A personal view...

The organist, Flemming Friis, writes about MESSIS, Langgaard's "drama for organ", seen from the musician's angle.


Flemming Friis (b. 1961) performed Messis I-III in Copenhagen in November 1996 and again in 2002, the year the work was published by Edition Wilhelm Hansen (edited by Flemming Friis). He often performs works by Langgaard, including sections of Messis, and has also premiered some minor organ works by the composer.


Messis, Orgeldrama i tre Aftener, (Messis, A Drama for Organ in Three Evenings), takes more than two hours to play, and is therefore not just one of Langgaard's longest works, but also one of the longest pieces in the entire organ repertoire.

The origin of the work
Information about the origin and first performance of this work is to be found in considerable detail in Bendt Viinholt Nielsen's biography of Langgaard, so here it will suffice to say that this was not a trilogy carefully planned as such by the composer. He had not clearly worked out the form and content of the whole work in advance, starting methodically with the opening chord and working through to the last.

Messis bears witness to the doubts that so typically plagued Langgaard: endless changes within the work and to the titles of the movements, and bars crossed out in red throughout the whole manuscript. (In the "3rd Evening" Langgaard - probably on impulse - put a red line through a few pages, only to regret it, adding the comment: "Ignore the red line ". He even spelt one of the words wrong, which shows what a hurry he was in!). The work was in fact given a negative reception by several music reviewers, who amused themselves by ridiculing both the form and content of the work in really quite tasteless and unprofessional terms.

Langgaard's doubts regarding this piece of music may also be seen from the fact that when Tredje Aften (3rd Evening), which bears the subtitle Begravet i Helvede (Buried in Hell), was to be performed for the first time in 1947 in a radio broadcast from Ribe Cathedral, the composer got cold feet a few days before the broadcast, and hastily composed a completely new work, In tenebras exteriores (In the Outer Darkness), though retaining the original titles of the movements, and played this work instead without informing anyone of the change!

Comparing the two works, one may wonder at his reaction: In tenebras exteriores is a work far inferior to Begravet i Helvede.

A work of international format
Despite all the vagaries of its composition, Messis is a work that by its intensity of expression and wonderfully insistent evocation of religious sentiments must be reckoned as a world- class piece of music.

I myself first became completely convinced of this when I played the whole work for the first time in the course of a single evening, though I had previously played the three "Evenings" separately on several occasions.

The 'normal' practice - if indeed one can speak of such in connection with performances of Messis - has been for the organist to play Første Aften (1st Evening) at one concert, followed by Anden Aften (2nd Evening) and Tredje Aften (3rd Evening) at another concert a few days later. But this is not the way to play Messis. The whole work should be heard with short breaks between the three "Evenings", in the same way that the whole of Mahler's 8th Symphony is played at one concert - and not two!

Despite his obvious doubts about Messis, therefore, Langgaard's work is a considerable achievement: the work forms a whole, and is a powerful expression of the composer's religious universe.

On the registration of Messis
As an organist, Langgaard himself was interested in French Romantic music. He played works by César Franck and the later Louis Vierne, and was therefore completely familiar with the virtuoso French Romantic style of playing the organ, with its sparkling toccatas.

In the way he writes, Langgaard's own organ style is not at all like that of the above composers. Nor have the most typical traits of the type of registration used by them (i.e., the choice of the organ's various tonal registers) found their way into Langgaard's organ manuscripts.

On the contrary, Langgaard advised the use of the shrill overtone registers, the mixtures, where the French Romantic composers required the blaring reed stops: trumpet, oboe and clarinet. Furthermore, Langgaard achieved many of his crescendo and diminuendo effects by using the so-called 'general swell', which is a cylinder activated by the organist's right foot. If the cylinder is rolled in towards the console, more and more stops are brought in; if it is rolled outwards, the opposite effect is achieved.

Langgaard does not simply roll his swell cylinder in small steps between chords, so that each new chord is louder than the previous one - just as one might expect an orchestra to play - no, he uses the cylinder while playing, which means that the stops 'slosh' into the music, as it were, which is the only possible result of this technique.

When symphonic organ music is played on instruments not equipped with modern computers, which can more or less organise the registers themselves, the organist will have to ask one or two of his good friends to help him with the registration, that is, add and remove stops at fixed points that are noted on the score.

It is my impression that the use of tonal variation while playing has become more common in the course of the last 15-20 years, as the whole Romantic repertoire has gradually become more accepted again, after having been regarded with suspicion by most organists for many years. In general, church musicians have exhibited a somewhat puritanical taste for the greater part of this century.

Today, one cannot get away with simply choosing a register and then playing a whole symphonic movement of Vierne or Widor without any changes of colour worthy of note. This was more possible in Langgaard's time, when he performed Messis for the first time in the middle 30's. At all events, he wrote as follows concerning the registration for Første Aften (1st Evening): "In general, Messis should not be played slowly, and only using the general swell and a fixed registration. (A special 'dark registration' will have to be arranged)".

According to these instructions, one might imagine that Langgaard began by choosing a piano register and then used the cylinder to make most of the dynamic changes.

When we look at Langgaard's manuscripts, which he himself played from and in which he wrote registration directions, it is clear that he did not make use of one or two people working flat out to make the organ sound like an orchestra, but this would not be possible today. Younger organists have developed a taste for detailed registration: constant variation is the watchword, though of course in complete accord with the character of the music. One does not simply change the tone for the sake of it, but because the character and expressive quality of the music call for it. Moreover, most changes should hardly be noticeable: a single stop brought in or out to thin or fill out the tone is normally all that is required.

In the case of major dynamic increases, maybe as many as 15 stops will be pulled out little by little, though once more this should take place gradually, so that the music is not disturbed by registers coming in across the chords, as is the case when one uses the swell cylinder.

This is the way we should play Langgaard's organ music - as much as possible in an orchestral manner. The greater the number of subtle tonal nuances offered, the better, as long as the 'instrumentation' is in harmony with the nature of the music.

A gruelling job
As a musician, I have to say that learning Messis is a gruelling job, even though Langgaard's final copies of the work are among some of the neater ones he did. But once you get involved in the work, the music turns out to have such obvious qualities that one is ready to forgive Langgaard his untidy copies, and almost regard playing directly from a photo copy of the composer's original score as a fringe benefit.

Organ music will always be just a special corner of the world of classical music. In terms of popularity, it will never get within a mile of orchestral or piano music.

However, among enthusiasts of organ music the world over Messis will soon have a visible position. All we need is a published score and a CD recording of Messis, and as far as I can see this is just a question of time.

Flemming Friis

This article was written for the website in January 1997.
In 2002 Messis was released in print edited by Flemming Friis.