Sunday, December 6, 2015

Autumnal Classics - Rued Langgaard's Symphony no. 4, "Fall of the Leaf"

POP QUIZ: name three Danish symphonists!


OK, that's might not be the easiest task.  The general public would most likely only know Carl Nielsen, and only chuckleheads like myself could name two others: Niels Gade (the grandpappy of Danish classical music) and Rued Langgaard, a man who had the misfortune of being an individualistic Danish composer at the same time Nielsen was pushing the boundaries of the Danish musical establishment, and as history repeatedly says we can only have one artist from a country that hasn't been a superpower recently be represented in the global arts canon.  Langgard doubly suffers in that he kept on not fitting into a niche long after all the cool kids had found their clubs in the annals of music history, and his music has taken on the attribute of "eccentricity" among many critics.  You know who else was eccentric?  Percy Grainger, and who's laughing at the genius behind The Warriors now?  Nobody, that's who!  So why not give Langgaard and his significant contribution to the Danish symphony a shot?  Well, where does one start?  He wrote 16 of the things, each one more colorfully named than the last with subtitles like "Memories of Amalienborg", "Ixion" and "Deluge of the Sun".  Luckily there's a heck of a gateway to his work, and it's the same gateway I had - his Symphony No. 4, "Fall of the Leaf" (1916).

More than any other Autumnal piece, Langgaard's Symphony manages to capture the complexity and intensity of human psychology in the throes of the most volatile season of the year.  Langgaard's music is Wagnerian in its scope, drama and mystical philosophy, yet as concentrated and immediately visceral as the work of Carl Ruggles, fully poising him to plunge into the deepest psychological valleys of a dying, ancestral landscape.  Cast in several continuous movements, "Fall of the Leaf" thunders its opening, "Rustle in the Forest", with resonant clashing, a brassy E-flat minor chord punctuated by a C-flat major chord.  Any kind of blow-by-blow or analysis after that wouldn't do a shred of justice to the symphony's hairpin turns of character and key and stunning moments of inspiration.  For example, I could try to analyze the moment at 1:45 where the strings angrily gallop across disjointed sus-chord arpeggios towards electrified, opposite-keyed brass trills while the timpani tries to break his mallets in fortissimo abandon, but you'd really have to hear it to know what I mean when I assure you that I've backed up to hear that one bit more times than I've been able to count.  Words also can't fully express how worthy the theme of the next main section, "Glimpse of Sun", is of a lost piece by that Gerald Finzi guy I mentioned a few weeks ago.  In case you were wondering if anything in this post would sound like Petrouchka then I'm pleased to let you know that the "Thunderstorm" is pretty reminiscent of the evening carnival scene from that, at least in a couple of bits, as well as "Mercury" from The Planets

 It's around here where the sections start dovetailing, as Langgaard knows any good psychological journey has many u-turns and reprises.  Also, check out that bit at 11:00 where trumpets and clarinets laugh at the audience while the strings take a few sharp turns on their Sunday drive.  Also worth noting is the icy sus-chord at the beginning of the "Tired" section (12:-ish) that chills a heck of an oboe solo.  Langgaard remembers the "rule of three", the most economic number of times one can repeat an artistic motive for it to be recognized as a pattern, and the most volcanic restatement of the "Rustle in the Forest" material occurs in the "Despair" section, a very Wagnerian piece of thematic interlinking.  Not so Wagnerian (but evidently Langgaardian) is the following tranquillo section where the strings pull on a loose sweater thread and reveal a gorgeous, glassy melisma followed by an oboe/harp duet, presumably composed with an infant defunte in mind.  This section is actually the beginning of a happy end, as the orchestra major-key's its way into "Sunday Morning (The Bells)", featuring "bells" of alternating F whole tone and B major triads on top of "bells" of alternating A-flat major and D whole tone triads, etc.  Then despair wins, because we can't have anything nice for too long in these increasingly frozen times.

OK, this might be right at the top of my not-really-real Top 10 Best 4th Symphonies list right next to Walter Piston's.  There's a lot to like here, even headbang to, and there are so many surprising ideas in play that the piece could conceivably be well enjoyed in 30-second increments.  I'm so glad that this was my introduction to Langgaard's work and I'll probably have to return to him in a full article, but this is more than enough to sate us for the end of the year.  And I'll bet you guys thought this series was going to be too dang quiet.


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