Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Arnold Schoenberg's "Gurre-Lieder": the ultimate post-romantic opus


I recently splurged on a modern recording of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Gurre-Lieder”.  This one, on Berlin Classics, has Herbert Kegel conducting the Dresden Philharmonic and choirs from Berlin, Leipzig, and Mens’ Chorus from Prague, with Eva-Maria Bundschuh (Sop) as Tove, Manfred Jung (tenor) as Waldemar.

The 1979 recording with Ozawa and the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Chorus on Philips had been underwhelming.

This new recording lasts a full two hours, and the grandeur of Schoenberg’s youthful masterpiece works with the slower tempos.

It’s common for pre-atonal Schoenberg to be regarded as post-Mahler.  That’s an oversimplification.  I think some of Britten’s work (the War Requiem and the biggest operas) sounds more like the direction Mahler might have gone had he lived longer.  Schoenberg’s  “young manhood” (he composed the first part in his twenties but finished it at around age 36) really sounds closer to the “original” Wagner (even Liszt) than Mahler. It’s easy to imagine how Lars Van Trier could have interspersed some of the orchestral interludes (especially the last one) with the Wagner “Tristan” music in “Melancholia”.

The key scheme of the work, however, may be an accidental or intentional completion of Mahler.  The Second Symphony starts in C Minor and ends in the relative Major E-flat.  The Eighth Symphony, just performed by Gustavo Dudamel on Fathom, stays in E-flat. But this work, which is somewhere between oratiorio, song cycle, and cantata, and symphony, starts in E-flat major and actually takes us back to C Major.  The overwhelming conclusion, “FFF”, may constitute Schoenberg’s only C Major “lost chord”, but it is surely one of the grand closings of all choral-symphonic music, almost outdoing the two well-known Mahler works just mentioned.  Would Dudamel conduct this work?   Kegel makes the last two minutes (after the final chromatic descent to C Major) much more monumental than had Ozawa (who takes it much too fast – a problem also with Dudamel in many of his interpretations).  Could Schoenberg’s depiction of a sunrise (no doubt inspired by Gotterdamerung)  have inspired a similarly spirited close (“Tomorrow Comes”) by another composer named Schoenberg?

The story of the work is derived from poetry by Jens Peter Jacobsen, and at first glance it sounds like fantasy in the Toiken world.  But it defines the structure of the work.  A norse king Waldemar has a secret love of Tove, a common girl.  A jealous queen or wife conspires, in soap opera fashion, for her death.  The long first section (68 minutes) concludes in a dour B-flat minor. 

The short second section has Waldemar  in an existential argument with God for destroying Waldemar’s source of pride and ego.   In Part 3, Waldemar and his vassals (making the male choruses) go on a “wild hunt”, to discover their ghostly nature and disappear as the sun rises.  Waldemar (spoken for in caricature by a gester) must come to terms with how he will manage his own ego given the "common self" that God would make of him before passing into eternity, as new life (“generativity”) still goes on.

The music is simultaneously thick and transparent.  It surrounds us with the voluptuous beauty of heterosexual passion that would make Masters and Johnson proud.  The music lover will feel that many of the themes and passages are familiar, as if they had been frequently used in 40s film noir without credit (I suspect they have been).  We don’t think of Arnold Schoenberg as a melodist, but some of the themes, include the closing hymn to the Sun, could almost have fit into “Miserables”.   They are part of our everyday musical awareness, and few people realize it. This is a work that helps define our civilization, almost as much as Beethoven. 

The story behind the cantata bears some curious parallels to my own screenplay (main blog, Monday, Feb. 20).  In my opus, “Tovina” is the “ordinary girl” and super homemaker in the afterworld ready to teach “cadets” (and maybe angels, or at least the “vassals”) how to be real men.  The character parallel to me (it’s a stretch to call me Waldemar, but there is someone who corresponds to the jester)  has to come to terms with the heavenly demands for practical skills and neighborliness before ego and self-expression, and Tovina can teach him that.  But in my setting, Tovina (eg Tove) doesn’t pass away, but she teaches “me” how to be jealous so that I won’t.   The “summer wind” may be more like the space wind  from coronal mass ejections.  But I have my own music for this.

This YouTube video reminds me of "Tree of Life".  Or maybe a landing on "Earth 2".  I can't wait for Hollywood to discover the conclusion of this piece.  Lars Van Trier, where are you?

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Update:  July 30, 2014


A blog called "Down with Tyranny" has a further detailed discussion of the work here

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