Langgaard’s “Antichrist”

DACOCD517 cover

LANGGAARD: Antichrist / Joachim Seipp, baritone (Lucifer/Hate); Kathryn Jayne Carpenter, soprano (Spirit of Mystery/Despondency); Marie-Claude Chapuis, mezzo-soprano (Spirit of Mystery’s Echo/Mystical Voice); Heinrich Wolf, tenor (The Mouth That Speaks Great Things); Foula Dimitriadis, mezzo-soprano (The Great Whore); John Mac Master, tenor (The Scarlet Beast/The Lie); Angsar Schäfer, speaker (Voice of God); Tirolis Landestheater Chorus & Symphony Orch.; Niels Muus, conductor / Danacord DACOCD 517 (live: Innsbruck, May 2, 1999)

As was usual for Rued Langgaard, his 1923 opera Antichrist (or Antikrist in Danish) had an arduous journey with the classical establishment and media of his time and ended up going nowhere. He submitted it to the Royal Danish Theatre in 1923 and had it rejected on the basis of the libretto. Then he began rewriting it in 1926, the text being completely changed, and resubmitted it in 1930 when he finished. Again it was rejected—except this time the Royal Theatre took five years to let him know they wouldn’t do it.

He then submitted it to the Danish Broadcasting Corporation and, much to his surprise, they accepted it—at first. Conductor Launy Grøndahl worked on the opera in 1940, but the DBC kept putting off the performance. It wasn’t actually performed until 1980 by the Danish State Symphony, conducted by Michael Schønwandt.

Yet even in its finished, revised state, Antichrist is a crazy, symbolic, non-linear work that was clearly a half-century ahead of its time. There is no plot in the conventional sense of the word. In the prologue, God agrees to let Lucifer send the Antichrist into the world for a certain period of time. In Scene 6, the Antichrist is cursed and dies; the rest of the opera involves, as Bengt Viinholt Nielsen puts it in the liner notes, “an ironic-sarcastic pillorying of the slogans and ‘cure-alls’ of modern civilization from an idealistic and religious point of view.” Langgaard believed that society and churches has both failed us, and the only solution was man’s personal relationship with God. Nielsen continues:

The text is in a poetic, mystical, expressionistic, relatively inaccessible symbolic language where it appears to be the sound and “value” of the individual words that count rather than extended passages of coherent meaning.

In the libretto, Langgard has specified a number of “universal symbols” he wants to point up the scene: sphere, ram’s horn, leafless tree, etc. He refers to Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) famous print Melancholia and to the Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli’s (1441/50-1523) Antichrist frescoes in Orvieto Cathedral. These references help to make the opera “timeless,” while the gas flames constantly mentioned in the stage directions were for Langgard the essential symbol of the period around 1900 – gaslights were the normal street lighting of the age, and for the composer their flickering was a symbol of Purgatory and the lost souls!

I have run across two other complete recordings of this opera, a 1988 studio recording conducted by Ole Schmidt (EMI, now out of print) which has exciting conducting but really horrible singers, and the famous Thomas Dausgaard recording on Dacapo (also issued as a Blu-Ray video) where the singing is a bit better (particularly the baritone singing Lucifer) but the conducting isn’t as exciting as either the Schmidt studio recording or the live 1999 performance under review here. Despite the craziness of the plot and the often modern-sounding music, there is a lovely aria for the Spirit of Mystery (sung by Kathryn Jane Carpenter) that could pass muster in any lyrical German or Italian opera of the late Romantic period. Go figure!

Indeed, throughout this opera Langgaard continually vacillates between late Romanticism, early Modernist music, and sometimes passages that border on Berg. He combines all three in track 6, particularly the orchestral introduction, to “Lust: Königin ich, Lied will ich nicht sehn” sung by The Great Whore (mezzo Foula Dimitriadis). And later in the same track, after the tenor sings, there’s a massed orchestral passage that sounds for all the world like minimalism. He was clearly in his own musical zone. Act II, Scene 5 is also rather wild, with pounding tympani behind the tenor and edgy string tremolos behind the mezzo, who then goes berserk singing some really wild lines that would have put Stravinsky in the shade. Then, in the last scene, we suddenly get peaceful music that again resembles that of several modern composers writing in a quasi-minimalist style.

If the reader feels that I’ve given the music short shrift, please understand that there is often so much going on here that, without access to the score (which must look like a battle plan), it’s difficult to give wholly accurate descriptions. Aside from the lyrical moments, this is such a dense piece that just listening to and absorbing it all for the first time is a shock to the system. Suffice it to say that Antichrist is in a class by itself that, as a complete entity, really can’t be compared to any other opera ever written. But it works, and it’s effective, much more so than Prokofiev’s confused and baffling score to The Fiery Angel.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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