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Ruins of Gurre Castle, 2007

Gurre-Lieder is a massive cantata for five vocal soloists, narrator, chorus and large orchestra, composed by Arnold Schoenberg, on poems by the Danish novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen (translated from Danish to German by Robert Franz Arnold). The title means Songs of Gurre, referring to Gurre Castle in Denmark, scene of the medieval love-tragedy (related in Jacobsen's poems) revolving around the Danish national legend of the love of the Danish king Valdemar Atterdag (Valdemar IV, 1320–1375, spelt Waldemar by Schoenberg) for his mistress Tove, and her subsequent murder by Valdemar's jealous Queen Helvig (a legend which is historically more likely connected with his ancestor Valdemar I).


In 1900, Schoenberg began composing the work as a song cycle for soprano, tenor and piano for a competition run by the Wiener Tonkünstler-Verein (Vienna Composers' Association). It was written in a lush, late-romantic style heavily influenced by Richard Wagner. According to Schoenberg, however, he "finished them half a week too late for the contest, and this decided the fate of the work."[1] Later that year, he radically expanded his original conception, composing links between the first nine songs as well as adding a prelude, the Wood Dove's Song, and the whole of Parts Two and Three. He worked on this version sporadically until around 1903, when he abandoned the mammoth task of orchestrating the work and moved on to other projects.[citation needed]

By the time he returned to the piece in 1910, he had already written his first acknowledged atonal works, such as the Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 11, Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 and Erwartung, Op.17. He had also come under the spell of Gustav Mahler, whom he had met in 1903 and whose influence may be discernible in the orchestration of the latter parts of the Gurre-Lieder. Whereas Parts One and Two are clearly Wagnerian in conception and execution, Part Three features the pared-down orchestral textures and kaleidoscopic shifts between small groups of instruments favoured by Mahler in his later symphonies. In Des Sommerwindes wilde Jagd, Schoenberg also introduced the first use of Sprechgesang (or Sprechstimme), a technique he would explore more fully in Pierrot Lunaire of 1912.[2]

The orchestration was finally completed in November 1911.[3]

Premieres and early recordings[edit]

Franz Schreker conducted the premiere of the work in Vienna on February 23, 1913. By this time, Schoenberg was disenchanted with the style and character of the piece and was even dismissive of its positive reception, saying "I was rather indifferent, if not even a little angry. I foresaw that this success would have no influence on the fate of my later works. I had, during these thirteen years, developed my style in such a manner that to the ordinary concertgoer, it would seem to bear no relation to all preceding music. I had to fight for every new work; I had been offended in the most outrageous manner by criticism; I had lost friends and I had completely lost any belief in the judgement of friends. And I stood alone against a world of enemies."[4] At the premiere, Schoenberg did not even face the members of the audience, many of whom were fierce critics of his who were newly won over by the work; instead, he bowed to the musicians, but kept his back turned to the cheering crowd. Violinist Francis Aranyi called it "the strangest thing that a man in front of that kind of a hysterical, worshipping mob has ever done."[5]

It would be wrong to assume that Schoenberg considered Gurre-Lieder a composition of no merit, however. A few months after the premiere he wrote to Wassily Kandinsky, "I certainly do not look down on this work, as the journalists always suppose. For although I have certainly developed very much since those days, I have not improved, but my style has simply got better... I consider it important that people give credence to the elements in this work which I retained later."[6]

Schoenberg's champion and former pupil, the BBC programme planner Edward Clark, invited the composer to London to conduct the first British performance on January 27, 1928.[7][8] Clark had tried to have the premiere the previous year, on April 14, 1927, but these plans fell through.[9]

Leopold Stokowski conducted the American premiere on April 8, 1932, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, soloists and chorus. His two succeeding performances (April 9 and 11) were recorded 'live' by RCA (see below). They issued the third one on twenty-seven 78rpm sides and it remained the only recording of the work in the catalogue until the advent of LP. This recording was later reissued on LP and CD by RCA. Bell Laboratories had been experimentally recording the Philadelphia Orchestra in high fidelity and stereophonic sound; RCA used the new technology to record the performances on 33 1/3 rpm masters.[citation needed]

A performance of the music, without intermission, runs over an hour and a half. Riccardo Chailly's 1990 Decca recording, for example lasts more than 100 minutes and takes two compact discs.[10]

In 2014 the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam was the first company to stage the Gurre-Lieder as an opera directed by Pierre Audi.[11]


The cantata is divided into three parts. Whereas the first two parts are scored for solo voices and orchestra only, the third part introduces a further two soloists, a narrator, three four-part male choruses as well as a full mixed chorus.

In the first part of the work, the love of Waldemar for Tove and the theme of misfortune and impending death are recounted in nine songs for soprano and tenor with orchestral accompaniment. A long orchestral interlude leads to the Wood Dove's Song which tells of Tove's death and Waldemar's grief.

The brief second part consists of just one song in which the bereft and distraught Waldemar accuses God of cruelty.

In the third part, Waldemar calls his dead vassals from their graves. The undead's restless roaming and savage hunt around the castle at night is thunderously depicted by the male chorus, until the horde, driven by the radiance of the sunrise, recedes back into death's sleep. During this, a peasant sings of his fear of the eerie army and there is a humorous interlude in the grotesque song of the fool Klaus who is forced to ride with the macabre host when he would rather rest in his grave. A gentle orchestral interlude depicting the light of dawn leads into the melodrama The Summer Wind's Wild Hunt, a narration about the morning wind, which flows into the mixed-choral conclusion Seht die Sonne! ("See the Sun!").

Part one[edit]

  1. Orchestral Prelude
  2. Nun dämpft die Dämm'rung
  3. O, wenn des Mondes Strahlen
  4. Ross! Mein Ross!
  5. Sterne jubeln
  6. So tanzen die Engel vor Gottes Thron nicht
  7. Nun sag ich dir zum ersten Mal
  8. Es ist Mitternachtszeit
  9. Du sendest mir einen Liebesblick
  10. Du wunderliche Tove!
  11. Orchestral Interlude
  12. Tauben von Gurre! (Wood Dove's Song)

Part two[edit]

Herrgott, weisst du, was du tatest

Part three[edit]

  1. Erwacht, König Waldemars Mannen wert!
  2. Deckel des Sarges klappert
  3. Gegrüsst, o König
  4. Mit Toves Stimme flüstert der Wald
  5. Ein seltsamer Vogel ist so'n Aal
  6. Du strenger Richter droben
  7. Der Hahn erhebt den Kopf zur Kraht

Des Sommerwindes wilde Jagd[edit]

(The Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind)

  1. Prelude
  2. Herr Gänsefuss, Frau Gänsekraut
  3. Seht die Sonne!


Gurre-Lieder is scored for an unusually large ensemble consisting of the following forces (approximately 150 instrumentalists and 200 singers):

Selected recordings[edit]

  • Leopold Stokowski (1932), with soloists Jeanette Vreeland, Rose Bampton, Paul Althouse, Robert Bette, Abrasha Robofsky, Benjamin de Loache. Recordings were made during live performances at the Metropolitan Opera Philadelphia, in two distinct versions with the same personnel, on 9 and 11 April 1932.[12]
Stokowski (1949) recorded the Song of the Wood-Dove in Erwin Stein's edition in 1949, with Martha Lipton, mezzo-soprano, and the New York Philharmonic (Columbia Records; reissued on Cala Records).
Stokowski (1961) returned to Gurre-Lieder in 1961 for performances in Philadelphia and again in Scotland, where he and the London Symphony Orchestra opened that year's Edinburgh International Festival with the work. Recordings of the Philadelphia and Edinburgh radio broadcasts have survived, with the 1961 Edinburgh Festival performance having been issued in 2012 on the Guild Historical label. The soloists in that performance were James McCracken, Gré Brouwenstijn, Nell Rankin, Forbes Robinson, John Lanigan and Alvar Lidell (GHCD 2388/89).


  1. ^ Newlin, Dika. 1978. Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg. Rev. ed. New York: Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-02203-2
  2. ^ Soder, Aidan. 2008. "Sprechstimme In Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire - A Study of Vocal Performance Practice" (The Edwin Mellen Press, 2008) page 5. ISBN 978-0-7734-5178-0
  3. ^ Malcolm MacDonald: 'Schoenberg' (Oxford University Press, 2008)[full citation needed]
  4. ^ Schoenberg, Arnold. 1975. Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg. Edited by Leonard Stein, with translations by Leo Black. New York: St. Martins Press; London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-520-05294-3.
  5. ^ Ross, Alex. 2007. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-374-24939-7.
  6. ^ Schoenberg, Arnold (trans. Crawford) (1984) Arnold Schoenberg – Wassily Kandinsky, Letters, Pictures and Documents, Faber, p. 60
  7. ^ Joseph Henry Auner, A Schoenberg Reader: Documents of a Life
  8. ^ David Lambourn, Henry Wood and Schoenberg
  9. ^ Jennifer Doctor, The BBC and Ultra-Modern Music, 1922–1936: Shaping a Nation's Tastes
  10. ^ "Schoenberg: Gurrelieder: Music". Retrieved 2014-05-26. 
  11. ^ "Schoenberg's Gurrelieder in Full Glory" by George Loomis, The New York Times, 15 September 2014
  12. ^ The 9 April performance was released on two 'Pearl' CDs in 1993. The 11 April version was issued on LP, RCA Victor LCT-6012, with two inset masters recorded 4/5 May 1932, Discography of American Historical Recordings, s.v. "RCA Victor LCT-6012 (LP) Gurre-Lieder," accessed January 1, 2016
  13. ^ A. Achenbach, 'Michael Gielen conducts Schoenberg's Gurrelieder', Classical Source

External links[edit]