The Gurre-Lieder took an unusually long time for Schönberg to compose; he worked on them from 1900 to 1911, albeit with long interruptions. He dealt with the piece most intensively between March 1900 and March 1901 when, according to his own statement, he had already “finished” it. He was occupied with the orchestration between 1901 and 1903, after which he left the Gurre-Lieder untouched for fully seven years.
During those years he ranged far away from the late-Romantic style which had influenced his earlier work on the Gurre-Lieder; when he finished the orchestration in 1910/1911, he considered the piece a document of a style of composition and an intellectual attitude which already seemed alien to him – although that did not detract from the work’s importance: “It is the key to my entire development. It shows sides of me which I do not reveal later on, or, from a different approach. It explains how everything had to happen as it did later on, and that is enormously important for my work – that one can follow the man and his development from that point on.”
The story – involving King Waldemar and his beloved Tove, who is eventually murdered by the jealous Queen – can be traced back in various versions to the Middle Ages and Denmark’s trove of national sagas. The material underwent many changes in the course of time, as specific place names were added and the restlessly roaming King was introduced and the legend was eventually projected onto King Waldemar IV, who died in 1375 in Castle Gurre. This is the version which Jens Peter Jacobsen adopted as the basis for his 1868 poem, which strongly attracted Schönberg; Jacobsen had been intensively involved with religious issues, ultimately turning away from Christianity and embracing Darwinism (this is especially powerful in the Gurre-Lieder’s constellation revolving around Nature – God/Love – Death).
A competition inviting the submission of a Lieder cycle for voice and piano announced by the Vienna Tonkünstlerverein provided Schönberg with the direct impetus to compose the piece. His teacher and friend Alexander Zemlinsky recalls: “Wanting to compete for the prize, Schönberg composed a few Lieder to texts by Jacobsen. I played them for him (as we know, Schönberg did not play the piano); the Lieder were very beautiful and truly novel – but we both had the impression that they would have little chance of winning a prize for that very reason.” Accordingly, Schönberg did not submit the composition, deciding instead to rework it for voice and orchestra, an ensemble which ultimately grew to a colossal size: five soloists, three four-voice male choruses, an eight-voice mixed chorus and an enormous orchestra.
The first part of the Gurre-Lieder is comprised of a prelude, nine songs for Waldemar and Tove, a long orchestral interlude and the Song of the Wood-Dove. Unlike Gustav Mahler (who, in Das Lied von der Erde, merged a series of six orchestra Lieder with symphonic form), Schönberg yet sought no corresponding equivalences, although each individual Lied contains thematic references which combine into a broadly extended form. The recurrence of certain thematic ideas, tightly woven in context, provides internal cohesion, for instance, and motifs reappearing from song to song develop from ideas characteristic of each; in his guide to the Gurre-Lieder, Alban Berg speaks of the “rebirth […] of a theme from new motifs” and “typically Schönbergian artistry.”
Transitional passages provide further links between the self-contained songs. Berg’s analysis of Tove’s O, wenn des Mondes Strahlen ruhig gleiten describes it “like a song which segues to another one, how a transitional model forms from offshoots and motivic components already containing important new seeds of the new song.”
These techniques manifest the principle of “thematic development,” which occurs on two levels: that of each song and that of the piece as a whole. The sequence of Songs 1 – 9 makes up a thematic process revealing a quasi-symphonic conception determined by premonition and fulfillment. The melodic gestalt bringing this process to its conclusion (So laß uns die goldene Schale leeren) is the intensification of an unprepossessing idea from the first song, Nun dämpft die Dämmrung jeden Ton.
The main voice and the accompaniment are always differentiated in the Tove and Waldemar songs, whereby the main voice is not always in the sung line. And yet the cycle’s first part is dominated by the singing; here, themes and motifs returning in Part Three are not so much “orchestra motifs” as they are “singing motifs.” They do not form a “tissue over the entire work” (Richard Wagner); they remain clinging to the verse from which they derive, while the orchestra turns the harmonic structure into an accompaniment richly differentiated in sound. Thematic-motivic work appears above all in the interludes, where the orchestra comments on the songs. Thus, in the large-scale exposition in Part One, the orchestra makes up for what the singing cannot do, viz. it comprehensively interlinks the themes.
The “idea of singing a song” manifested in the sections of alternation between Tove and Waldemar is destroyed by the instrumental transition to The Song of the Wood-Dove (bar 944); the abrupt tutti clap in bar 950 and the subsequent cor anglais solo again express what the singing cannot: the attack on Tove and her death. Schönberg portrays the turning point poetically and musically as Remembrance – Anticipation. The Wood-Dove, the Speaker and Waldemar himself recall the past (Waldemar and Tove’s togetherness), while The Song of Klaus Narr dwells on Waldemar’s arrest at the time of happy love long ago.
The anticipations nurtured in Part I stand in opposition to those moments of remembrance; together with Tove, Waldemar presages the reality to come in Part III, while song melodies from Part I reminisce, transformed into orchestra motifs. Unlike a song in its character, this movement yet reflects on lost happiness in love, negating it in the way it expressed – in song.
© Arnold Schönberg Center