About this work
In the spring of 1900, Arnold Schoenberg -- having just completed the remarkable sextet Verklärte Nacht -- began work on selected poems from Jens Peter Jacobsen's massive Gurrelieder, intending to enter the results in a competition. Soon, however, Schoenberg realized that a far more extensive treatment of Jacobsen's text was necessary to fulfill his musical vision; throughout the summer months, Schoenberg proceeded to sketch one of the longest and most exceedingly complex masterpieces of late Romanticism. Although composition was completed in 1901, the composer did not complete the orchestration until 1911; during the intervening years Schoenberg's musical world had been irrevocably transformed, and so we find that many portions of the work were stylistically "updated" in the process to reflect a more forward-looking perspective.
The nearly two-hour length of Gurrelieder is fitting, considering the sheer numbers required for its performance: the work is scored for vocal soloists, chorus and an orchestra that outdoes even Mahler at his grandest. All the well-trodden Romantic themes and anti-themes are present in Jacobsen's verse: tragic love, death, anger at and rejection of the divine will, and even a frenzied hunt scene; yet the mold into which the composer pours these dark sentiments is perhaps not so finally and irreparably doom-ridden as Jacobsen might have intended. Even the Wagnerian influence, on which Schoenberg's musical treatment draws rather heavily, is made to serve an altogether more optimistic purpose. Here is no world-ending epic, but rather a sorrowful saga that ends with the hopeful beginning of a new day.
Gurrelieder is cast into three large sections. The purely instrumental prelude is a musical evocation of the sunset. The solo trumpet gives a resigned, descending motivic outline to the elaborate orchestral texture. With the gentle first song, Waldemar (the tenor) begins to sing of his love for Tove (the soprano), after which she returns the favor. The orchestra is cut to a minimum: a handful of woodwinds and solo strings are all that Schoenberg requires to give a delightfully imitative support to the soprano. Several more love songs, concluding with the peaceful "Du wunderliche Tove," precede a lengthy orchestral passage that recapitulates and expands upon the melodic material that Schoenberg has spun up to this point. A mezzo-soprano breaks in suddenly for the famous "Song of the Forest Dove," to tell of the murder of Tove. Part I of Gurrelieder ends as Waldemar sinks into a passionate despair.
Part Two is both much shorter than the previous section and of far greater pathos. Schoenberg redirects the final harmonies of Part I into a sorrowful orchestral prelude into which the woodwinds, grief-stricken, sing a tune drawn from the "Song of the Forest Dove." Waldemar rants and raves against the divine injustice that took his beloved Tove from him.
Waldemar calls a massive hunt together as Part III begins. After a grim figure on the Wagner-tubas the orchestra bursts forth in frenzied chase, soon joined by the entire chorus as Waldemar threatens Heaven itself. As the fury is spent, a dense contrapuntal passage brings us towards C major, and with it the sunrise. Perhaps significantly, the trumpet gesture that began Gurrelieder is given in exact inversion by the entire trumpet section to end the work as the sun comes up again in radiant splendor.