in: News & Features

February 24, 2013

Thoughts on a Centenary


shoenYesterday 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.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.


  1. The sustained pianissimo high B for the piccolos is often played on some other instrument or contrivance, because it’s so difficult to achieve on a standard piccolo. Stokowski had special whistles made for this piece in Philadelphia, and I believe the BSO borrowed them for the Ozawa performances; with Levine, I think the rebuilders of the Symphony Hall organ made small wooden organ pipes that could be mouth-blown.

    I too remember Gunther Schuller’s performance in Jordan Hall, with performers spilling off the stage and onto the side aisles. Especially memorable from that occasion was (former Globe music critic and BSO program editor) Michael Steinberg’s intense performance as the Speaker.

    I was a part of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for all of the BSO performances of Gurrelieder, and I’ve managed to hear it on a number of other occasions. What a piece!

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — February 25, 2013 at 12:21 am

  2. Thanks for Marking the occasion. Wishing now I remembered to observe it with a listen to one of my recordings of the work. My first exposure to Gurrelieder was in college as a student making a pilgrimage from UNH to Tanglewood. Ozawa was conducting, with Phyllis Curtin indelible as Tove (substituting at short notice for an indisposed Marita Napier) and Lili Chookasian bringing the house down with her Lied der Waldtaube. An unrepeatable experience and a formative one for me at that age. I sometimes wonder whether a recording of the event might someday be available.

    Comment by fkalil — February 25, 2013 at 11:11 am

  3. Yes, surprising that DeVoto does not remember that 1974 Tanglewood performance, a very big event at the time, and even Owades, who I bet sang in it, does not mention it. (It gave Richard Buell and me, who had just coauthored a negative profile of Ozawa with some really striking orchestra-member quotes, a chance to celebrate the Schoenberg centennial with praise for Ozawa’s masterful handling of large forces, not just traffic control but first-rate musicmaking.)

    I bet if you poke/dig around the BSO site you will find a recording available. In fact, this may be it, right? , available in Flac as well as 320k MP3; woohoo.

    Comment by David Moran — February 25, 2013 at 1:21 pm

  4. 1974? All right, I openly admit to being older than dirt. Mark will recall I was a student of his at UNH and I remember speaking with him about that performance at the time. I was a callow but enthusiastic youth and wayward academically. Mark, no pre-Tufts stories, per carita!

    Comment by fkalil — February 25, 2013 at 3:50 pm

  5. I certainly remember that there was a Tanglewood performance but I didn’t remember that it was in 1974 — appropriate enough for Schoenberg’s own centennial. Joel Lazar E-mailed me that Stokowski conducted the _Gurrelieder_ with the Philadelphia in 1960-1961, and that there were two performances with the LA Phil (anybody know who conducted?) in 1949-1950 and 1967-1968. The 1949-1950 performance is especially intriguing because Schoenberg could have been present. When Ozawa did it in Symphony Hall in 1979, I thought the performance perfectly competent but not tremendously exciting, and I remember that Ozawa conducted from memory, with the Belmont reprint full score (Schoenberg’s self-portrait on the cover) lay on the music stand, unopened. Oh, yes, the speaker was Werner Klemperer (aka Col. Klink).

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — February 25, 2013 at 5:07 pm

  6. I would have said “Werner Klemperer, son of Otto Klemperer”, but yes, he was Col. Klink too.

    Comment by Mark Lutton — February 25, 2013 at 6:47 pm

  7. The 1932 Stokowski performance is on HRB as I type (8p Mon night 25 Feb): lovely, quite decent recording.

    Comment by David Moran — February 25, 2013 at 8:14 pm

  8. oops, BSO download I cited is of much later Gurrelieder, Levine, not the 1974 Ozawa one; sorry.

    Comment by David Moran — February 25, 2013 at 10:28 pm

  9. Mark, The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s website ( says that their first performance of Gurrelieder was on March 21, 1968 under Zubin Mehta. The LA Phil did do the “Song of the Wood Dove” in 1949 under Alfred Wallenstein; that excerpt, which requires a smaller ensemble, was often done separately (Erich Leinsdorf performed and recorded it with Lili Chookasian and the BSO in 1964). The LA Phil has given complete Gurrelieder performances several times since 1968 as well.

    The BSO has done the complete Gurrelieder on four occasions: in 1974 (Tanglewood) and 1979 (Boston/New York) with Seiji Ozawa, and in 2006 (Boston and Tanglewood) with James Levine. The article by Richard Dyer ( has the date of the Ozawa/Tanglewood performance wrong, but it’s otherwise very informative. The speaker in 1974 was George London, and Waldemar Kmentt took the role under Levine. Note that Seiji’s 1974 performance preceded Gunther Schuller’s NEC one by several years. (I believe that I didn’t sing the 1979 concerts and recording, but I did participate in all the others.)

    Several of Leopold Stokowski’s performances are available in various forms: along with the 1932 American premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra, there are also private releases of his 1961 performances in Philadelphia and Edinburgh.

    The live performances I’ve heard outside of Boston were with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Simon Rattle in the Academy of Music (January 2000), and with Mark Wigglesworth at the Palais de Beaux Arts in Brussels (September 2007). It’s performed and recorded a lot more often these days than in the past, much as Mahler Eighth is. People like “big events”!

    Comment by Stephen Owades — February 25, 2013 at 11:46 pm

  10. One of the various “forms” to enjoy the 1932 Stokowski Gurrelieder is here:

    Larry Huffman’s fabulous site is a must for any Stokowski consumer.

    Comment by Brian Bell — February 26, 2013 at 9:17 am

  11. Didn’t Ozawa and the BSO also record this for Philips?

    Comment by Don Drewecki — February 26, 2013 at 1:25 pm

  12. yes, and now remastered, $10 at Amazon

    Comment by David Moran — February 26, 2013 at 2:03 pm

  13. All you correspondents, and especially Prof’r (ret’d) DeVoto, will be interested to know that the 1968-69 performance of Gurrelieder by the LA Phil was conducted, as one would have suspected, by Zubin Mehta. And of interest to us Bostonians is that Phyllis Curtin sang in it. My informant at the LA Phil finds no record of a performance by the orchestra in the 1949-50 season.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — February 26, 2013 at 4:42 pm

  14. No wonder she subbed in so splendidly at Tanglewood a few years later.

    Comment by David Moran — February 26, 2013 at 5:40 pm

  15. Ah, yes. I remember.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — February 26, 2013 at 6:59 pm

  16. This in from Dorothy Crawford, author of the work cited:
    See A Windfall of Musicians, p 130. 1949 was Schoenberg’s 75th year, and there were Los Angeles celebrations. The LAPO did not, however, perform the entire Gurrelieder, much to Schoenberg’s dismay. Alfred Wallenstein — a long term conductor of the LAPO –performed only an Interlude and the “Lied der Waldtaube.”

    Windfall and my Evenings On and Off the Roof offer detailed accounts of Schoenberg in Los Angeles. I had very privileged resources in my positions as Coordinator of the Schoenberg Seminars at, and (since its inception) a board member of, the Arnold Schoenberg Institute. In the 1990s the Schoenberg heirs decided to move the Schoenberg Institute to Vienna, halting American scholars’ examination of Schoenberg’s career in California. So these two books may give you a more detailed view of Schoenberg in California than studies by.Europeans.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — February 27, 2013 at 6:59 pm

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