A Danish Prelude to the Summer

Summerdays Langgaard.jpg
The summer shows its flags.  © Charles Thibo

More and more I start to appreciate very simple joys like a beautiful flower in our garden, a special pattern of the clouds in the sky, the play of light and shadows in the wood… Over the years, our sword flags have become a favourite object of contemplation of mine. Delicacy and fiery passion intertwined, the sweetness and the heat of the summer mirrored in a single plant. They are truly the queens of the garden at the moment of their blossoming.

Summer – it’s so close. Rued Langgaard has made the temptations of the summer the subject of his String Quartet No. 4, BVN 215 “Sommerdage” (Summer days). He wrote it between 1914 and 1918 as a young man and revised it in 1931. It has been recorded by the Nightingale String Quartet just like the piece “Rosengaardsspil”, that I have discussed in an earlier post a year ago. Langgaard defied throughout his life the Danish culture establishment, none of his works were commissioned and most of them were never performed during his lifetime.

A Romantic outsider

The magazine “Gramophone” ran an interesting analysis of Langgaard’s music in 2012: “Ideologies strange and pressing forced Langgaard into serious creativity from the age of 11. He railed against the spiritual state of the world and the reversal (as he saw it) of musical progress. But his creations sprang from emotional prompts, too: his isolation, his religious fervour and what we can fairly assume was the torture of mental illness. Works of gregarious and liberated joy are the inevitable peaks against his troughs of depression and anger.” A bizarre man, who characterized his work with the following words: “To be the very essence of paradox, that is my calling”.

His style can be described as influenced by the late Romantic period and composers like Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss; his colourful orchestration may be taken as a testimony. What struck me, was a revelation of the magazine “Gramophone” that the Hungarian avant-garde composer György Ligety confided once that he was indebted to Langgaard. He startled the audience, a group of composers, on two accounts: Almost nobody seemed to have known Langgaard and those who did, well they did not think much good of the Dane’s music.

Langgaard’s use of clusters

Ligety and Langgaard – how does that go together? I had no clue initially. A website dedicated to the composer solved the mystery: “In 1968, however, the composer, György Ligeti, jury along with the Danish composer, Per Norgard, sat on a jury set up to judge a large number of new scores by Scandinavian composers. Unknown to the others, Norgard had inserted the score of Langgaard’s ‘Music of Spheres’. Norgard noted that Ligeti was paying particular attention to this score, and after a while the latter exclaimed, with a twinkle in his eye: ‘Gentlemen, I have just discovered that I am a Langgaard epigone!’ […] Ligeti had realized that some of the technical aspects of this composition – the use of clusters, layers, etc. – in ‘Music of Spheres’ were found again in some of his own works from the 1960s…”

You will look in vain for such modern elements in “Sommerdage”. The string quartet follows the Romantic tradition, it is a simple and pleasant piece and an excellent prelude to the coming summer.

© Charles Thibo

Editorial note: The BVN catalogue numbers of Langgaard’s works go back to Bendt Viinholt Nielsen, who has published an interesting brochure on the composer reflecting boh his life and the different styles of his works.

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.