Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder

By Leon Botstein

Bryan Gilliam, in his elegant and expert notes for this performance of Gurre-Lieder, observes that Schoenberg’s belief in the “historical obligation of musical style” has “lost all meaning” in our current century. What Schoenberg understood as the “historical obligation” was actually an ethical imperative. Any style adopted by composers of music had to match and confront the distinct circumstances and unique challenges of the contemporary historical moment. Music was not based on an invariant, universal, and eternal set of rules. Neither was music merely a species of entertainment or even primarily an aesthetic experience (both escapist and cynical), even though writing entertaining and alluring music, as Schoenberg knew all too well, demanded exceptional skill, craft, and virtuosity. There was some ambivalence in Schoenberg’s views. Although within historical contexts, there were standards and criteria of a proper style of music that fit an age, some valid standards of judgment about musical thinking were invariant. In other words, music changed and progressed alongside history, but music nonetheless retained an autonomy by maintaining basic objective formal criteria that applied to Bach as well as Wagner and himself. Unfortunately, from the perspective of the audience, tonality was not one of them.

At the core of this idea was Schoenberg’s belief in the power of music as a public art form and means of human expression. Music, as a component of European culture, occupied a sacred space within the human experience; as an art form distinct from words and images it was a medium of truth telling that possessed a unique communicative power, particularly to challenge smug conventions, hypocrisy, injustices, and cruelty abroad in the world. Music’s purpose was not to conform or please the reigning tastes of the largely privileged audience for concerts. Music needed to engender ethical progress and not be manipulated to affirm a social consensus that protected evil and injustice.

This ethical imperative for the musical artist during the period in which Gurre-Lieder was conceived, completed, and performed, from 1900 to 1913—the years immediately preceding World War I—was striking. The audience for music had never been larger and so too the social standing of musicians of prominence. Composers and performers of classical music were the Taylor Swifts of the fin de siècle. It was evident, at the same time, during early years of the 20th century, that militarism, radical nationalism, racial hatred (including a virulent antisemitism), heightened international tension, social strife, political disenfranchisement, economic dislocation, and radical industrial and technological transformation were all flourishing. The era demanded therefore something more than the convenient continuation of the practices and lush and alluring harmonies and sonorities of late Romanticism. They seemed only to affirm a corrupt status quo (including the extreme inequalities of wealth of what in America was called the Gilded Age) that permitted easy listening and favored a cloying sentimentality found in the endless numbers of mediocre operettas of the so-called Silver Age.

The idea that being a painter, writer, or composer—a creator of art—demanded more than talent in one’s chosen medium, but required as well an allegiance to an ethical credo that linked aesthetics with ethics, was central to a fin de siècle community of artists in Vienna, the city in which Schoenberg was born, learned music, and made his career. Schoenbergwas influenced not only by musicians such as Bruckner and Brahms (who both died when Schoenberg was around 20), Alexander Zemlinsky (his teacher, whose sister he married), and Gustav Mahler (who died in 1911), but by three fellow Viennese, all prominent non-musicians: Karl Kraus, Adolf Loos, and Richard Gerstl. Kraus was the radical journalist, writer, and polemicist who obsessed about ethical criteria behind the use of language and language’s relationship to thought. Kraus edited and published the legendary periodical Die Fackel (The Torch). Schoenberg was a devoted reader of Die Fackel. Kraus derided Freud and psychoanalysis, celebrated the early 19th century genius of the comic theater, Johann Nepomuk Nestroy, and gave one-man public renditions of Offenbach with Eduard Steuermann, a Schoenberg protégé, at the piano.

Loos was a pioneering architect who believed in foregrounding structure as opposed to non-functional decoration in buildings. Structures had to tell the truth in their design about their place and function and mirror the unique character of modernity. Loos authored a legendary 1908 essay, a modernist manifesto, “Ornament and Crime.” His plain, unadorned 1912 corner building, right across the Imperial Palace in the heart of Vienna, was itself the subject of intense public debate, including widespread outrage. Richard Gerstl, a brilliant young expressionist painter, taught Schoenberg how to paint; the composer was in search of income to live. Gerstl became part of the family but then entered into an affair with Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde. Gerstl committed suicide after Mathilde returned, under pressure, to her husband.

These influences shaped Schoenberg’s strange synthesis of radicalism and virulent conservatism. As Schoenberg’s most performed piece Verklärte Nacht, written in 1899, and Gurre-Lieder both demonstrate, Schoenberg, although largely self-taught, commanded the craft of composition in the post-Wagnerian style of late Romanticism. Schoenberg may have gained notoriety and fame (among the young) as a radical, but he was also rigidly conservative (even in politics), someone who revered the complex musical procedures and structures pioneered by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. As he once quipped when someone confessed that he failed to understand his music, “Why pick on me? Try Beethoven, whose music you only think you understand.”

But as Gilliam points out, by the time he completed Gurre-Lieder he considered his debt to late Romanticism obsolete and out of date and incapable of meeting head on, through the art of music, the demands of the contemporary world. Schoenberg admired Gustav Mahler (who anonymously helped his younger colleague financially by buying his paintings at a time when Schoenberg was seriously short of money), not so much for his compositions, but for being a musician of conscience and ethical ideals. Schoenberg remained distant from Mahler’s own musical debts to late Romanticism. The first time Schoenberg felt truly overwhelmed by the force and originality of Mahler’s music was in 1908 when he heard the Seventh Symphony, whose biographical background had been one of tragedy, defeat, and humiliation for the composer and whose musical character was decidedly confrontational, ironic, progressive, critical, and arresting.

Schoenberg’s bitterness and sarcasm regarding the successful February 1913 premiere of Gurre-Lieder (conducted by none other than the composer Franz Schreker, who after the war recruited Schoenberg to teach in Berlin) was only deepened by the fact that barely one month later, in March of 1913, Schoenberg participated in a concert in Vienna of music by himself, Mahler, Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern that sparked a riot requiring intervention by the police. The very audience that cheered Gurre-Lieder for its vast sonorities, mythic narrative, and dramatic power flew into a rage a month later at the appearance of a radical modernism that seemed incomprehensible and written just to offend their hard-earned musical connoisseurship. But it is well to remember that Schoenberg, at the end of the first decade of the 20th century, had already become notorious as an enfant terrible, particularly as a composer in the arena of chamber music. Gurre-Lieder’s success was actually an anomaly, a brief detour from Schoenberg’s path to becoming the most reviled exponent of musical modernism in the 20th century who offended and alienated the vast public for concert music that had developed over the course of the 19th century. In his American years, after moving to California, Schoenberg lamented how rare performances of his music were. Yet he became legendary as a teacher, and among his many students were John Cage, Marc Blitzstein, Dave Brubeck, Lou Harrison, Oscar Levant, Dika Newlin, and Leon Kirchner.

Until the closing decades of the 20th century, Schoenberg represented the distinctively “modern” in music, rivalling the reputation and influence of Igor Stravinsky. But his approach to musical modernism was never embraced by the audience, and so-called conservative or old-fashioned new music was still being written by most of his contemporaries. Furthermore, by the centennial of his birth, in 1974, Schoenberg’s music—even after he abandoned tonality and inaugurated, in the early 1920s, his 12-tone serial approach to composition—had begun to sound more tied to the 19th century and less radical. Nevertheless, still today, when one programs a work by Schoenberg, one can be sure that a large fraction of the audience will stay away, more out of fear and ignorance than any qualities of the music. Too little of his music, early and late, is now performed. Schoenberg’s stature as a historical figure, as a theorist and polemicist, remains undiminished. There are many truly great works to be listened to, and no shortage of astonishingly brilliant writings about music.

An encounter with Gurre-Lieder reminds one that Schoenberg possessed a musical mind with a rare intensity of imagination in harmony, thematic development, orchestration, and sonority. First performed on the eve of the catastrophe of August 1914 that brought the 19th century to a close, it can be regarded as perhaps the crowning achievement of a musical tradition from German-speaking Europe that took shape during the age of the Viennese classicism of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, all masters, who, along with Brahms, Schoenberg venerated. Schoenberg’s reputation and accomplishment have earned him a thriving Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna. But although musical institutions seem to love anniversaries, 2024, the 150th anniversary of this composer’s birth will go largely unnoticed, certainly in the US. Managers are still afraid the audience will not show up if they program his music. Younger artists are reluctant to revisit an apparently failed, abstract, and unpopular style. When searching the history of music for repertoire, we now prefer to stick to the proven audience friendly “winners” and extend ourselves, as we always should, to living composers. The ironic truth is that despite himself, much of Schoenberg’s output is accessible without concessions and communicates a compelling idealistic commitment to music’s importance and nature.

This concert is the ASO’s own birthday tribute to Arnold Schoenberg and a reaffirmation of a unique dimension of ASO’s mission, which is to protect great music from the past that has become vulnerable to shifts in tastes and fashion from disappearing from today’s concert life.

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Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder