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8.557518-19 - SCHOENBERG: Gurre-Lieder (Schoenberg, Vol. 1)
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
Although he began to compose in his seventh year, Schoenberg produced little of real significance until 1897, when a String Quartet in D was successfully premièred under the auspices of the Wiener Tonkünstlerverein, and won praise from the redoubtable critic Edward Hanslick and the ailing Brahms. Two years on, however, the Tonkünstlerverein rejected Schoenberg’s string sextet Verklärte Nacht on account of its advanced harmonic idiom. It was at this time that the organization announced a competition for a new song-cycle, Schoenberg taking up the challenge by setting poems from the 1869 verse-cycle Gurresange by the Danish botanist and writer Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-1885).
Jacobsen translated Darwin into Danish. His writing is pervaded by social alienation and religious scepticism: qualities which likely commended themselves to the young Schoenberg – largely selftaught out of financial necessity – and whose conversion from Judaism to Lutheranism in 1898 was less out of concern for social advancement than from a need to mark out his own ‘world view’. Such was confirmed by his decision to turn the song-cycle into a setting of Jacobsen’s ballad for speaker, five solo singers, three four-part male choruses and eight-part mixed chorus, and an orchestra requiring two dozen each of woodwind and brass, a large percussion section and strings to match. By mid-1900, he had completed the short scores of Parts 1 and 2 and, despite pressure of ‘hack work’ – score copying and operetta orchestration – that of Part 3 emerged the following year. Yet for all the encouragement of such figures as Richard Strauss, the task of orchestration proved incompatible with earning a living, Schoenberg breaking off work on the project barely a year later.
Not that Gurre-Lieder itself was forgotten. In 1907, Alban Berg transcribed the score for piano and, in 1909, Anton Webern (Schoenberg’s other most significant pupil of the period) transcribed both the prelude and interludes from Part 1 for eight hands at two pianos, this latter publicly performed in Vienna on 14th January 1910. Although Webern’s musical language had advanced considerably in the interim (the monodrama Erwartung had just been completed and the ‘song’- cycle Pierrot Lunaire was soon to follow), Schoenberg was inspired to resume work on the cantata, completing the orchestration on 8th November 1911. In Vienna on 23rd February 1913, Gurre-Lieder was first performed under the baton of Franz Schreker, a performance destined to remain one of Schoenberg’s greatest public triumphs.
RWThe Gurresänge, a poem of passion, loss, and despair, Jacobsen’s most moving work, was written when he was 21, before any of his prose, and also published only after his death. It is based on the great legend of medieval Denmark, the love of King Valdemar the Great (1131–1182) for his mistress Tove, or, as the Valdemar in Jacobsen’s poem (Valdemar the Fourth, c. 1320–1375), calls her, Tovelille, little Tove. During Valdemar’s absence, his jealous queen, Helvig, induces her lover Folkvard to kill Tove by locking her in her bathhouse and scalding her with steam. Valdemar, in his grief, incurs his own eternal damnation by placing the blame on God:
The first part of Jacobsen’s poem is narrated by Valdemar and Tove in alternation, and, after her death, by the Voice of the Wood Dove (“Wood doves of Gurre! Woeful tidings I bear over the island sea”), the Voice of the Peasant, the Voices of Valdemar’s men, the Voice of Claus the Fool, and the Voice of the Poet. This dramatization is Jacobsen’s invention, as is the character of Claus, who is intended to provide comic relief.
Jacobsen’s identification of Tove with a forest wood dove—Taube—exploits the alliterative relationship in their names; in Old Norse, Tove is Tofa and “gurre” the onomatopoeic word for the sound emitted by the dove. As the symbol of purity, fidelity, and happiness, the dove is contrasted with other birds— “Helvig’s falcon it was that has slain Gurre’s dove,” and “howling hawks cry from the spire of the church over Tove’s grave”—which are associated as well with times of night and day, the raven, the owl, the chanticleer. Like Pelléas, the Gurresänge begins at twilight in a forest at the edge of the sea. It ends, following a night of love and horror, at sunrise.
After Tove’s murder, Valdemar searches for her beyond her death and even beyond his own:
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