Rued Langgaards' MESSIS - Organ Drama in Three Evenings
16th August 2002
Rued Langgaard: MESSIS, 1st Evening
WH 30493 / ISBN 87 598 1056 4
In the printed edition, in the Critacal Commentary, (page 42-DK and page 44-UK) there are missing a few crescendo-wedges and beams and flags. Please see to the right (in the bow) a list of the missing symbols. The errata-list (the box) can also be downloaded as a pdf-file.
Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) composed MESSIS (HØSTENS TID) [TIME OF HARVEST ] in the period from 1935 to 1937, although two of the movements date back to 1932-34, and the final amendments and additions were made in 1950-51. The work is in three parts: MESSIS, JUAN, and BEGRAVET I HELVEDE [BURIED IN HELL] and a postlude. Musically and conceptually MESSIS is central to Langgaard’s output, testifying to considerable creative powers and expressiveness even though it was composed during a critical, relatively unproductive period of his life.
Messis is the Latin word for harvest. Langgaard borrowed it from the Vulgate and the parable of the weeds in the field, in which Jesus says that the wheat and the weeds should be left to grow together until the harvest; only then will the weeds be gathered and burnt. Harvest is a symbol for the end of the world.
MESSIS is thus “music for the end of the world”, but it is not apocalyptic in the same way as Langgaard’s opera ANTIKRIST. Unlike the opera, in MESSIS optimism dominates in keeping with the work’s programmatic link with the life of Christ and cosmology. In 1936, on completing the first movement, he explained that the concept of the “time of harvest” also embraced a personal musical-aesthetical symbolism: “Although the words of the Bible inspired me to write this organ drama there were also other motives, such as the time prior to the Great War, the period from [Niels Wilhelm] Gade’s death to the Great War, which I consider to be the time of harvest. At that time music achieved a splendour, a brilliance, a wealth of beauty that parallels it with the time of harvest in the Biblical sense.”
MESSIS attempts to maintain the spirit of the period from 1890 to 1914, which coincided with Langgaard’s childhood and youth. He deliberately recomposes moods from the world of yesteryear. Langgaard’s view was that the turn of the century was a time of destiny for man as a cultural being, and that in its search for beauty the music of the epoch pointed the way to the comsummation of destruction that lay ahead. More than just nostalgia is involved; also the idea that contemporary, meaningful music would have to set to work and reveal the spiritual potential of the post-romantic musical idiom.
Langgaard calls MESSIS an “Organ Drama in Three Evenings”. The composer refers specifically to a performance in the course of three evening concerts, but it is more in keeping with his concept of musical symbolism to regard the “evenings” as a poetic label for the music itself, i.e. evening music, music in a twilight of beauty and burgeoning destruction. In connection with his opera ANTIKRIST Langgaard states that the very nature of “the last days” is that the divide between light and darkness has been erased; wheat and weeds thrive side by side.
So there is a highly personal yet perfectly logical background to the retrospective tonal idiom of MESSIS. The romantic range of expression is exploited to the full. As a whole the work is almost like a catalogue of the music of an epoch. Sentimental tunes are contrasted with unexpected caprices, déjà-vu romanticism is thrown into relief by dissonance and dramatic ejaculations. Only briefly, if at all, does the music venture beyond 1914 in style, but the complexity and rich variation in the shape of the movements shows that there is a gap in time and mind between the music of 1900 and the year of composition thirty-five years later.
The first evening, MESSIS, was created in 1935-36 when Langgaard assembled four movements he had composed as individual pieces into a whole. The oldest is the central third movement, Høstens Tid, [Time of Harvest], which lends its name to the entire work and was composed in 1932-33. It is extant in an independent version under the title NEMO CONTRA DEUM NISI DEUS IPSE (BVN 217). The first evening was revised and tautened by Langgaard in 1950-51 in conjunction with performances in Ribe Cathedral.
The first three movements – with passages from the Gospel of St Matthew – depict the anticipation of the Second Coming and the Kingdom of Heaven. The first movement opens with the start of the Judgement Day hymn SIONS VÆGTER HÆVER RØSTEN [THE GUARDIANS OF ZION RAISE THEIR VOICES], an adaptation of WACHET AUF, RUFT UNS DIE STIMME by Philipp Nicolai (1599). Langgaard regarded it as significant that a passage from the hymn coincides with the Grail bell theme from Wagner’s Good Friday opera, PARSIFAL, a theme exploited as a basso ostinato on this movement. From the beginning, then, a programmatic link is established between the anticipation of destruction depicted in the first three movements and the events of Good Friday that take centre stage in the fourth movement.
The first thirty-eight bars of the second movement, Vaager [Ye Shall Know], are borrowed from the PRELUDE AND FUGUE NO. 3 in C major, op. posth., by the Swedish composer Emil Sjögren, published in 1920. Langgaard uses the first half of the prelude with few changes, his point being that the Grail bell theme is paraphrased – wittingly or unwittingly – by Sjögren in the opening bars.
Korsfæstelsen [The Crucifixion] is an organ passion, an instrumental portrayal of the central events of Good Friday closely following the Gospel story. After the Biblical earthquake the movement is completed by a chorale for choir on heavenly peace to words by Hans Adolf Brorson (1694-1764) based on a German original by Abraham Hinckelmann (1652-95).
The second and third evenings are in the composer’s own words “echoes of the thoughts of Jesus”.
The second evening was composed in 1936. The Spanish title, JUAN, refers to the Gospel according to St John, from which Langgaard took three statements by Jesus as mottos for the three central movements. According to Langgaard the passages express “the drama of honest Christian life, in brief: judgement – spirit – life”. Bracketed by the preludial and postludial programmatic readings of “As for man, his days are grass” (Psalm 103.15) JUAN may be said to revolve around life from a Christian perspective. The central movements unfold within the classical forms as indicated by their labels, sonata, rondo and fugue. The rondo theme of the third movement is borrowed from THE FOREST SIGHS, a piano elegy, by Rued Langgaard’s father, Siegfried Langgaard (1852-1914), published in 1907.
With Christian life at the centre of the second evening, the final, shortest part of the trilogy, BEGRAVET I HELVEDE [BURIED IN HELL], focuses on death. The music was written in 1937 but only assumed its definitive form in 1939. Unlike the predominantly classical form of the second evening, it is straight programme music interpreting the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16). The composition is free, almost improvised in form, closely following the words of the parable, even (in the third and fourth movements) providing some of the words in the score. The words are put there as motto-like enhancements of the emotions of the music, however, there are no indications that the words should be either sung or recited in performance.
The entire MESSIS concludes with a postlude bearing the words of the resurrected Saviour as its motto: All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Lo, I am with you always, [even] unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28.18 and 20). The postlude recycles a theme from the second movement of the third evening, I Dødsriget [In the Kingdom of Death], but literally inverted: whereas the rich man in the Kingdom of Death hears celestial music in a minor key with interruptions, it is presented in the postlude in an unadulterated major. The Grail bells from the first evening appear again and the four last pedal notes of the mighty ending spell out G-A-D-E. The music thus ends in a concealed dedication to the musical spirit of Niels Wilhelm Gade (1817-90), to the ideals of the romantics.
Langgaard performed the first and second evenings at Copenhagen Cathedral on 22 April and 15 October 1936 at concerts he himself organised. The critics were dismissive and contemptuous, and the composer was refused permission to present the final evening of his trilogy in the cathedral. By then Langgaard was completely cut off from the musical community and fighting desperately for his aesthetic views, which nobody took seriously. Despite intense efforts his natural desire to obtain a post as a church organist was not fulfilled until 1940 when he was appointed to Ribe Cathedral, where, however, he did not arrange many church concerts. In 1947 he scheduled the third evening of MESSIS for a radio broadcast from the cathedral, but he assembled at the last moment a new work for the occasion based on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus which he called IN TÉNEBRAS EXTERIORES (BVN 334). Langaard did perform individual movements from MESSIS at Ribe Cathedral on a couple of occasions, but only the first evening was ever performed there in its entirety, on Good Friday 1950, 1951, and 1952.
Bendt Viinholt Nielsen, May 2001