Langgaard’s MESSIS: A chat with Flemming Dreisig

Langgaard: Messis After hearing this monumental piece of organ music by Langgaard I simply had to find out more, what better place than to go directly to the artist who took the project on.

Flemming, Can you give us a little background on yourself and your playing?
Coming from a home where there was an understanding and an interest in classical music, I showed an early interest in sound and timbre and in consequence was taught piano from the age of 5. This led later to studying at the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music with a major in piano. Later I switched to a church music education with organ as my main instrument. This education was attractive in preparation for a continued, varied occupation in music, because of the many substitute job possibilities as an organist and the concert challenges provided by the church.

What music inspires you to do what you do?
Already as a child when my preferred composer was J. S. Bach – for instance because of his music’s sustained motor dynamics – the ground was laid for what has become a lifestyle for me: playing organ.

Are there any composers that really blow your mind?
If early on it was Bach who impressed me, then in my growing years the classical composers like Beethoven, Brahms and not least, Wagner were a considerable inspiration for my perception and way of approaching the matter of improvisation, which is an indispensable and rather essential discipline for professional church musicians.During a study period in Paris in the early 70s, I met the especially gifted improviser, Pierre Cochereau, at the Notre Dame cathedral, and that meeting became a turning point in my musical perception up to then, by leading to my listening to the cathedral organist’s exceptional, daring melodically, harmonically and rhythmically stimulating improvisations.

The fact that Messis is such an epic piece of music, can you describe for us the process behind learning and tackling Messis?
In the sound Danish musical tradition of the 60s, there were only a few pioneers who had discovered Langgaard’s stylistically outdated and therefore rather unknown works, but finally there still remained the possibility of getting to know Langgaard, as through a radio-transmitted shorter version of Messis.
This was my first encounter with Danish romantic music, that at the same time clearly deviated from the well known ”Golden Age” composers from the same period: the normally otherwise jovial, well balanced and clear forms of composition contrast here in Langgaard’s music with tension, unrest, unexpected lines of development to dramatic climaxes – to once again, in a symphonic tone picture, move towards new, fantastic states of being.
A considerably richer emotional palette than among the other romantic composers for organ. Yes, Langgaard was a romantic deep down, but at the same time he was creative in forms of expression that had a clear modernistic and expressionistic appearance.
What does this piece mean to you?
Messis is an expression of a continuous ”tale told in tones” and as such, makes no attempt to use artistic effects through prevalent classical idioms or traditional knowledge of technical disciplines.

What was your motivation for approaching it in the first place?
For a youth with a tempestuous heart, this music is spontaneously attractive and I harmonized with it in those days, and since then have appropriated Langgaard’s universe as my own.

What is your understanding of Langgaard’s inspiration for the piece?
Messis in its foundation is a search away from those chaotic times (there in the 30s) and towards an earlier epoch’s ideal of beauty, drawing a divine picture of reality.

What makes this composition important to Danish culture and to the history of Danish music in general?
A characteristic throughout this composition is that ”defiance” with which the composer delivers his message. The basic romantic character is regularly marked by reactive, grotesque effects including use of modern and apparently absurd means such as unprepared dynamic jumps, illogical harmonic relations as well as changing measure. With Langgaard, that kind of musical ”collage” technique blends into a large formal whole and makes for a symphonic concept that no other Dane – not to say no other European composer – has strived for.

Many of us here in America are just now becoming familiar with Langgaard in a very substantial way; where do you see his works fitting in not only the history of Danish music but of classical music itself?
The fact is Langgaard’s music is more actual than ever as a bitter commentary on what we contemporaries are witness to the world over; the global political discord, environmental accidents, natural catastrophes and more, but in spite of it all, also a resonance of beauty, understanding and the dream that sustains our present day. It’s true that Langgaard’s written reference is the Bible, but his whole outlook on life is more strongly influenced by the expression he encountered in his own times – and in my opinion, it would have most likely become strengthened if he had lived today.

What projects do you have planned for the future?
Gazing into the future, I would like to promote large-format organ compositions like Langgaard’s Messis that, within the formal time-horizon parallel to masses and requiems, create possibilities of pushing emotionally deeper into the topic than is the case of shorter musical forms as, for example, the sonata form.

A similar, more recent example could be the French expressionistic-ally inspired composer, Germain Desbonnet’s ”Symphony Christique” for organ with obligatto mixed final chorus. Poetry, drama and meditative music meet in one work that lifts the soul into a truly optimistic expression.

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