Sten Byriel, bass
Anne Margrethe Dahl, soprano
Poul Elming, tenor
Helene Gjerris, soprano
Johnny van Hal, tenor
Jon Ketilsson, tenor
John Lundgren, baritone
Camilla Nylund, soprano
Susanne Resmark, mezzo-soprano
Danish National Concert Choir
Danish National Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Dausgaard, conductor
Langgaard: Antikrist (Blu-Ray, DVD)
A RELIGIOUS MYSTERY OPERA. A magnificent doomsday vision. A full length nightmare. This production of Rued Langgaard’s allegorical opera Antikrist witnesses the spectacular Danish co-production by the Royal Danish Opera and the Danish Broadcasting Corporation from 2002. No punches are pulled as the composer’s revelation unfolds with its intriguing allegorical characters and its powerful statement about the moral decay of modernity.
Region Code: ABC
Subtitles: English, German and French
“Thomas Dausgaard leads an absolutely magnificent performance in all respects. It’s also beautifully recorded in unobtrusively natural surround-sound (or stereo), with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, and Danish–and Dacapo’s booklet notes are outstandingly informative.” – Classics Today 10/10 Review
“DVD of the Month…the opera is not without its problems. Staffan Holm’s solution is simple but effective, with a staging, set in the beautiful Ridehuset (Riding School) in Copenhagen, treating the opera as a modern mystery play where church members (who have a 19th-century feel) come together to act out this moralistic fable, the sect leader – who takes the role of Lucifer – assigning the roles. Lucifer only sings in the prologue but is choreographed throughout, watching and pulling strings. …once Susanne Resmark takes centre stage as Despondency in Scene 3, the whole concept comes together. The cast is very strong… but greatest plaudits go to Thomas Dausgaard for moulding the superb accompaniment…” – Gramophone Magazine
Dacapo's Liner Notes
by Bendt Viinholt Nielsen
Music and message
What makes a Danish composer in 1921, at the age of 27, embark on an opera about the end of the world? The question is really not so difficult to answer, but the answer is threefold. In the first place the young composer was convinced that music is able to convey a message. Secondly, the composer had just made the discovery that the new music of the day enabled him to express conflicts of apocalyptic dimensions. And thirdly, the subject was a topical one, since existential issues were high on the agenda in the uncertain years after World War I.
Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) had been brought up in a home where music was all and every-thing, in a family with an unusually passionate view of art. The religious and spiritual element was considered central to art, and the family was sure that music was the direct link between humanity and the divine. The experience of music was taken seriously, and interpreted as an inexplicable religious experience that could change a human being’s view of existence. In keeping with Romantic thinking, it was the task of music to reflect the divine harmony of the universe and the beauty of the Creation. It was in fact the mission of music to guide humanity towards higher spiritual planes. Music was thus assigned huge cognitive significance, and concomitantly the composer – the idealistic composer of genius – could achieve prophetic status. In the Langgaard family Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner and Bruckner were deemed to be such prophets. If one was a gifted composer, one thus had a vocation, and the mission was nothing less than to develop spirituality and beauty in music for the benefit of mankind.
But during Rued Langgaard’s childhood the family was already beginning to feel that music as religious art was losing its direction. Great names like Richard Strauss and Puccini, they felt, were compromising on their ideals and wallowing in superficial sonorities and perfumed sentimentality. Worst of all perhaps was the materialist, politically radical, godforsaken music that was beginning to gain a foothold in Denmark – specifically Carl Nielsen’s. Rued Langgaard’s father, the piano teacher and composer Siegfried Langgaard (1852-1914), pulled no punches when he described how the world was out of joint. And his mother, Emma Langgaard (1861-1926), also a pianist, backed him up and even spoke of the anti-Christian tendencies associated with music that on the face of it seems “right” but which is fundamentally decadent and banalizing!
How was a young composer like Rued Langgaard to relate to such unmanageable musical-moral value norms?
At first he followed suit and cultivated harmonically balanced and classical beauty, for example in his Symphony no. 2 (1914) and no. 3 (1915). A “narrative urge” and youthful naiveté shine through these symphonies. This is also true of his most ambitious work from this early period, a large so-called scenic symphony, Sinfonia interna, about how mankind is drawn to the idea of eternity.
In 1916 – Langgaard was then 23 – new tones suddenly entered the composer’s musical vocabulary. He became curiously open to new impulses from the outside and let his creative imagination run riot. The encounter with Carl Nielsen’s mature music, especially Symphony no. 4 The Inextinguishable (1916), was the musical source of inspiration that now guided Langgaard into his most fertile compositional period, the eight years from 1916 until 1924. He was immensely fascinated by the power and will of Carl Nielsen’s music, but given the heavy baggage of values he had brought with him from home, he could only regard this modern music as an expression of something aggressive, dark and perhaps even destructive. But precisely this held a strong attraction for him, and he wholeheartedly adopted the expressive modern idiom as an artistic resource in keeping with Romanticism and Late Romanticism. After composing Sfærernes musik (The Music of the Spheres) (1916-18), at the end of which ‘destructive’ music is confronted with ‘celestial’ music under the heading Antichrist – Christ, and the Nielsen-inspired symphony Det himmelrivende (The Heaven-Rending) (1919-20), Langgaard must have felt that the next step inevitably had to be an opera. For Langgaard this music in itself pointed towards one particular subject, the Antichrist.
As suggested before, Langgaard would have known about the concept of the Antichrist from his home background, and one must assume that the poet-pastor P.E. Benzon’s dramatic poem Antichrist(published in 1907) – on which Langgaard modelled his first libretto – stood on the shelves in his home. In 1919 the Antichrist theme took on new currency, since a certain -Einar Prip published a book that year with the title Antichrist, in which he tried to demonstrate that Antichrist is in the world now! On the whole, spiritual and religious subjects were on the -agenda of the age in the wake of the breakdown of values after World War I. Langgaard’s -opera can be called an artistic contribution to the debate on life-views that flourished in Denmark at the beginning of the 1920s. As Langgaard put it in an interview in 1924: “Antichrist symbolizes some of the profoundest aspects of our time”.
The genesis and “fate” of the opera
Rued Langgaard wrote the libretto for the first version of the opera in 1921 during a summer stay in Fredensborg. He borrowed the outline of the plot and some of the dialogue from Anti-christ by P.E. Benzon. He was also inspired by the novel Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson (first Danish edition 1909) and by the strange solitary figure Ernesto Dalgas’ Dommedags Bog (“The Book of Doomsday”) (1903). The first version of the opera, which was in turn called an “orgiastic music drama”, an “opera mystery” and an “allegorical opera”, was finished in February 1923. The action described “the passion-drama of Antichrist” in a psychological dramatic form as a kind of modern parallel to the Passion of Christ. The recurrent figure on the stage was Apollyon, who, in order to “will the good through evil”, sells his soul to the Devil – like Faust – and fills the role of Antichrist as a spiritual ruler who guides the world towards the abyss and thus paves the way for the Second Coming of Christ.
The opera was submitted to The Royal Danish Theatre but was rejected on the basis of the libretto alone, which the adjudicators considered “obscure and highly inaccessible”. Langgaard was told that if he could procure a different libretto they would consider the matter again. The composer immediately visited the theatre director, and it was agreed that they would look at the text once more and make a musical assessment of the work. The conductor Georg Høeberg spoke positively of the music, but appears to have had little influence in the theatre; for in June 1923 the composer was given his score back with the message that the work had been rejected.
However, Langgaard was in no mind to accept this rejection, and asked to see the theatre management, who gave him the opportunity to present and “defend” his work. He left the theatre with the promise of a reply later. But the matter was put aside, and when the answer finally came in May 1925, two years later, it was in the form of the theatre’s final rejection of the opera. “After all, one can hardly use an opera libretto that consists exclusively of dashes …. all sides have agreed that the libretto is completely foolish” – the director of The Royal Danish Theatre said to a newspaper. The reason was thus still the libretto; no one spoke of the music.
Langgaard felt that he had been subjected to an artistic miscarriage of justice. Høeberg and the stage director Johannes Poulsen had both endorsed the work. And it emerged that the assessment of an opera libretto was always a secondary element compared with the assessment of the music. In other words, if the theatre had wanted to perform the work because of its musical qualities, the course was clear. Thus it seems that there was disagreement behind the scenes, and that there were not artistic, but art-political or personal reasons for the rejection of Antichrist. At all events, the theatre was unwilling to take a risk – there was both the controversial subject and the fact that experience had shown as clearly as one could wish that Langgaard was no darling of the critics. He did however achieve a certain success with the prelude to the opera, which was played several times in the 1920s.
So in 1926 Langgaard began on a total reworking of the opera. By and large he wrote a new, more Biblical libretto, which has no plot and is more schematic in structure. One quite crucial difference is that Antichrist no longer appears in person on stage; a series of allegorical figures represent aspects of his nature. The music was revised and re-edited for the new libretto; there was cutting and pasting, substantial parts of the original music were omitted and new parts composed, until in 1930 the work found its final form. Over time it had acquired many titles, including invented words like Kremàscó and Krematio. Langgaard may in the end have preferred the title Fortabelsen (Antikrist) i.e. Perdition (Antichrist), but the opera has been performed and known as Antichrist.
The revision meant that the opera was given a clearer religious message and took on the character of a challenge to society with an agitatory, moralizing spirit. For a while Langgaard undoubtedly thought that the Biblical prophecies about the end of the world were quite liter-ally about to be fulfilled. He was even taken in by predictions made on the basis of Biblical “numerology” and pseudoscientific pyramid studies. But in several places he uses quotation marks around “the end of the world” and it becomes evident that he is more likely referring to the end of the world-picture he knew from his childhood and youth around 1900. Langgaard’s experience around 1930 was that the cultural and spiritual values that had been built up in the time before World War I were now gradually being toppled and that materialism and superficiality were spreading in society and in art. The functionalist, antiromantic spirit of the age had gained a foothold – and Langgaard had become a decided cultural pessimist. Politically he could do nothing; his point of view and experiential basis were of course aesthetic and religious. But he indubitably believed that art (and he himself as a composer) could make a difference. An opera was the strongest remedy at his disposal.
The new version was of course submitted to The Royal Danish Theatre and history repeated itself. The opera went back and forth between Langgaard and the theatre several times, until after five years, in March 1935, it was finally rejected – again because of the “unsuitability” of the libretto. Langgaard asked for more detailed reasons, but was not given any. In 1938 too Langgaard corresponded with the theatre about a possible reassessment of the work, but with no success – his last letter to the theatre director ends: “Another matter is whether The Royal Danish Theatre only represents the state, democracy and Carl Nielsen and that (as I politely take the liberty of hinting) – possibly! – nothing else at all exists.”
The Danish Broadcasting Corporation too was at first dismissive, but the composer kept up the pressure and through the good offices of the Langgaard-interested conductor Launy Grøndahl the fifth and sixth scenes of the opera and the concert ending were premiered on the radio in May 1940 under the baton of Grøndahl. The public reaction was confined to a small, insignificant newspaper announcement. Five years later Grøndahl premiered the work Endens tid (The End of Days), a concert extract from the first version of the opera. For the sake of completeness it should be mentioned that in 1944 Langgaard submitted the original score in a shortened and revised form to The Royal Danish Theatre under the title Afgrundsfyrsten(The Prince of the Pit). The theatre assessed the work and wrote back to the composer that he had a great and indisputable talent, but that he had no control of his material, either the words or the music. So this last attempt to have his apocalyptic visions staged also failed for Langgaard.
Antichrist was premiered in its entirety in 1980 in a DR studio production with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Schønwandt. And in 1986 the Copenhagen Philharmonic arranged two concert performances in the Tivoli Concert Hall, conducted by Ole Schmidt. At the same time the work was recorded and later released on LP and CD. The first stage performance took place on the initiative of the conductor Niels Muus on 2nd May 1999 at the Tiroler Landestheater in Innsbruck, staged by the Finnish director Juha Hemánus.
The libretto is written in a peculiar poetic-symbolic language. Langgaard found inspi-ration for the language in Wagner (The Ring of the Nibelung), in the Bible (The Song of Solomon) and in Tagore’s poetry collectionGitanjali (in Danish, 1913). In the density of the language one can observe reminiscences of Norse literature, as well of the Expressionist idiom familiar from around 1920. The dialogue – in the few places one can speak of dialogue – is rather absurd in character. Often it seems to be the individual value-laden or symbolic words or concepts that are to be understood rather than meaningful connections.
The inverted word orders and the many metaphors may have a slightly comical effect, as in the first scene, where they are however allegedly used to express the “uncertain, lyrical decadent mood” of the time of the Antichrist. The punctuation in the libretto adds nothing to the clarity, since it incessantly uses colons between the words and many quotation marks, suggesting that words and concepts are to be understood figuratively.
Langgaard uses a recurrent concept, “the church-ruin of noise”, as a circumlocution for “the world today”, that is, a godless and noisy world. Another often-recurring expression is “all in one”, which must mean that all the features typical of something are gathered in one term, i.e. a symbol. For example, when the first scene mentions “‘The Lamb’: The dawn-mind of all in one” it must be interpreted to mean that Christ, regarded as “the Lamb” is the unifying symbol for the spirit of the age (the half-light mood). And when the Beast (Scene 4) speaks of “flesh of all in one” it similarly means that everything fleshly or carnal is subsumed in the symbol “the Beast”.
Langgaard states that the time of the opera is from the end of the nineteenth century up to “our own time” but has still tried to place it in a mythological, Biblical universe without any particulars of time and place. In the libretto he has specified a number of universal symbols that he wants on the stage – sphere, cross, sword, bull’s and ram’s horns and a leafless tree. He makes a specific reference to Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) famous print Melancholia and to the Antichrist fresco in the cathedral of Orvieto in Italy, by the Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli (c. 1445-1523). These references all help to make the opera timeless, universal. The flickering gaslight that constantly appears in the stage directions in the libretto was Langgaard’s special symbol for the time around 1900, a kind of essence of the spirit of the age. The gaslights were the normal street lighting of the period, and their atmospherically flickering flames were associated by Langgaard – inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy – with the lost souls in Purgatory.
Langgaard calls the work a “church opera”, but this should hardly be understood literally in the sense that the work is primarily meant to performed in a church. It is rather another term for a religious or Biblical opera. With the very small role of the chorus and the dramatic intensity of the music it is difficult to placeAntichrist in the company of the more oratorio-like operas in the literature. For Langgaard it was in fact essential that the opera was performed scenically, inasmuch as it is conceived as a Gesammtkunstwerkwhere music, words and scenery all support one another. Langgaard also uses the terms “mystery opera” and “music mystery play”, thereby referring to the mystery plays and moralities of the Middle Ages, where Biblical and allegorical figures appear on stage. Langgaard knew the English morality playEveryman, which was performed at The Royal Danish Theatre in 1914. In the 1930s he wrote a still-unperformed prelude to this play, interestingly enough a reworked version of the prelude to Antichrist.
Langgaard’s formally experimental opera concept was unusual in its time, but in more recent opera literature there are parallels, for example Le Grand Macabre (Ligeti, 1978), which represents the end of the world in a grotesque, colourful way, and Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise (1983) with monologues and static tableaux.
The music of the opera
Antichrist is Langgaard’s principal work and constitutes the essence of his whole creative capability and distinctiveness. Passages from preceding works which point forward with their ideas to Antichrist are included in the music of the opera – for example from Sinfonia interna, The Music of the Spheres and Symphony no. 6, The Heaven-Rending.
The music is typified by great stylistic variety and by the exuberance and wealth of detail in the score. Back in 1968 the Swedish musicologist Bo Wallner wrote that Antichrist is one of the most ingeniously wrought scores of Nordic Late Romanticism. The most characteristic device in Langgaard’s music is the confrontation between different musical idioms and styles. There are strikingly clear references to music by Verdi, Wagner and Richard Strauss, and this more -traditional tonal idiom is juxtaposed with elements that belong stylistically to the modernism of the inter-war years. In particular one is reminded of Hindemith, but Langgaard wrote this music without knowing of Hindemith’s works.
Langgaard does not use leitmotifs in the Wagnerian sense. The opera is so to speak composed as an atmospheric tapestry using the rich shades of Late Romanticism along with more lurid, contrasting colours. Richard Strauss’s musical palette, especially in Salome, is a clear source of inspiration, and this is no accident. For of Salome Grieg said, according to Langgaard: “There is something of the ‘Great Whore’ of Revelation in it. It is the gospel of decadence.” The opulently glittering orchestral music must have had a huge attraction for Langgaard. But at the same time this musical style must have symbolized a seductive, sensual, superficial splendour which could be associated without difficulty with the Antichrist story. The ambivalence inherent in Langgaard’s attitude to musical style corresponds to the simultaneous revulsion and allure, the negative and positive, in the content of the opera.
Behind the music of the opera lies Langgaard’s idea that the decades around 1900 were the peak of musical art; that the concentrated spiritual atmosphere of this epoch was reflected in the music of the period, which represented the culmination of the human experience of all the ages – and held a ‘key’ to the future destiny of mankind. But this artistic and spiritual flourishing – the period of Jugend, Art Nouveau and Symbolism – also involved a smouldering decadence and latent signs of decay and dissolution. In the highly composite culture of around 1900, beauty and decadence were closely related, and it was a telling feature that it was extremely difficult to separate “the constructive” from “the destructive”. And this tendency for the borders between falsity and truth to become fluid is precisely a characteristic of the ‘Antichrist period’.
The libretto and music of the opera express this duality. It is not only in the libretto that words and concepts are placed in quotation marks and must be understood in a figurative or symbolic sense. This is equally true of the music. In this way there is an internal consistency in the opera’s interactions between allegorical figures on the stage, the symbolic language of the libretto and the “characters” in the music, which does not mean that one should search for any clear logic in this interaction. But one can safely say that the “play” that takes place on the stage is answered in the orchestral pit by a “play” on – and not least about – music.
The vibrant background of Antichrist
by Jørgen I. Jensen
Perhaps it is the case that any work of art leaves its creator with a twofold feeling: on the one hand profound satisfaction because the many difficulties have been overcome and the new totality, the work, has been created; on the other, a sense that the work now lives on beyond the artist’s own reach; in a way he must henceforth relate to it like everyone else: questioningly, wavering in his view of it, with no absolutely fixed opinion about its significance; as if the work itself, and the necessity that has found a form through the artist – the inspiration, the spirit of form or whatever one cares to call it – comes as a mystery to the artist himself. At all events this is decidedly an ambivalence one thinks of in connection with Rued Langgaard’s Antichrist. During the years when he was trying to get the opera performed at The Royal Danish Theatre, with no success, he made very different statements about the work – almost as if, for him too, there was something mysterious at work in what he had created. However that may be, one has to consider the problem of why Rued Langgaard – who had been brought up to think that music had a high religious mission as an art that could lead mankind beyond the noise and mummeries of this world – devoted so much energy to interpreting the ideas he had received, and yet thought he should emancipate himself from.
The fact that Antichrist has suffered the harshest fate of all great Danish musical works is related to this mystery. If we believe now – that is, within the past twenty years or so – that we can see more in the work than both his own time and his immediate posterity, this is in the first place because we can see that the culture that formed the background for the work – the culture of the fin-de-siècle and Symbolism – was far more complex and conflictful than has often been assumed; and in the second place, probably because culture and the formation of ideas are once again approaching a mentality like the one in which Langgaard inscribed his work. One need only think of the libretto for Scene Two, where “the Mouth Speaking Great Things” sings about something one feels one knows, even though the actual words are old – for example “‘Progress’ is the byword; ‘Plans’ further the work; ‘Objectives’ awaken deeds; Will here and will there; Firm resolve; Slaves of society; One life, one law; Power defeats power”. What was believed to be the masterwork of civilization – the free, active, strong individual – comes under rather heavy fire here, even though Rued Langgaard personally believed in the free personality. Already at this stage one is warned against simply seeing the work as an opinion or a straightforward message.
To express it in concepts taken from the history of visual art, Antichrist is situated at the difficult transition point where Art Nouveau is moving towards Expressionism. In this fluid context the traditional artistic forms exert no great attraction; the forms rest, so to speak, on the artist’s own shoulders. The spirit of form or inspiration that drove Rued Langgaard depends on the idea that images and moods can also be referents and determinants for the form of the music – although it should be emphasized that by mood he is not thinking of something vague or contourless, but something more exact.
If Antichrist does not take the form of a traditional plot with recurrent characters, but instead creates the drama within the music’s own psychological curve, which is then associated with sequences of grand tableaux, this was not quite as unusual in the age as one might think; it was in fact inherent in Symbolist thinking itself. In one of the musicodramatic masterpieces of the time, Béla Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, completed in 1911, but not performed until 1918, one experiences a shocking, grim drama played out between just two people who move towards a greater and greater, and finally fatal, distance from each other. This happens, again as in Symbolism, through the uncovering of deeper and deeper images in their interrelationship. The one-acter by the then young Poul Hindemith, Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen from 1919, presents an ultra-highly-strung, extremely ambivalent relationship between a man and a women. Here we find one of the clearest examples of how opposed feelings held the artists of the age in their grip. Even the linguistic form of the libretto for Hindemith’s work is not far from what happens in the excellent dialogue between The Lie and The Great Whore in Scene Five in Rued Langgaard’s opera. Hindemith took his text from the painter Oskar Kokoschka, so the fact that Rued Langgaard wanted to make his own libretto for his work was not totally unusual either. It was ‘in the air’ that artists who worked in a particular medium, in certain, often fraught situations, might feel prompted to express themselves in other media. The composer Schoenberg also wrote texts and was even known to work as a painter.
We can get some impression of the music drama situation in Denmark in the years when Rued Langgaard was working on his opera by dwelling briefly on two events that took place in 1919. That year saw the first performance in Denmark of Richard Strauss’s one-acter Salome from 1905. With its insistently erotic symbolism the work had been something of a sensation all over Europe. In Copen-hagen it was received with great tolerance and enthusiasm. The same year, Hakon Børresen’s opera The Royal Guest was premiered, and for years this work – not without justification – was a very popular item in the repertoire in Copenhagen. The work is characterized by a mixture of spirituality, Eros and humour: the interplay of the husband and wife who are visited by the mysterious ‘Prince Carnival’, who electrifies the marital atmosphere, forms a highly sophisticated unified whole; but at the cost of the embittered ending in Henrik Pontoppidan’s short story, the origin of the plot, which was cut out. It is undeniably a long way – not in the musical idiom but in the subject – from this work and Richard Strauss’s Salome to the work that Rued Langgaard submitted. And one asks again: why did he concentrate all his effort on Antichrist?
The word itself – Antichrist – was in fact not so unusual in the fin-de-siècle culture from which Langgaard came. Yet this was not due to any Christian influence; rather the opposite. Nietzsche, the provocative philosopher so frequently read in many circles, had entitled one of his radical showdowns with Christianity and its morality The Antichrist. But it is hardly from this context that Rued Langgaard took the word; he must have heard it used in a more directly religious sense in his childhood home. And this is where the story becomes rather odd.
The religiosity of Rued Langgaard’s parents was a fairly insipid, introverted Christianity with a strong sense of a hostile Other – technically speaking it was a dualistic Christianity related to speculative Gnosticism or neoreligiosity. His father thought that music was supposed to guide mankind upwards to the light of a higher Christianity and life-as-art – something that was apparently not to be found in this world. He expresses the dualistic view for example in a passage where he interprets the stark dissonance at the beginning of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth: “Christianity shines forth in its sea of beams against the dark background that is called Hell …. It was perhaps more harmonious when there was no Hell, as certain harmonious philosophers teach. That seems to be such a great and noble thought, but greatness and beauty without the dissonance of truth are neither beautiful nor good!” His mother actually proposed this opposition, with its peculiar passivity in the face of the tribulations of this world, as a criterion for the actual development of the music of the period. She wrote: “Both my husband and my son (our only child) belong to the race of ideal artists here on earth, which means the same as to recognize “the narrow path”, as opposed to the world’s more and more manifest anti-Christian path – in musical respects, too. It appears to me for example when one looks at a phenomenon like Richard Strauss, that the time in which young musicians – and especially those endowed with creative powers by God – must now grow up is narrower and more difficult than ever before”.
His parents, especially his mother, had in other words promised their own son a very difficult life, and the promise was fulfilled. But it is stranger still that we need not listen to so much of the music of Antichristbefore our thoughts turn to this same Richard Strauss – not as evidence of epigonism, but as an expression of the shared spirit of the age. As if that were not enough, besides Richard Strauss his mother had also warned him against Puccini – and Carl Nielsen! So part of the background of Antichrist is certain musical undercurrents and dualities that must undeniably have made it very difficult for Langgaard make any progress at all as a composer, as will become evident.
In the world of opinions it is true that Rued Langgaard, when asked, shared the view of his cultural contemporaries. “I do not subscribe to any authoritarian Christian belief system. My religion consists of free opinion borne up by personal experience”. This is how most people who did not belong to specific confessional or religious milieux would have replied at the time – indeed his views recall the pace-setting theology of the day, so-called ‘liberal theology’, which maintained a free attitude to dogma, approved of science and attached most importance to the personal – the religiosity of the individual human personality and the person of Jesus with his simple message. By contrast, in the subculture, in special religious circles, or in certain works without wide currency, one could find the idea that Antichrist was now emerging in the world. Rued Langgaard made the acquaintance of literature that related to and was read by such circles, for example Robert Hugh Benson’s The Lord of the World and not least Einar Prip’s Antikrist from 1919. But one gets the feeling that the prime importance of these texts for Langgaard was that they articulated things of which he already had his own clear musical and dramatic idea. At any rate, in his work he had no intention of expounding sectarian opinions; he wanted to create a universal work of art. For him it was first and foremost about music.
But it was also about his own difficult position, the relationship between the spiritual ideas and the music he heard around him, about which, given the fantastic respon-siveness of his talent, he had strong feelings.
It is in this context that one must view a few autobiographical traits in Antichrist. In the work, he uses musical material from some of his own works, but in a particular order. In Scene 1, “The Light of the Wilderness”, the main theme in the orchestra behind the two peculiar figures, the Spirit of Mystery and the Echo of the Spirit of Mystery, and on the whole the strange indeterminacy that is manifested not in the chords but in the melodic material, are taken from a work, Sinfonia interna, on which he had been working in the years up to 1915. The piece reflects his own efforts at the time to create music that sees the world in a sunset glimmer, where the only really positive thing is the possibility of articulating a sigh that ascends beyond the world – quite in keeping with his mother’s religiosity. But in Scene 2 of Antichrist he uses a much stronger type of material – from the later Symphony no. 6, The Heaven-Rending. This is used in many places in Antichrist – just as he quotes his own work The Music of the Spheres. What has happened between these two so different forms of expression?
The answer is simple: in 1916 he heard Carl Nielsen’s Symphony no. 4, The Inextinguishable, which was enjoying huge success in Copenhagen with three perform-ances within six months. His mother wrote in this connection: “Poor Rud, it is not easy to be an artist now. Everywhere “Ragnarok”. The Inextinguishable threatens to consume all sound sense in Copenhagen”. Here it is quite clear that for the young Langgaard, who was in a situation where, while he was aware of the calibre of the two contemporaries Carl Nielsen and Richard Strauss, regardless of their differences from each other, he still had a feeling that their music was anti-Christian – so for Langgaard Antichrist, far from being a symbol created by an overwrought imagination, represented an extremely fascinating musical task, indeed an existential necessity. With this work he could assume his proper role, show his version of the forces in play in his time, match up to the two composers and still demonstrate the possibilities of his own music in this historic context. He succeeded musically – but not with the public.
At the same time Rued Langgaard’s work was able to bring out certain grand -theological points which on the one hand recalled what was happening in international theology after World War I, and on the other pointed towards the humanization of religious symbols. Everywhere in Rued Langgaard’s oeuvre he emphasizes the places in the Bible where God intervenes suddenly and explosively in human affairs. One of these is to be found in the word Ephphatha, which appears in the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 7 and elsewhere. In the Bible it is rendered as “Be opened!” and is used by Jesus in a story where he makes a man who is deaf and almost mute speak. Jesus goes aside with the sick man, touches his tongue and ears, looks up to the heavens, sighs and says “Ephphatha!”. In many places Rued Langgaard uses the expression “sighed upward”. Ephphatha is also the divine intervention that concludes the Antichrist opera, when the chorus sings:
Only when God’s ephphatha strikes
like lightning and enters the mind,
does the light shine over the valleys …
The text is from Et suk igennem verden går (“A sigh throughout the world doth go”), no. 139 in the standard Danish hymnbook Den Danske Salmebog (1953). However, the suddenness, the image of the word of God as lightning, corresponds to the crisis theology that was emerging just after World War I with Karl Barth’s theology, which spoke in expressionistic terms of how the world of God is not our world, and we only know God as the word that comes down at an angle from above and only touches the world as the tangent touches the circle – that is, almost does not touch it. Later this became the most-discussed theology in Europe, but it was proposed for the first time in Germany in 1922, that is after Langgaard had written his opera.
On the other hand the whole disposition of Antichrist suggests that the religious symbols are not to be seen as the expression of a cosmic timetable, but of human attitudes and outlooks. In one of the many statements about Antichrist Rued Langgaard says of St. John’s Revelation, the last book of the Bible: “The words of Revelation understood literally are nonsense, and to claim that anyone can read into them whatever he likes is to avoid the issue.” In other words, even though one does not believe that Revelationdescribes something that will happen so that it can be seen with the outer eye, one must still respect what the scripture itself says. Against that background Rued Langgaard lets the inspiration from Revelationcome to expression in the actual musical structure of his opera, by making the music unveil grand tableaux – a procedure that has spiritual affinities with the great sequences of images in Revelation. On the other hand he does not follow the actual progress of Revelation. He has extracted particular scriptural texts, both from Revelation and from other passages in the Bible, and then lets the music form the final images. Simply mentioning some of the individual verses he has written by the music gives us some of the main symbols of the opera. They are not actually part of the libretto, but form a background for the musical and verbal expression:
“Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever” (Jude 1,13)
“And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (2nd Corinthians, 11,14)
“And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months” (Revelation 13,5)
“So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns” (Revelation 17,3)
“Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition” (2nd Thessalonians 2,3)
“And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire” (Revelation 17,16)
It will be evident that the word Antichrist is not mentioned. Indeed it only appears in a few places in the Bible, in the so-called Epistles of John, where it is also used in the plural of apostate Christians – that is, not of pagans. Later the word was associated with the Great Beast in Revelation or the Dragon that Christ will conquer. The idea then is that not only good but also evil will at some time be manifested in a single individual; at first people thought this referred to the Emperor Nero, who had persecuted the Christians. Later, in the Middle Ages, the term Antichrist was used of an opponent within the Church: the Lutherans called the Pope Antichrist, while the Catholics sometimes used the name to refer to Luther. Later again, it was used of Napoleon. But interest in localizing Antichrist has undeniably faded over the past few centuries. What remains is the idea that the Antichrist is an interpretation of history, a symbol of a particular kind of attention to the course of history – or more accurately, the concept of the Antichrist represents a possibility of relating historically to one’s own time.
The prologue to the opera, on the other hand, where Lucifer – with God in the background – grants power to Antichrist, belongs in a different symbolic context. It is a prologue, or inverted prologue, in Heaven, which one finds in the Book of Job, and which Rued Langgaard may have known from Goethe’s Faust.
Against this whole background of music-historical, theological and personal complexes, Antichristemerged in the mind of Rued Langgaard as an ineluctable musical symbol and an exist-ential dimension. It is at this point one begins to see Antichrist as a far more universally human than a religious work. This peculiar work is an expression of a duality in the concept of person-ality that has held sway ever since Langgaard’s time. Antichrist is not a particular historical person in the work – although Richard Strauss and Carl Nielsen are lurking in the background. Antichrist is the very act of conceiving of the great personality as the apex of human life. The nature of Antichrist – parallel in a way to the original context in the Epistles of John – is manifested by particular attitudes which Langgaard has represented in a way not unrelated to – yet not identical to – the medieval Deadly Sins, where one of the greatest sins, as in Langgaard, is Pride. Antichrist is the conception of the human personality as entirely self-sufficient. We see this in some notes he drew up as an extension to his work with Antichrist, where he writes that “the Ego is the epitome of our sensual, sensitive dreams of grandeur (Anti-Christ) … If art is to continue along the path suggested in “Parsifal” it must begin to interpret the ego’s delusions of grandeur … That is, the musical drama as a religious, indeed Christian ethical guide (thought-word and music drama) each in a new way: Antichrist as the herald of Christ (Revel-ation 17,17). For in “the Ego” lies also “Evil”, so let us in God’s name also learn to know its -nature thoroughly “um sehend zu werden””.
That is as much as one can say about the topicality of the work, and the thought may have some bearing on present-day ideals of personality – all the great egos that are seduced into thinking that the only thing that counts is to express their own personality. Although everyone knows that this is not the ultimate meaning of existence.
But the meaning will never be that simple, nor should it be. For there is also another statement about the work from the composer. It is as follows: “In the opera I want to show how Antichrist – if I may put it this way – grows up in the garden of God as an alien and poisonous plant. Antichrist is Lucifer incarnate. His kingdom begins where a thing cannot be proven, and the music penetrates down there. For what is all the diversity and learning of the world against a glimpse of that kingdom?” Readers of the great synthesizing work on music, culture and politics in the first half of the twentieth century – Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus from 1947, about the obsessed, poisoned, hypercultured artist – will nod their recognition to Langgaard’s formulation. Thomas Mann had never heard of Rued Langgaard, but there is nothing occult about the many parallels between Langgaard and Thomas Mann’s tragic composer-hero.
The links are historical, and simply show that Thomas Mann had an incredible sense of intellectual history. Rued Langgaard wrote his Antichrist in the very years when Thomas Mann has his protagonist write a major work based on Revelation. But through Thomas Mann we see that with his work Rued Langgaard – so far from standing outside, although he did so personally – stood in the midst of what was then taking place in the European soul.
Perhaps the original Biblical text about the Antichrist can still point us in the direction of something crucial. It says: “And as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time”. We do not need to produce some monstrous religious interpretation of the scripture. It is about an elevated sense of time, an alertness to what is happening. And music, the art of time, can express this experience of time most clearly. Antichrist manifests a special time, demonstrates a density in the experience of time – the thing that gave Rued Langgaard so many difficulties but which was also the thing that had seized upon him so firmly that he nevertheless succeeded in the end in making an impact with his work.