LANGGAARD: Antikrist

LANGGAARD Antikrist • Thomas Dausgaard, cond; Sten Byriel (Lucifer); Anne Margrethe Dahl (Spirit of Mystery); Helene Gjerris (Mystical Voice); Camilla Nylund (The Great Whore); Poul Elming (Mouth Speaking Great Things); Morten Suurballe (Voice of God); et al. soloists; Danish Natl S O & Ch • DACAPO 2.110402 (DVD: 95:00)

If you have just seen your first opera—La Boheme, let’s say, or La Traviata—then Antikristshould definitely NOT be next on your list. In fact, the biggest and most misleading error is in referring to Antikrist as an opera at all. It does not belong in that category, as the term is customarily understood—a musical “mystery play,” perhaps; what it really is, is a metaphysical cantata concerning the moral issues that were facing civilization during the post-World War I period. There is no action, no dialogue, no plot depicting a sequence of events. Divided into two “acts,” it is a series of tableaux, each addressing a particular flaw in the character of humanity.
Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) was one of those fascinating, if somewhat pathetic—even paranoid—characters who regarded themselves as outcasts, outsiders to their country’s musical activities, unwelcome prophets who saw the truth and were ostracized for their superior visions. Often, however, a closer look at their biographies reveals that they were actively instrumental in ensuring their own obscurity. (Other examples include Allan Pettersson and Kaikhosru Sorabji.) Langgaard was raised in a fanatically religious and devoutly musical household, in which composers were viewed as prophets—the links between humanity and God. Langgaard was taught to see his role as the last gasp of piety in an impious world. The opposing forces—the forces of Antichrist—according to this construction, were modernism and materialism, and the arch villains were none other than Carl Nielsen and Richard Strauss, while the “true” path had been carved out by Liszt, Wagner, and Bruckner. Growing up within this cultural mileu, Langgaard proceeded to embark on a course of self-fulfilling prophecies. He managed to antagonize and repel the powers that were to such an extent that his work was, indeed, disregarded, and he was dismissed as some sort of inept crackpot.

Subsisting on his income as a church organist, Langgaard composed hundreds of works, centering around 16 symphonies. However, in many ways Antikrist may be viewed as his magnum opus. He had contemplated it for years, composed most of it while in his late 20s (1921-23), then spent the next decade or so revising it, often in wholesale fashion. In it he incorporated elements from some of his other most significant works, notably Music of the Spheres and the Symphony No. 6, “Heaven-Rending.” According to the extensive and fascinating notes by Langgaard expert Bendt Viinhold Nielsen that accompany this package and provided me with some of the more esoteric information presented here, Antikrist “constitutes the essence of [Langgaard’s] whole creative capability and distinctiveness.” Langgaard fashioned the largely incoherent text himself, although he supposedly based it on a dramatic poem by P. E. Benzon. The program notes astutely point out that the issues that underlie the work are much the same as those that motivate Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus (1947). Although it purports to address pressing issues in philosophy and theology, Antikrist—according to B. V. Nielsen—was really about music, which for Langgaard represented the apotheosized fusion of theology and philosophy. In this connection, the work achieves a more complex fascination when one considers that much of it resembles the music of some of the composers Langgaard anathematizes. For example, as much as he demonized Carl Nielsen, Denmark’s contemporaneous musical hero, Langgaard was reportedly drawn irresistibly to his countryman’s Fourth Symphony, “Inextinguishable.” This then makes Antikrist more than simply a conservative manifesto, a diatribe against modern values, but rather an examination of the agonizing internal conflict between attraction and revulsion. In that sense, the work calls to mind Ken Russell’s foolishly under-rated film Crimes of Passion, with Anthony Perkins’s clergyman as the analogue of Langgaard himself.

So much for the ideas underlying Antikrist; what about the musical experience? At the risk of being glib, I would say that the work inhabits an aesthetic world where the philosophical approach of Scriabin and the musical language of, say, Strauss and Pfitzner intersect with the psychodynamics of Bruckner. In this sense, Antikrist is musically conservative for its time, but Langgaard pushes the envelope until he crosses over into something extreme enough to fit within the culture of the 1920s. I would assert that listeners whose tastes favor pieces like Scriabin’s Divine Poem, Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony, or Delius’s Mass of Life are likely to find Langgaard’s work worth their effort. I do not believe such listeners will be disappointed. Musically, within its Parsifal/Bruckner idiom, it is really quite intriguing and often surprising. Personally, I would sooner listen to it than, say, to Pfitzner’s Palestrina. 

Although the composer labored indefatigably to interest various parties in mounting a production, the work was never performed until 1980—long after Langgaard’s death—when it was presented for radio broadcast. Six years later it was performed in concert. The work’s first actual staging took place in Innsbruck in 1999. The DVD at hand derives from a 2002 production in Copenhagen. This performance—and its packaging—are rewarding on all counts. All the vocal soloists are excellent, as is the orchestra. The staging achieves the virtually impossible, in providing a relevant visual component that supports the meaning of the work while offering some creative ideas of its own (one of which has got to be seen to be believed). In addition to the complete work, the DVD includes historical and analytical commentaries, subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, and Danish, and even a brief silent film clip showing a few seconds of Langgaard conducting. And, as mentioned before, the accompanying booklet offers extensive, informative, erudite essays by the aforementioned Nielsen, as well as another by Jørgen I. Jensen. In summary, those who have followed me this far are encouraged to give Antikrist a try.