Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder (one of two)

performed live by the National Symphony Orchestra (aka Taiwan Philharmonic, aka 國家交響樂團) on 12.31.14 and 1.1.15 in Taiwan’s National Concert Hall in the Taiwanese premiere, or as below by lots of people (details in the YouTube page for the video)

and the entire text at this location (PDF) in both German and English (German first, the scroll down for English)
(As this is being posted, I’m sitting in the audience of the concert somewhere around the end of Part 1; as I decided below, the rest of this post will be shared tomorrow, after my live experience with the piece.)
This has been stressful. It’s an enormous piece with an interesting history and a lot to talk about, and I am far from being able to analyze the themes as they relate to specific ideas or characters, but as for the overall idea of the piece…. I suppose I may have something constructive to say for those who have never heard it. As for anyone who’s really familiar with it or performed it or something, I have zero here I can offer that’s of any use.
But lately, in conversation with a few friends (some musical professionals, some definitely not), I have been reminded a bit why I’m doing this… I am not and never will be a musical professional in any capacity. I am most certainly of all not ever going to be a performer of any kind, certainly not a conductor, but I have some distant hopes of doing at least some meaningful composing. But that all aside, I’ll never know or be able to talk about the subject (or even a piece like this by itself) the way real professionals can. I have neither the musical ability nor the time (to make up for that lack of ability) to dissect and really figure out a piece like this. But I have to ask myself, then, who is my audience?
I watched a movie about a blogger last night (Julie & Julia), and got to thinking that with a wider audience also comes wider criticism. I’m sure I’m very wrong about a lot of the things I say and the way I explain them, but I have a few specific people in mind (usually) when I try to explain certain things, and I try to write it in a way that they hopefully would understand or find interesting. So… for those of you who have performed or analyzed or conducted this piece, I offer my apologies. For those of you who know nothing about it, enjoy.
The idea of covering this piece was intimidating because it’s of similar length to Mahler’s third, another epic pinnacle of the Romantic repertoire, but I’ve been listening to this piece for a far shorter time.

“Which one of these is not like the other?”

There are a few reasons this non-symphony is included among the German(ic) Symphonies series. The primary reason is that I had a chance to attend the Taiwanese premiere of the piece. It had never been performed in Taiwan before, and we have an amazing national symphony to stage put it on this week. Aside from that, it was justification: it’s by far the largest work in Schoenberg’s repertoire, I wanted to include him, and it’s again, one of the most flagrantly huge works of the past century (or of that century). So no, it’s not a symphony, but Mahler’s works also had choruses and soloists and they were symphonies (perhaps only in name), so I see no reason to exclude Gurre-Lieder. It’s also a great ending to this long series of pieces we’ve been on since like, late October or early November. There’s one more on the way, and it is by a decidedly modern composer, but relative to Gurre-Lieder’s length and scope, it will feel more like an encore piece, and perhaps rightly so… It is also technically not a symphony.
What I think is most interesting about this piece is something I feel about it that may be entirely unsupported by fact. The history of the piece seems to suggest, at least to me, that this was Schoenberg’s breaking point with ‘traditional’ tonal music. Perhaps that could be stated in a more technical, specific, accurate way, but I hope it makes sense. Let’s talk a bit about the history of the piece and then we’ll get around to the paradigm shift part.


The piece is, as stated earlier, not a symphony. You (that proverbial collective you to whom I am explaining these things) hear voices and characters and may think opera, and that would be understandable, but this is also not an opera, although it’s the closest thing we’ve ever gotten to one. A cantata was defined somewhere as “a musical composition for voices and orchestra based on a religious text.” That’s partly true. The text here is not religious. It’s based on an epic poem (‘epic’ here in the literary sense) in Danish by novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen, about a story that takes place in a place called Gurre castle. It’s a legend involving King Valdemar (Waldemar in the piece), a mistress Tove, and Queen Helvig, who murders said mistress (spoiler alert). The name Gurre-Lieder means “Songs of Gurre,” and that’s exactly what we get. And we’ll understand that better if we have at how the piece came to be. We start in 1900.

Remember Schubert’s Der Wanderer? Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen? The former is a song. The latter is a song cycle. A song is written for the human voice, and these have accompaniment for piano. A song cycle is, as you may guess, a cycle of songs that tell a story or are somehow related. Even modern albums such as Van Dyke Park’s album Song Cycle (perhaps unsurprisingly), Joanna Newsom’s two albums Ys and Have One on Me, (two of the most genius things ever conceived) and Tori Amos’s Night of Hunters, among many others, are also song cycles (Newsom and Amos being two modern musicians whose works are very close to my heart).  I say all that to lead up to say that Gurre-Lieder was originally conceived as a song cycle for two vocalists (soprano and tenor) and piano for a competition held by the Wiener Tonkünstler-Verein (the Vienna Composers’ Association, of which it seems appropriate that Schoenberg should be a part). However, it seems submissions for competitions aren’t always the best reasons for embarking on a new composition (as was the case with Ravel’s Sonatine), and the piece didn’t meet the deadline, so that was that. Schoenberg says he “finished them half a week too late for the contest, and this decided the fate of the work” (from Dika Newlin’s book Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg as quoted on Wikipedia). What was completed by that point was what is now part one, or at least most of it, and when you listen to it, it’s actually quite easily understood (even easier if you speak German). Most of the songs are basically just dialogue, a back-and-forth between King Waldemar and Tove.

Later in 1900, he came back to the work and expanded what he’d already had. There was an orchestral prelude (screaming of Wagner so much that even I can tell), the Waldtaub song (song of the wood dove), and ALL of parts two and three. To say he expanded on the piece seems a bit inappropriate. To my understanding, it seems like the piano version of the song cycle may have been around 40 minutes of music, which is a respectable length for a serious work like a symphony or a song cycle (Schubert’s Winterreise comes to mind, which is over an hour). By the time Schoenberg had added the prelude, the Wood Dove song, and parts two and three, he’d added another hour (give or take) to the piece. All of this more than doubled the length and turned it into quite a monstrous work.

He tinkered around with the growing gargantuan until 1903, when he set it aside to work on other things. I feel like I can understand why, perhaps, this was done. Not that I’ve ever done anything like this, but any big project can get overwhelming when it starts to grow and grow and when you’ve been elbow deep in it for too long, it’s nice to get away. So maybe Gurre-Lieder was growing a bit unwieldy and he needed to take a breather, and that he did. In the meantime, some VERY different pieces were composed, among them his Three Pieces for Piano and Five Pieces for Orchestra.The latter piece wasn’t premiered until 1912, but they were both composed in 1909. Depending on the source, different people will express differently what happened in these pieces and how Schoenberg’s compositional process changed dramatically. For example, of the Three Piano Pieces (Drei Klavierstücke, op. 11) Wikipedia says that the pieces “represent an early example of atonality in the composer’s work” and that “the first two… are often cited as marking the point at which Schoenberg abandoned the last vestiges of traditional tonality.” The second piece, the Five Pieces for Orchestra (Fünf Orchesterstücke, op. 16) “further develop the notion of ‘total chromaticism'” introduced in op 11. All of that is simply to say that this schism with tonality that Schoenberg is at once credited with and blamed for took place during the hiatus he took from Gurre-Lieder. So there are interesting things going on in this piece. It serves as a before-and-after of sorts, or a before, during, and after of what was going on with the composer. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, as we will certainly in due time get to the above pieces, but op. 16 expresses lots of turmoil… it was a pivotal time for the composer.

This is where I start to think apart from anything I’ve read. It makes sense in my head like this… I’m (I as the person working on the project, be it a composer with a large-scale piece like this or a novelist with a book) started this giant thing at one point in my life when I had a certain vision or desire or goal in mind, and it grew and grew and grew and kind of outgrew me. I outgrew it, and now I am somewhat… disillusioned or just past it, and maybe even uninterested in completing it. But it haunts me, I’ve put lots of work into it that I don’t want to waste, and I owe it to the work to let it see the light of day as a completed project.

That is how I see this piece, and that idea fascinates me, and all the more so when it’s such a romantic (in the emotional, lovey-dovey sense) piece of work in subject matter, as well as artistically Romantic. But there’s another kind of transformation that takes place here.

We mentioned in our discussion of Mahler’s third that Schoenberg greatly admired the piece and the man behind it. Remember that? In taking on a project like this, one that seems to be as close to an opera as one can get without actually doing that, there’s almost no avoiding Wagner (if you’re German, I guess). And it was in that… that limelight, under that spell, perhaps that Gurre-Lieder was started, and parts one and two make that incredibly clear, even to me. What’s interesting, though, is what happens to the music in the third part. Wikipedia describes it as “pared-down” and it is. While absolutely zero about Mahler’s third is pared-down, there’s a lot more detailed, finely-crafted, highly-detailed intricate stuff in Mahler’s later music, which Schoenberg undoubtedly would have been familiar with in the first decade of the twentieth century, smaller groups of instruments, thinned out orchestrations and the like. So we go from lots of big Wagner, progress down to more detailed Mahler, and then in the very last few minutes what do we get? Sprechgesang (or Sprechstimme), which sound like, well… I couldn’t find a good example I liked, so just go do some listening, or read this article. It’s quite unique, and is featured in the work Schoenberg completed the year after this one, Pierrot Lunaire. So we have this progression from Wagner to Mahler (the relations there evident even outside the context of Schoenberg’s work), then from Mahler to Schoenberg himself, carrying into his subsequent work. So that’s an interesting timeline, and quite a cool metamorphosis to see over both the long span of time that this work covers in Schoenberg’s lifetime and the span of the work itself.

On the one hand, this piece can be viewed as a complicated, overwhelming, intricate, complex thing (which is how I tend to view most things, music or otherwise), with its symbolism and motifs representing ideas and their characters and the whole thing, or… simply as a story. Everyone knows what direction a story goes in, and all you have to do is understand what happens in the story. And you don’t have to do a ton of research about anything to understand the romantic and human concepts behind this piece. Whether it’s Romeo and Juliet, or Rose and Jack or Samson and Delilah or whatever romantic love story couple you want to think about, the emotions therein should be relatively universal and easy to understand. And that’s how I want to see it.

The piece opens absolutely blissfully… the prelude is supremely beautiful, and most of the first part is kind of… the setting up of the story and maybe the ‘backdrop’ because it’s after that that things start to get dramatic. The emotions of the speakers (singers/actors/characters?) are evident in the music; you can hear the king’s horses as he rides, and all of that is quite standardly wonderful. So the first part is made up of the prelude and the nine original songs between Waldemar and Tove. There’s an orchestral interlude, and the last song of part one is the Wood Dove’s song, announcing/mourning the loss of Tove.

Part two then, is obviously centered around Waldemar dealing with this loss, cursing god, and a few other people’s expressions and observations, and then the last narrated portion, which kind of feels like a commentary on human nature or existence in general. And that’s it.

For such a long piece, my ‘analysis’ or discussion of it is terribly brief, but after all the set up and the length of all the above, I think I’ll post this in two parts. The second half will be my thoughts and reactions to the piece itself after enjoying the live performance mentioned above. What we have here is the background, the structure, the cold, hard, facts (ma’am) about it (aside from my speculation about Schoenberg’s mental processes and motivations), and how everyone reacts to it will be different. Let’s get to that part tomorrow, shall we?


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