It’s the UK premiere of a fine work by Rued Langgaard this weekend – let’s not allow its brevity to eclipse its poignancy
I’d heard on the grapevine that a symphony by Rued Langgaard was being played at this year’s Proms, but I have to admit my heart sank slightly when I discovered it was his 11th, Ixion. Six months ago, the five-minute orchestral rant that is Ixion was one symphony by the Dane I found it hard to admire.
That, though, was before I stood in front of the modest house in rural Denmark in which Langgaard wrote the piece; before I saw the manuscript score in the composer’s neat handwriting; before I handled a small note he scribbled to his wife just weeks before he died explaining that Ixion was one work he’d really like to be performed (it never was in his lifetime – having to wait 24 years for Danish radio to record it in a studio).
What I glimpsed then was the central message of the piece; a ‘way in’ to its impenetrable wall of sound. Ixion is a symphony about frustration – a wild clarion call from a composer who was blankly ignored and felt as though he was banging his head against a brick wall (the symphony was partly prompted by the Classical equivalent of that sentiment: Sisyphus rolling his bolder to the top of a mountain, only to watch it roll back down again). Its futile attempts to modulate a single theme into an accommodating key and its four concertante tubas – blaring out a unison ‘seventh’ against the orchestra to reference Langgaard’s musical motto for eternity – seem to me a simple spelling-out of the composer’s hopeless personal and professional disposition at the time of composition.
That time was 1944. Four years previously Langgaard had been professionally exiled to the Danish town of Ribe, cast out by a Copenhagen music scene too narrow-minded to harbour his unorthodoxy, his protests and his eccentricities. Spending time in Ribe on my own personal Langgaard pilgrimage earlier this year, I was fascinated to hear how the composer behaved and was treated in the town. ‘Mr Longhair’ the local schoolchildren would shout at the odd-looking cathedral organist as they threw stones at him. Most of the townspeople avoided the angry man who would pace the streets at all times of day and night, sometimes settling on a street bench to write a piece, his manuscript paper blowing in the hostile Jutland wind.
Ribe is beautiful – but it’s tiny and it’s a long way from Copenhagen (the best part of four hours on a modern Danish train). I have no doubt the size of the town contributed to the pressure-cooker environment of Ixion and that its distance from the musical discourse influenced the symphony’s consistently loud volume setting.
When he first arrived in Ribe, Langgaard had thrown himself into the history of the place; his Ninth Symphony was his greeting to it, quoting the folk tune played every hour by the cathedral bells. Could Ixion – its recurring, ‘stuck’ theme employing the same initial upward-sixth as the theme which opens the Ninth (and the same key) – be a musical manifestation of Ribe turned from rural idyll to professional prison?
I think there’s something in that, but it’s based on nothing more than that sixth interval and a strong hunch. What I do know is that Ixion can be a hard nut to crack, which might be one reason why the trickster Langgaard viewed it as one of his best creations. Because it’s so short, the temptation is to listen so intently (ensuring you don’t miss anything) that the overall expanse of the work is lost; its emotional aftertaste weakened. So let’s listen to Ixion with a little context – as the work of a composer backed into a corner and forced to act through the only means he knew: writing music.
The same applies to the other 15 symphonies, a good number of which don’t lean so strongly on geographical or biographical context. I first heard the music of Langgaard on a Victoria Line underground train – it was, fortuitously, the First Symphony – and even amid the din of the city its impact was massive.
And what a fascinating and recommendable chronological journey I’ve taken through the symphonies since – one I’d urge anyone with a respect for brilliantly-crafted, heartfelt and highly individual music to embark on. I have to admit that despite trading off my discovery of Langgaard as a music journalist and foraging into every possible area of the man’s life over the last 12 months, I still haven’t listened to a single bar of three of his four last symphonies. Some discoveries are worth waiting that bit longer for.
Thomas Dausgaard conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Rued Langgaard’s Eleventh Symphony at the Proms this Saturday evening: click here for details.
Andrew Mellor is Reviews Editor at Gramophone magazine and writes widely for orchestras, opera companies, periodicals and websites in the UK and Scandinavia.