|Antichrist is a philosophical-religious opera about the decline and (spiritual) fall of western civilization. It is an "atmospheric fantasia over our time", pillorying the modern lifestyle and mentality and warning against all-pervasive egoism and materialism at the expense of the spiritual values of existence. The message of the opera is that society and culture are digging their own grave but that the individual human being can find hope by becoming aware of the state of the world and opening up towards the divine.
Joachim Seipp as Lucifer in the prologue to Antichrist,
1. Work data
Orchestra: 4 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 4 bassoons / 4 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba / 2 sets of timpani / percussion / celesta, piano, harp, organ / strings + stage music: 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, organ, bells, thunder
2. Action, characters and plot of the opera
Scene One: The Light of the Wilderness
Scene Two: Vainglory
Scene Three: Despair
Scene Five: Every Man Against His Neighbour
Scene Six: Perdition
Theatre ending or alternative (longer) concert ending
3. Genesis and performances
Rued Langgaard wrote the libretto for the first version of the opera in 1921. He borrowed the skeleton of the action and some of the dialogue from a dramatic poem, Antichrist, by P.E. Benzon, published in 1907. He was also inspired by the novel Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson (1907, first Danish ed. 1909), and by the remarkable outsider Ernesto Dalgas' Dommedags Bog (1903, "The Book of Judgement Day").
The first version of the opera, which was successively described as an "orgiastic music drama", an "opera mystery" and an "allegorical opera", was completed in February 1923. The action described the passion drama of Antichrist in the form of psychological drama. The main character was Apollyon, who so to speak 'played' the role of Antichrist and thus brought about the end of the world - and of himself - and the Second Coming of Christ.
The opera was submitted to the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, but was rejected because of the libretto, which was considered unsuitable. The prelude was performed, however, in various editions in 1923-27 with some success.
In 1926-30 Langgaard revised the work. On the whole he wrote a new and more Biblical libretto, which has no progressive action and is schematically structured.Elaborate crossing-out in the revised score, Scene Five.
Langgaard gave this new version many titles, including The Beast from the Pit, Counterchrist and Last Times as well as words he invented or half-invented himself like Kremàscó and Krematio. Langgaard's own copy of the score bears the title Perdition (Antichrist), and this is probably the title the composer finally preferred, since it also appears on the last-revised copy of the libretto. The opera has however been performed and known under the original and more appealing title Antichrist.
The new version was submitted to the Royal Theatre, which again rejected the work because of the libretto. The Danish Broadcasting Corporation was at first dismissive too, but Langgaard persisted, and in 1940 Scenes Five and Six of the opera as well as the concert ending were premiered on the radio, conducted by Launy Grøndahl. The work was premiered in its entirety on Danish radio with Michael Schønwandt conducting in 1980, and in 1986 the Zealand Symphony Orchestra organized two concert performances in the Tivoli Concert Hall, conducted by Ole Schmidt. At the same time the work was recorded and later released on LP and CD by EMI.
For the sake of completeness it should be mentioned that in 1944 Langgaard submitted the original score in a shortened and revised form to the Royal Theatre under the title Afgrundsfyrsten (The Prince of the Pit). This last attempt to get his apocalyptic visions staged also failed for Langgaard.
Hellfried Lauckner's sketches for The Scarlet-Coloured Beast, The Great Whore and The Lie - Tiroler Landestheater, Innsbruck 1999.
The Antichrist was not a theme that was debated in ecclesiastical circles in Langgaard's time, but the concept was used in his childhood home, which was dominated by a theosophically-oriented atmosphere of religiosity. Langgaard's interest must have been further whetted by the publication of a 'scholarly' book that tried to demonstrate the presence of Antichrist in the modern world (Einar Prip: Antikrist, Copenhagen 1919). Spiritual and religious subjects were the order of the day in the wake of the breakdown of values after World War I. Langgaard's opera was thus an artistic contribution to the current "worldview debate" in Denmark at the beginning of the 1920s. As Langgaard put it in an interview in 1924, "Antichrist symbolizes some of the most profound issues of our time".
The revision of 1926-30 meant that the opera was given a clearer religious message, but also an agitatory and moralizing character. For a time Langgaard undoubtedly thought that the Biblical prophecies of the end of the world were quite literally about to be fulfilled. He was even prepared to believe predictions based on kabbalistic numerology and pseudo-scientific pyramid studies. But in several places he puts quotation marks around "the end of the world" and it is evident that he is referring rather to the end of the world-picture he knew from his childhood and youth around 1900. Langgaard's feeling around 1930 was that the cultural values and spiritual potential which in his view characterized the period before World War I had now gradually been lost and that materialism and superficiality were spreading through society, and the functionalist, anti-romantic spirit of the age turned Langgaard into a cultural pessimist. His views and his experience were naturally aesthetic and religious, not political. And for that reason he thought too that Art (and he as a composer) could make a difference. Great artistic and aesthetic experiences could change people's lives and their views of existence, and music has a mission in this respect. An opera was the strongest resource available to him.
Three examples of Langgaard's language:
1) The recurrent concept "The Church-Ruin of Noise" is a circumlocution for "the world today", that is a godless and cacophonous world.
2) The expression "all in one", which appears in many places, means that all the typical features of something are gathered under one name, i.e. in a symbol. The symbol is typically mentioned together with "all in one". - When for example it says in the first scene "'The Lamb': Dawn mind of all in one", this must be interpreted to mean that Christ, viewed as "the Lamb" is the unifying symbol for the spirit of the age (the mood of dawning). - When the Beast (Scene Four) speaks of "flesh of all in one", this similarly mans that all the desires of the flesh are covered by the symbol "the Beast".
3) "Dome of the spirit" (Scene One) is the same as the vault of heaven or the sky.
The disposition of the libretto is clear. The prologue includes the disposition for Scenes 1-5, since five names for Christ correspond to names for Antichrist, as illustrated in each of the five scenes (and supported by Biblical quotations)
"The Lamb" = "The Light of the Wilderness"
"Truth" = "Vainglory"
"The Crucified" = "Despondency"
"The Resurrected" = "Lust"
"The Revealed" = "Every Man Against His Neighbour"
Scene Six parallels the prologue and includes the destruction of Antichrist.
Besides the libretto there are a number of introductions to the opera by Langgaard as a well as a compendium of quotations from various religious, philosophical and not least culturally pessimistic books - all intended to explain and legitimize the theme of the opera and the urgency of its content.
6. Time and place - stage symbolism
Langgaard places the action of the opera at "the end of the nineteenth century and up towards our own time", and elsewhere in the time "around the world war [World War I] and up to our own day". In a third place he simply says "our time". However, there is nothing in the libretto to indicate a specific time, while the place is suggested by the fact that the 'Nevsky Church' (undoubtedly the Russian church in Bredgade in Copenhagen) is curiously enough mentioned in the first scene.
But Langgaard has clearly tried to make the opera something 'for all time'. In the libretto he has listed a number of universal symbols he wants on stage - globe, cross, sword, bull and ram's horn, leafless tree. Specifically he refers to Albrecht Dürer's (1471-1528) famous print Melancholia and to the Antichrist Fresco in Orvieto Cathedral in Italy, by the Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli (c. 1445-1523). These references help to make the opera 'timeless'. The flickering gaslights that constantly appear in the stage directions were Langgaard's special symbol of the time around 1900, a kind of essence of the Zeitgeist. The gaslights were the normal street lighting of the age, and their atmospheric flickering was associated by Langgaard - inspired by Dante's Inferno - with the lost souls in Purgatory.
The subtitles of the opera are "Church Opera" and "Judgement Day Scenes". But the term church opera should hardly be taken literally as meaning that the work is primarily meant to be performed in a church. It is rather another term for a religious or Biblical opera ("church" understood as "religious community").
Given the very small role of the chorus and the dramatic intensity of the music, it is difficult to class the work with the more oratorio-like operas one finds in the literature. And for Langgaard it was in fact essential that the opera was performed as a stage work, since it is meant as a Gesamtkunstverk, where music, words and the scenic support one another.
Langgaard also used the designations "mystery opera" and "musical mystery play", thus referring to the medieval mystery plays and moralities, where Biblical and allegorical figures appeared on the platform or stage. Langgaard knew the English morality Everyman, which was performed at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen from 1914. In the 1930s he wrote a still-unperformed prelude to the play, interestingly enough a reworked version of the prelude to Antichrist.
Langgaard's formally experimental opera concept was unusual for its time, but in more recent opera literature there are parallels, for example Le Grand Macabre (Ligeti, 1978), presenting the end of the world in a grotesque, colourful way, and Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise (1983) with monologues and static tableaux.
Typical features of the music are the great stylistic variation - from Verdi to Hindemith - and the wealth of detail in the score. The Swedish musicologist Bo Wallner wrote as early as 1968 that Antichrist is one of the most ingeniously elaborate scores in Nordic Late Romanticism. Langgaard has pulled out all the Late Romantic stops and combined the traditional tonal idiom with elements that belong stylistically to the inter-war years. Among the audible sources of musical inspiration are Wagner (perhaps especially Parsifal) and Richard Strauss (Salome), and in some places there may seem to be reminiscences of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder and Korngold's Die Tote Stadt. Yet Langgaard is unlikely to have heard the two last-mentioned works, although theoretically he could have made the acquaintance of the scores on his journeys to Germany and Austria in 1920-22.
There are three scores for the opera: Langgaard's original autograph manuscript from 1923 (today incomplete, and with corrections from the 1940s); a copy of this which was revised in 1926-30; and finally a copy of the revised copy. This score page comes from the autograph manuscript and includes a quotation from The Music of the Spheres with an added singing part.
Behind the music of the opera lies Langgaard's notion that the decades around 1900 were the golden era of musical art. The intense spiritual atmosphere of this epoch is reflected in the music of the period, which exhibits the culmination of the human experience of all ages - and a 'key' to the future destiny of humanity. But this artistic and spiritual flowering - the period of Jugend/Art Nouveau and Symbolism - also involved a smouldering decadence and latent signs of decay and dissolution. In the highly composite culture around 1900, beauty and decline were closely associated, and one of the points often made was that it is extremely difficult to distinguish "the constructive" from "the destructive". This tendency for the boundaries between the true and the false to be fluid is in fact characteristic - according to the Bible - of the time of the Antichrist.
The idea and libretto of the opera express this 'uncertain' duality through a whole system of Chinese boxes of sarcasm and symbolism, and the same is true of the music. However, one should not expect to find a 'solution' in the form of a clear logic in the interplay of text and music - or indeed a consistent use of musical style and leitmotifs in the opera. There is of course a point of reference in the contrast between the "modern" music and the "Romantic" music. And it is no accident that opulent, lush music à la Strauss is particularly associated with The Great Whore! So one can safely say that the "play" that takes place on the stage is matched in the orchestra pit by a "play" with - and not least on - music.
© Bendt Viinholt Nielsen, 2001. - English translation by James Manley.