Danish composer Rued Langgaard [1893-1952] wrote six string quartets. No. 1 was abandoned and some of the material composed was used in quartets 4 and 5. I will be discussing Nos. 2 and 3.
String quartet No. 2 was written in 1918 and revised in 1931. It consists of four named movements.
Storm Clouds Receding
This first movement opens in a dashing manner. It is also very chaotic until a solo cello sets up a mood and is joined by the ensemble. The chaos resumes briefly before morphing into a stately, peaceful moment which is quite conversational. The first violin leads but there is plenty of ensemble interaction. This is a most satisfying section. Now the tension begins to rise as the violins are like rapiers cutting through the mood. After a brief pause, the music becomes melancholy. It is slightly longing, especially the first violin; and just so peaceful. The mood ends as the cello dominates for a time, with violins responding to its call. There is a gentle fade to the end.
Train Passing By
The second movement is very brief, just over two minutes; but its effect is powerful. It opens with a resolute cello ostinato. This is picked up by one violin while the other makes interjections of string sound effects and various melodic phrases. The tonality is constantly changing, which adds to the train-like effect.
Landscape in Twilight The next movement begins in a pastoral mood, very delicate. Simple folk-like melodies predominate and the texture is quite sparse. A violin now sets up a tempo for a new section. The sound intensifies and constantly alternates between melodic and rhythmic sections. A recapitulation of the opening theme occurs; we only have two violins at this stage. The cello and viola eventually make their own statements. The passage drops back to two violins again; this is a very tender section. A further recapitulation leads to a gentle conclusion.
The final movement begins with a dialogue between two violins in a sparse mood until the cello creates a bit of chaos and the ensemble thickens. The music is soft, but the intensity is high; this is an interesting effect. Shimmering violins take over, making for an abstract mood. There is no tempo, just phrases. Eventually a tempo emerges. Now we are into a dance, the whole ensemble becomes joyful for a time. As the ending approaches there is a certain spacious feeling; there is nothing concrete going on. A powerful section now takes over and the work is complete.
This is definitely program music and the titles are played out in the music very effectively.
The third quartet, written in 1924, is in three movements. It opens with a series of staccato chords before any melodies occur. When the melodies begin, they are taut, stretched tightly around the chord interjections. After a brief pause, the cello introduces a peaceful passage. The violins drift around a sparse melody. Still the chord rhythm proceeds with the cello predominating. The piece settles into a beguiling pattern, with cello and violins competing to be heard. It becomes a little frantic with string sound effects to the fore. The peace returns as we near the end. After several violin flourishes, the finish comes with three staccato chords. This is quite an interesting movement.
The second movement is very brief (88 seconds). It is folk-like and meanders through various moods. It ends in a perfunctory manner with the solo cello playing five notes.
The final movement is very peaceful. It sounds like the introduction to a hymn. Instead we hear some cello/violin dialogue. The music is anxious and won’t settle. A solo cello ostinato occurs for a brief interlude. Now the intensity lifts and the music is more insistent. More dialogue together with string sound effects abound with the cello being very prominent. A sustained chordal section with an implied melody concludes the work. This quartet is not very long but I found it quite fascinating.
Wikipedia refer to the composer as late-romantic, which sounds pretty close. As an aside, I’m probably going to discuss several more Scandinavian/Baltic/Nordic composers in the future. They seem to have an interesting regional sound to their works.
Various CDs are available on Amazon US and UK. My review copy is a 2-CD set by the Kontra Quartet on Marco Polo. I believe this contains the complete early quartets. There are now three single discs of the complete quartets by the Nightingale Quartet on Da Capo, in SACD format – these also contain incidental works for string quartet that are not numbered. I have been listening to this set on Spotify, they are quite superb.
Listenability: Somewhat serious at times, but also very beautiful.