Sfaerernes musik (Music of the Spheres) (1918)

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert Spacial Explorations, performed on June 1, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Denmark apparently had room for only one composer—Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). The author of the “Inextinguishable” Symphony completely dominated the country’s musical institutions, and his aesthetic outlook could not be challenged by anyone. That outlook, blending modernist elements with a Romantic sensitivity, was, in Nielsen’s own words, “homespun”: it had sprung from the rural upbringing of a composer who, no matter how much prestige he enjoyed later in life, always remained a country boy at heart.

Rued Langgaard could not have been more different. Born into a musical family (his mother was a pianist and his father a composer, Nielsen’s antagonist in matters of musical aesthetics), he was as esoteric and hyper-refined as Nielsen was robust and down-to-earth. He represented a special kind of Danish art nouveau; while his older contemporary wrote an opera about Saul and David, Langgaard chose none but the Antichrist as his hero (the opera was repeatedly rejected by the Copenhagen theatre). Langgaard remained an outsider his entire life; even though he had been a virtuoso organist since childhood, it took him more than twenty years to obtain a post as a church organist, and then only in the provincial town of Ribe, far from the capital.

One of Langgaard’s most fascinating works, Music of the Spheres, was published in 1919 and performed in Karlsruhe, Germany two years later. Subsequently, it was forgotten for nearly half a century. When it was rediscovered in the late 1960s, György Ligeti reportedly exclaimed: “I didn’t know I was a Langgaard imitator!”

The parallels between Music of the Spheres and Atmosphères are, in fact, quite stunning. The clusters played by the strings at the beginning of Langgaard’s piece, with each musician responsible for an individual part, uncannily anticipate Ligeti’s micropolyphonic technique. But there are other innovations in the Langgaard that are no less radical and ahead of their time: a pianist playing glissandos directly on the strings of the instrument; a small “distant” orchestra whose rhythmic relationships with the larger orchestra follow the ratio 8:18:28; and a polyphonic thunder on eight timpani that seeks to outdo the famous “duel of kettledrums” in the “Inextinguishable.”

In addition to the two orchestras, Music of the Spheres calls for a soprano soloist and a mixed chorus. The soloist sings a poem, written in German by Ida Lock (1882-1951), an amateur poet who had studied music with Langgaard’s father. The chorus sings either without words or with solmisation syllables (emphatically not matching the melody to which they are applied).

Langgaard included a series of verbal notations in the score that allow a glimpse into the composer’s world of ideas. A prefatory note reads: “The celestial and earthly chaotic music from red glowing strings with which life plays with claws of beast of prey—with a rainbow crown round its marble-face with the stereotypic, yet living, demoniac and lily-like smile.” Four successive sections in the first half of the piece are marked:

“Like sunbeams on a coffin decorated with sweet-smelling flowers”

“Like the twinkling of stars on the bluish sky at sunset”

“Like the refraction of the sunbeams in the waves”

“Like the twinkling of a pearl of dew in the sun on a lovely summer morning”

And he described the entire piece as follows:

“In The Music of the Spheres I have, in the darkness and despair of night, completely abandoned any sort of motif, planned structure, form or coherence. It is music cloaked in a black veil and the impenetrable mists of death.”

It is also music the kind of which Langgaard never attempted to write again. There is nothing quite like it in the more than 400 works in his output, which musicologist Bendt Viinholt Nielsen has recently catalogued, assigning BVN numbers to each composition. Music of the Spheres remained an isolated experiment, but one whose day has finally come.