Rued Langgaard: Symphony no. 1, BVN 32, ‘Klippepastoraler’

‘Mountain Pastorals’

performed by the Arthur Rubinstein Philharmonic Orchestra under Ilya Stupel, or below by the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard in what is likely a better performance, or this one with Segerstam

Rud Immanuel Langgaard (spelled like that) was born on 28 July, 1893 in Copenhagen, only son of composer Siegfried Langgaard and Emma (neé Foss), who were both pianists. Their son is reported to have been able to play piano works by Schumann and Chopin at the age of seven, and had already begun composing by that time.

Upon reaching venerable double digits, he began studying with Gustav Helsted (stay tuned for him) and made appearances as organist the following year. He began studying music theory at age 12, had his first compositions published at 13, and started studying counterpoint with Carl Nielsen around that time. By 18 he had a post as assistant organist, and the following year, his first symphony, today’s work, which he started writing at 14 (!) got its premiere by the Berlin Philharmonic in Berlin under Max Fiedler, quite an accomplishment for such a young man, due to some connections the Langgaard family had with him and others from touring through Europe. As we can see, he was quite a precocious young musician, both performer and composer, but it was no indicator of instant success for the poor Langgaard, as we shall eventually see.

Dacapo Records says a few things of the first symphony. “No Danish composer had hitherto written such an ambitious, demanding, long symphony, and indeed it was described as unplayable.” I can understand how it would have, at least for the time, been the world’s longest Danish symphony, but it surprises me that in 1913 it was considered unplayable. Dacapo describes the 1913 premiere as a “great success”, and speaks of the work thusly:

Langgaard’s models were Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Bruckner, but the work exhibits striking, original features and offers a rich journey from the foot of the mountain where the surf breaks against the rocks until one reaches the magnificent, wide view at the summit.

Well, let’s see.

So yeah, it’s a five-movement symphony, with Stupel’s recording the shortest, at only 55 minutes, while Dausgaard takes an extra five minutes in his reading, and Segerstam apparently a whole twelve minutes longer than Stupel, who I bought, to be perfectly honest, because I wasn’t paying attention. It’s nice to see different recordings available of a work (and composer) that is by all accounts quite obscure.

The real heft of the piece is in the first and last movements, which, added together, take up 35 minutes of Stupel’s 55. The idea of the work is, as the ‘Mountain Pastorals’ title indicates, a journey. It is perhaps not as literal (or biographical) as, say, Strauss’s Alpensinfonie, but we do travel “from the foot of the mountain” to “the magnificent, wide view at the summit.” It’s also worthy to mention that Strauss’s work came along a few years after Langgaard, which I mention lest anyone think the young Dane was tearing a page out of Herr Strauss’s book; I doubt anyone would think the elder composer plagiarized his younger colleague here.

The first movement, the biggest, presents a Tchaikovsky-Wagnerian Romantically epic sound world. Instead of the quiet, meager beginnings of what later becomes a magnificent journey, we’re instantly presented with the towering edifice of this mountain, the awesomeness of nature, with waves crashing behind us as we look up at what’s ahead.

The figure that appears right about here shows up throughout the movement, like occasionally look up from our footsteps to see the familiar outline of the crag. The first movement gives us the monstrous impression of a huge work, and the sounds and colors are outrageously impressive for a boy of only fourteen years old! That being said, even after some revision, it’s still a bit… impulsive sounding. Even Mahler knew when to edit himself, cutting out Blumine from the first symphony and leaving off the original remainder of the third symphony to become his fourth. It’s undoubtedly a youthful work, and one wonders if it would be a little different or rounded or mellowed out had he revisited it again even later in life. In any case, the work has an intensity, an urgency, that propels it forward, and for whatever the piece’s perceived faults are, the urgency of the work is compelling.

The second movement, ‘Fjeldblomster‘ or ‘mountain flowers’ (says Dacapo), obviously gives us a softer view of the landscape, complete with quieter, more transparent moments, a solo here and there, something we can warm up to, enjoy the scenery, and a horn call here and there adds to the pastoral nature, with lush, at times near-cinematic strings.

The third movement begins softly, but more ominous-sounding, a bit more mist-laden than the second. This is by far the shortest movement of the work, at about four and a half minutes, and it’s kind of one huge swell, precipitated by some members of the brass, and in its kind of single expression, one large unbroken gesture of beauty and impending trouble, it’s a beautifully-crafted thing.

The fourth movement isn’t much longer, at just over six minutes (in Stupel’s recording). After the third, central movement cools down, like a storm cloud passing by, with its atmospheric, almost tense ending, the fourth brings a bit of the driving energy back, but by now it feels a bit episodic, as if these two central, shorter movements are detours, digressing from the overall plot of the work and now trying to build some of that energy and momentum again. That being said, the fourth movement feels related to the first, so in some awkward way or other, we’re getting back around to the central idea of the work. I think if I had to pick out some kind of excerpt or passage representative of the work as a whole, it could come easily from this six minutes of music.

The other thing that happens, though, is that by the time that fourth movement is over, it feels complete, solid, final enough that I imagine in however many performances this piece may have had live, someone may have started with the accidental applause before the fifth and (actual) final movement gets going. At 16 minutes, it’s a hefty, significant part of the work, and it begins by continuing the thoughts we’ve been presented already, and this could seem a bit long-winded.

Really, we get it, Ruddy, let’s move on or wrap it up.

But wait. The finale quickly reaches a growl and intensity we haven’t heard yet, a Wagnerian glory and heft, like turning around to see we’re farther from the summit than we thought. It’s contrasted quite quickly with the bucolic pleasantness of strings and pretty horn lines. It drips with Romanticism, an almost Mahlerian expression, and the movement will swing between these two extremes, sometimes quite suddenly, with tense pauses, weighty silences, like the ominous outline and impending heights as we reach some Danish summit.

In the very center(ish) of the movement, you can hear almost clumsy-sounding, heavy, perhaps tired footfalls, one after the other in the brass, a real development-section passage of breakdown and rebuild.

I’ll say this is by all accounts a work that I should like, a mighty, epic late Romantic symphony, along the lines of Bruckner and Mahler, a real weighty thing, and in the moment, at the surface, it has wonderful sounds; it’s incredible that such a young composer was able to craft something of this magnitude, and the palette from which he works and what he’s able to paint here, the colors and textures, are really outstanding. Perhaps I just need a few more listens to the work, but overall, it doesn’t give me the sense of cohesiveness and logic that a more venerable composer’s large symphony would. There’s a connectedness in that much of the content is familiar, even repeated, but that also doesn’t equate to a ‘plot’ or internal structure that gives a sense of the overall work.

I think even something as simple as absorbing those two central movements into what came before or after, with one less inter-movement pause, could help continue the momentum here. That being said, it’s a pleasant sounding work, and such a wonder for such a young composer, but it feels like there are lots of loose strings. The big question, though, is how this massive, ambitious journey finishes. Gloriously, but maybe a bit later than I’d like it to. I enjoyed the hike, but I’m ready for a shower, a sofa, and a burger.

But that’s not all we’re going to see of Rued Langgaard. While my assessment of this very interesting first symphony may seem harsh in some ways, I really want to like it. I like the idea of it, a young boy of only 14 setting out to write an enormous composition like this, finishing it a few years later, and getting its premiere in Berlin (!) because of connections the family had with Fiedler… I want the world to be that kind of place, where people can succeed and persist even if they’re looked down on or ignored by the establishment, but I also don’t feel like this is the most amazing thing ever written. No worries, though. If this is one extreme, we’ll be getting to the other in the next few days, so stay tuned for a later work of the composer’s, so stay tuned for that.

For a (much) more thorough discussion of the work and its history than I am able to write, check out this document on Langgaard’s official (society’s?) website.

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