Rued Langgaard: Symphony No. 1 “Klippepastoraler”
Rued Langgaard was born in 1893 to a pair of highly musical parents. His father, Siegfriend Langgaard was a known composer and highly skilled chamber musician, and his mother Emma Langgaard was also a highly skilled pianist. It was his mother who introduced the young Rued to playing the piano at age 5, where he excelled at a rapid pace. By age 7 Langgaard began composing short piano and organ works. At age 10 he was formally studying organ performance with Gustav Helsted. Langgaard also took up the violin around this time and was taught by Chr. Peterson from the Royal Orchestra.
By the time he was 11, Langgaard made his first public appearance as an organist at a concert in Copenhagen. This led him to start studying music theory under C. F. E. Horneman and Vilhelm Rosenberg. Langgaard also received a few lessons in counterpoint by Danish giant Carl Nielsen. During his teenage years the young Danish composer travelled, performed and composed, learning from conductors and pedagogues during his travels.
When he was just 17, Langgaard composed his First Symphony, which received its formal premiere in 1913 at a concert in Berlin where the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic performed the work under the baton of Max Fielder.
Although clearly a very talented musician and composer, Langgaard struggled to secure a permanent job in music. He was often rejected by the state and it wasn’t until he was 46 that he managed to obtain a permanent job as the organist at the cathedral in Ribe. Langgaard died aged 58, still a rather unrecognised composer.
Compositional similarities often point towards the styles of Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Anton Bruckner and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The daring large-scale orchestrations often seen from Langgaard made him a prolific symphonic composer, writing 16 symphonies, as well as a wealth of other orchestral works. Totaling in at just over an hour in length, Langgaard’s First Symphony is ambitious, demanding and was initially described as unplayable.
Although often attributed to his contemporaries’ styles, Langgaard’s rich orchestrations, bold melodies and highly Romantic harmonies culminates in a rather striking original symphony. Full of daring twists and turns, this five movement symphony encapsulates a magnificent journey through the mountains.
Set in five movements the First Symphony is subtitled ‘Klippepastoraler’ which loosely translates into ‘Mountain Pastorals’. The music takes you on a journey from the foot of a mountain all the way up through trials and tribulations until the magnificent views of the summit are reached.
Although the title prepares the listener for some illustrative easy listening, the reality couldn’t be more different. The powerful Brucknerian melodies paired with the Wagnerian movement and duration makes Langgaard’s First Symphony a full-bodied phenomenon.
Movement I: Brædinger og Solgmilt (Surf and Glimpses of Sun)
The tumultuous opening movement is the longest in the whole symphony. The rumbling from the lower orchestra support the highly romantic string theme with the brass counteracting with a flourish of fanfares and chordal movement – all with a stormy disposition. The shimmering winds perhaps represent the sun throughout this movement, with the brass representing the pain and physicalness of the journey.
Even just within the first two minutes Langgaard exploits his evident talent in orchestration by building rich harmonic textures, complex melodic frameworks and powerful atmospheres. The textural colours only heighten the drama with the lusicious strings opposing the sharp brass interludes. The shrill woodwinds add to this, giving the impression that the start of this adventure is going to be quite the feat.
Movement II: Fjeldblomster (Mountain Flowers)
Marked moderato, the slower-paced second movement is an illustrative display of the mountain flowers seen during the adventure. The warm strings oppose the chaotic strings from the opening movement, giving a sense of respite in the music. The fluctuations in the theme offer space for soloists to shine through, such as the clarinet.
This movement is rich in its manipulation of textures, with the strings leading the way with the melodies beautifully composed by Langgaard. The warm atmosphere is ended with a short brass chorale to end this picturesque movement off in style.
Movement III: Sagn (Legend)
The ominous opening sets the scene for this short middle movement. The music slowly builds by Langgaard slowly adding instruments into the mix. Opening with a culmination of the winds, the melody is soon taken over by the strings. The climax bursts through in the middle of the movement, with the strings aggressively playing syncopated tremolo notes. The high register in the strings here adds to the sheer drama and intensity of the music.
The music comes back down again to a low rumble, with the movement coming to a quiet and ominous close – just the way it started.
Movement IV: Opad Fjeldet (Mountain Ascent)
Open with a bold strike from the orchestra, the fourth movement sees a musical conversation between the strings and the brass take place. Unison strings and winds fight against the fanfareing trumpets who lead the way into the ascent up the mountain. Langgaard’s use of syncopation adds an uneasiness to the swirling string movements. The movement comes to a mighty close with a descending scalic sequence and unison stab chords.
Movement V: Livsmod (Courage)
The final movement of this epic symphony starts from the bottom of the orchestra and sees bell-like chimes sweep across the ensemble. The rumbling leads to a horn proclamation which sees the music really take off. With whirling fanfares, syncopated accompaniments and bold unison sections, this long last movement is not for the faint hearted!
The symphony ends in with triumphant brass fanfares that are accentuated by shrill winds, trilling strings and bold percussion. The wide landscape that can be seen from the top of the mountain must be incredible based on the latter half of this epic movement!
There is a sense of triumph by the end of this symphony, with full forces out to support the final few glimpses of the amazing mountain views. From the rising sun to the courage to reach the summit, Langgaard’s colossal First Symphony sets an extremely high bar for the next 15 symphonies he was to write.
Ⓒ Alex Burns