Enjoying Schoenberg

By Bryan Gilliam

Tonight the American Symphony Orchestra, along with the Bard Festival Chorus and soloists, presents one of the most remarkable works of the early 20th century, Gurre-Lieder, a “grand cantata” scored for more than 200 musicians and voices. The connection between the ASO and this largest work by Arnold Schoenberg is important; their founding conductor, Leopold Stokowski, conducted the US premiere on April 8, 1932 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and recorded it a day later for an unprecedented 27 78 RPM disks. The ASO themselves performed it in 1999 as part of a Schoenberg and His World event at Bard College.

In his late essay, “My Evolution,” Schoenberg defined his compositional career as existing in three periods: the tonal (1890s–1908), free atonal (1908–1923), and 12-tone (1923–1951). He described his transition from tonality to atonality as finding music in a state of “organic disorder,” where music had been stretched to the limits. With hyper-chromaticism, tonality had reached a breaking point, but music had also reached an end in terms of sonic size, such as Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, “Symphony of a Thousand,” and Richard Strauss’s massive Alpine Symphony (1915). Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder—which surpasses the Strauss and Mahler in acoustical space and chromaticism—can be seen as a self-fulfilling prophesy in a most dramatic way. It is worth outlining Schoenberg’s gargantuan instrumentation for a work with an orchestra of more than 150 players:

8 flutes (four doubling piccolo), 5 oboes (two doubling English horn), 7 clarinets (four doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons, 2 contrabassoons, 10 horns (four doubling Wagner tubas), 6 trumpets, 1 bass trumpet, 4 tenor trombones, 1 alto trombone, 1 bass trombone, 1 contrabass trombone, 1 tuba, 4 harps, 20 first violins, 20 second violins, 16 violas, 16 cellos, 12 double basses, 6 timpani, tenor drum, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, ratchet, glockenspiel, xylophone, and even large iron chains. Vocal soloists include: soprano, mezzo-soprano, two tenors, bass-baritone, and narrator; and then three four-part male choruses and an eight-part mixed chorus.

The work is overtly tonal, supercharged with slippery, sinuous harmonies that surpass even Wagner and Strauss. With the rejection of tonality, Schoenberg never again wrote for such substantial forces, composing (between early 1900 sketches and Gurre-Lieder’s 1913 premiere) string quartets, a chamber symphony, solo piano music, and songs. The period of Gurre-Lieder’s gestation was long, dating from initial composition in 1900–1901 and the world premiere in 1913. Schoenberg, himself, explained the unique genesis of the work, which was conceived and composed during his tonal period, but not premiered until he had made the turn toward atonality:

In March 1900, I composed Parts I and II as well as much of Part III. Then, long pause, filled with scoring operettas [for money]. March (in other words early) 1901, completed the remainder. Then, instrumentation begun August 1901 (again kept from it by other work, I’ve after all always been kept from composing). Continued in Berlin in the middle of 1902. Then big interruption because of operetta scores. Worked on it for the last time in 1903 and got as far as about page 118 [just after the beginning of the passage for the Peasant in Part III]. Thereupon let it be and abandoned it altogether! Took it up again in July 1910. Scored everything but the final chorus, completed that in Zehlendorf [a suburb of Berlin] 1911.

So the whole composition was finished in, I believe, April or May 1911. Only the final chorus was in mere sketch form, though the most important lines and the whole shape were fully worked out. There were just minimal notes about instrumentation in the original composition. In those days I didn’t write such things down: after all, you remember the sound. But apart from that, it’s obvious that the instrumental style of those parts scored in 1910 and 1911 is quite different from what you find in parts I and II. I had no intention of concealing that. On the contrary, it stands to reason that ten years later I’d be orchestrating quite differently.

In the course of finishing the score, I revised only a very few spots. It’s a matter merely of passages of eight to 20 measures, especially, for example, in the Klaus the Jester piece and in the final chorus. All the rest (including things I’d have liked to be different) stayed just the way it was. I couldn’t have hit the style any more, and any halfway skilled expert ought to have no problem finding the four or five fixed up places. These corrections caused me more trouble than, at its time, the whole composition.

There were, according to the composer, three reasons behind the hiatus of just over a dozen years: First, the growing belief that he was composing a work that may not ever materialize into performance; second, the need to make money by orchestrating operetta scores; and third, the fact that during this time, he was quickly evolving away from tonality in his approach to composition. In short, he was losing interest in his post-Romantic compositional project.

That project began as a song cycle for tenor, soprano, and piano with the intention to submit it to a composition competition for works with voice and piano. His teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky, suggested that he might expand it into an orchestrated cantata with five soloists, choruses, and even a narrator. He had shown Strauss some early sketches, and the composer was impressed enough to get him a stipend and a position at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin (1901).

The songs were based on texts by the Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847–1885), which tell the story in poetry of King Waldemar and his young lover, Tove, in Gurre Castle. When his wife, Queen Helwig, discovered the affair, she had Tove poisoned. Waldemar cursed God himself for allowing her to die and is punished for his blasphemy by being forced to ride each night on a wild hunt with his ghostly vassals. The dark curse was broken by the return of spring and the blazing sun. A massive, exhilarating chorus praises the sun as Waldemar and Tove are transformed, becoming at one with nature.

Thus, the work is divided into three parts:

I. Love songs between Waldemar and Tove
II. Waldemar’s curse
III. The night ride and the break of day

Schoenberg ingeniously lures us into this imaginary world of Gurre with an evocative introduction, one that Theodor Adorno would have called phantasmagoric with the undulating static figures in the flutes and piccolo, weaving a crystalline sonic tapestry, almost like exotic gamelan music with added pointillism in the four harps and celeste. Adorno rightly argues that such music conjures an image of a “fairy land.” We remain in that world for nearly two hours, through love and death, darkness and light, as the exhilarating final chorus sings:

Behold the sun!
Bright, on the margin of the sky,
morning dreams greet her in the East!
Smiling, she rises
out of the night-tides,
from her radiant brow there streams
the splendor of her locks of light!

This breathtaking finale of a brilliantly sustained C Major is difficult to describe and better simply experienced as we have a full-throttled chorus and a magnificent orchestra where the return of the opening phantasmagoria is just one of many layers in this mammoth symphonic tumult. Notable are the sustained 6/4 stretches that even Strauss would envy, and, in fact, the chorus might well have been the model for the brilliant C Major finale of his Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow, 1919). He had admired Schoenberg’s sketches. Whatever the case, the premiere in Vienna in 1913 was a spectacular success, with a standing ovation and abundant curtain calls to a loudly cheering audience. But, paradoxically, Schoenberg was not impressed. He had by then moved beyond this stylistic period. Indeed, during that ovation he never faced the audience, having later explained:

I was rather indifferent, if not even a little angry. I foresaw that this success would have no influence on the fate of my later works. I had, during these thirteen years [1900–1913], developed my style in such a manner that to the ordinary concertgoer, it would seem to bear no relation to all preceding music. I had to fight for every new work; I had been offended in the most outrageous manner by criticism; I had lost friends and I had completely lost any belief in the judgement of friends. And I stood alone against a world of enemies.

In the 21st century, when the Schoenbergian paradigm of the “historical obligation of musical style” has lost all meaning, we can simply enjoy this magnificent work to the fullest simply for what it is.

by Bryan Gilliam, Professor Emeritus of Music at Duke University



Written for

Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder