Sunday, May 02, 2010

Sunday Classics: Amid the wonders of "Gurre-Lieder," Schoenberg pushed tonality to its limits


Soprano Karita Mattila sings Tove's third and [at 3:53] fourth solos from Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder with Andrew Davis conducting the BBC Symphony in this July 1994 Proms performance. (Tove's first two solos are similarly combined in a single video file, giving us her entire part.) by Ken There's so much to be said about and around Gurre-Lieder that it's easy to be distracted from the music. Which is a shame, because even though many of those things need to be said, this is music of such extravagant wonderfulness that nothing ought to distract from it. So for today we're just going to focus on the music, and we might as well plunge right in. This is the orchestral prelude: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik, cond.
DG, recorded live, March 9-12, 1965 In all, allowing for individual performance variations, Gurre-Lieder runs about an hour and 50 minutes, of which roughly the first hour, the first of the work's three parts, tells the story of the tragically curtailed affair between the Danish king Waldemar and the lovely Tove, whom he has stashed in Gurre castle.
WELCOME TO GURRE (per Wikipedia) Gurre Castle was a royal castle in North Zealand [Sjælland on the map at right] in Denmark which lies on the outskirts of Helsingør towards the town of Tikøb on the lake at Gurre (Gurre Sø). The castle, now a ruin, was built in the 12th century and added 4 towers and a perimeter wall in the 1350's; it was excavated in the 19th century (from 1835) and is now restored. It is first mentioned in court chronicles in 1364, when Pope Urban V sent a gift of relics to its chapel. The castle is associated with a legend about a Danish king named Waldemar (usually identified with the 14th-century Valdemar IV Atterdag), his love for his beautiful mistress Tove Lille (Little Tove) and the jealousy of Queen Helvig. Over the centuries, this core saga was enriched by other legends, eventually growing into a national myth of Denmark. Valdemar IV died in the castle in 1375. The myth was put into poetical form by the novelist and poet Jens Peter Jacobsen; a German translation of his poems forms the text of the huge cantata Gurrelieder by Arnold Schoenberg.
To return to the orchestral prelude, note the shimmering, translucent orchestral textures in the introduction, despite the massive orchestra for which the piece is scored -- we're at the very height of musical Romanticism here. I think we should hear the introduction again: Staatskapelle Dresden, Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond. Teldec, recorded August 1995 At this point we move to the first of nine solos, alternating between Waldemar and Tove. We never actually hear them together, but only separately as, at first, they anticipate being together and, eventually, come together. If I've delayed venturing farther into the piece, it's because with Waldemar's first solo we encounter an obstacle, a huge one. The voice for which Schoenberg wrote the part, by far the longest and most important in the piece, is a full-fledged Wagnerian Heldentenor, or heroic tenor, demanding the same top-to-bottom power, beauty, and finesse we hope for -- and pretty much never get -- in a Tannhäuser, Tristan, or Siegfried. His very opening lines have him at the bottom of his range, really in baritone territory -- par for the course for a Heldentenor but not for any other kind of tenor. There's really been only one tenor we have any record of who met all the challenges of Heldentenor-dom, Lauritz Melchior. I've often wondered whether Melchior ever considered singing Waldemar, or was pressed to consider doing so. In any case, it's one of the tragically missed opportunities. As far as I know, Jon Vickers never sang Waldemar either, which would certainly have been interesting. Short of that, the piece has depended on an assortment of imposters and stopgaps, with one notable exception, as I mentioned last night: James McCracken, the Waldemar of Seiji Ozawa's 1974 and 1979 Gurre-Lieder performances with the Boston Symphony (the latter recorded by Philips), who even with his eccentricities of vocal production remains the only really vocally satisfactory Tannhäuser I've heard in the post-Melchior era. That said, let's hear Waldemar's first solo.
THE TEXTS OF GURRE-LIEDER (AND THE SPELLING) You can find complete German and English texts at As for the spelling Gurre-Lieder, as opposed to the frequently encountered Gurrelieder (which is entirely legitimate, given the German propensity for the compounding of nouns), I was assured some years back by a friend and colleague who may be the most fastidious person I know in such matters that the hyphenated form was Schoenberg's preferred spelling.
SCHOENBERG: Gurre-Lieder: Waldemar's opening solo, "Nun dämpft die Dämm'rung jeden Ton von Meer und Land" ("Now twilight damps every sound of sea and land") Gary Lakes (t), Waldemar; New York Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta, cond.
 Sony, recorded May 23-28, 1991 Siegfried Jerusalem (t), Waldemar; RSO Berlin, Riccardo Chailly, cond. Decca, recorded May-June 1985 Now let's listen to the orchestral prelude flowing into Waldemar's opening solo. It's a measure of the gap between the demands of Waldemar's writing and the standard we've come to expect that the American heavyweight (in all senses) tenor Arturo Sergi doesn't sound half bad. SCHOENBERG: Gurre-Lieder: Orchestral Prelude and Waldemar's solo Arturo Sergi (t), Waldemar; Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Josef Krips, cond. Live performance, 1969 Now let's hear Tove's answering solo, sung by the same sopranos we heard last night singing Tove's third solo so exceptionally. SCHOENBERG: Gurre-Lieder: Tove's first solo, "O, wenn des Mondes Strahlen leise gleiten" ("O, when the moon's rays glide gently") Gundula Janowitz (s), Tove; Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Josef Krips. Live performance, 1969 Jessye Norman (s), Tove; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, cond. Philips, recorded live, April 1979 With great reluctance, because the intervening music is so beautiful, we're going to jump ahead to Tove's third solo, the emotional heart of Part I. We're not going to hear it any better than we heard it sung last night by Janowitz and Norman, but I just want to hear it sung more. SCHOENBERG: Gurre-Lieder: Tove's third solo, "Nun sag' ich dir zum ersten Mal" ("Now I tell you for the first time") Inge Borkh (s), Tove; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik, cond. DG, recorded live, March 9-12, 1965 Eva Marton (s), Tove; New York Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta, cond. Sony, recorded May 23-28, 1991 Karita Mattila (s), Tove; Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle, cond. EMI, recorded November 2001 We're going to jump again, to the hush into which the Voice of the Wood Dove enters, announcing the news of Tove's murder, and then we'll hear it linked to the Waldemar-Tove story by the orchestral interlude we heard last week:
SCHOENBERG: Gurre-Lieder: "Lied der Waldtaube" ("Song of the Wood Dove") Florence Quivar (ms), Voice of the Wood Dove; New York Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta, cond. Sony, recorded May 23-28, 1991 SCHOENBERG: Gurre-Lieder: Orchestral Interlude and "Song of the Wood Dove" Brigitte Fassbaender (ms), Voice of the Wood Dove; RSO Berlin, Riccardo Chailly, cond. Decca, recorded May-June 1985 Anne Sofie von Otter (ms), Voice of the Wood Dove; Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle, cond. EMI, recorded November 2001 Before dipping too briefly into Parts II and III (actually, we're going to hear Part II in its four-minute-plus entirety!), let's go back over the parts of Part I we've heard, and some we haven't, in the recording I described as by a wide margin the best we've had of Gurre-Lieder, the 1979 Ozawa-BSO-Philips. SCHOENBERG: Gurre-Lieder, Part I: Orchestral Prelude and Waldemar's opening solo Tove's third solo, "Nun sag' ich dir zum Erstenmal" Tove's fourth solo, "Du sendest mir einen Liebesblick"; Waldemar's fifth solo, "Du wunderliche Tove"; Orchestral Interlude and "Song of the Wood Dove" James McCracken (t), Waldemar; Jessye Norman (s), Tove; Tatiana Troyanos (ms), Voice of the Wood Dove; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, cond. Philips, recorded live, April 1979 Now, as promised, we hear the whole of Part II: the grief-stricken Waldemar's angry complaint to God in response to the death of Tove. As I think even the least experience listener will hear, the seismic dislocation of the world order produced by Tove's murder similarly unhinges the composer's musical vocabulary. We hear him moving progressively outside the bounds of even the most chromatic version of old-style tonality.
THE CURIOUS CHRONOLOGY OF GURRE-LIEDER Gurre-Lieder was composed and partially orchestrated between 1900 and 1903, but Schoenberg (1874-1951) didn't complete the orchestration until 1910-11, by which time his compositional style had changed drastically. His rigorous 12-tone system, as a substitute for tonality, was still a decade in the future, but if he hadn't yet totally weaned himself from tonality, the break was pretty clear. And yet he apparently had little difficulty re-immersing himself in the radically different harmonic language of Gurre-Lieder. The obvious explanation is that he hadn't lost any belief in the validity of its compositional underpinning; what he had lost was the belief that he could compose any more music in that language. It always astonishes me when I encounter such vociferous resistance to the commonsense proposition -- understood by every serious classical composer of the 20th century -- that the inherited musical language was basically played out, and that at best temporary tricks and short-term expanders could be harnessed to the sheer imaginative power of individual composers to stretch the old tonal world through maybe three-quarters of the 20th century, in the hands of its most creative practitioners. It may be a coincidence, or then again it may not, that at almost the identical moment as Schoenberg, the 20th century's other most influential composer came to a more or less identical conclusion. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) clearly understood that with The Rite of Spring (1911-13) he had pushed the old tonal world as far as it could be pushed, and from then on his creative career consisted of a series of temporary musical affinities, each of which lasted only as long as he could wring some more music (very little of it the music of his that we love rather than respect) out of it; he even put in his time as a Schoenberg-style serialist. I think it's crucial to understand that neither Schoenberg nor Stravinsky ever considered for a moment that the validity of music already composed was in any way compromised. Famously, Schoenberg never lost his deep affection for the music of Brahms; his orchestration of the G minor Piano Quartet wasn't undertaken until 1937! What he clearly did question was how much more music could be written in the existing musical idiom. Music that was once genuinely fresh -- not merely "fashionable," but fresh -- doesn't lose its freshness, while music written in played-out musical language tends to sound old even when it's brand-new, giving off the sense that "we've already heard that." Note how The Rite bucks us up against the outbreak of World War I. The resulting political and social cataclysm was clearly felt in the arts as well, and in music, composers set about frantically making use of whatever combination of musical materials they could come up with, only to face the next rupture with World War II. By then the clock was clearly ticking, and only the most heroically creative composers -- which for me, as I've mentioned here frequently, means, in addition to Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) -- managed to continue making substantial additions to the permanent repertory. Believe me, I've tried to persuade myself otherwise, and occasionally I've managed it briefly -- for example, hearing performers of genius like mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani in George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children or soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson in Pierre Boulez's Improvisations on Mallarmé. Now I can't imagine how much I would have to be paid (way more, certainly, than anyone is apt to offer me) to get me to listen to either of those works again.
SCHOENBERG: Gurre-Lieder: Part II, "Herrgott, weisst du, was du tatest" ("Lord God, do you know what you did") James McCracken (t), Waldemar; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, cond. Philips, recorded live April 1979 And then we come to Part III, which is in two parts: "The Wild Hunt" of King Waldemar," and "The Summer Wind's Wild Hunt." With regret, we're going to skip over Waldemar's later adventures and hear the whole of "The Summer Wind's Wild Hunt," which culminates miraculously in a hymn to the sun in good old C major. The Speaker's narration (performed here by Werner Klemperer -- yes, Colonel Klink, but also a serious musician and actor, not to mention the son of the great conductor Otto Klemperer) is written in Schoenberg's "Sprechgesang," or "speech-song," in which pitches are indicated but to be suggested rather than actually sung. (In the 1974 Ozawa-Tanglewood performance, the role was taken by the great bass-baritone George London, whose singing voice had been disabled, but who not only declaimed the part beautifully but even sang a few phrases.) SCHOENBERG: Gurre-Lieder, from Part III: "The Summer Wind's Wild Hunt": Orchestral Prelude, Speaker's narration, and Final Chorus, "Seht die Sonne" ("See the sun") James McCracken (t), Waldemar; Jessye Norman (s), Tove (in Part I); Tatiana Troyanos (ms), Voice of the Wood Dove (in Part I); Tanglewood Festival Chorus (in Part III), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, cond. Philips, recorded live, April 1979 SUNDAY CLASSICS POSTS The current list is here.

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At 6:16 PM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

gor Stravinsky (1882-1971) clearly understood that with The Rite of Spring (1911-13) he had pushed the old tonal world as far as it could be pushed...

Maybe at the time, Ken, but you surely have to agree that composers such as Rautavaara, Britten, Shostakovich (in his late quartets), Matthews and others pushed tonality still further. It's proven surprisingly resilient to fadddists like the latterday 12-tone academics who repeatedly claimed the Western traditional tonal system was dead.

At 7:01 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

That's not what I hear, B. Much as I love the late masterpieces of both Shostakovich and Britten, I don't hear them as harmonically more radical than either The Rite or Part III of Gurre-Lieder. For me what those two heroic battlers did was to continue to find enough usable harmonic terrain to allow room for their remarkable imaginations to play.

Certainly there were composers who pushed tonality further than Stravinsky and the still-tonal Schoenberg, but they didn't so much "push the limits" of tonality as push beyond them. Richard Strauss managed to get away with harmonic chaos in Elektra, because he was finding music for the disorder of poor Elektra's brutalized mind. Still, he understood immediately that he could never go that route again -- and listen to Rosenkavalier! Certainly Prokofiev wandered into harmonically hinky territory, and while his pullback is usually attributed to the reactionary forces of Soviet Socialist Realism, the fact is that he wrote most of his greatest music after pulling back.



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