Sunday at the Philharmonie: Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder


Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, a large-scale cantata based on an ancient Danish saga, is being performed for the second and final time tonight by the Berlin Philharmoniker and chief conductor Simon Rattle.  Based on the evidence of Friday’s dress rehearsal, the gargantuan orchestral forces (8 horns, four harps, 7 clarinets!), choral component (three choirs are taking part – Rundfunkchor Berlin, MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig and WDR Rundfunkchor Köln) and the six accomplished soloists combine organically to produce an overwhelming, full-on effect. Whether or not it stirs you will depend mostly on how you view this very self-consciously Wagnerian work, dripping with late Romanticism and, especially in the later parts indulgent Mahlerian coloristic outpourings. The most promising singers (based on Friday’s sneak peak) are heldentenor Stephen Gould as the grief-stricken Waldemar (Schoenberg had Tristan on the brain when writing the role) and the thrillingly full-throated lyrical Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski as the doomed Trove.  Tenor Burkhard Ulrich, an accomplished Mime, also makes a late appearance as the fool. Tonight’s performance, for which a few tickets still remain, is also a rare opportunity to see Thomas Quasthoff, who officially retired from singing last year, navigate on of Schoenberg’s earliest uses of Sprechgesang in the dramatic role of the speaker.  Gurre-Lieder is not what one would call a popular work. It’s doubtful you’ll have the chance to see it again with such a great roster of talent anytime soon. For those of you who can’t get tickets (remember, those coveted 20-odd standing room slots go on sale an hour before showtime), you can tune in in the Digital Concert Hall.

From the Berliner Philharmoniker website:



Soile Isokoski Soprano (Tove)

Karen Cargill Mezzo-Soprano (Wood Dove)

Burkhard Ulrich Tenor (Klaus-Narr)

Stephen Gould Tenor (Waldemar)

Lester Lynch Baritone (Peasant)

Thomas Quasthoff Speaker

Rundfunkchor Berlin

MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig

WDR Rundfunkchor Köln

Kor Vest Bergen

Nicolas Fink Chorus Master and Choir Direction

Arnold Schoenberg


What a chillingly beautiful story the Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen developed in 1871 from an old Danish saga: a 12th-century king falls in love with a young woman and invites her to Gurre, his castle, where she is murdered by the jealous queen. Driven to near madness by grief over the loss of his beloved, the king curses God. As punishment for this blasphemy he is condemned to hunt with his vassals through the night as a restless spirit forever – always in search of his dead lover, whose voice he seems to detect in the sounds of the forest.

One can easily imagine it as the subject for a great Romantic opera. But it was in the form of a song cycle that Arnold Schoenberg initially embraced this tale in 1899. A year later he decided to make this tragic love-cum-ghost story the basis of a full-length work. Schoenberg’s time as a musical revolutionary had not yet come, and so Gurre-Lieder represents a sumptuous swan song for the age of musical late Romanticism.

Supporting Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker in their interpretation of this exceptional, and exceptionally demanding, work, are the Rundfunkchor Berlin, the radio choruses of WDR and MDR and the Vest Bergen Chorus, as well as a stellar ensemble of soloists, led by Soile Isokoski, Stephen Gould and Thomas Quasthoff as the Narrator. The two concerts conclude a week of celebrating the Philharmonie’s 50th birthday.


Observations on Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder

The Danish poet, Darwin translator and scientist Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847–1885) is little read nowadays, but he had a powerful impact on the literary and artistic climate at the end of the 19th century. His profound psychological novels Marie Grubbe (1876) and Niels Lyhne (1880), which alternate between naturalism and symbolism, influenced both Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Sigmund Freud enthusiastically declared that Niels Lyhnehad moved him more deeply than any other book in many years. Jacobsen’s poetry, which was admired by Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke, also received wide acclaim. In 1893 George published several of Jacobsen’s poems in German in his literary journal Blätter für die Kunst [Pages for Art]; six years later a German translation of Jacobsen’s poetry by the Viennese literary historian Robert Franz Arnold appeared in print. Along with other composers, Alexander Zemlinsky was also inspired by Jacobsen’s poems and set several of them to music. It was probably Zemlinsky who introduced his friend and pupil Arnold Schoenberg to the works of the Danish poet.

In his “Reminiscences of Youth”, written for Schoenberg on the occasion of his 60th birthday on 13 September 1934, Zemlinsky later recalled that Schoenberg had been encouraged to set the poems by an award for a song cycle with piano accompaniment offered by the Vienna Tonkünstlerverein [Composers Society] in 1899. “Schoenberg, who wanted to compete for the prize, composed a few songs to texts by Jacobsen. I played them for him (since, as we know, Schoenberg did not play the piano). The songs were very beautiful and truly innovative, but both of us felt that, for precisely that reason, they would not have much of a chance in such a competition. But Schoenberg composed the entire Jacobsen cycle nonetheless – but no longer for one voice alone. He added large choruses, a melodrama, preludes and interludes, all of it scored for a huge orchestra. He had composed a great large-scale work – the Gurrelieder – a piece which was to become the foundation of his worldwide success.”

Lovers’ Bliss and Painful Loss

The Gurre-Lieder [Danish Gurresange, Songs of Gurre] form the sixth chapter of Jacobsen’s novellaEn cactus springer ud [A Cactus Blooms] (1886), in which a group of young writers pass the time by reciting poems while waiting for a rare cactus to bloom which, “after nine years of careful nurturing, produced a flower that, characteristic of this cactus, would suddenly burst open once during the night”.

The setting for the Gurre-Lieder is the 12th-century Gurre Castle in the Danish province of Zealand, approximately five kilometres west of Helsingør [Elsinore] on Lake Gurre. The story is based on the historical figure of the Danish king Waldemar I (1131–1182), whose tragic love for the beautiful Tove (“dove” or Tovelille, “little dove”) has been recorded in several medieval legends. During the nine songs of Part I, Waldemar and Tove sing of the joys of their love in alternating monologues until the “Song of the Wood Dove” announces Tove’s death and the grief of the despairing king.

In the brief Part II, which consists of only one song, Waldemar accuses God of taking away his love. Part III opens with the “Wild Chase” in which Waldemar and his vassals rise from their graves and ride through the night as unredeemed dead men; the king is still searching for his beloved Tove. The songs of the superstitious peasant and Klaus the Fool provide an ironic interlude in the dark scenario until the crowing of the cock puts an end to the nightmare, followed by the “Wild Chase of the Summer Wind” which concludes the Gurre-Lieder – a melodrama glorifying the eternal cycle of nature.

“… I have always been hindered in composing”

We do not know precisely when or why Schoenberg decided to abandon his original plan of composing a song cycle for voice and piano based on Jacobsen’s Gurre-Lieder in favour of a vast “cantata” for soloists, chorus and orchestra. In any case, when the deadline of the Composers Society competition passed on 1 January 1900 he already seems to have had the enormous ensemble in mind, which, in addition to six soloists, calls for three four-part men’s choruses, an eight-part mixed chorus and an orchestra of approximately 140 to 150 musicians. The short score of Part I, written on three staves and supplied with notes on instrumentation, is dated March and April 1900. Schoenberg described the progress of composition himself in a letter to Alban Berg, which Berg included in his more than 100-page guide to his teacher’s monumental work: “In March 1900 [in Vienna] I composed Parts I and II and much of Part III. Then a long hiatus filled with instrumentation of operettas. March (that is, the beginning) 1901 the rest completed! Then instrumentation begun in August 1901 (again hindered by other work, just as I have always been hindered in composing). Resumed in Berlin the middle of 1902. Then a long interruption due to instrumentation of operettas. Worked on it last in 1903 and finished up to circa page 118. Thereupon set aside and wholly given up!”

The premiere of Part I of the Gurre-Lieder took place at a concert of the Society for Art and Culture in Vienna on 14 January 1910. This version for soprano, tenor and two pianos, eight hands was successful enough to encourage Schoenberg to continue the work, which he finally completed in the Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf on 7 November 1911. “In the initial process of composition I indicated the instrumentation only very sparingly,” he explained in his letter to Berg. “At the time I didn’t note down such things, because one hears the instrumental sound anyway. But also, aside from that, one certainly must see that the part arranged in 1910 and 1911 is completely different in orchestral style from Parts I and II. I did not intend to hide that. On the contrary, it is self-evident that ten years later I would orchestrate differently.” Although the orchestration of Part III of the Gurre-Lieder is much more transparent at times than that of the first two parts, the entire work gives the impression of great coherence and unity.

“… aura of a delicate twilight atmosphere in sounds …”

Franz Schreker conducted the premiere of the Gurre-Lieder at the Great Hall of the Vienna Musikverein on 23 February 1913, with Franz Nachod as Waldemar, Marya Freund as Tove and Anna Bahr-Mildenburg as the Wood Dove. “The Animosity towards Schoenberg” – the title of an article by Richard Specht published in the Berlin journal März [March] on 20 September 1913 – was palpable. “The Schadenfreude could be seen in a hundred eyes – today they would ‘show’ him once again whether he could really dare to compose as he wished and not as others had done before him. But the opening bars were already disappointing – this glittering and hovering, this aura of a delicate twilight atmosphere in sounds … captivated everyone with an abandon that swept away all heaviness and impurity with an increasing sense of liberation and exhilaration.” The cactus had suddenly burst into bloom and, contrary to all expectations, its flower was dazzlingly beautiful! The premiere of theGurre-Lieder was perhaps the greatest triumph that Schoenberg would ever experience – but it faded just as quickly as the rare cactus flower in Jacobsen’s novella. The very next day there was a tremendous uproar during a performance of Pierrot lunaire op. 21 in Prague, and the notorious “scandal concert” at the Vienna Musikverein on 31 March (with Schoenberg’s first Chamber Symphony and works by Zemlinsky, Webern and Berg) caused such a riot that the concert had to be cut short.

Michael Stegemann

Translation: Phyllis Anderson


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