Gurrelieder! Schönberg’s wonderful, impossible youthful masterpiece has had two outings in this country during the last six months. The first, by Mark Elder and the Hallé in Manchester, has been excellently described by Katie Barnes in these pages. The aim had been to follow it up with a review by me of the Rattle/LSO performance at the Proms. As things turned out, the Manchester performance utterly outclassed the London one, both in general and in almost all particulars. It gives me scant satisfaction to go into detail about what is wrong with a performance; and so it is better to use the space to draw attention of anybody not yet in love with it to Gurrelieder itself, particularly as it is to be performed at the Festival Hall next June.

Gurrelieder is in so many ways the ultimate flowering of the late Romantic German rose: heavy petals of Wagner, Straussian opulence, almost overblown, the self-lacerating thorns of Mahler, swooning melodies, luscious and excruciating harmonies, they all sing again in Schönberg’s setting of the poem by Jens Peter-Jacobsen, best known in England as the literary source for Delius’ Fennimore and Gerda. Gurrelieder is set in pre-medieval Scandinavia. Written out on music paper of 48 staves, the first part of is a sequence of arias for King Waldemar and his great love, Tove. The arias chart a super-Tristan tryst at her Scandinavian castle, Gurre, and they are followed by an impassioned lament for a Wood-dove. In music of-heart breaking beauty she tells of Tove’s murder by the jealous Queen, Hedwig. Orchestrally Schönberg called for a super-Wagner armamentarium that has seldom been equalled, but the batteries of instruments are rarely unleashed; Gurrelieder is rather a work of vast shimmering tapestries, shot through with gold or purple. Only at my first ever experience of the work, which, under Antal Dorati in Vienna in June 1961, did Schönberg get his 12 double basses and his 40 violins, even though performances today generally allow him his 10 horns, 8 clarinets and 7 each of trumpets and trombones. Happily the Manchester performance came very close, by combining the BBC Northern Orchestra and the Hallé.

However, Gurrelieder goes beyond Wagner and Tristan in other ways than its extraordinary sound-apparatus. The torches hurled down at Mark’s castle in Cornwall flare up again at castle Gurre. With her “mächtig verschönenden Tod” (mighty, beautifying death), Tove may take up Isolde’s death wish and try it on for size, but Waldemar will have none of it. He will not submit to death, nor the fates nor to God. Indeed, he curses God as a tyrant for a universe where he can deprive a subject of his ultimate possession. For this Waldemar is himself condemned beyond his death, to ride for centuries through the nights, leading a ghostly hunt of his undead subjects, who likewise curse Waldemar for their hated conscription. But at least Waldemar is lucky to belong to the 19th Century, where he has a God to curse; our own agnostic era offers us no possibility of such divine scapegoats for the human condition.

At the same time Gurrelieder is Janus-faced, looking back in parts 1 and 2 to Romanticism’s gorgeous coda, and forwards in its third part to the luminous, crystalline structures of Anton Webern. It eventually moves forward into our own time, when it is not only the loves of Waldemar and Tove but even the night-ride that have passed beyond memory, not even causing a rustle of leaves in the wind. It enters the world of today, our own brave new world of economics and twitter accounts, of carbon emissions and genetic engineering. Even so Schönberg had one final card to play. The final four minutes are given up to an immense chorus of blazing affirmation as night passes and a new dawn breaks in glory. It also replenishes music itself through a powerful and prescient realisation of the tone-row composer’s later assertion that there is still much good music to be written in C major. Ideally it needs a thousand singers to do justice to this supreme declaration of life, ever replenishing, ever radiant, full of dominion and power. 

What an extraordinary item in the suitcase of the 26-year-old traipsing round Europe!

Paul Dawson-Bowling

This review is taken from edition 259 of Harmony