Tonight's BBC Prom featured the first UK performance of the Eleventh Symphony, Ixion by the strange Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) - a somewhat belated première of a piece written in 1945. It's a 6-minute symphony and conductor Thomas Dausgaard was surely correct to place it as the first item in the concert, as if it were an overture.
I heard the piece a few years ago and was struck by how odd it was then. I sought it out because (being a curious cat) the esteemed critic and Nordic music ambassador Robert Layton has been somewhat less than complimentary about it, describing it as "ungainly and unschooled. Its waltz theme, an idea of breathtaking and appalling banality, is given no fewer than 11 times and emphatically does not improve with repetition". A review like that is pure catnip to me. I had to hear it for myself.
Now I will admit to liking the piece, doubtless beyond reason. I didn't hear tonight - or in Mr. Layton's review - any explanation of why the piece should repeat the same tune over and over and over again. Surely the sub-title is significant? Ixion was the Greek mythological figure whose punishment by Zeus was to be bound to an eternally-spinning wheel of fire. Round and round that wheel goes, forever the same however many turns it makes - just like that waltz theme!
If you notice though, the theme may stay the same but (Glinka-like) the context changes - the tune is constantly being ratcheted upwards keywise but always seem to end up back where it started - like another unlucky ancient Greek figure, Sisyphus, condemned to roll a heavy rock up a hill, only to see it roll back down again, and to keep doing so for eternity. Listen for the entry of the four Wagnerian tubas sounding their deep long notes as if to say 'this is going to go on for ever!!'
Now, you may or may not share my odd affection for the Eleventh Symphony, but there's another piece - the piece Rued Langgaard is best known for - that is so strange, imaginative and innovative that I suspect you will gasp when you first hear it (for very different reasons) - The Music of the Spheres from 1918. A concert with this 40-minute score for two orchestras (one distant), with organ and brief contributions from a soprano soloist and chorus, in one half and Holst's The Planets in another would be quite an evening out for audiences. Add in Scriabin's Prometheus and you would have an evening that would live in the memory forever.
After it was rediscovered in the 1960s György Ligeti was astonished to find that some of his own pioneering avant-garde methods (specifically 'cloud-clusters') has been anticipated nearly half a century earlier. "So after all, I’m only a follower of Langgaard", he joked. The piece also uses hypnotic repetitions in a way that could be seen to predict Minimalism and uses spatial effects in ways anticipating Stockhausen's Gruppen (at a push!!). It employs other techniques - such as quiet string glissandi and the idea of playing on the strings inside a piano - which closely parallel the innovations of Henry Cowell (then also getting into his stride). Other passages vividly remind me of another great American original, Charles Ives. The ultra-advanced aspects of The Music of the Spheres can be over-emphasised though. It also simultaneously projects aspects of late-Romanticism, Impressionism, Scriabinesque mysticism and Schoenbergian early-Expressionism - most of the significant trends of the age. It remains resolutely tonal too.
If you've never heard the piece before please don't resist the urge to try it out (even if you hated Ixion). The Music of the Spheres always goes down a storm with modern audiences. I usually end up being drawn to listen to it again every couple of years.