Rued Langgaard

1893 1952

Rued Langgaard

Composer • Organ


Rued Langgaard was a Danish composer and organist born just before the turn of the 19th Century. Langgaard was never appreciated or popular during his lifetime and lived a life of solitude and despair. He was a prolific composer greatly inspired by the works of the great Romantic composers at a time dominated by modernism in Denmark. His music spans multiple genres, including solo music for the organ and piano, chamber music, symphonies, and an opera.

Rued Langgard was born in 1893 in Copenhagen to musical parents. His father, Siegfried, was both a piano teacher and composer while his mother, Emma Foss, was a pianist. His first music lessons were with his parents. Langgard later studied organ and theory with several teachers, most notably C.F.E. Horneman.

At the age of 11, Langgaard made his debut in Copenhagen as an organist while his performance in 1908 of an early cantata attracted much attention. Between 1908 and 1913, the Langgaard family travelled regularly to Berlin, where he was able to make many useful contacts. During this period he was highly productive and had the honour of having his Symphony No.1 (1908-11) performed by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1913 during a concert devoted solely to his works.

In the early 1920s, a surge of interest in his symphonic works developed in Germany, where two of his most dynamic and progressive works,Sfaerernes musik  (‘Music of the Spheres’) (1916–18) and Symphony No. 6 (1919–20), were premiered. Despite his success in Germany, Langgaard’s reserved and solitary nature led him and his works to be viewed with apprehension in his native Denmark. Though his works sparked an initial interest in Germany, they never took hold and he was not able to experience the breakthrough he had hoped for. After the premieres he returned his focus to Denmark. However, in 1925, he faced rejection yet again when the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen refused his opera Antikrist(1921-3).

It was clear that Langgaard’s music, which was influenced by religion and symbolism was not compatible with the anti-Romantic state of music in Denmark at the time. Devastated, Langgaard lashed out publically on the state of Danish music and modernism. He was particularly critical of Nielsen’s influence on the Danish aesthetic. This was the beginning of a long and unhappy relationship with the musical authorities in Denmark.

As a result of his rejection and unhappiness, Langgaard isolated himself further. Uncompromising in his views, he continued to compose in his own symbolist style, which often followed in the footsteps of the late romantics. His desperation and depression are very evident in his works. He often went to extremes to convey his expressions, and moved beyond traditional musical forms. His works are best described as a commentary on time and his life; they express the music of the Classical and Romantic eras while showing the effect of his isolation from people and society.

Langgaard’s lack of popularity resulted in only about half of his works being performed during his lifetime. Most of the works which were performed, were only heard once. Many of his large-scale works such asAntikrist and half of his symphonies were not performed until his music was revived in the late 1960s.

The revival was sparked by Sfaerernes music, which greatly anticipated the styles and techniques of the avant-garde movement. It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that his music was given significant attention and recorded.

Though Langgaard’s music is very interesting from a scholarly perspective, his artistic merit is occasionally controversial. His music is, however, very creative and makes an immediate and powerful impression on its listeners. Though not appreciated in his own time, Godtfred Skjerne described Langgaard’s music as “an inexhaustible source for the enrichment and renewal of the usual view of music.”

Header image courtesy of Den Store Danske  Other images courtesy of

In 1940, after experiencing rejection, not only in his compositions, but also in his attempts to be appointed as an organist, Langgaard finally gained employment as an organist in a cathedral in Ribe, a remote location, far from the centre of Danish musical life. He remained in Ribe for the rest of his life. He died there in 1952.

Langgaard’s substantial output of approximately 400 works can be divided into four distinct phases. His initial phase lasted until about 1916 and features works highly influenced by late Romantic composers such as Liszt and Richard Strauss. Langgaard’s second period, from 1916 to 1924, is also influenced by late Romanticism, but a touch of modernism is added. These works tend to foreshadow the ideas of both Hindemith and Bartók. The most impressive works from this period include his fourth and sixth symphonies (1916-20 and 1919-20) and his string quartets, along withSfaerernes music (‘The music of the Spheres’) (1916-18), the opera Antikrist (1921-23) and Afgrundsmusik (‘Music of the Abyss’) for piano (1921-4).

From 1925 to 1945, Langgaard returned to his Romantic beginnings. He began to use an anonymous style to recreate the sounds of music from his childhood, around the turn of the century. He was influenced by the styles of both Wagner and Gade primarily. During this period, he composed theMessis (Høstens tid) (‘Messis [Harvest Time]’)(1935-7/1951-2), a massive work for organ lasting two hours. The composition is influenced by a vast range of techniques from the entire Romantic era.

During Langgaard’s fourth and final period, from 1945 on, elements of fragmentation along with absurdity are added to his style. This can be partially explained by his desperation to be known before his death. During this period he wrote a very brief symphony, Symphony No. 11 (Ixion) (1944-5), which only lasts six minutes and can only be described as nightmarish. He also wrote the workCarl Nielsen, vor store Komponist (‘Carl Nielsen, Our Great Composer’) (1948) which has been described as “the snarkiest work for large orchestra and chorus in our fairy history of western music.” The work lasts a mere 32 measures, and overflows with sarcasm and bitterness.

One of Langgaard’s identifying techniques is his use of a collage-like style. He combines many different styles and elements to receive this unique mixture. One example of this eclectic effect can be found inLe béguinage (1948-9), a solo piano work which incorporates elements of Schumann, Debussy, salon music and modernism.