The dramatic poem Gurrelieder first appeared in 1868 as part of a novella titled A Cactus Blooms by the 21-year-old Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen. In the novella, Jacobsen describes a gathering of five friends who are assembled for the once-in-nine-year flowering of a rare cactus. To while away the long evening waiting for the night-bloom, each friend recites a poem or tells a story. The culminating recitation, Gurresange, is a retelling of a legendary tale of passion, jealousy, tragic death, condemnation, the unending search for love beyond death, and the eventual resurrection of the human spirit through the healing forces of nature. The poem is remarkable, not only because it is the young author's first extensive work but also because it shows a deep and mature insight into human emotions and an expert's understanding of the wonders of nature. A student of history, Jacobsen based his transformation of the Gurre legend on historical facts concerning a King Waldemar (or Valdemar) who lived in the 14th century (some writers trace him back to an earlier King Waldemar), his passion for the beautiful maiden Tove Lille (small Tove), and their love tryst at Gurre castle, the ruins of which now lay almost forgotten in Denmark. Jacobsen follows Danish chronicles from the 16th century that tell of Queen Helwig's jealousy, the poisoning of Tove (in the original ballad she is suffocated in a locked overheated sauna), her funeral cortege (as related by the wood-dove), and the bereaved king's cursing God and being condemned, as a result, to fly eternally with his henchmen through the night sky ("The Wild Hunt"). By day, however, the vassals return to the grave, and Waldemar searches everywhere for Tove, who is now transfigured through the splendors of nature. As a final touch, the poet himself comes on stage to describe in "The Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind" how nature sweeps away tragedy and death with each sunrise of a new day.
Gurresange was translated into the German Gurrelieder by Robert Franz Arnold and appeared in print in 1899, 14 years after Jacobsen's death. It had an immediate appeal for the 26-year-old Arnold Schoenberg, who had just finished his Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), a tone poem for string sextet based on a poem by Richard Dehmel also concerned with passionate love amidst the beauties of nature. Schoenberg began by setting the first part of the poem only - that is, the nine alternating love songs of Waldemar and Tove - as a song-cycle with piano accompaniment. The songs were treated singly, without connections between them. But soon, at the advice of his close friend and mentor, Alexander von Zemlinsky, he decided to set the entire poem as a work for orchestra, vocal soloists, and chorus - a kind of oratorio, or "musical tapestry" - divided into three parts. Part I consists of the orchestral introduction, the nine songs sung alternately by Waldemar and Tove (tenor and soprano), and the "Song of the Wood-Dove" (mezzo-soprano), all joined together by orchestral interludes. Part II contains only Waldemar's song of vengeance. Part III, "The Wild Hunt," is also in nine sections, with soloists, choruses, and a "melodrama" (that is, a speech recitation with orchestral accompaniment) of "The Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind," finishing with a final chorus. In all respects, Gurrelieder follows the original poem by Jacobsen, although Schoenberg sets the final seven lines of "The Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind" for chorus instead of lone speaker, an appropriate finale.
In his own account of the chronology of Gurrelieder, Schoenberg states that the whole composition was finished in 1901, with only the final chorus in rough sketch and the orchestration more or less worked out. However, the pressure of earning a living (he claims that he wrote more than a thousand pages of arrangements for operetta composers), the apparent hopelessness of securing a performance of a work of such magnitude, and, probably most important, the changes of style and expression that were taking place in his own compositions, caused him to put aside this work for a number of years. It was only the success of a performance of the first part of Gurrelieder in a piano arrangement in 1910 (two pianos were used for the orchestral introduction and interludes) that led Schoenberg once more to pick up the work. He made a few revisions, mostly involving the King's Fool's song and connections between sections, but he did not revise the earlier parts of the work. Thus its later sections, with their more transparent orchestration, sound quite different from the first part - a matter he was well aware of. The huge orchestral apparatus to fit this monumental project consisted of 25 woodwinds, 25 brass instruments, four harps, a celesta, 16 different percussion instruments (including iron chains), and a very large string section to match. Although this ensemble outdoes even the orchestras of Wagner, Bruckner, or Mahler in size, it is used discreetly, often broken up into chamber-like groups - particularly in Part III, with many divisions among the strings (as in the opening) and frequent solo passages. The intent with such large forces is to characterize each section with its own particular sound. Part III, for example, is especially rich in woodwind and brass writing over the whole range of the orchestra, but whereas ten horns are used in unison to blast out the summons to Waldemar's vassals before their "Wild Hunt," solo muted strings and quiet woodwinds alone illumine the light texture of the "Summer Wind" melodrama in the last portion of the work. The score also calls for three four-part men's choruses, representing Waldemar's vassals, and an eight-part mixed chorus, which appears only at the end. The choral writing shows Schoenberg's great contrapuntal skill, notable especially in the many canonic passages that are found throughout Part III.
To unify the entire work, Schoenberg uses a system of characteristic leading motifs. Alban Berg, in his guide to Gurrelieder, enumerates some 35 main motifs depicting not only the principal characters but also aspects of nature (sunset, sunrise, galloping horses, etc.) and various emotional states (longing, Jove's love, peasant's fear, the mourning for Tove, etc.). At the opposite ends of the two-hour work are the descending motif of the opening, representing sunset, and the ascending motif of the concluding chorus, representing sunrise. Tove's love motif, first heard in the sixth song of Part I ("Now I say to thee for the first time"), pervades the rest of the work. The premonition of death associated with the tolling of midnight appears first in Waldemar's seventh song ("Tis the hour of midnight"). All these motifs - and many more - are woven into an intricate symphonic web in the purely instrumental sections. For example, as many as seven distinct motifs are presented in the orchestral bridge following Waldemar's last song in Part I and leading to the "Song of the Wood-Dove" This section is a veritable tone-poem on its own, depicting the flight of the Wood-Dove through the forest carrying its ill-fated message. The main instrumental section in Part III follows the summons of Waldemar's henchmen - by the ten unison horns - and introduces motifs associated with the wild night-ride through the heavens.
In the vocal treatment, the nine songs of Part I and those of Part III are real songs, neither arias nor Wagnerian "endless melodies"; they are more akin to dramatic lieder in their structure and lyricism, if not in the demands made upon the singer. However, in the melodrama of the "Summer's Wind" Schoenberg uses for the first time Sprechgesang, inflected and rhythmic speech patterns. But unlike the speaker in his later Pierrot lunaire, the speaker here follows only the most general speech inflections, adhering only to the rhythmic notation in the score. The effect is to set this part of the composition outside the story line - as a reflection on the legend by the poet himself - as well as to prepare for the massive final chorus.
Schoenberg completed Gurrelieder in 1911. The first performance, under Franz Schreker, was given in Vienna two years later and was a great success, though the composer, disillusioned by the hostile reception of many of his newer works, felt that this success had come too late. His work was conceived far in advance of works like Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) and Eighth Symphony, which came several years later. Thus one can well understand the feelings expressed at the conclusion of his 1937 speech "How One Becomes Lonely," where, in referring to Gurrelieder, he states: "[I hope that to my music] there might be a sunrise such as is depicted in the final chorus of my Gurrelieder. There might come the promise of a new day of sunlight in music such as I would like to offer to the world." Perhaps that hope has by now been realized. It is time once again for the cactus to bloom.
- Leonard Stein (1916-2004) was the Director of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC from its founding in 1975 to 1991. He also served as Schoenberg's teaching assistant at UCLA and as his personal assistant beginning in 1951.