Langgaard, One Last Time: The String Quartets

cover Dacapo 6200004

LANGGAARD: Rosengaardsspil (Rose Garden Play). String Quartet in Ab, BVN 155. String Quartets Nos. 1-6. Variations on “Mig hjertilig nu længes.” String Quartet Movement, “Italian Scherzo” / Nightingale String Qrt / Dacapo 6.200004

Like his symphonies, Langgaard’s string quartets oscillate between luscious Romanticism and outré modernism, and in this set we start our journey with the latter in the String Quartet No. 2 from 1918 (revised 1931). If you’ve been following my reviews so far, you won’t be surprised by any of this. Langgaard was a composer who vacillated wildly in both mood and style, sometimes from piece to piece and sometimes within the same piece, and the listener can never be sure what he or she will get as they move along through the music.

Arcing viola and cello figures are constantly interrupting the almost violent outbursts of the two violins; this is not so much a conversation between four instruments as it is a quarrelsome argument, pitting the top two instruments against the bottom two. In this respect it is written more like an ensemble string piece than a standard string quartet, but then again, Langgaard was never one to play it safe. In this quartet, it’s the third movement, titled “Landscape in Twilight,” which goes back to a more Romantic style, but still odd enough to not really fit in with other music of that genre.

Not to be outdone by the second quartet, the third is even edgier in the first movement…but then, the period 1918-1924 was Langgaard’s most modern and experimental. Yet after the violent opening, he suddenly moves to a somewhat lyrical theme, but it is quickly subverted by odd (but not atonal) movement into somewhat remote harmonies. He was a restless composer whose music never sat still or took expected paths, and this weirdness continues into the second-movement Scherzo, which vacillates like crazy between normalcy and, well, outré eccentricity. One thing is for sure, in a country of happy people, Rued Langgaard was not a jolly Dane; yet the one-movement String Quartet No. 6, which paradoxically predates the others, being composed in 1918-19, is lush and Romantic in feeling. Also vacillating in style and feeling are the variations on “Mig hjertelig nu længes” or “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” a Danish hymn.

I won’t spoil the fun for you, but as you continue to go through these piece you’ll continue to be amazed and, hopefully, stimulated and/or delighted by the eccentric routes that Langgaard took in the composition of these pieces. Even the innocuously-titled “Rose Garden Play” doesn’t fully meet expectations; apparently, the roses in this garden are as unpredictable and volatile as the ones in Alice in Wonderland. These are roses that seduce you with sweet melodic lines, only to suddenly jump out and prick you with their thorns when you get too close.

At this point, having now heard a large portion of Langgard’s output, I seriously wonder if he wasn’t manic-depressive or what we now term bipolar…but if he was in one of his manic moods when he wrote most of his music, wouldn’t he have reconsidered the odd mood swings and juxtaposed themes when he was in a down mood? Apparently not. Perhaps he felt that his manic moods, which is apparently when he wrote most of his music, were inspirational and not emotionally confused or irrational moments. In any event, he has certainly left us a constantly surprising and stimulating body of work which to this day stands in a classification entirely its own. You can’t even compare him to other composers who we know had mood swings, such as Mahler and Schumann, because even their music sounds more of a piece and less “pushed together” than Langgaard’s compositions.

And as I’ve said, there are always those movement and moments where he certainly did seem to get everything together and put his musical ducks in a row. The second movement of Rose Garden Play, a “scherzoso” dedicated to Mozart, is in a very classical form despite its few unusual moments, so he clearly know how to compose in a “normal” fashion. He just didn’t usually choose to do so. I’ve purposely bypassed much of his vocal music for the simple reason that it is quite conventional—not bad, certainly, but not particularly individual or stimulating. (I did, however, review some of it in my very first Langgaard CD review, so you can see my comments there.)

Interestingly, Langgaard numbered his string quartets out of chronological order, which was as follows: Quartet No. 1, the Variations, Quartet No. 2, Rose Garden Play, then the unnumbered quartet followed by Quartets Nos. 6, 3, 5 and 4. His last piece for this combination, the “Italian Scherzo,” dates from much later, in 1950.

In a sense, then, nearly all of these quartet pieces share the same basic vibe, which is to say, musically edgy (even when trying to be lyrical) and somewhat schizophrenic in their mashing together of themes that don’t quite seem to fit next to each other. But this doesn’t mean that each quartet sounds like the others. As in the case of his 16 Symphonies, Langgaard always seemed to come up with something new to say, even when the basic framework was Romantic. He really was a composer who marched to the beat of his own drummer, and at this point we’ll probably never know who or what that drummer really was. He apparently left no diaries and few written notes to indicate how or why he wrote the way he did. You just have to listen to each piece and make your determination as to what they mean, and I would personally discourage you from listening to more than one CD at a time. I had to listen to the full 3-CD set here in one day for the purposes of this review, and my head is still reeling from the experience. Regardless of what harmonic language he was using at any given moment, Langgaard was a dense composer. He never wrote “feel-good” or “entertaining” music. Everything he did was deadly serious and a personal expression of how he was feeling at the moment he put pen to paper. The End.

But oh, what a rewarding trip this has been! For me, it was like discovering Erwin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann, Nikos Skalkottas or even Kalevi Aho for the first time…idiosyncratic composers who didn’t consciously try to copy anyone else, yet had (or, in the case of Aho, have) an inner “bullshit meter” that kept them from writing much that was surfacy or ephemeral. They all wrote from the gut, so to speak, and what you heard was what you got: uncompromising and highly personal musical statements meant to stimulate the intellect and excite the emotions but NOT to make you feel good. You either come halfway to these composers or you don’t get what they’re doing at all, and for me that is the essence of great music regardless of period.

So just dig in!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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