Saturday, December 4, 2010

Rued Awakening - Langgaard's 4th "Fall of the Leaf"

In 1948, the the Danish composer Rued Langgaard penned perhaps the snarkiest work for large orchestra and chorus in our fair history of western music. Bearing the title/lyrics "Carl Nielsen, our great composer" and the performance indication of "play with all one's might," this essay in musical bitterness is a mere 32 measures. But if played according to Langgaard's instruction "to be repeated for all eternity," the piece should wrap around itself in unceasing, pointless indignation. Despite a dedication to "the world of music in Denmark," it understandably did not premiere during Langgaard's lifetime.[1]

This is not the product of a composer who felt he was treated fairly by the musical institutions of his time. Immensely prolific, with over 400 staggeringly varied works to his name (including 16 symphonies), Langgaard suffered much of his life under the shadow of Denmark's symphonic paladin, Carl Nielsen. Nielsen embodied Denmark's triumphant late arrival to the European orchestral scene; today we regard him highly for developing innovative, rigorous compositional procedures that fell outside the German/French mainstream. In his own time, Nielsen wielded great sway over the direction of Danish aesthetics, and pointed them decidedly away from the style of his contemporary symphonist. Langgaard underwent a prolonged disillusionment with this "vulgar" music, increasingly re/denouncing Nielsen's brand of modernism and veering instead into his own odd brew of late Romantic and pastiche Classical styles. His music disregarded, the eccentric composer was forced into virtual exile from the country's center of musical culture, Copenhagen.

It will be hard to encapsulate Langgaard the symphonist to one entry. His symphonies range from the gargantuan (the hour long "Pastoral of the Rocks," written at the age of 18) to the vanishingly small (No. 11, "Ixion," an intensely weird 6 minutes), from luscious romanticism (No. 3 "The Flush of Youth - Melodia," basically a piano concerto), to apocalypticicsm (No. 6 "Heaven-Rending"), and eventually  neo-classicism tinted by absurdism (No. 13, "Belief in Wonders"). Running threads include programmaticism, nature worship, and a mystical bent. Perhaps in the future we'll bring in more of these, but I concentrate here on a symphony that nicely encapsulates what sets him so starkly against his peers as a symphonist (particularly the teleologically-driven Neilsen) -- Langgaard's Symphony No. 4 in Eb-minor "Løvfald" ("Autumn," or literally, "Fall of Leaves"), written in 1916.

This one of Langgaard's works best represented on disc (at least 5 recordings). I use clips from the glorious Thomas Dausgaard complete set of symphonies, as definitive as you can get.[2]

In terms of structure and subject matter, a correlate for Rued Langgaard's 4th is Richard Strauss' Eine Alpensinfonie (1915). Both are single-movement tone poems in all but name (TPIABN...yikes), both heavy on the musical mimickry of nature sounds.[3] Instead of representing a particular location as in Alpensinfonie, Langgaard depicts a time of year, a rather turbulent autumn. He has an even shorter thematic attention span than Strauss in this work -- Løvfald's twenty four minute duration is segmented into 13 sections, the longest not even 3 1/2 minutes. There is generally no real attempt to mask the episodic basis of the work, and what results is an almost Brucknerian feel of reaching the end of a thought (prematurely, sometimes), pausing, and resuming with new material. Many sections bear descriptive titles, and the overall progression of titled movements is below, charting an eventful fall day.

I. Rustle of the Forest -- II. Glimpse of Sun -- IV. Thunderstorm -- VII. Autumnal -- VIII. Tired -- IX. Despair! -- XII. Sunday Bells -- XIII. At an end.

Parsing Langgaard's forms can be extremely frustrating. Just as you think a sonata juxtaposition of contrasting themes seems to emerge, or a recapitulatory function, or a sense of developing variation, he does a 180 and ventures in an entirely different direction. As a result of this unpredictability, the Fourth Symphony is rich with ideas but not easy to summarize.

Right from the start, Langgaard defies symphonic logic, with a gestural hammer-stroke more reminiscent of an ending than a beginning (he also ends the work with this same Eb-minor crash). The emphatic opening indicates this is going to be no leisurely stroll, but a wind-battered slog.

A network of themes forms much of the tissue of "Løvfald." Most notable is a melodic pattern (Cb - A - Bb) heard first in "I. Rustle of the Forest."  It's sounded in the most tumultuous contexts, and transmutes later in the piece to a pure harmonic progression (eb: bVI6 - bii - V6 - i). The following example, from the beginning of section "IX. Sempre con moto," shows the transformation in action:

Stormy material like this counters more pastoral themes interspersed throughout. These include a dorian melody for "II. Glimpse of Sun," a modal phrase that dominates the latter stages of symphony, and an effusive string line for the "III. Allegrando" section. Here is that extroverted tune, serving as a (very tenuous) contrasting theme to the Eb-minor material from earlier.

The most dramatic Langgaard-180 occurs halfway through the piece, when all orchestral activity empties out save a soft string cluster and a lethargic oboe melody. Here's the ending of section "VIII. Tired," concluding with a typically Langgaardian not-quite-right chord progression for muted strings.

In a hard to quantify way, this Shepherd's tune has ramifications for the rest of the symphony. There follow nods to thematic retreat (in section IX), straining apotheosis (XI), and crashing defeat (XIII). The oddest is section "XII. Sunday Bells," in which Langgaard grinds the symphony's forward momentum to a halt -- instead of an expected climax, he presents 30 seconds of church bell sounds clanging away, a sound produced by overlapping whole-tone dyads (in in a similar manner to Holst's Saturn).

It's not just the pictorialism or the way-too-soon minimalism that isn't symphonic in any traditional sense, it's the manner in which it just inserts itself into the piece, the utter disassociation from the other thematic or vaguely teleological things happening elsewhere.[4] In this symphonic amble, it becomes increasingly clear that Langgaard follows no trail map.


In the late 1960's, after his death to obscurity in 1952, Langgaard finally began to accumulate some recognition. This came particularly from his Music of the Spheres, a perplexing work that engages the revelatory and apocalyptic strains found throughout his oeuvre. Ligeti is said to have been astonished at the sight of the piece's score, which anticipated by half a century the orchestral colors of his own sonorist Atmospheres. (Per Nørgård, who we've already met, delightfully describes his role in the discovery here). Perhaps this composer, for whom enduring neglect was practically a bodily function, was not such a bitter reactionary after all. Maybe we should treat Rued Langgaard rather as chronologically misplaced prophet, writing either too early or too late, but not when the establishment deemed he should have been.
--Frank Lehman
[1]: This, and many other anecdotes, interviews, and reference material can be obtained at the terrific website of the Langgaard Foundation.
[2]: Neeme Järvi's recording is also excellent, though for the most emphatic (and uneven) treatment, try out Ilya Stupel's account.
[3]: I haven't ascertained whether the Strauss work was heard by Langgaard by the time of his composition of Løvfald, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were some influence.
[4]: Full disclosure: there is a transient patch of whole-tone material in section IX., but it's not a "precursor" in any meaningful sense

1 comment:

  1. Keep them coming, very interesting stuff.

    Promoted your blog a bit: