Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder

I want to repost some old material about large music compositions from my old blogs here in the new environment, and one of my 'favorites' is the massive cantata Gurre-Lieder ('Songs of Gurre') by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), composed between 1900-1911. 

Schoenberg is often regarded as the first composer to write atonal music in the 12-tone system (to say he invented it is a stretch – go back to Liszt, for openers) but in his young manhood he wrote a few postromantic works that literally took the world of Liszt, Wagner (especially), Bruckner, Mahler, and Richard Strauss as far as it could be taken.  Others, of course, took after Mahler (Shostakovich, and sometimes Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein; to my mind, Shostakovich's 4th and 8th symphonies really give us two more 'late Mahler' purely orchestral symphonies; Britten's 'War Requiem' is the requiem mass Mahler wanted to write if he had lived long enough) .

The libretto is taken from poems by Jens Peter Jacobsen, about a love triangle in medieval Denmark (translated to German).  The work  (usually about 110 minutes) has been choreographed for opera, but is usually performed with vocal soloists, male choruses and mixed chorus, as if it were more like an oratorio.  The female character, Tove, becomes Tovina in my own sci-fi screenplay “Second Epiphany”, where a plot requirement at the end is that she must become impregnated.  

But the must useful comparison might be to that of a Mahler symphony.  The work is in three parts.  Part 1 comprises 11 movements (9 solo vocal songs for three soloists, with an orchestral introduction and penultimate interlude.  The whole 52 minute part could be compared to Mahler’s “Das Lied von de Erde”, which some call a 'symphony'.  The part opens in E-flat (reminder of “The Ring”) and the final catastrophic song seems to be in B-flat minor, before suddenly crashing back to E-flat minor (Prokofiev would do this later). 

Part 2 is a violent interlude in B-flat minor, with a brief vocal song by Waldemar, who curses God for what I call 'the Mousetrap Paradox'.  I won't explain further here.  But at the very end of this part, the music suddenly crashes on the dominant F Minor, as if it had been the tonic.

Part 3 will start in G-flat and end in C.   That is a tritone jump (mathematically splitting the octave in half) but it also means that the entire work progresses from E-flat to C Major at the end, reversing the scheme of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony and coming back home to C.

So the overall form is comparable to some other large “symphonies” that needed chorus, starting with Beethoven, then Mendelssohn (#2), Liszt (Faust), Mahler's 2 and 8, Shostakovich 13 and 14.  The harmonic language is so lush that it sometimes seems to inherit from impressionism (think Debussy's 'Martyrdom', which actually gets loud).

You can read the 'plot' here, with all the vassals, the joker, and the undead spirits wanting to rise from the grave with their dead hands. The 'story circle' is pretty clear here from Waldemar's viewpoint. The music offers sprechstimme with the joker (is he like the character in the Batman movies?) But the world clears with sunrise, and the final chorus literally outdoes Mahler. The conclusion must hold the longest C Major fortissimo in all of music.  This is, after all, about the virility and strength of young manhood.

Even though the work, with all its demands, is not often performed in entirety, the themes and harmonic manipulations in the work will sound familiar to the listener, most of all in the final chorus.  Hollywood knows this work well.

Performance embedded here is from Ryan Power's channel. Claudio Abbado conducts the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and Slovak Philharmonic choirs.  Major soloists: Waldemar - Thomas Moser, Tove - Jane Eaglen, Waldtaube - Marjana Lipovsek.

(Posted om Tuesday, April 12, 2022 by John W. Boushka)