Spring Symphonies: 28/60 Langgaard: Symphony No 11 ‘Ixion’
I wrote about Langgaard's Eleventh Symphony in 2012 when it was given it's Proms premiere - and I said at the time it would live in the memory. In one sense it did. “Langgaard" “Ixion" and at best a vague waltz memory - but it couldn't write this piece without listening, and listening again, and again. Why I thought does it demand such attention. How does it demand such attention?
I think part of the answer lies in Langgaard's eccentric and unsuccessful career. He was born into a very “artistic” family in 1893 and enjoyed some success in his early years, whilst working in a variety of posts in churches in Copenhagen as organist - in 1913 the Berlin Philharmonic premiered his first symphony. The majority of his works went unheard and unpublished and died in 1952 in almost compositional obscurity. He wrote 400 or so works - 16 of them symphonies - some like his Music of the Spheres are considered to be masterpieces and his symphonies are growing in popularity. He worked as an organist in Ribe in south west Jutland in the post at Our Lady Maria Cathedral for 13 years until his death. One wonders what he played there….
The title is a reference to King Ixion who was sentenced by the Gods to be shackled to a flaming wheel eternally spinning in the heavens. You may find you can empathise with the King’s plight if you listen to this work more than three times in a row.
This symphony is very short and you might challenge me that it’s not a symphony at all. As the man who has almost single handedly brought Langgaard into the concert hall - Thomas Dausgaard has said it packs a mighty punch. It’s immediate predecessor is a 25 minute Straussian symphony - episodic in nature so it’s not that this composer hasn’t got the means to sustain long pieces - his first symphony is an hour long. And I think in my defence I’d use that well worn adage about writing a long letter because it takes too long to write a short one. The short form symphony was a thing Milhaud enjoyed - though never anything like this - so its not entirely out of court. But this is a symphony (written in 1944-45) of such chronic repetitive thematic material (until it’s coda) that we need to listen deeper to get the symphonic effect. In it’s almost nihilistic, certainly anxious, repetitions we challenge the very notion of serialism and the symphony - written larger than life in a style more akin to Walt Disney than Steve Reich. Within that there is variety to be slowly teased out. Langgaard’s mental health was not good and it’s always tempting in works of such eccentricity to think there’s a connection - there may well be. But in the textures tucked away there is variation which builds symphonically and it has an outburst from the oddest source and a flourish at the end. It counts as a symphony for me by the same yardstick that Mahler 3 fails as a symphony: Langgaard’s shocking assault on sensibilities is greater than the sum of it’s 6 minutes of parts.
The music starts with a 10 second introduction and dives into an elephantine waltz and this continues through its 6-7 minute duration, the phrases are punctuated with instrumental details that add texture and counterpoint. There’s the odd modulation too. The general orchestration is very consistent. The direction of travel is almost circular except for the instrumental details and at one point a choir of tubas add another layer in the most exquisite outburst: I have no doubt Langgaard was not injecting humour here. The music continues and then abruptly switches to a cadence and with a brief fanfare the whole thing is over.
I can say no more: try it, try not to hate it, try it again
Here’s Dausgaard’s recording on YouTube