Introducing: Ture Rangström

One of my favourite composers who I’ve come across in my research is Ture Rangström. He’s very little heard of, but produced a fantastic body of work including four symphonies, three operas, and over two hundred songs. Part of what’s so compelling about his work is just how varied it is. His music ranges from sounding like Wagner (his song Tristans död), to sounding like Danny Elfman on drugs (the Fourth Symphony, ‘Invocatio’). And beyond being a composer he was a prominent critic, making him hugely influential for Swedish music during his lifetime.

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Rangstrom’s wallet, where he kept Christmas tags from friends (photo my own)

But just who was this man? Rangström was born in Sweden on the 30th November 1884 to a middle-class family. Most of what’s known about his very early life is from the composer’s own memoirs — which may or may not be accurate. In typically cheerful style, he records how he used to bite his piano stool in protest against having to take piano lessons. Maybe childish shenanigans. Or maybe retrospective exaggeration to fit with his later image of being fun-loving, witty, and with a certain disregard for and resistance to formal education. He liked to present himself as a self-taught composer, even though he had studied composition with three tutors in two countries. The first, Johan Lindegren, taught him harmony and counterpoint for two years from 1903, just before Rangström turned nineteen. Rangström then moved from Stockholm to Germany, where he studied with Julius Hey for two years, and with Hans Pfitzner for a very short time.

Self-fictionalisation was a constant throughout Rangström’s life. Not only did he tweak biographical facts, but he also made his life the subject of his own poetry and music. Rangström had a complex personal life; he was married twice, to Lisa Hollender and Omon Håkanson. Elsa Nodermann was his partner in later life. The way he linked life and art is demonstrated in his 1937 suite Vauxhall, which has its themes named after different gods, and includes renderings of both himself and Omon in musical form. Rangström explained the suite:

a little picture of life, with its turmoil (Mars, the God of War), its sentimentality (Diana, the Moon Goddess; Månen [the moon] was actually the name of my then newly lost second wife = Omon, the full moon), Pan (me myself in leisurely drunkenness), Venus (a satire on eroticism), Charon — Death, Apollo — my old worn lyre.

This was not the first time that the composer had portrayed Pan — his earlier song ‘Pan’, composed in 1924, depicts the whole of nature sighing to the satyr’s pipes. Rangström did not just identify with erotic, drunken Pan, but also Pan the creator and musician, able to make ‘the whole earth listen to his song’.

It’s possible that Rangström adopted this trait of self-dramatisation from the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, who merged life and art to the extent that the two are indistinguishable (you can hear more about Strindberg and his life here). Strindberg’s incendiary works had been kept locked away in Rangström’s family home, and the sense of taboo surrounding Strindberg seems to have given Rangström a life-long passion for his work. He later wrote that ‘Strindberg captured me first and did not let go: it was the fire, the feeling, the pliancy and defiance.’ Rangström idolised Strindberg, and his work provided Rangström with constant inspiration. Playwright and composer met a few times — the first meeting was in 1909, when Rangström played his tone-poem Dityramb for the author. When Strindberg died three years later, Rangström was so distraught that he felt unable to attend the funeral. Recalling the event later, he wrote that he experienced it all as a kind of hallucination: ‘It was not possible for a hot youth’s heart to participate in the throng of the funeral procession. I experienced it as a memory, distant and infinitely close.’ He paid his respects in a more artistic vein, dedicating his First Symphony to Strindberg’s memory, and later writing an opera to his play Kronbruden.

It wasn’t just Strindberg who was an important literary force in Rangström’s life. Writing of all kinds was absolutely central to Rangström’s career. He himself was a poet and author, and saw literature as integral to both the history and the future of music. Of his own creative process, he said that it was ‘the word, the burning word, that sparked in me my inexorable desire to compose.’ And he saw contemporary Swedish music more broadly as being entirely indebted to the literature of the late nineteenth century. In a radio talk of 1940, he talked about poetry as the ‘sovereign aid’ of Swedish music during the 1890s, providing the impetus for the proliferation of Swedish lyric song during these years. He particularly highlighted poets such as August Fröding and Bo Bergman, saying that ‘without them … our musical herb garden would have appeared impoverished.’This interest is reflected in Rangström’s oeuvre; he wrote 32 songs based on Bergman’s poems, and 14 to texts by Fröding (although he mostly used songs texts that he had written himself). And he composed no fewer than thirteen incidental scores, for plays by authors from Strindberg to Shakespeare. These are phenomenal works just waiting to be discovered — none of them have been recorded, even though some of them are over an hour’s worth of music!

Alongside his literary writing, he also worked as a critic for the Stockholm-based newspapers Svenska Dagbladet, Stockholms Dagblad, Dagens Nyheter, and Nya Dagligt Allehanda between 1907 and 1942. In these positions he wielded significant power as a purveyor of Swedish musical taste, and produced some of his most entertaining and acerbic writing for these publications. In their pages he took a stand against atonality (he labelled Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony a ‘monstrosity of sterile and pitiable musical fantasy’ in 1929) and championed the music of his Nordic contemporaries, particularly Wilhelm Stenhammar (to whom he dedicated his Second Symphony). Rangström was committed to the idea of a pan-Nordic musical culture, and set up a Swedish Society of Composers along with fellow musicians including his close friend, Kurt Atterberg.

In 1940, Rangström was diagnosed with throat cancer. Although he received treatment, his health declined rapidly, and he died in Stockholm in 1947. His last seven years, however, were some of his most productive; he produced a plethora of songs, incidental scores for Hanneles himmelsfärd (Hannele’s Ascension) and Hamlet, and the unfinished opera Gilgamesj. Rangström’s programme for Gilgamesj gives us some clue to how he wanted his attitude towards death to be remembered: ‘Will is delusion, life and death are delusion. All that remains is the mighty word: Despite Everything! Despite everything you shall will, despite everything you shall create, despite everything you shall live and elevate things, so that your death shall not be more trivial and more poor than you yourself.’ Until his last, Rangström wrote himself into being, sculpting his life and the world he existed in through his words and music. Throughout his life Rangström had portrayed himself variously as hero (as here), lover, comic, and drunken god. But at his funeral service, we glimpse the more intimate, vulnerable Rangström. Among his choices for the music were two movements from his incidental score to Strindberg’s Till Damaskus. Of this music, he had only this to say:

it is extremely simple music … It is about…deep down down about humanity’s alienation on the earth…we judge, offend and confuse ourselves in our own spirit, and when life is at its most hard and sore, there burns in us a marvellous longing after the spirit’s light freedom. … Can music at all portray some meaningful inner action of humanity other than the shifting between major and minor, the intermediate, shy transitions, the darkness and the birth? It is too much to say that an answer to this question is given here. For the composer’s part it is enough, that with these Meditations of the gentle, sordino string orchestra he finally found a piece that he was not ashamed of. It is only a few bars of Pentecostal music, minor and major, in grateful remembrance of Strindberg.

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