CD Selections
10:36 am
Fri June 3, 2011

Mark Pinto Recommends...

Rued Langgaard: Music of the Spheres

You don't need to listen long into Langgaard's Music of the Spheres to know you're experiencing something remarkable - a sound world decades ahead of its time (1918). This is visionary music by a Scandinavian composer who forged his own way despite the criticism of, and rejection by, the musical establishment in his own country.

Isolated from the world from the outset, Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) was born in Copenhagen, the only son of a pianist mother and pianist/composer/philosopher father. They provided private tutors for their son and gave him his basic musical education. Gifted, he began composing at age seven, and at 11 made his first public appearance as an organist, impressing audiences with his talent for improvisation. When he was 14, his first major work for orchestra and chorus was premiered, to critical disapproval.

With a style rooted in the Late Romantic tradition, Langgaard aligned himself with the Symbolist movement and Christian mysticism and composed experimental, eccentric, and even extreme orchestral and vocal scores whose messages often failed to be understood or appreciated. Despite a few successes in Germany before and immediately after World War I, Langgaard's compositions never achieved critical acceptance, especially among the musical elite in Denmark. His public criticism of favored son Carl Nielsen didn't score Langgaard any points either, and, in fact, hindered his attempts for many years to secure a position as a church organist.

Langgaard's Music of the Spheres is scored for a large orchestra including eight horns, organ, piano, four sets of timpani, and a 15-member "orchestra in the distance" with soprano soloist and a large choir. The piece eschews traditional notions of motifs, development, form, and continuity in favor of an exploration of themes of space, timbre, and distance.

Static and shimmering strings, undulating ostinato figures, long pauses, and stretches of sound at the faintest of levels from which emerge rolling and pounding timpani, transport the listener from the darkness and silence of outer space to close-up views of the heavenly bodies. After a more tonally centered section of "earthly music," including a setting of a poetic text for solo soprano, Langgaard shows us a chaotic, apocalyptic vision of the end of the world and the triumph of Christ over the Antichrist, themes that preoccupied him in the wake of World War I. The piece ends as ethereal harp glissandi fade out into space.

Interestingly, Music of the Spheres was composed nearly simultaneously with Gustav Holst's sonically imaginative masterpiece, The Planets, although Langgaard's musical landscape begins where Holst's otherworldly Saturn leaves off.

This performance of this 40-minute work by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Choirs under Thomas Dausgaard is well-informed, -paced, and -proportioned and does considerable justice to a piece considered one of the most distinctive and experimental compositions of the early-twentieth century.

The recording also includes the thematically related The Time of the End, a suite of short scenes from Langgaard's opera Antichrist. The short choral work that concludes the disc, From the Abyss, is his last-dated composition. It sets text from the Latin Requiem Mass and thus fittingly serves as Langgaard's own requiem.

Only a decade after his death, Langgaard's music began to receive belated recognition. Features of his works are now seen to have foreshadowed stylistic developments of the 1960s and 1970s, including minimalism and the groundbreaking sonic techniques employed by Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. This new recording affords the opportunity to enjoy the fascinating contributions of this singular figure in twentieth-century music.--Mark

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