Nielsen, Langgaard and one of the strangest works in musical history

Andrew MellorTue 9th August 2011

It's time to appreciate both composers

I’ve been kept busy (and inspired) recently sniffing around the rich musical life of Denmark and the Danes for two Gramophone articles. So many wonderful characters and creations have bobbed to the surface of Denmark’s musical ocean, but of particular interest have been revelations surrounding the composer Rued Langgaard. 

It’s fair to say that Langgaard didn’t really see eye-to-eye with Denmark’s ‘star’ composer Carl Nielsen (the subject of appraisal in Gramophone’s September issue – on sale now). But it wasn’t always so. Initially Langgaard found his colleague’s works stimulating, responding to many of them with his own pieces: Langgaard’s Sixth Symphony was apparently a direct reaction to Nielsen’s Fourth, for example.

But as Nielsen’s career really took off – and Langgaard’s didn’t – things turned a little sour. ‘Langgaard thought that Nielsen had infected the whole Danish musical life with music that wasn’t any good,’ says Christina Åstrand who recently recorded Langgaard’s Violin Concerto and leads the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. ‘He was always very frustrated and inert…Nielsen became a symbol for him of all that was bad about Danish music.’

Not one to let a creative opportunity pass him by, Langgaard set to work on a piece laden with biting irony that seems to me unprecedented in musical history: a score for choir and orchestra that was to be sung ‘with all possible force’ and ‘to be repeated for all eternity.’ It had a single line of text that also forms its title: Carl Nielsen, our great composer.

Langgaard sketched out the work’s 36 (infinitely repeated) bars in 1948 before sending the results to the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra (now the DNSO) with a note asking that Emil Reesen, a young composer who often assisted Nielsen, complete the orchestration. Another composer, Bo Andersen, completed the score used for Chandos’s 1999 recording of the piece. ‘It is of course a mock hymn, totally crazy and absolutely wonderful’, says Jens Cornelius of Danish Radio. ‘For decades it unfortunately defined the public image of Langgaard.’

Thankfully, and despite the amusing nature of his little shot at Nielsen, Langgaard’s reputation is changing – and beginning to establish itself outside Denmark. This time last year the Danish National Symphony Orchestra were playing his extraordinary Music of the Spheres at the Proms, and it had a profound effect on Christina in the leader’s chair: ‘The feeling and atmosphere in the hall was so warm and it felt like a big understanding of this music. I still almost get tears in my eyes when I talk about it.’

I can testify to that end to a certain extent, having been listening to Langgaard’s early symphonies, his Violin Concerto and his breathtakingly beautiful choral songs this last week. The latter in particular have been revelatory (there’s a good overview of them on this disc). Christina says it better than I could: ‘At the Proms, it was like the presence of this man was very alive. The only other composer who can do that – where you play it and you feel presence, like the man himself is there – is Mahler.’

Sample Langgaard’s Carl Nielsen chorus for a giggle, but do venture further into this fascinating musical voice. Now we have the perspective to be able to appreciate both composers for their heartfelt individuality – one asset they certainly did share. 

With thanks to Jens Cornelius of DR Klassisk 

Andrew Mellor

Andrew Mellor is Reviews Editor at Gramophone magazine and writes widely for orchestras, opera companies, periodicals and websites in the UK and Scandinavia.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014