For me Gurre-Lieder is one of the most beautiful works ever composed. From the moment the music gently begins to swell, I am in heaven. The music, like a Dybbuk, takes hold of me completely and there is no escape possible.
Not that I mind. Feeling completely immersed in something, identifying with something, will give you a surreal feeling of being set afloat. A bit scary, yes, but also a bit like an initiation. Love, murder, an immense sadness that drives you mad, the fight against God, the power of nature: everything is there and it is fully integrated into the music.
The famous Viennese critic Julius Korngold called the work “a flowering cactus”. A beautiful metaphor.
In ‘Sehnt die Sonne’, the last piece of the cantata, Schönberg achieves something truly unprecedented, although he does not (yet) know it himself: he is building a bridge between past and present. Think of the finale of Iris by Mascagni. And think of Schönberg’s own masterpiece, A Survivor from Warsaw, composed after the war.
Below, ‘Sehnt die Sonne’ in the performance of the (not discussed here) Berliner Philharmoniker olv Simon Rattle:
The premiere, on February 23, 1913, in Vienna, was conducted by Franz Schreker, with 757 musicians participating. The Dutch premiere, conducted by Schönberg himself, took place in March 1921. The idea of performing the work scenically did come up; apparently there were plans for it as early as 1927, but Schönberg has always resisted the idea.
It’s a cliché, I know, but you must hear the Gurre-Lieder live at least once in your life. No recording, no matter how great, can match the overwhelming power of a live concert.