Langgaard Symphony no. 12 ‘Helsingeborg’, BVN 318

performed by the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard

A week ago, we discussed Rued Langgaard’s first symphony, an enormous five-movement thing of craggy, youthful, ambitious Romantic music, if not a bit too ambitious for a kid of only 17 to have completed.

Well, today we’ll come to the latter part of Langgaard’s rather sad career. You might think of it as something as simple as poor timing, but I think it’s more complex than that. He’s like an out-of-place artifact of classical music, but with the added complication that it seems he reacted, in some way or another, to the rejection. While other composers who showed up ahead of their time (I don’t know, Mahler, for instance) didn’t work to spite the establishment or have their heads turned too much by the adversity they faced, it seems Langgaard may have, so by the time the world might have been ready to take another look at him, he’d already

Langgaard’s father died when he was only in his early twenties, and he looked, mostly without success, for jobs as organist at various churches. Wikipedia says “From 1917 onward he applied without success for the post of organist at a large number of churches in Copenhagen.” A woman is mentioned as having moved in with what was left of the Langgaard family, and the composer married her shortly after his mother died. In what is perhaps the saddest passage of a composer’s life that I’ve read, Wikipedia finishes his biography by stating:

Although Langgaard was given a state grant from the age of 30, his works and job applications were almost continually rejected by the establishment. Only at the age of 46 did he manage to obtain a permanent job, as the organist at the cathedral in Ribe, the oldest town in Denmark, situated in southwest Jutland. Just shy of his 59th birthday, Rued Langgaard died in Ribe, still unrecognized as a composer.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that his reputation preceded him, and even in a time when his first symphony wouldn’t have seemed so out of place (and to be honest, I don’t see why it should have in 1913), people were already turned off to his name, apparently even in mainland Europe. His relationship with fame or success seems, then, to be like the poorly untimed pair of people who agree to meet at a specified location. A arrives on time and B is late; A waits for some time, but decides to leave, only minutes before B arrives to see no one there, and leaves. A, thinking better of his departure, returns still to see no one at the decided meeting point, and both leave, entirely unaware of their close shave with meeting.

In any case, I mentioned in last week’s article about Langgaard’s first that the work could perhaps have benefited from a bit of pruning, some reorganization or tying up of a few loose ends, but in my rather passive listens to some of the music I decided to add to this month’s roster, I started realizing how gosh darn similar the 12th sounds to the first, and only later do I come across this web page, yet another example of Dacapo’s fantastic program notes and bios. Low and behold, I read this:

Symphony No. 12 is a reinterpretation of the composer’s Symphony No. 1 in a distorted and fragmentary form. The single-movement work contains sections which recall the five movements of Symphony No. 1 with regard to tonality and mood, though none of the themes is identical.

Well, I’ll be darned. It was by design! Give a listen to the opening of the first movement of the first symphony, and then again to this work. When I said pruning, I didn’t mean it like this. What we get is a caricature of what was an earnest, genuine work. It is as if the composer is mocking the earlier piece, presenting it in an absurdly wild but also patronizing compressed few gestures, the exact opposite extreme. For a single seven-minute work, have a look at the marking given (translated into English) –

Furiously! – Distinguished! – Increasingly agitated – Wildly – Like trivial last trumps – Hectically nervous! – Andante lento – Lento misterioso – Poco allegro marcato – Allegro – Furiously! – Amok! A composer explodes

It sounds like pure retaliation. Although the piece itself is well-composed, exciting, interesting, and packed with quite the punch, it borders on the ridiculous to call a single seven-minute burst of energy a symphony, unless you know its provenance. And if you do, you’ll be able to hear it touch, if only ever so briefly, on a few of those high points in the work. But that ‘furious’ ‘agitated’ ‘nervous’ energy doesn’t get us through but half of the work. Listen and you’ll see.

I don’t think I (or anyone) could find a way to express better what it seems Langgaard’s purpose was than how it’s written here, by Bendt Viinholt Nielsen, from the above-linked Dacapo notes:

The teenager’s naïve optimism has, 35 years later, been replaced by disillusionment and resignation. The composer clearly does not believe in his mission – while at the same time he is forced to believe in it. This ambiguity is also apparent in the title of the work, which refers to the Swedish town of Helsingborg, a town Langgaard knew intimately in his childhood and loved very much, and in whose name he now read the word “Hél” – the realm of the dead in Nordic mythology. It is there where the “ne’er–do-wells have firecrackers put up their backsides,” wrote Langgaard in a programme note to the symphony. He also included the word “helsinge” in the title; a word which in Swedish, according to Langgaard, can mean “Hell”.

Disillusionment, resignation, and a bitter play on words. I even looked at the ‘Helsingeborg’ because I was sure that’s not how it was spelled, but here we have our answer. An embittered composer, only landing himself a legitimate job in his mid-40s, and not as a composer. To make matters worse, he would never hear the premiere of this minuscule mockery. Langgaard died in 1952 and the work was only premiered in 1977, more than three decades after it was penned and two and a half decades after the composer’s death. In fact, he would not hear live performances of any of his subsequent symphonies, numbered up to 16, before his death, and may not have heard a performance of 11 either.

This is quite something different from Prokofiev returning to his fourth symphony and practically rewriting it, creating two versions of the work. He had good intentions. While Langgaard’s 12th is perhaps a more bite-sized version of his youthful, ambitious first symphony, it was penned in spite and bitterness, not a desire to impress. That being said, it’s still very interesting music, that interestingness tempered by a sad fact of reality, that a man wrote more than 400 works of music, including 150 songs and a big, controversial opera, and could barely get a job as an organist. The precocious success of a 17-year-old having his first symphony premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic was indeed not an indication of what his career was to hold, and this is sad.

One wonders if he will ever recover form the lack of success and his retaliation to it. After the extremely short 11th and 12th symphonies, it seems he returned in earnest to a more heartfelt 13th and 14th, but I cannot comment on them. Perhaps Langgaard’s day will come, but for now, he’s still an outsider. Thankfully Dausgaard and others have been able to record his entire symphonic output and the discs are readily available. If ever there were an obscure, ignored, neglected composer, it would be Langgaard, regardless of how you feel about his music.

This weekend we’ll be taking a look at another work from a composer we’ve already introduced, so do stay tuned for that, and vi ses i morgen. 

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2 thoughts on “Langgaard Symphony no. 12 ‘Helsingeborg’, BVN 318

  1. Nice post on poor old Langgaard. It is interesting that you started on his symphonic works, which I don’t know. I am pretty familiar with his string quartets by now and curious about his symphonies. Merry Christmas and all the best for 2017. 💫🎉

    1. Yeah, I didn’t get around to his quartets this time. To be honest, I have been far more interested in Holmboe’s work (another work of his tomorrow), and he has twenty quartets to work through. But I did read about Langgaard’s quartets and would like to give him a listen. The first and twelfth symphonies do present the two extremes of his output, I guess…

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