Langgaard and the music of love

James McCarthy
Thursday, February 6, 2014

In the midst of all the hopelessness that beset Rued Langgaard’s life – the suffocating isolation of his childhood, the lunging frustrations of his adulthood, and all the manifold musical treasures which those experiences engendered – one episode stands apart. In the summer of 1913, the 20-year-old Langgaard travelled with his parents from Copenhagen to the spa town of Kyrkhult in southern Sweden. The Langgaards lodged at a house called Rosengården, and during the course of those hot summer months Langgaard experienced that essential rite of passage for young Romantic composers and indeed human beings of any persuasion: he fell in love.

We can safely assume that this was the one and only time Langgaard felt himself the target of Cupid’s arrow – his relationship with his later wife Constance was, shall we say, transactional – but we don’t know who the mystery girl at the Rose Garden Cottage was. We only know her name – Dora. It’s unlikely that Langgaard encountered her again following the summer of 1913, but that wasn’t the end of it. ‘I’ve found that Dora was in Langgaard’s mind all of his life, from when he was 20 until he died’ says the composer’s champion and biographer Bendt Viinholt Nielsen. ‘Nobody knows who she is – there are no letters, but there are times when Langgaard would write her name. We also have diaries from Constance, his later wife, who mentions Dora many times because she was jealous of her.’

Beyond that, Dora is enshrined in Langgaard’s music. There are coded references to her in piano works, songs and even in the composer’s 16th and final symphony. But perhaps the clearest, most disarming pictures of his thoughts on the matter come in the string quartets that speak of that summer in Sweden: the Rosengaardsspil (‘Rose Garden Play’) quartets, the String Quartet No 4, Sommerdage (‘Summer Days’), and the String Quartet in A flat. All of them effectively date from 1918, when Langgaard appears to have entered a bout of nostalgia for his summer of love five years earlier.

Against the considered philosophies, railing passions and insurgent tempers of Langgaard’s best symphonic music, these pieces can take you by surprise. Langgaard appears to be coming to terms with new emotions in the first movement of the Rosengaardsspil set, ‘Interiör’. It’s not that the music lacks maturity and craft, more that Langgaard – five years after Dora walked into his life – is so obviously trying to recall how he felt back then. The music lurches from disorientation and confusion to the warmth and reassurance of joy and sunlight, before tumbling back again, rebuffed.

The contrast isn’t just with Langgaard’s symphonies, but with the works so many of us got to know in 2012 through captivating (and Gramophone Choice) recordings from the Nightingale String Quartet. The standout piece in Volume 1 of the NSQ’s survey of Langgaard’s quartets for Dacapo was the String Quartet No 3, full of jarring Janáčekian outbursts and typical Langgaardian unpredictability. Volume 2 of the Dacapo series, focusing on the three Dora-saturated works from 1918, has an entirely different mood. ‘It’s more delicate, more childish actually’ says Marie Louise Broholt Jensen, the NSQ’s viola-player; ‘you feel more of his sensitivity, more that he was misunderstood.’

After the punch-drunk love of that opening movement of Rosengaardsspil comes the second movement, ‘Mozart’, a neo-classical homage blown by a cold, Nordic breeze with its missing thirds and skidding textures (it feels very close to Langgaard’s one-time nemesis Carl Nielsen in its brusque second subject). Perhaps Langgaard’s slow movement ‘Draabefald’ (‘Drop Fall’ – a cryptic reference to tears, according to Bendt Viinholt Nielsen) is the closest he gets, in this work, to an indulgent longing. This is Langgaard at his distilled best – a lesson in how to frame a melody that recalls the exquisite, undemonstrative scoring of some of his choral songs.

That, though – and the ‘Rococo’ finale with its eerie chorale that caps the set off – wasn’t the end of the Rosengaardsspil music. In 1930, Langgaard set about one of his characteristic acts of reinvention, plucking the outer movements from that piece – adapting them slightly, as if they’d marinated in 17 years’ worth of retrospection and emotional hand-wringing – and placing a new central movement in between to effectively create a new piece, his String Quartet No 4, Sommerdågen (‘Summer Days’, but originally titled ‘the little tear’).

Not only does this piece emerge as something more ‘homogenous and late Romantic’ (for Bendt Viinholt Nielsen), its new central movement reinforces the composer’s feelings about Dora. In 1913 Langgaard had written three love songs to words by Goethe, directly shaped by the encounter with his mystery love. One of them, Gleich und Gleich – a song which talks of a bee and a flower destined for one another – provides the central motif for Langgaard’s new middle movement, the leaping idea heard right at the start in the first violin.

There’s certainly something more ‘knowing’ about the Rosengaardsspil music in its final Sommerdågen form – not least as additions mean the first movement unfolds with that bit more patience and its shunted up into the brighter, more confident (and more Langgaardian) key of F major. But there’s an added complexity and assurance, too, in both the notes on the page and the approach of the NSQ in the studio – as if, for Bendt Viinholt Nielsen, ‘the memories of Rosengård have come to stand in a different light.’

So, Langgaard re-writing history – only now, with the world premiere recording of the Rosengaardsspil, we’re presented with an opportunity to rumble precisely how he tried to do it. The final piece of the Kyrkhult jigsaw, though, comes from the ‘pure’ unchanged, un-revisited work from 1918: the String Quartet in A major (which originally carried the Rosengaardsspil title too).

This piece has even more of a neo-classical surface appearance than Rosengaardsspil, but it also contains some of the most elusive, extraordinary music on Dacapo’s new recording. There’s a gallant feel to the opening movement – Bendt Viinholt Nielsen points to the spiked classicism of Prokofiev’s First Symphony premiered just a few months before – but you get a taste of the irascible Langgaard in the jarring stylistics of the third movement Lento dolente, when a dignified, Beethovenian funeral march is repeatedly gate-crashed by digging, downward-twisting crises of confidence – both personal and musical.

That could almost be an hors d’ouevre to the far more pronounced gesture in the finale, when the chugging, perpendicular conversation marked Allegretto suddenly drops through the floor, opening up into a devastating moment of introspection when, as Bendt Viinholt Nielsen eloquently reflects, ‘time stands still and beauty is held in inward-looking contemplation.’

As well as being one of the standout moments of a recording that sounds pretty ravishing as a whole, this was one passage which presented the youngsters of the NSQ with their biggest interpretative challenges. The passage feels odd – a sudden step into another, differently lit place – but it’s also very tricky to play: high, exposed canonic entries which are repeated almost to excess.

On session in the concert hall of the Royal Danish Conservatory in Copenhagen, there was a good deal of repetition from the NSQ, too – as if they were teasing the meaning out of the notes on the page, marinating it in their own musicianship until the most meaningful, soulful route-plan emerged. ‘Normally we’ve played the pieces in concert before going on to record, but this time it just wasn’t possible’ says Gunvor Sihm, NSQ violinist. ‘Here we’ve just tried different versions and figured out how it’s supposed to be. We do it without thinking about the recording process really.’

It’s a fascinating technique to behold, when you know a bit about Langgaard’s lopsided reputation and the smokescreen of his oft-discussed eccentricities. Langgaard the enchanted boy in love hasn’t been part of the script, and what a refreshing picture of him we see – not spinning off into far way realms, not angrily pinning ideologies to the wall or railing with sonic anger against prevailing norms, but looking inside himself and finding a hesitant tenderness the likes of which he’d hardly come near again.

In the recording studio, there was a discernible moment in that ‘dropout’ introspective passage when the interpretation moved up to another level, took on extra weight – not in terms of musical texture, but emotional meaning; when that route-plan suddenly became clear. ‘Sometimes you just get a new idea and you have to follow that idea’ says Marie-Louise, ‘but it’s easier to figure things out now, to see what Langgaard is getting at.’

Perhaps the time it took for that to happen – well over an hour in the case of this particular passage – speaks of the extent to which Langgaard remains a hard nut to crack; the music so clear once you’ve got a handle on it, but strangely elusive until then. ‘It’s true that when we started to record the quartets the music didn’t really fit with what we’d heard – with the composer’s reputation’, says Gunvor. ‘He certainly says things in surprising ways – he goes from one extreme to the other and captures both. These pieces are so different from the Second and Third quartets, which are filled with so much frustration and weirdness.’ So what impression have these young Danish girls of Langgaard now? ‘It’s that he had a really beautiful ability to express feelings and moods – always surprising, never boring’ says Marie-Louise. ‘That he is a romantic – a confused romantic’ adds Gunvar, ‘maybe because he never did get his Dora.’

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