LANGGAARD: Symphony No. 6, “Heaven-Storming.” Music of the Spheres

LANGGAARD: Symphony No. 6, “Heaven-Storming.” Music of the Spheres. Edith Guil­laume, soprano (Spheres); Danish Radio Chorus and Orchestra (Spheres) conducted by John Frandsen; auxiliary orchestra conducted by Peter Weis; DANACORD D.M.A. 064, produced by Ingolf Gabold (Symphony) and Peter Willernoes

For the past 10 or 15 years there has been an unmistakable, if modest, wave of musicological interest in Northern European symphonic music of the 20th century. Yet, while listeners pursue their enthusiasms for Pettersson, Brian, Rubbra, Sallinen, and others (stimu­lated by vigorous recording activity in their respective countries), the Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) remains surprisingly unknown. I say surprisingly because, apart from the merit of his music (usually a relatively small factor in the attention drawn to a composer), Langgaard was a fascinatingly provocative and enigmatic figure. Defiantly romantic, he sought to embody grand spiritual visions in his music. Though he earned his liv­ing as a church organist, he composed 16 symphonies, with subtitles such as “Defoliation,” “Belief in Miracles,” “Flood of Sun,” in addition to the “Heaven-Storming” heard on this disc.

Langgaard’s early works were rooted in the language of mainstream Central European Romanticism. However, toward the end of World War I, he began to explore more unconven­tional techniques: tone-clusters, a kind of angular, dissonant polyphony, and, particularly, a static approach to texture and sonority that might be said to anticipate, in a very crude way, developments of 50 years ahead. These seemingly incompatible stylistic threads are jux­taposed with bewildering incongruity in Music of the Spheres and in Langgaard’s magnum opus, Antikrist, an opera-oratorio that occupied him for 20 years and was recently broadcast in Denmark.

According to Bo Marschner’s article in The New Grove (very little has been written on Langgaard in English), during the 1920s he became so infuriated by the mundane objectivity of the neoclassical trends then flourishing that he abandoned his radical experimentation (which had all been wildly cosmic in intent) after less than a decade, and reverted to a stub­bornly reactionary romanticism. This he accompanied by virulent polemical attacks on the prevailing music establishment. As with Pettersson, such refusal to “play ball” was rewarded by total ostracism from his musical community.

What is the music like? In its metaphysics it suggests Bruckner and Scriabin; on the other hand, composers like Ives, Brian, and even Grainger or Cowell come to mind as musico-historical analogies—visionaries interesting more for what they attempted than for what they achieved, who often combined the most radical and most conventional elements simultaneously, and who seemed hampered by technical incompetence in realizing their visions convincingly. In sound, Langgaard offers a truly strange, often very static and un­digested array of associations, from Wagner and Liszt to Nielsen to proto-Ligeti.

Both works on this disc date from the late teens, or shortly thereafter, and represent two of Langgaard’s most “important” compositions, in the conventional musicological sense, i.e., they are among his most experimental ventures. However, they are not necessarily his most successfully realized ones. Music of the Spheres comprises some 15 sections and lasts about 35 minutes. The work is accompanied by the motto, “The stars may seem to twinkle kindly, but their message is cold and merciless.” The individual sections also bear captions like “Longing, desperation, and ecstasy,” “About seeing the sun through tears,” “Like sunbeams upon a flower-decked coffin.” Much of the choral contribution is wordless and atmospheric, while the soprano has one solo, set to a poem by Ida Lock. The work does contain galvanizing moments that seem always on the verge of launching into really satisfy­ing music. But such moments usually prove to be abortive, and the work gropes clumsily from one section to the next, ultimately providing the rather frustrating feeling of unfulfilled expectation.

The Symphony No. 6. “Heaven-Storming” followed closely on the heels of Music of the Spheres. It is another work of grand ambition, bearing the motto, “Then Jesus used force and drove the storming armies of evil under the canopy of heaven…. ” While the earlier work re­veals Langgaard reaching in the direction of a Ligeti, the “Heaven-Storming,” a far more linear work, displays a polyphony not unlike that of Hindemith. However, if Music of the Spheres suffers from insufficient motion, then this symphony suffers from an excess of activ­ity. The work plunges headlong into a turbulent morass of grim, undifferentiated contrapuntal sludge, punctuated occasionally by apocalyptic climaxes. After a while the effect becomes as static as in the other work.

I am interested to hear more of Langgaard’s music. His Symphony No. 4. “Defoliation” (Danish EMI 6C 063-38100) is a far more romantic work and adds another dimension to the picture presented on this disc. On the basis of what I have heard thus far, Langgaard ap­pears to be an intriguing character whose reach far exceeded his grasp.

These concert peformances are adequate, and are reproduced well on a disc that lasts nearly an hour.