A sense of drama is in the air, right from the first bars on. A Romantic composer? Bang on. Influenced by Wagner? Bang on again. Vienna based? Trapped! He never came close to that town. German then? No, but close. A Frenchman! No. No? No. This composer is from Denmark and his name is Rued Langgaard (1893-1952). During the first half of the 20th century he wrote 16 symphonies, six string quartets, four violin sonatas, several other orchestral works and an opera with the title “Antikrist” – and he is not exactly well-known.
Memories of Schubert
Another blogger, Maria Holm from Denmark, raised my interest in this composer, and once I had listened to a couple of pieces written by Langgaard, I just had to buy a few records and start writing about them. One of the works I tagged “Love at first sight”, is Langgaard’s piece for string quartet “Rosengaardsspil” (Rose Garden Play), BVN 153, composed in 1918 and recorded in 2014 by the Danish Nightingale String Quartet. It reminds me a lot of Schubert piece “Death and the maiden” – that alone is a reason to love Langgaard “Rosengaardsspil”.
So how could it happen that the world overlooked this composer? Actually, Langgaard was born a century too late. He would have fit well into music circles in Vienna at the end of the 19th century, but a hundred years later the world had moved on. Both parents were pianists and taught him well. He would later chiefly play the organ. At the age of eleven, he performed for the first time in public in Copenhagen as an organist and improviser, and in 1908 a performance of an early cantata caught the attention of the audience. His Symphony No. 1 was performed abroad in Berlin in 1913 in a concert devoted to his works.
A row with Nielsen
But it quickly appeared that he was out of sync with the audience at home as well as with the music world outside Denmark. Here is what Oxford Music Online has to say about it : “In Denmark the musical community regarded the highly productive but reserved and solitary composer with considerable scepticism. […] A true breakthrough failed to materialize, and after his opera “Antikrist” was turned down by the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen in 1925, he reacted sharply by turning his back on modernism and openly criticizing Danish musical life, not least Nielsen’s significant aesthetic influence on it.” Carl Nielsen is a post-Romantic Danish composer, mostly known for his symphonies which incorporate dissonant harmonies and bold extensions of tonality.
Out of sync with society
Langgaard chose to stick with his style and never achieved real popularity either at home or abroad. At the time, it mattered to Langgaard – financially, emotionally. “His uncompromising view of music, coloured by religion and symbolism, did not concur with the anti-Romantic and sober attitude which became dominant in Denmark around 1930”, says Oxford Music Online. In 1940, he was able to secure a job as an organist at the cathedral of Ribe, far from the centre of Danish musical life in Copenhagen.
Today, Langgaard’s issue with the evolution of music since World War I doesn’t matter anymore. All I am interested in is beautiful music, and beautiful it is. Welcome to the rose garden!
© Charles Thibo