Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, one of his longest works and certainly his largest, on which he worked for ten years between 1901 and 1911— one year to compose the music, and the better part of a decade, off and on, to write out the full orchestral score for about 140 players. I celebrated this anniversary with true love and allegiance: by listening to two different recordings all the way through—Sir Simon Rattle’s, and Robert Craft’s, both of them excellent.
The world premiere of Gurrelieder took place in the Great Hall of the Society of Friends of Music in Vienna, with the Tonkünstler Orchestra (augmented by many extras), choruses, and solo singers that included Schoenberg’s cousin Hans Nachod; the whole was conducted by Franz Schreker. The next year Schoenberg himself conducted it in Leipzig, and again in Vienna in 1920, in Amsterdam in 1921, and in London in 1928. The American premiere was in 1932 in Philadelphia, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, and a recording was made that is still sometimes available. Schoenberg mentions another performance planned for Cincinnati in 1951, the year of his death, conducted by Thor Johnson.
I don’t know of any other American performances until the spring of 1977, when I heard it live for the first time, at the New England Conservatory, under Gunther Schuller’s direction. To hear the huge work at close quarters in Jordan Hall, with the apron of the stage built out and the various choruses seated in the wings at the side of the floor, was indescribably thrilling. There were a few flaws, it’s true, but they were lost in the excitement. The second time I heard the work was with the Boston Symphony under Ozawa in Symphony Hall in 1979, and the BSO did it again about four years ago with Levine, a wonderful performance but there were too many empty seats. (Why wouldn’t every music lover in Boston run to hear this big, beautiful, lush, expressively romantic, thoroughly tonal work? Doubtless too many people dismissed it as just another impossible work by Schoenberg.) And 13 years ago I paid $60 for a not-very-good seat at an inferior performance in the Grosser Musikvereinssaal in Vienna—but I wanted to hear a live performance in the very hall where the premiere had taken place, where Schoenberg was present for the twenty-minute standing ovation at the end, the most enthusiastic reception he ever had in his life for any of his music. (Georges Prêtre was an undistinguished conductor, but Ann-Sophie van Otter was an excellent Wood Dove.)
What Gurrelieder is—what they are, plural—is a little hard to describe. The text is a German translation from the Danish of Jens Peter Jakobsen (1847-1885). Obviously the work is an orchestral song cycle in Part I, but with a dialogue text like an opera; it is a kind of Liebesnacht followed by a funeral oration in the Song of the Wood Dove. Parts II and III develop more of a story, but by declamation, commentary, and peroration, and the legendary aspects become gradually clear: King Waldemar and Tove share a night of love, but Tove is killed by Waldemar’s Queen Helwig out of jealousy, and Waldemar in his despair curses God. For this blasphemy, Waldemar is condemned to follow the Summer Wind’s Wild Hunt into eternity. The Wagnerian dimension is inescapable, a blend of two legends, those of Tristan and the Flying Dutchman. Waldemar’s vassals join in the hunt, and here Schoenberg barely disguises the motives that he swipes from the Gibichungs’ scene in Act II of Die Götterdämmerung, just as, some minutes later in “Klaus the Fool,” he hardly bothers to conceal the melodic figures lifted from Meistersinger.
The visual aspect of the full score of Gurrelieder fills one with awe. A single score page might require as many as 40 staves to contain all the different instruments that happen to be playing at that moment. A moment’s sober reflection is enough to engender serious doubt as to what all of that orchestration is meant to accomplish, and hearing the work, with score in hand, one is confronted with the score’s seemingly stunning pretentiousness: this outsize work is the first orchestral score that Schoenberg ever composed. The orchestra required is much larger than that of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, larger even than Mahler’s Eighth Symphony or Strauss’s Elektra, not quite as large as Berlioz’s Requiem though a good deal more intricate. When one hears a performance, whether recorded or live, one can actually perceive the unwieldiness of the ensemble. Just as in the other scores I mentioned, but even more so, there are many different things in the score that simply do not come off because they can’t be heard in the general massiveness. And yet there are any number of passages where the overall orchestral and vocal timbre are radiant, perfectly balanced, magical in their coloristic blend, and amazing in the sheer originality of their sound, and this isn’t because Schoenberg asks for 25 woodwinds, 25 brass, 4 harps, celesta, a sizable percussion section, and maybe 30 each Violins I and II, 24 each Violas and Cellos, and an unspecified number of basses.
Between 1903, when he broke off writing the orchestra score, and 1910, when he resumed working on it, Schoenberg himself doubtless recognized how much the orchestration had been excessive and overwritten, because from 1910 until November 1911, when he finished the enormous score, he orchestrated more economically. “It is self-evident that ten years later I would orchestrate differently,” he wrote in 1912. He stopped using the Wagner tubas right after the beginning of Part III (mm. 8-12). He revised some parts of the music, notably in the “Klaus the Fool” section, which he said caused him more compositional difficulty than did all the rest of Gurrelieder. The difference is certainly palpable; the orchestration of this section—the music itself, too—is much more precise and hard-edged, some of it so heavily chromatic that it seems close to the atonal music that Schoenberg was writing only a few months before in 1909, such as Erwartung and the Five Pieces for orchestra, and all the brass are played loud with mutes.
The “Summer Winds” section with speaker, just before the choral finale, is also densely chromatic but orchestrally much thinner than “Klaus the Fool.” Like many moments in the score, it strains orchestral credibility to the utmost. As an example I cite a part for the ordinary piccolo. All the orchestration books tell you that the high five-line B for piccolo (sounding the next-to-top key of the piano) should only be written in exceptional circumstances, and fortissimo at that. Leave it to Schoenberg to write this B sustained for most of 25 measures, first and third piccolos in alternation, and marked pianissimo throughout. One of the NEC students at the 1977 performance told me that the piccolo players were compelled to mute their instruments with handkerchiefs.
The circumstances of the premiere a century ago are rather harrowingly detailed in the published correspondence between Schoenberg and his utterly dedicated pupil Alban Berg, who began preparing a piano-vocal score for publication even before Schoenberg finished the orchestration (Berg’s score in many places is so immensely detailed—for understandable reasons—as to be quite unplayable). During the spring and summer of 1912 Berg was preoccupied with correcting proofs for the 238-page score; orchestra parts were being copied, and a performance was obviously being planned. By the second week in December 1912, the date of the premiere had been definitely set, and it was only then that Schoenberg asked Berg to prepare an analytical Guide to Gurrelieder. Berg worked on this for two months, but by the first week of February, three weeks before the premiere, he still had not finished writing the analysis of Part III—and during this time Berg was also preoccupied with correcting orchestral parts and rehearsing the choruses himself, and reporting on all this to Schoenberg in Berlin. Yet Berg did finish the Guide, doubtless in rather less detail than he would have wished, and in just two weeks Universal Edition engraved 129 musical examples and typeset Berg’s text, in time to have printed copies of the Guide available for the premiere. You can find my complete translation of Berg’s Guide to Gurrelieder in the Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, vol. 16, nos. 1 and 2, June and November 1993; this publication is out of print, but a new edition will be published soon in a volume of all of Berg’s analytical writings edited by Bryan Simms of the University of Southern California.
Berg’s analysis of Gurrelieder discusses Schoenberg’s harmony in theoretical terms—the previous year, Schoenberg had completed his own pathbreaking harmony textbook and Berg had provided the index for it—and yes, Wagner’s “Tristan” chord, so influential in widely different styles of the time from Mahler to Musorgsky to Debussy, plays a significant part in Berg’s analysis (as it would in Berg’s own music in later years). But Berg has only limited space to show Schoenberg’s structural and motivic use of harmony in his 100-page Guide. For me, after so many years, that aspect is what is most interesting structurally about Gurrelieder, and also the most aesthetically satisfying. Schoenberg was obviously influenced by Wagner and even stole from him, but what he brought to Gurrelieder from Wagner he integrated perfectly, and with an originality that after a hundred years has not lost its power to astound the listener. It’s hard to imagine that Schoenberg, a self-taught composer, was only in his mid-twenties when he wrote the Gurrelieder at the beginning of his maturity, a work that, had it been written by any of his contemporaries, would be weighed as the culminating testament of a venerable master. And the total mastery is apparent on every page and in every sounding moment—even mastery of an orchestral ensemble that is far larger than it needed to be. Schoenberg’s most illustrious career lay ahead of him, but that is another story entirely.