Music:: Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951)
Text: Robert Franz Arnold (1872–1938), based on a poem cycle by Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847–1885)
‘"[I hope that to my music] there might be a sunrise such as is depicted in the final chorus of my Gurrelieder. There might come the promise of a new day of sunlight in music such as I would like to offer to the world," wrote Arnold Schönberg in his 1937 essay How One Becomes Lonely.
Arnold Schönberg completed the monumental late-Romantic cantata Gurre-Lieder in 1911, and, notwithstanding that by the time he had abandoned the style in which he composed it, he branded the piece as the cue to his further artistic development. In 1912, he wrote: “[…] The work explains everything that had to come later.” The title, meaning “Songs of Gurre”, refers to the medieval Danish legend of King Valdemar (Valdemar IV, who died in 1375 at the Gurre Castle; or Valdemar I, who lived in the 12th century) and his mistress Tove Lille (Little Tove), murdered by Queen Helvig. The tragic love story inspired Jens Peter Jacobsen, a 21-year-old history student, to write the poem cycle Gurresange (1868), depicting the Queen’s jealousy, the poisoning of Tove and her funeral procession (as described by a wood dove), as well as the grief-stricken King, who curses God and is consequently condemned to fly for ever with his dead minions through the night sky. Yet whereas his vassals return to rest in the grave by day, the King keeps seeking his beloved Tove, who has transfigured through the magnificence of Nature, which upon every dawn blows away misfortune and death.
Gurresange was translated into German by Robert Franz Arnold and published under the title Gurre-Lieder in 1899, 14 years after Jacobsen had died (of tuberculosis, at the age of 38). The verse cycle immediately captivated Schönberg, then 26 years of age. The composer had just completed Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), a tone poem for string sextet, on which he worked on and off from 1900 to 1911. He actually finished the Gurre-Lieder in 1901, with only the final chorus remaining in sketches. Between 1901 and 1903, Schönberg focused on the orchestration, yet he would put the piece aside for seven years. He had several reasons for doing so: the pressure of earning a living (Schönberg himself claimed that at the time he wrote more than a thousand pages of arrangements for operetta composers), the apparent unfeasibility of having a work of such magnitude performed, as well as, most significantly, the change of style and expression in his own compositions over time. Only the enthusiastic response to the performance in 1910 of the first part of the Gurre-Lieder, as a song cycle with piano accompaniment, encouraged Schönberg to return to the score, which he duly finally completed in 1911. The world premiere, under Franz Schreker, took place in Vienna two years later and was a resounding success.
Schönberg scored the Gurre-Lieder for a colossal apparatus: five vocal soloists, a narrator, men’s and mixed choirs, and a huge orchestra, made up of 25 woodwinds, 25 brass instruments, four harps, a celesta, 16 different percussion instruments (including iron chains) and an extremely large string section. Each performance of the Gurre-Lieder, a masterpiece with every detail worked out, is thus a truly overwhelming experience. In his account of the work, the composer Alban Berg, a pupil of Schönberg’s, identified some 35 leading motifs depicting not only the main characters but also natural phenomena (sunset, sunrise, galloping horses, etc.) and a variety of emotional states (desire, Jupiter’s love, a peasant’s fear, the mourning for Tove, etc.). Noteworthy too is the fact that in the part of the Narrator of the Gurre-Lieder Schönberg employed for the very first time the Sprechgesang, a ”spoken singing” technique, which he would use throughout in his 1912 melodrama Pierrot lunaire.
The Gurre-Lieder received its premiere in Bohemia on 9 June 1921 at the Neues deutsches Theater, under Alexander Zemlinsky. Taking part in the preparations of the performance of the gargantuan work was Viktor Ullmann, serving at the time as a Kapellmeister. Schönberg’s cantata was most recently presented in our country within the 2006 Prague Spring festival by the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Zdeněk Mácal. The Gurre-Lieder will thus return to a Czech stage after 17 years. Who knows how long we will have to wait for its next performance!