Articles and other literature

An "Ecstatic Outsider": Rued Langgaard, 1893-1952

By Bendt Viinholt Nielsen

Translation by Anna Hedrick Harwell

Who was Langgaard?

The composer Rued Langgaard is the "problem child" of Danish musical life, and nevertheless he stands as a distinctive and interesting figure in Danish music of the 20th century.

Langgaard has been called "the tragic case" of our country's music history, because in spite of his fantastic musical gifts, he never found a natural place in the musical life of his day. One of the reasons for this was that Langgaard was an unusual person, an introverted, touchy and unpredictable loner who had absolutely no talent for "selling himself." Another reason for his exclusion from the musical society was that his uncompromising artistic position brought him into conflict with the Carl Nielsen-influenced, anti-romantic aesthetics, which became absolute in Denmark around the time of Nielsen's death in 1931. Langgaard held fast to an artistic point of view whose main ingredients were Romanticism and Symbolism. He fought against the tide like a man obsessed. As a composer and musician (he was a phenomenal organist) Langgaard was, to a great extent, neglected by the musical establishment and thus did not receive true recognition during his lifetime. With his peculiar appearance he became regarded as an original, who struggled with purely personal problems rather than issues of artistic relevance. In short, people found it difficult to take Langgaard seriously. And Langgaard felt alone, set-aside, persecuted, and betrayed by both his own generation and the various musical institutions.

Forgotten after his death in 1952, Rued Langgaard was discovered in both Denmark and Sweden in the last half of the 1960s. The wave of Mahler and Bruckner enthusiasm created a sympathy for the "overlooked" late romantics; and Langgaard, the "ecstatic outsider" as the Swedish musicologist Bo Wallner labelled him in 1968, got a second chance. Although a number of Langgaard compositions were premiered and performed at that time (especially by the Danish state radio), it has only recently become possible to get an understanding of the composer's output.

Stylistically, Langgaard's music is suprisingly irregular. His obvious excentricity in certain works and strong derivativeness in others seems to stand in the way of a more impartial artistic assessment of the music. During the last 3 to 4 years, however, a foundation has been laid which enables us to judge Langgaard and his music: A detailed catalogue of works was published in 1991, 7 CDs containing Langgaards 16 symphonies and a number of other orchestral works were released in 1992 (more than 100 of his compositions can now be found on either CD or LP) and on the centennial of Langgaard's birth 1993, the composer received a great deal of attention which included the appearance of the first Langgaard biography. A number of the composer's important works have recently been published for the first time.

A Biographical Outline

Rued Langgaard was an only child. Both of his parents were pianists: his father, Siegfried Langgaard (1852-1914), devoted himself to pedagogical activities (he taught at the Copenhagen conservatory for 33 years), while his mother, Emma Langgaard (1861-1926), gave private piano lessons. Siegfried Langgaard was also a composer of piano music and songs and somewhat of a thinker, greatly concerned with a philosophy of music which had a theosophically-coloured religious conviction as its basis.

Langgaard's parents quickly ascertained that their son's musical gifts were quite unusual; in fact they literally regarded him to be a genius. Everything was organized so that his intellectual development could happen naturally and with complete freedom. Private tutors attended to his education while lessons in music theory and aesthetics were primarily taken care of by the father himself. Thus Rued Langgaard did not experience a normal childhood. Instead he received an isolated and goal- oriented up-rearing in a home where music reigned supreme.

This isolation during childhood marked Langgaard's personality and cast a shadow over the composer's entire personal and professional life. The abstract and immaterial artistic world became, as it were, more real for Langgaard than the challenges and demands of reality itself. He regarded his artistic work as a duty and calling. Although Langgaard's attitude was often that of an intellectual aristocrat, in reality he was not the intellectual type, but rather an impulsive artist who allowed his moods and emotions to guide him.

In 1905 Langgaard made his debute at age eleven as an organist and improvisor in Copenhagen. However organ playing did not interest him as much as composition, and in 1908 a large Langgaard work for soloists, choir and orchestra was premiered. This work was cut down by Copenhagen music critics, whose relationship with Langgaard remained strained and openly critical throughout the composer's life.

One should not underestimate the press' contempt for Langgaard when trying to determine why the composer constantly experienced difficulties in getting his compositions performed. Problems concerning performances began already with Langgaard's impressive first symphony (completed in 1911). After attempting, in vain, to get the hour-long work premiered in Copenhagen and Stockholm, the Langgaard family (with support from patrons) managed to get the symphony performed in Berlin in 1913 at a pure Langgaard concert with the Berlin Philharmonic and Max Fiedler. The performance was a success and the concert became the culmination of Langgaard's career as a composer.
The opportunities to have large demanding compositions performed in Copenhagen were few and far between in those days, and it is a sad fact that the works Langgaard himself considered to be some of his most substantial, Sinfonia interna (1915-16), Sfærernes Musik (The Music of the Spheres; 1916-18) and the opera Antikrist(Antichrist; 1921-23), were not performed in Denmark during the composer's lifetime.

In the beginning of the 1920s things apparently brightened up for Langgaard internationally. A couple of orchestral works and his 2nd, 4th and 6th symphonies were performed in Darmstadt, Essen, Stuttgart, Heidelberg, Karlsruhe, Berlin and Vienna (often with himself as conductor), and his chamber and piano music was heard in Karlsruhe, Paris and Prague. Langgaard appears to have had an especially attentive young audience in Karlsruhe, where the performance of his experimental 6th symphony received great enthusiasm - quite a different reaction in comparison to the scandal which arose after the symphony's 1923 premiere in Copenhagen by the famous Blüthner Orchestra from Berlin. However, Langgaard's success in Germany was sporadic and shortlived. After 1924 he only set foot outside Denmark for summer vacations in Sweden.

The big turning point in Langgaard's life came in 1924/25. After having been, for years, one of several young Carl Nielsen- inspired avantgarde Danish composers, Langgaard changed his mind and fell back to a derivative late romantic style. At the same time he renounced modern music and all of its ways (this did not, however, include his own progressive works!). In 1927 Langgaard began to publicly polemize against the undisputed leader of modern music, Carl Nielsen, and his followers. At the same time he founded a music society called "The Music Society for Boring People," as a form of protection against the progression of jazz. This new society soon folded. Langgaard's isolation and fate in Danish music culture was firmly determined within a few years. His life became marked by despair concerning his position as a "cultural composer" (as he labelled himself) for an unsympathetic, hard-headed and spiritless age controlled by materialism, objectivity and societal concerns. From this point on performances of Langgaard's works were only given by the Danish state radio, who felt a certain obligation towards the composer.

The most tragic element of Langgaard's situation during these years was his failure to attain his greatest wish: a position as a church organist. The fact that one of the most gifted organists Denmark has ever known was unable to get a church job, even though he applied, year after year, to almost every available position shows both the pronounced absence of magnanimity in Denmark's musical culture of the 1930s and the period's lack of respect for the romantic tradition represented by Langgaard.
In 1940 Rued Langgard, then 47 years old, finally received his first and only permanent position as organist and cantor at the cathedral in Ribe, a little provincial town in Southern Jutland. Although Langgaard was pleased with the position, being sent so far from Copenhagen must have made him feel like an exile. In Ribe Langgaard concentrated on his ecclesiastical duties and compositional activities. Langgaard died shortly before his 59th birthday in 1952, leaving more than 400 compositions: sixteen symphonies, numerous other orchestral works, an opera in various versions, a number of vocal works with orchestra, string quartets and violin sonatas, a large quantity of piano and organ compositions and well over a hundred songs.

Langgaard's Music

Langgaard's approach to music was anti-academic. He was an artist who was completely dependent upon inspiration and he preferred to follow his ear and his intuition rather than academic formulas and good form. He was 'haunted' by inspiration during two periods, 1914-18 and 1947-49, when large and small works alike incessantly pushed themselves upon him. Problems concerning compositional techniques were unknown to Langgaard; entire symphonies were drafted in a matter of days.

This impulsive manner of composing was one of the reasons why Langgaard's artistic development was anything but regular. Both stylistically and in respect to Langgard's relationship to music, three marked changes stand out in the composer's oeuvre. The years 1916, 1924 and 1946 divide Langgaard's musical output into four phases which could respectively be called an objective (late romantic) phase, a personal (experimental) phase, an anonymous (classical) phase and a private (absurd) phase.

From the beginning Langgaard was oriented towards the traditions of the German speaking area (as was normal for the period before the 1st World War). His music was never decisively touched by what one might call a Danish or Nordic sound. Instead the inheritance from Schumann, Liszt, Wagner and Richard Strauss clearly distinguished itself throughout the whole of Langgaard's compositional career. The years 1916-1924 were Langgaard's "modern" period when he created a bold, visionary and static music such as Sfærernes Musik, as well as works characterized by an antagonistic apocolyptic universe like the 6th symphony (Det Himmelrivende; The Heaven-Rending), the opera Fortabelsen (Antikrist) (Damnation (Antichrist)) and the String Quartet No. 3. During these years Langgaard often abandoned the romantic musical language and adopted a more expressive, modernistic style.

While other composers found security in neo-classicism during the turbulent and unpredictable 1920s, Langgaard searched for "pure truth" in an unproblematic, almost anonymous neo-romantic style that he adopted in 1924/25. According to Langgaard, the future of music could now only be based on Romanticism, especially the late works of Niels W. Gade and Wagner. The radical change in Langgaard's composition style can perhaps best be heard through a comparison of his 3rd and 5th string quartets. Although only one year separates these two works, stylistically they sound as if they are separated by at least half a century. At the same time a period was introduced in Langgaard's life and production which could be called "the 20 lean years."

Except for the two-hour long organ work, Messis ("Harvest" in Latin), Langgaard composed almost no new music in the 1930s. Instead his time was spent editing and reworking earlier works and composing a piano concerto based on some of his father's compositions.

Langgaard's arrival in Ribe in 1940 helped his productivity. In the mid-1940s he entered into his final, almost manic phase of production with the bizarre, 7 minute-long Symphony No. 11 (requiring five tubas!). During the following years Langgaard composed a series of strange, absurd and irregular works expressing desperation, helplessness and protest (For example: ultra-short or "wild" movements, circular compositions, music without conclusions or designed to be played "indefinitely"). These works provide an unexpected but essential contribution to the understanding of Langgaard's split universe, which, in a paradoxical way, brings Romanticism's dream of beauty, goodness and truth face to face with the 20th century's alienation, destructiveness, dissolution and absurdity.

Problems concerning the catalogue of works

Luckily Rued Langgaard's widow, Constance Langgaard, took good care of the papers her husband left behind. Shortly after his death she got into contact with Denmark's national music collection at The Royal Library in Copenhagen. Consequently Langgaard's music manuscripts, important papers concerning music, photographs and personalia were bequeathed to the library after Constance Langgaard's death in 1969; hence all principal sources for Langgaard's comprehensive production are now held in The Royal Library.

Constance Langgaard did everything she could to make heads and tails of her husband's music manuscripts, but she was unable to get a clear overview of Langgaard's complete production due to the amount and the character of the source material. Composers of Langgaard's type, those who are able to toss off one composition after another, are usually characterized as quickly forgetting what has just been completed in order to focus upon something new. However, this description does not fit Langgaard. His impulsive and hectic qualities were coupled with the apparent habit of never abandoning a composition - old ideas always floated around in his mind (his musical memory was legendary). Thus Langgaards entire output is characterized by repeated revisions, reworkings, title changes and the recycling of earlier works in new contexts. Consequently, it can be very difficult to define and demarcate a work with respect to its music and manuscripts, especially when that work is part of an intricate complex of compositions.

Only a small number of Langgaard's 432 registered compositions were published during his lifetime (among these some of his most interesting music, Sfærernes Musik and Symphony No.6). His impulsive working method often entailed unorganized and inconsistent corrections in both his manuscripts and published works. In addition, dates were often added and corrected post factum. Consequently, Langgaard's manuscripts are filled with imprecise dates, incorrect information concerning performances (recorded according to memory) and other information that is seemingly correct, but has been proven to be unreliable. Langgaard was fond of changing the titles of his works (sometimes as many as 10 to 12 times for a single piece). In addition he sometimes used the same titles for various compositions; one can imagine the biographical problems involved. This situation is not made any better by the fact that a great many sketches are missing. It is almost unnecessary to point out that Langgaard did not keep a diary or other written record of his composing activities and/or the performances of his works. In other words, attempting to compile a catalogue of this strange man's compositions is a bit of a challenge to say the least.

It took me the better part of fourteen years to work through the sources. All the connections between the various manuscripts had to be surveyed, and an attempt had to be made to identify all the sketches. It soon became apparent that not only the primary sources - autograph music manuscripts - but also a number of secondary sources such as letters, concert programmes, reviews and private papers had to be consulted in order to unravel the circumstances around the creation and publication of Langgaard's compositions.

An unusual aid which has proven helpful in elucidating the chronology of Langgaard's output is the composer's penmanship. Langgaard had a very complex personality which was reflected in his handwriting. The character of his writing style changed many times; by comparing dated letters and other documents with the handwriting found in music manuscripts one can often figure out, sometimes with the margin of a few months, when a given manuscript was completed and when additions and/or corrections were made. Of course one must be cautious not to make rigorous conclusions solely on the grounds of handwriting.

The following example illustrates what was meant above by the term "complex of compositions" and how essential it is that a detailed chronology of Langgaard's output be explained:
  • In 1917-18 Langgaard composed an orchestral work with the title Sommersagnsdrama (Summer Legend's Drama). It was premiered in Copenhagen in 1919 and revised shortly thereafter by the composer (Score 1).
  • In 1920 Langgaard re-used a large part of the composition in a new work entitled Symfonisk Festspil (Symphonic Festival Play). This piece was performed in Copenhagen, Berlin and Vienna (Score 2).
  • In 1925 the composer shortened the revised original and included it (Score 3) in his series of symphonies, first as Symphony No. 6 and shortly after as Symphony No. 5. This version was performed in 1927 in Copenhagen.
  • Around 1930 Langgaard changed the title of the 1920 version (Score 2: Symfonisk Festspil) to Symphony in F Major (No. 5). However, he was not pleased with incorporating this work in the symphony series, for in 1931 he used this music as the starting point for the "final" version of Symphony No. 5, which, after a number of proposals, was finally entitled Steppenatur (Sommersagnsdrama) (Steppe Landscape (Summer Legend's Drama) (Score 4). This version was premiered on the Danish state radio in 1937.
  • Langgaard had not, however, given up the earlier version of Symphony No. 5 (Score 3); around 1933 he supplied the manuscript with the indication "Version 1" and at the same time labelled the 1931 version "Version 2."
  • Finally in 1940-41 Langgaard reconstructed and revised the first version of the work from 1917-18 (Score 5). After a number of various title proposals Langgaard decided in the end to call this as yet unperformed version Saga blot (A Thing of the Past). In Langgaard's personal papers this version is sometimes called "1st Version of Symphony No. 5" - and with that the confusion is shown in its totality!

Where one version of a piece ends and the other begins, and what one should interpret as parallel versions of a piece as opposed to new versions that take the place of an older version, are, as one can imagine, vital questions with respect to Langgaard's output. It is of no use to try and guess what Langgaard did in fact intend in every case. However, the problem often solves itself as all the pieces of the many complexes fall into place and the chronology becomes clarified. I found that the best way to deal with this problem was to use only two principal categories in the Langgaard catalogue: "revision" and "reworking".

A revision is defined as the sum of minor changes to a composition. It is assumed on principle that the revised version replaces the original version, and the work is therefore chronologically catalogued according to the date of the original composition. On the other hand, a reworking involves more extensive changes such as the addition of new material or an essential abridgement. Changes such as these effect the form, character and/or length of the original composition. The reworked versions of a composition are described as independent entries, thus they are chronologically catalogued according to the date of the reworking. If two versions of a piece bear the exact same title, this is indicated by an additional designation, for example "[version 1942]". Completely different works bearing the same title are distinguished by the addition of a Roman numeral, for example "[I]", "[II]", etc.

The compilation of the Langgaard catalogue of works required the use of a structure which was in agreement with the nature of the existing source materials, but unfortunately a useful model for such a catalogue structure was not at hand. From the start it was clear to me that merely registering the data found in the manuscripts would lead to the presentation of a great deal of misleading information which could only be of use to someone who could actually study the primary sources and differentiate what was original and what had perhaps been added and/or changed at a later date. In other words, the specific data concerning each work had to be thoroughly studied and interpreted in order to present an acceptable conclusion. However, the usage of standardized, edited data (that does not necessarily agree with what one sees in the primary sources) requires some sort of an elaboration or explanation. In Langgaard's case a comprehensive set of annotations was required in order to give data concerning variants and irregularities and information such as previous titles of a work, song text sources, important performances and a number of other things.

The methodology behind the solutions to Langgaard's many detailed bibliographical problems is too broad a topic to be dealt with here. I have written about it in the Catalogue of Works. Although this catalogue is in Danish, an English introduction as well as a comprehensive Danish-English word list have been included.

Langgaard Today

One might get the impression that, all in all, too much fuss has been made over this composer, who may be considered inferior due to his lack of influence on his contemporaries and whose importance and artistic appearance is still puzzling, even though much of his music has already become known. Therefore, I think it proper to close this introductory article with a brief description of a few of the aspects that today draw attention to Langgaard.

One need not hear many of Langgaard's compositions before one realizes that musical "style" serves as an important parameter in his music. Langgaard's works contain a wide variety of styles and in many cases stylistic juxtaposition can be found within a single movement. Langgaard was obviously conscious of style as a musical device in itself. Even though his compositions often sound like romantic or late-romantic works, the structure and time sequences in his music do not agree with classical principles. Langgaard generally composed in blocks or modules. Each block is individualized by its own musical "character" or its own "mood" or "sound." Concepts such as these were more important for Langgaard than thematic or motivic significance. Langgaard was not interested in musical "development" or the arrangement of musical material within the framework of say, for example, a sonata form or variation form. He experimented especially with the single movement form (eight of his sixteen symphonies are one movement works - and eight are in F Major!), and his music generally has a complex, rhapsodic or even improvised character. The absence of musical processes in Langgaard's "block- constructed form" along with the extreme brevity of a number of his compositions (including orchestral works as short as 1 minute in length) aid in lending his music a breathless, restless character, which is far from the the breadth of expression found, for example, in the works of Bruckner - one of Langgaard's ideals. If one looks at Langgaard's 16 symphonies this decisive difference in style is clearly revealed: Langgaard's longest slow movement is only nine minutes in length, and his longest scherzo lasts a mere four minutes!

It is not motives and themes that holds a Langgaard composition together, but rather a style which is connected to a specific world of sound. Each work forms its own "soundspace". Often a personal, symbolic value lies within the various expression of style; for example Langgaard felt that the Danish composer Niels W. Gade (1817-90) was of special importance, and he often refered to Gade in his compositions. Langgaard's music also reminds of composers such as: Schumann, Wagner, Richard Strauss, early Schönberg, Debussy and Carl Nielsen. But now and then Langgaard's music suddenly sounds as if it could have been written during the decades following Langgaard's own times: tone clusters, collage music, open form, minimalism, New Age ...

Even though Langgaard was considered by his contemporaries to be anything but progressive, and even though his musical language (although not his concepts of form) was often notoriously ultra-conservative, Langgaard was an artist with a visionary imagination. In his own unique way he anticipated phenomena which did not become part of music history until after his death.

Langgaard ascribed crucial importance to the spiritual and religious message of music. His spiritual baggage - made up primarily of his father's philosophical "system," a cosmic- religious vision of the world in which music is understood as a spiritual factor of power that contributes directly to the salvation of man - was the starting point for his characteristic, but diffuse world of thoughts. This world partially formed the background for his process of composition (one could say that Langgaard considered himself somewhat of a medium) and served as the framework within which he interpreted his own music.

Langgaard's compositions often carry descriptive titles that are tied either to Danish history, nature or an apocalyptic, religious universe: Afgrundsmusik (Music of the Abyss), Flammekamrene (The Chambers of Flames) and Vanvidsfantasi (Rage Fantasia) (all for piano), Begravet i Helvede (Buried in Hell) (for organ), Undertro (Belief in Wonders) (Symphony No. 13) and Syndflod af Sol (A Flood of Sun) (Symphony No. 16).

The intensity of expression and direct musical pleasure which often radiated from Langgaard's works impress most listeners. There is something insistent about this music; the spiritual power behind it makes itself felt.
Langgaard did not worry in a petty way about banality or borrowing from other composers. Cool contemplation and artistic planning were never part of Langgaard's style - irrationality held a prominent place in his art. His music is a fearless and ecstatic artist's sonorous imaginings, and as such it is free of intellectual reflection. Thus Langgaard's music is not easily measured by a compass or ruler; for the most part it defies logic and eludes rational assessment. Consequently musicologists will fail when applying the usual tools of measurement - this also counts for Charles Ives (1874-1954), whose music and world of ideas contain certain parallels with the music and special universe of Langgaard. With Langgaard music also often seeks to hold on to memories from the unspoiled world of childhood. An interpretation of Langgaard's music therefore requires the use of untraditional methods. The concept of Symbolism seems to be a key to the understanding of Langgaard's music.

One of the most fascinating things about a composer like Langgaard is the presence of the irrational, the bizarre and the unpredictable. This is clearly shown in one of Langgaard's last and (for good reasons) never performed compositions, Søndagssonate (Sunday Sonata), a fifteen minute-long piece for violin, piano, organ and large orchestra - however, the orchestra does not participate until the last 16 measures (in tempo Presto)! Is this art or simply raving-mad nonsense? It is at least music which challenges the mind and exceeds the aesthetic boundaries of art. It is actually what one calls meta-music: music that debates the issue of music as an artform - its means and goals.

Because life and work were almost inseparable for Langgaard, his importance stretches, in a strange way, beyond the person and his biography, beyond the narrow assessment of the artistic autonomy and quality of the individual work. In Langgaard's music 19th-century ideals come face to face with the reality of the 20th century. But the result is not necessarily the production of artistically successful or clarified works, on the contrary the results often present thought-provoking works brimming with expression. Rued Langgaard was indeed an outsider, but his life and output cast an interesting, although perhaps not directly flattering, light on Danish music history.

List of works: Bendt Viinholt Nielsen: Rued Langgaards Kompositioner. Rued Langgaard's Compositions. An Annotated Catalogue of Works. With an English Introduction. Odense University Press, 1991; 561 pp. ISBN 87 7492 780 9.
Biography (in Danish): Bendt Viinholt Nielsen: Rued Langgaard. Biografi. Copenhagen: Engstrøm & Sødring, 1993; 334 pp. ISBN 87 87091 607.

Originally published in FONES ARTIS MUSICAE, vol. 42, no. 1, Jan. - March 1995.