A cry of pain. Madness, loss of orientation. Suffering and desperation. Such emotional outbursts dominate Langgaard’s String Quartet No. 2, BVN 145. It seems to reflect the conflicts a tortured mind has to endure in the face of an hostile environment, a world marked by adversity. A dark and fascinating piece, in its emotional expressiveness close to Franz Schubert’s musical language. At the same time it gives an outlook to a better future, the source of hope being music.
Rued Langgaard was an eccentric person a composer rejected by his contemporaries, locked in his own spiritual world. The researcher Beendt Viinholt Nielsen writes that “[f]or Langgaard, music and religion were two sides of the same coin. Music appealed to the religious instinct, and musical experience is a religious experience.” Langgaard had pessimistic if not dystopic view of the world with a raging battle of Good against Evil at its core. The violence of World War I may well have confirmed him in this view and the string quartet gives us a hint at the deeply moral questions that Langgaard was reflecting. He saw mankind’s future in a new type of society built upon the foundations of music.
We have met Rued Langgaard already a couple of times with different string quartets, all of them recorded by the Nightingale String Quartet, reflecting different periods of the Danish composer’s creativity. Quartet No. 2 was written in 1918, revised in 1931, and as the magazine “Gramophone” opined, the “young Danish ensemble throws itself into the music with a [remarkable] vehemence and sense of purpose”. Langgaard’s style is rooted in the late Romantic tradition, Richard Wagners music for instance is said to have influenced him a lot, but he developed his own music language, different from neo-romanticism, different from atonality or serialism.
A prescient composer?
Taken as a whole, String Quartet No. 2 may sound harsh and not easily accessible, but the piece has also moments of utmost tenderness e.g. the fading end of the first movement aptly called “Storm Clouds Receding”. Langgaard however destroys this short relief by an impetuous opening of the short, second movement named “Train passing by” with rapid isolated, repeated notes – ostinato* – rendered by brutal bow strokes.
The beginning of the third movement called “Landscape in the Twilight” is another instance where Langgaard’s ability to come up with gentle, perfectly balanced and delicate figures is demonstrated. The forces of darkness are never very far, but the movement is very enjoyable. The final movement “The walk” surprises by a hovering, shimmering string theme, very special, very innovative expressing translucency and fragility – the human soul?
Nielsen characterizes the period between 1916 and 1925, when Langgaard composed this quartet, as a period where the composer chose the problems of modern life as his dominant idea. “At the beginning of the period, the music sought to express despondency and resignation, later on the actual religious and existential problems of the modern age, against the backdrop of uncertainty about the future and the idea that the raising of spiritual awareness was necessary for the survival of mankind.” Some 100 years later these reflections seem to be more necessary than ever and Langgaard’s musical message seems like a prescient voice from the past.
© Charles Thibo