Rued Langgaard: Music of the Spheres

To those who knew him, Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) was often regarded as a loner and an eccentric, even a bit of a crank. For most of his adult life, he held organist positions at various Danish churches, all the while composing prolifically. But his larger ambitions for both his compositions and organ playing were consistently thwarted, and he died almost completely forgotten. Only in succeeding decades were his works revived and recognized for their value, innovation, and beauty. Now he has taken his place in the pantheon of great Danish composers.

Both of Langgaard’s parents were pianists, and he started studying piano with them at age five. He showed early talent, and was composing his own music before he turned ten. He made his debut as an organist at eleven. Edvard Grieg heard Langgaard perform around this time and was much impressed, sending his parents an enthusiastic letter. Langgaard’s first compositions were published when he was thirteen, and his hour-long Symphony No. 1 was premiered by no less than the Berlin Philharmonic when he was nineteen – an event that Langgaard himself and many others saw as the greatest success of his lifetime.

But Langgaard came to regard himself an outcast in Danish musical society. Despite having studied briefly with Denmark’s most famous composer, Carl Nielsen, Langgaard later felt a profound resentment toward Nielsen’s success and fame. The Copenhagen Royal Theater’s rejection of Langgaard’s opera Antikrist in 1925 led to a long period of anger and darkness, and for a decade or more Langgaard wrote almost no new music. Only in 1940, when he won an organist job in the small town of Ribe – in the southwest part of Jutland, far from Denmark’s musical center of Copenhagen, where Langgaard had lived much of his life – was he able to compose again.

His overall output of some 400 compositions includes sixteen symphonies, seven string quartets, four violin sonatas, a host of piano and organ works, around 150 songs, and that one opera, Antikrist. His music inhabits a variety of sound worlds. For the most part, his orchestral works, including his symphonies, are large and lushly-scored, some in the manner of Richard Strauss. But he also had a taste for more unconventional sounds and techniques. With titles like “Heaven-Storming” (Symphony No. 6), Music of the Abyss, Antikrist, “Yon Dwelling of Thunder” (Symphony No. 10), and “Sun Deluge” (Symphony No. 16) fairly commonplace in his work, it’s clear that Langgaard gravitated toward big concepts, religious and philosophical and natural, in his work.

His fervent Protestant faith, with a touch of mysticism, led Langgaard to an obsession with the fight between good and evil, and even apocalyptic ideas. Langgaard came to feel music so important and powerful that it could change the world. He even envisioned a world theocracy in which music would be primary. But that could only emerge, he felt, out of the destruction of the current order. He went through periods of optimism, and profound pessimism, that the world and humankind were ready for such a change. Langgaard came to see music as “vertical” – as Bendt Viinholt Nielsen puts it at the langgaard.dk website, “reaching down into the deepest levels of the psyche, down to ‘the evil,’ and stretching at the other end of the scale up to the heavenly spheres, to the realm of the sublime and the divine.”

One of Langgaard’s masterpieces, and the work that brought his music back to public consciousness after his death, is Sfærernes Musik, or Music of the Spheres, BVN 128. Composed over 1916-1918 and published in 1919, it was one of Langgaard’s few orchestral pieces to be published during his lifetime. Music of the Spheres received its premiere on November 26, 1921 in Karlsruhe, Germany. That performance was a success, but one in Berlin the following year was not.

Those were the only two performances of the work in Langgaard’s lifetime; he tried many times to arrange for one in Denmark, but in vain. When Music of the Spheres was finally revived for a Stockholm performance in 1968, it was a great success, and that began the re-emergence of Langgaard and his music from almost total obscurity. Only in 1980 did the work get the Danish performance of which Langgaard had long dreamed.

Musica universalis, or the Music of the Spheres, was an ancient idea – first written about by Pythagoras and later elaborated on by people like Boethius and Johannes Kepler – that the movements of the planets in their orbits created a form of music, not necessarily audible but mathematically-based as well as religious and philosophical, that reflected the God-created harmony of the universe. As Kepler put it, the Music of the Spheres could be apprehended by the soul, and it provided the soul with a “very agreeable feeling of bliss, afforded him by this music in the imitation of God.”

Langgaard’s handling of the concept, though, was uniquely his own, informed by those apocalyptic ideas of his mentioned above. In the preface to his score, Langgaard vividly describes his work as “celestial and earthly music from red glowing strings, on which life plays with claws of a beast of prey – life, with a crown of iris on its marble face and the stereotypical – yet living – demonic smile on its lily-white cheeks…” Elsewhere he wrote, “In Sfærernes Musik I have in the darkness and despair of night completely abandoned any sort of motif, planned structure, form or coherence. It is ‘Music’ cloaked in a black veil and the impenetrable mists of death…” Much later, in 1950, he created a motto for the piece: “Kindly the stars may seem to beckon us, cold and unmerciful, though, is the writing of the stars.”

What is all this about? Music of the Spheres is highly unconventional, and highly atmospheric. While there are occasional stretches of more conventional melody, much of the music is static, focused on mood and space and texture. In the words of Bendt Viinholt Nielsen, one of the world’s authorities on Langgaard and his music (his initials are the BVN of the numbers associated with Langgaard’s works, which Nielsen cataloged), in Music of the Spheres Langgaard “set aside all that is normally understood by motifs, development, form and continuity. What takes centre stage instead is ‘themes’ such as space, timbre, height and depth, foreground and background.” Many passages are static, and quiet, with stillness at the center and decorations around the edges.

Some of the techniques Langgaard employed were well ahead of their time. In 1968, Per Nørgård made his fellow composer György Ligeti aware of the work. Ligeti responded, “I didn’t know I was a Langgaard imitator!” Langgaard had actually anticipated sounds and techniques – dissonant clusters of tones, minimalistic repetitions of short phrases, layering of seemingly unrelated sounds –that Ligeti employed in works like Atmosphères (1961) and Lontano (1967). Conductor Thomas Dausgaard elaborates: “Sometimes he builds up high clusters or patterns note by note, line by line, always very quiet, repeated over and over. I have this feeling with Langgaard that he wanted to wake our senses, as if we were new-born again.”

In Music of the Spheres, Langgaard calls for a huge chorus and orchestra – including eight French horns, four sets of timpani and multiple percussionists, and organ – along with a soprano and a “distant orchestra” of fifteen instruments. An orchestral piano has its lid removed, allowing the pianist to play directly on the strings, perhaps the first time that technique had been used. Yet, even with these huge forces, Langgaard uses them carefully. The organ has only a small part, and the first true tutti for the orchestra doesn’t arrive for close to half an hour.

The score is a fascinating document. Even if you don’t read music, it’s easy enough to visualize some of Langgaard’s effects, the repetitions of phrases and the way he layers music and moves lines about the orchestra. A pdf of the score is available for free at imslp.com.

The two sets of timings in the following listening guide are based on two different recordings of Music of the Spheres:

(left) the 1997 Chandos recording featuring soprano Gitta-Maria Sjoberg and the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. This recording, with the full score of the work as the visual content, appears below via YouTube. It’s also the one featured on KNCJ Wednesday Evening Classics on Wednesday, April 22, 2020 at 7:00 p.m. PDT.

(right) the 2010 Dacapo recording featuring soprano Inger Dam-Jensen, the Danish National Choir, the Danish National Vocal Ensemble, and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard.

Music of the Spheres is in fifteen sections, played continuously.

I. Like sunbeams on a coffin decorated with sweet smelling flowers —
(0:00-2:34) (0:00-3:01)
In “Classical Lost And Found: Rued Langgaard’s Mystical Musical Universe,” Bob McQuiston describes the first seven sections of Music of the Spheres as “galactic mood music, with shimmering strings, exotic organ stops and pounding timpani. No full-fledged thematic ideas here, just a fascinating swirl of melodic nebulosities that pan in and out of audibility.” In this opening section, violin tremolos swell and recede as single notes pop out from the texture, with the timpani occasionally interjecting dramatically.

II. Like the twinkling of stars in the blue sky at sunset —
(2:35-5:08) (3:02-6:21)
A short phrase from the flutes flutters about repetitively. After a blast from the timpani and cymbals, the tremolos from the first section return with even more powerful timpani.

III. Like light and the depths —
(5:09-7:16) (6:22-8:42)
A tattoo from the timpani accompanies ominous French horns as a web of violins evolves and grows in strength. Here and throughout Music of the Spheres, Langgaard makes much of the tonal space between instruments, frequently contrasting “light,” higher pitched instruments, flutes or violins, and those in the “depths,” like timpani or low brass.

IV. Like the refraction of sunbeams in the waves —
(7:17-7:52) (8:43-9:45)
Fluttering flutes and very high violin tremolos ascend to the sky and shine brightly.

V. Like the twinkling of a pearl of dew in the sun on a beautiful summer’s morning —
(7:53-8:45) (9:46-10:20)
A variation on the descending flute phrase from section 2 emerges. The string textures become more elaborate and complex.

VI. Longing – Despair – Ecstasy —
(8:46-12:18) (10:21-14:04)
The strings play a repetitive, high-lying melody, punctuated by cymbal crashes, that has an almost Mahler-like intensity. A powerful orchestral crescendo, in which the organ joins but briefly, fades to a flowing, shimmering bed of strings and woodwinds, undergirded by deep brass. Then the tremolos from the work’s opening return again, and fade to nothingness.

VII. Soul of the world – Abyss – All Soul’s Day —
(12:19-14:34) (14:05-16:29)
Muted strings and high flutes and clarinets swirl and exchange phrases, with the timpani beneath them – one pounding out a beat, and the other providing a quiet roll. The timpani are then left alone, creating a mood of expectation. After a fraught pause, flutes and violins swirl and ascend again.

VIII. I Wish…! —
(14:35-15:55) (16:30-17:46)
Over two repeating notes, an alto soloist from the choir enters, singing the do-re-mi-fa-sol-la from solfège singing in the manner of a folk song. A second alto soon enters with the same syllables, followed by the altos and basses of the chorus, as the dramatic intensity grows.

IX. Chaos – Ruin – Far and near —
(15:56-18:02) (17:47-20:00)
A storm whips up within the orchestra. But it soon calms to desolate repeating phrases from the strings and a plaintive French horn line that gradually gains in strength, then calms again.

X. Flowers wither —
(18:03-19:38) (20:01-21:32)
This quiet, almost evanescent music has something of the character of a pastoral hymn, calm yet vaguely melancholy. It ends with a wandering solo flute.

XI. Glimpse of the sun through tears —
(19:39-24:55) (21:33-27:35)
Mysterious, almost static – yet beautiful – chords from the strings create a mood of quiet expectation. A descending figure over a quiet, ominous timpani roll leads to a new section in which gently dissonant chords from the flutes sound over an undulating bed of strings. A timpani crescendo leads to a reminiscence of the static chords from the beginning of the section, but more agitated this time, and played tremolo. Languor sets in with repeating tremolo figures from the strings and eerie, dissonant chords from the flutes.

XII. Bells pealing: Look! He comes —
(24:56-26:53) (27:36-29:28)
The music suddenly turns animated, with the constant motion of the strings building momentum. The tempo increases as timpani start to pound. Then, all at once, a lovely hymn-like theme suddenly appears, which serves as an introduction to the next section.

XIII. The Gospel of flowers – From the far distance —
(26:54-29:21) (29:29-32:07)
The soprano soloist sings a poem in German by Ida Lock (1882-1951), an amateur poet who had studied music with Langgaard’s father. The music is lush and gently exultant, reminiscent of Mahler or Richard Strauss. The following translation of the text comes from the aforementioned Dacapo recording of the work.

When my soul is submerged in an ocean
of tears and smiles from an eye,
it would seem to have caught the music
of a glorious symphony,
the air seems charged with rhythm,
conceived in sorrow and pain,
transmitting its sad, sighing longing
and the sound of its haunting refrain
through billowing waves of fragrance
down a winding rippling stream
from the ocean of tears and laughter,
from the soul’s ecstatic dream.

XIV. The new day —
(29:22-30:53) (32:08-33:32)
Horns and trumpets sound a fanfare as the music builds, with a solo violin and the pealing of bells.

XV. The end: Antichrist – Christ
(30:54-35:31) (33:33-39:58)
As mentioned above, around the time of World War I, Langgaard became somewhat obsessed with the figure of Antichrist, the end of the world, and, in its wake, the creation of a new Utopia based on art and religion. In this final movement, a long, crescendo D minor chord, some ninety seconds long, is sounded by the choir, with all sorts of fast-moving, dramatic decorations, including brass fanfares, from the orchestra in D major around the chorus. Then comes a timpani roll, fully a minute long, and high violin tremolos. These violent sounds from the timpani and cymbals contrast with the following “heavenly” sound of choir and harps, and the strumming of the strings within the piano. Then, as Bob McQuiston describes it, the chorus, singing a cluster of nine notes, disappears “as if swallowed up by some passing black hole, which suddenly flares into an orchestral supernova of sound. It quickly burns to a cold, dissonant cinder, ending this extraordinary journey much as it began in the vast emptiness of space.”

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