pianist Tadeusz Chimielewski, it wouldn’t be for his technique so much as his detached manner of phrasing and the instrument he uses, which has a light, dry sound, entirely wrong for such late-Romantic music. And once again, there is plenty of oomph in this music as it careens along its strange melodic path. For some reason, I kept flashing on Sinding’s melodious but rather insipid Rustles of Spring, simply because this music sounded to me like a very high-grade, “graduate course” version of that piece. By the middle of the symphony, however, we’re in the midst of a Danish-sounding funeral march, complete with pounding tympani, which alternates with a more melodic passage played by the string section in double time (but still with tympani undercurrent). This is followed by a very low, menacing, long-held chords played by the trombones, after which our erstwhile piano soloist returns for some flourishes against the strings before suddenly returning to a peppier tempo. Yet it is at the 21:20 mark that the music becomes even stranger, moving into a completely unexpected and quite original theme that Langgaard plays up with fevered excitement.

As a bonus track on this CD, we hear the 1907 work Drapa, its title being the Old Norse word for Icelandic heroic legends and religious poems rooted in 9th century Norway. Its subtitle, “Upon the Death of Edvard Grieg,” was only added after the fact; it was written in April 1907 and Grieg died in September, but the elder composer had been very friendly towards the younger and had in fact attended his organ concert in 1905, so he added the dedication. In any event, it is a quite dramatic and atmospheric piece, sounding not unlike some of the things that Sibelius was doing around the same time.

I think I should also mention that Langgaard’s activities as an organist obviously influenced his compositional style, particularly in terms of the rich, full orchestration. Like so many organists—think of Franck or Saint-Saëns—he thought in terms of the incredibly rich palette that the organ could provide him. (This was one reason why Virgil Fox, for instance, was so enamored of the orchestral sound that Leopold Stokowski could conjure up.)

R LanggaardThe fourth, fifth and sixth symphonies are all one-movement works dating from 1919 through the mid-1920s. This was when Langgaard was radically changing his style, retaining some of the late Romantic ideas of earlier years but adding edgier harmonies in the manner of Scriabin or Nielsen (even to the point of occasionally using rising chromatics as well as sudden interruptions of brass or winds in adjacent keys). And here, at this later date, his organist’s ear for color led him to drape these more modern ideas with an orchestral palette even more varied than previously. At around the 13-minute mark, he suddenly indulges in a bizarre double-time passage for the high winds, followed by querying figures played by the strings. A bit later, there’s a forlorn oboe melody played over long-held bitonal string chords. Strange stuff! Yet this is clearly one of his finest works.

The sixth symphony (“Heaven Rending”) opens more lyrically, yet you can already tell that Langgaard is heading in different harmonic directions than in the first three. Following the opening string statement there is a pause, followed by very soft tympani rolls, then a different string theme with some chimes tossed in. But the harmony in this passage is clearly bitonal; we’re not in Kansas (or Copenhagen) any more. Eventually, this leads to fortissimo open trumpet section fanfares, followed by a double-time fugue played in bitonal harmony. If the Danes thought Nielsen’s last symphonies too far out for them, they must have thought that this music came from outer space. By the 14-minute mark, it begins sounding like something written in the late 1930s or early ‘40s…way too far ahead of its time. Yet oddly, the sudden switch to a tonal, conventionally dramatic ending sounds like an anachronism.

The bonus tracks on this disc start with Interdict, a piece from 1947-48, and here the melodic and tonal language used in the sixth symphony sounds of its time rather than ahead of it, though still strange enough (particularly in its sudden pauses followed by completely different material) to put off the average concertgoer. (Don’t expect your local classical radio station to be playing any of this stuff.) And lo and behold, there’s a sudden organ solo in the middle of it, probably written for Langgaard himself to play. The much earlier Heltedød, “Death of a Hero,” is of course rather more conventional harmonically and clearly influenced in some degree by Siegfried’s Funeral March. It does, however, go on much longer—too long, in fact, at more than 12 minutes—and actually doesn’t say all that much. Not one of his best works.

The fifth symphony, just a little over 18 minutes long, is subtitled “”Steppelands – Summer Music Drama,” later changed to “Just a Saga,” and begins with a soft portamento passage for strings before suddenly opening up to bracing, heroic music. In 1931 the composer revisited this piece, reworking the main section with ideas drawn from his tone poem Symphonic Festival to beef up the symphony, and that is the version heard here. At about the 8:22 mark we hear what sounds like a two-voiced canon, but Langgaard quickly abandons it (as he often quickly abandoned themes) to plunge into driving, dramatic music featuring brass and drums. Tempo and mood swings continue throughout the work.

The seventh symphony, in the more conventional format of four movements, is one of the few pieces by Langgaard to be published (the composer had to chip in to cover the cost of publication, however). It, too exists in two versions, the original from 1925-26 and the revision from 1930-32; the subtitle, too, was changed from “By Tordenskjold in the Holmens Church” (named after a Danish maritime hero) to “From David’s 103rd (or 16th) Psalm,” though he complicated matters by later referring to it as his Fantastic Symphony. The first movement is surprisingly conventional for him and the second rather stately, although here we get a sudden jump from the stately music to sudden, violent climaxes. The third movement is, for Langgaard, a surprisingly jolly little scherzo, albeit with some strange little twists that remind one of strange netherworld figures darting through a forest at night. The fourth movement opens in a moderato tempo with a stately theme that suggests a returning hero parading through the streets.

The ninth symphony is also tonal but quirky, with a stop-start feeling throughout the first movement. The second movement is a dance, and a very charming one at that; perhaps by this time (1942), the year he was appointed organist at the Ribe cathedral, Langgaard was trying to make amends for his edgy earlier works by writing a more conventional symphony. the third movement, dedicated to the Ribe cathedral, is solemn and almost sounds like Russian music. For the most part, however, the ninth symphony is surprisingly unoriginal in both structure and mood.

We return to Langgaard’s own personal sound-world with the tenth symphony, titled “Yon Dwelling of Thunder.” This and the following three symphonies return to his one-movement form, and the harmonies are again edgy and uncompromising. Apparently, Langgaard became tired of trying to appease the all-powerful classical music establishment and went back to writing for himself. There are more thunderous passages here, again interspersed with mysterious rhythmic themes. At about the nine-minute mark we hear a sound that so far has not appeared in any of the previous symphonies: an entire section of clarinets playing a rather elusive-sounding theme in unison.

The eleventh symphony, subtitled “Ixion,” is quite possibly the shortest ever written, being only 5:59 long, which even beats Havergal Brian for brevity. As the liner notes confirm, this piece may be short but it is densely packed with feverish, febrile music that “reveals Langgaard’s horror and desperation…The instrumentation, with its large symphonic forces, expanded percussion and piano, borders on the unrealistic. Toward the end Langgaard even calls for four bass tubas.” Aside from “Ixion,” the title given to it after his death by his widow, other subtitles applied to this work were “Eternal War,” “Sun Terror,” “Burning Sun,” “Under Satan’s Sun,” “War of the Phantom Ship” and “The Devil Himself.” Langgaard apparently mailed the score to the Danish broadcasting network asking for a performance, and refused from that day forward to take it back.

The twelfth symphony is also quite short, a little under eight minutes. Langgaard described it as his “Symphony No. 1 all over again, but in concentrated form,” but the first symphony is never directly quoted in it. This music, too, sounds violent, almost desperate in mood, and in my view is even better written than the 11th because of its highly imaginative manipulation of ideas and the concentrated use of themes. Surprisingly, at the six-minute mark the violent music suddenly stops, followed by a lyrical theme, which after a while is interrupted as we start moving back to fast-paced music, this time stately in the minor with trumpet fanfares…then, it just ends suddenly on a major chord. A very strange work!

The filler on this CD is an early tone poem, Sphinx (1909-10), which premiered in the same concert as his first symphony (which was conducted by Max Fiedler). It’s surprisingly modern-sounding for such an early work, written primarily in the minor with edgy string figures playing against feverish trumpets. The score was revised in 1913, with the composer conducting the new edition the next year.

On the next CD, we jump back to his eighth symphony before moving on to Nos. 14 and 15. Subtitled “Memories of Amalienborg,” this too begins with triumphal fanfare music and includes a piano in the orchestra. The second movement is a very fast, excitable piece, “Molto vivace,” with almost continually swirling violin passages set against more sedate wind figures. Surprisingly, the third movement contains a tenor soloist and chorus singing how the “golden treasure of what once was I lift with quaking voice.” (Don’t ask me what that means.) The fairly brief (3:51) last movement moves from a moderato opening to an “Allegro moderato festivo.”

The 14th symphony also opens with a chorus, this time singing religious stuff about how “The Star of Kings and the Star of Lords will appear to us in his own good time” before moving on to the second movement, a purely instrumental theme played rather sedately by the strings. The third movement, stately yet interesting, harks back to some of his earlier symphonies. The third movement is also stately, using a theme for the winds that sounds as if it were stolen from Leoncavallo’s “Ridi, Pagliacci.” The fourth movement, though a bit faster, is also quite stately. This symphony is also unusual in that it has seven movements instead of four, and was planned to be performed in tandem with the 13th to create a “Grand Symphony,” an idea completely rejected by Danish Radio. We get a chorus again in the fifth movement, titled “Radio-Caruso and forced energy,” whatever that was supposed to mean. (Perhaps he heard some Caruso recordings on the radio that inspired him.) The happy little chorus returns to sing in the last movement as well.

Symphony No. 15 is, again, a different animal. Subtitled “Storm at Sea,” it returns to his edgier, more modern style. Perhaps by this time he was tired of trying to mollify the Powers that Be and decided the hell with it, I’ll just write for myself, but in any case this is, again, one of his more interesting works. Clangorous warning bells come out of nowhere about halfway into it, then disappear. Then, after things become stormy again, here comes the chorus again, this time singing about how “The storm sweeps the earth, taking its strength from the night.”

The last CD opens with the Prelude to his only opera, Antikrist, but since I will be reviewing that work separately all I’ll say for now is that it opens in his edgy, modern style before developing a much more lyrical theme. Symphony No. 13, “Faithlessness” or “Subfaith,” was written in 1946-47 and runs 28 minutes. It recycles the opening theme from his 7th Symphony, which in turn had been taken from a piece by Axel Gade. Langgaard had the idea to combine his 13th and 14th symphonies together to produce a sort of “grand symphony” featuring both. Once again, nothing came of it. This is an epic work, the feeling mostly positive and chipper.

Langgaard’s love-hate relationship with Danish Radio apparently cleared up by 1951 when he dedicated his 16th and last symphony to the radio symphony orchestra. Subtitled “Sun Deluge,” it almost picks up from where the 13th Symphony left off, thus it may have been a good thing that Danish State Radio never broadcast the former. It does, however, develop in different and typically quirky ways. After several one-movement symphonies, this last one is in five movements, each completely different in character which is typical of the unusual way his mind worked. The liner notes suggest that the feelings of painful resignation at occasional despair suggested, in a way, a struggle that Langgaard was losing. The notes also suggest that the “disunity” of the piece and its juxtaposition of harmonies, once considered avant-garde, were now old-fashioned in the early 1950s. But at a snail’s pace, some recognition was coming Langgaard’s way at this time; this same year, 1951, he was made professor honoris causa at the St. Cecilia Academy of Lausanne, Switzerland, and his fourth symphony was broadcast to all of Scandinavia. But time ran out for Langgaard, and by 1952 he was dead.

This, then, is clearly a strange, somewhat uneven but fascinating traversal of the symphonies of a singular talent, one whose like we may never see again. The odd thing is that, whether simple or complex, serene or angst-ridden, none of Langgaard’s symphonies are so abrasive that the average listener cannot appreciate the many interesting and individual things he did in them, and at least half of them clearly deserve not only a revival but frequent performances in concert halls. But don’t hold your breath. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and occasionally Mahler will still dominate the musical landscape. Poor Langgaard simply hasn’t bee dead long enough for us to “get” what he was doing, appreciate it, and clamor to hear it more often.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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