What a chillingly beautiful story the Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen developed in 1871 from an old Danish saga: a 12th-century king falls in love with a young woman and invites her to Gurre, his castle, where she is murdered by the jealous queen. Driven to near madness by grief over the loss of his beloved, the king curses God. As punishment for this blasphemy he is condemned to hunt with his vassals through the night as a restless spirit forever – always in search of his dead lover, whose voice he seems to detect in the sounds of the forest.
One can easily imagine it as the subject for a great Romantic opera. But it was in the form of a song cycle that Arnold Schoenberg initially embraced this tale in 1899. A year later he decided to make this tragic love-cum-ghost story the basis of a full-length work. Schoenberg’s time as a musical revolutionary had not yet come, and so Gurre-Lieder represents a sumptuous swan song for the age of musical late Romanticism.
Supporting Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker in their interpretation of this exceptional, and exceptionally demanding, work, are the Rundfunkchor Berlin, the radio choruses of WDR and MDR and the Vest Bergen Chorus, as well as a stellar ensemble of soloists, led by Soile Isokoski, Stephen Gould and Thomas Quasthoff as the Narrator. The two concerts conclude a week of celebrating the Philharmonie’s 50th birthday.
The Danish poet, Darwin translator and scientist Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847–1885) is little read nowadays, but he had a powerful impact on the literary and artistic climate at the end of the 19th century. His profound psychological novels Marie Grubbe (1876) and Niels Lyhne (1880), which alternate between naturalism and symbolism, influenced both Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Sigmund Freud enthusiastically declared that Niels Lyhne had moved him more deeply than any other book in many years. Jacobsen’s poetry, which was admired by Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke, also received wide acclaim. In 1893 George published several of Jacobsen’s poems in German in his literary journal Blätter für die Kunst [Pages for Art]; six years later a German translation of Jacobsen’s poetry by the Viennese literary historian Robert Franz Arnold appeared in print. Along with other composers, Alexander Zemlinsky was also inspired by Jacobsen’s poems and set several of them to music. It was probably Zemlinsky who introduced his friend and pupil Arnold Schoenberg to the works of the Danish poet.
In his “Reminiscences of Youth”, written for Schoenberg on the occasion of his 60th birthday on 13 September 1934, Zemlinsky later recalled that Schoenberg had been encouraged to set the poems by an award for a song cycle with piano accompaniment offered by the Vienna Tonkünstlerverein [Composers Society] in 1899. “Schoenberg, who wanted to compete for the prize, composed a few songs to texts by Jacobsen. I played them for him (since, as we know, Schoenberg did not play the piano). The songs were very beautiful and truly innovative, but both of us felt that, for precisely that reason, they would not have much of a chance in such a competition. But Schoenberg composed the entire Jacobsen cycle nonetheless – but no longer for one voice alone. He added large choruses, a melodrama, preludes and interludes, all of it scored for a huge orchestra. He had composed a great large-scale work – the Gurrelieder – a piece which was to become the foundation of his worldwide success.”
The Gurre-Lieder [Danish Gurresange, Songs of Gurre] form the sixth chapter of Jacobsen’s novella En cactus springer ud [A Cactus Blooms] (1886), in which a group of young writers pass the time by reciting poems while waiting for a rare cactus to bloom which, “after nine years of careful nurturing, produced a flower that, characteristic of this cactus, would suddenly burst open once during the night”.
The setting for the Gurre-Lieder is the 12th-century Gurre Castle in the Danish province of Zealand, approximately five kilometres west of Helsingør [Elsinore] on Lake Gurre. The story is based on the historical figure of the Danish king Waldemar I (1131–1182), whose tragic love for the beautiful Tove (“dove” or Tovelille, “little dove”) has been recorded in several medieval legends. During the nine songs of Part I, Waldemar and Tove sing of the joys of their love in alternating monologues until the “Song of the Wood Dove” announces Tove’s death and the grief of the despairing king.
In the brief Part II, which consists of only one song, Waldemar accuses God of taking away his love. Part III opens with the “Wild Chase” in which Waldemar and his vassals rise from their graves and ride through the night as unredeemed dead men; the king is still searching for his beloved Tove. The songs of the superstitious peasant and Klaus the Fool provide an ironic interlude in the dark scenario until the crowing of the cock puts an end to the nightmare, followed by the “Wild Chase of the Summer Wind” which concludes the Gurre-Lieder – a melodrama glorifying the eternal cycle of nature.
We do not know precisely when or why Schoenberg decided to abandon his original plan of composing a song cycle for voice and piano based on Jacobsen’s Gurre-Lieder in favour of a vast “cantata” for soloists, chorus and orchestra. In any case, when the deadline of the Composers Society competition passed on 1 January 1900 he already seems to have had the enormous ensemble in mind, which, in addition to six soloists, calls for three four-part men’s choruses, an eight-part mixed chorus and an orchestra of approximately 140 to 150 musicians. The short score of Part I, written on three staves and supplied with notes on instrumentation, is dated March and April 1900. Schoenberg described the progress of composition himself in a letter to Alban Berg, which Berg included in his more than 100-page guide to his teacher’s monumental work: “In March 1900 [in Vienna] I composed Parts I and II and much of Part III. Then a long hiatus filled with instrumentation of operettas. March (that is, the beginning) 1901 the rest completed! Then instrumentation begun in August 1901 (again hindered by other work, just as I have always been hindered in composing). Resumed in Berlin the middle of 1902. Then a long interruption due to instrumentation of operettas. Worked on it last in 1903 and finished up to circa page 118. Thereupon set aside and wholly given up!”
The premiere of Part I of the Gurre-Lieder took place at a concert of the Society for Art and Culture in Vienna on 14 January 1910. This version for soprano, tenor and two pianos, eight hands was successful enough to encourage Schoenberg to continue the work, which he finally completed in the Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf on 7 November 1911. “In the initial process of composition I indicated the instrumentation only very sparingly,” he explained in his letter to Berg. “At the time I didn’t note down such things, because one hears the instrumental sound anyway. But also, aside from that, one certainly must see that the part arranged in 1910 and 1911 is completely different in orchestral style from Parts I and II. I did not intend to hide that. On the contrary, it is self-evident that ten years later I would orchestrate differently.” Although the orchestration of Part III of the Gurre-Lieder is much more transparent at times than that of the first two parts, the entire work gives the impression of great coherence and unity.
Franz Schreker conducted the premiere of the Gurre-Lieder at the Great Hall of the Vienna Musikverein on 23 February 1913, with Franz Nachod as Waldemar, Marya Freund as Tove and Anna Bahr-Mildenburg as the Wood Dove. “The Animosity towards Schoenberg” – the title of an article by Richard Specht published in the Berlin journal März [March] on 20 September 1913 – was palpable. “The Schadenfreude could be seen in a hundred eyes – today they would ‘show’ him once again whether he could really dare to compose as he wished and not as others had done before him. But the opening bars were already disappointing – this glittering and hovering, this aura of a delicate twilight atmosphere in sounds ... captivated everyone with an abandon that swept away all heaviness and impurity with an increasing sense of liberation and exhilaration.” The cactus had suddenly burst into bloom and, contrary to all expectations, its flower was dazzlingly beautiful! The premiere of the Gurre-Lieder was perhaps the greatest triumph that Schoenberg would ever experience – but it faded just as quickly as the rare cactus flower in Jacobsen’s novella. The very next day there was a tremendous uproar during a performance of Pierrot lunaire op. 21 in Prague, and the notorious “scandal concert” at the Vienna Musikverein on 31 March (with Schoenberg’s first Chamber Symphony and works by Zemlinsky, Webern and Berg) caused such a riot that the concert had to be cut short.
The Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill studied in Glasgow, Toronto and London and was joint winner of the Kathleen Ferrier Award in 2002. In 2013 Karen was appointed Associate Artist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Past performances together have included Berlioz’ La Mort de Cléopâtre, L’Enfance du Christ and Les Nuits d’été, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. She is in particular demand as a concert singer, in which capacity she regularly appears with all the major British orchestras. At the BBC Proms she sang in Mahler’s Third Symphony and in Constant Lambert’s The Rio Grande. In opera, Karen Cargill has appeared as Anna in Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera New York, and as Second Norn at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Among the conductors with whom she has worked to date are Marc Albrecht, Myung-Whun Chung, Sir Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink, James Levine, Donald Runnicles, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Michael Tilson Thomas. Karen Cargill gave her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in May 2008 as Waltraute in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.
Stephen Gould studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and completed his vocal training at the Lyric Opera of Chicago Center for American Artists. After a series of opera engagements, including around 300 performances over seven years of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera throughout the USA, he successfully made the switch to heldentenor. His successful debut as Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Landestheater Linz laid the foundation of an international career which has taken him to opera houses such as those in Vienna, Berlin, Dresden, Florence, Madrid and Tokyo with the great heldentenor roles. In 2004, he made his debut at the Bayreuth Festival in the title role of Wagner’s Tannhäuser under the baton of Christian Thielemann. In 2010, he appeared as Erik in Der fliegende Holländer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York where he returned in the role of Siegfried in 2012. The Virginia-born artist has also appeared at the festivals in Salzburg, Lucerne and Bergen, and in the leading concert halls in the USA, Israel and Europe under the direction of conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Riccardo Chailly, Myung-Whun Chung, Valery Gergiev, Marek Janowski, Zubin Mehta, Kent Nagano, Esa-Pekka Salonen and David Zinman. Stephen Gould now makes his debut in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker.
Soile Isokoski was born in Finland, studied in Helsinki and gave her first concert there in 1986. She won second prize at the BBC Singer of the World competition in 1987, and was also winner of the Elly Ameling Competition and the Tokyo International Singing Competition. Within only a few years following her operatic debut as Mimi (La Bohème) at the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki, the soprano conquered the leading international opera stages and concert platforms (e.g. in Paris, New York, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Vienna and Milan) and festivals such as Salzburg, Edinburgh, Savonlinna and Orange. Her stage repertoire focusses on the operas of Mozart but also includes works by Weber, Offenbach, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Gounod, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss, Poulenc and Britten. In 2002, the artist was awarded the Pro Finlandia Medal of the Order of the Lion of Finland, one of the country’s highest honours, for her services to the nation’s music: This was followed in 2007 by the Sibelius Medal, and in 2008 she was appointed Kammersängerin in Austria. In May 2011, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Helsinki. Soile Isokoski has appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker on many occasions since her debut in 1997, most recently in a lieder recital in 2008 when, together with her accompanist of many years Marita Viitasalo, she performed works by Grieg, Schubert, Sibelius, Britten and Strauss.
Lester Lynch, a graduate of the Julliard Opera School, has made an name for himself internationally with his nuance-rich voice. Highlights of the baritone’s career so far include appearances as Porgy (Porgy and Bess) at Dallas Opera, Washington National Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, as Germont (La Traviata) at Houston Grand Opera, as Sharpless (Madama Butterfly) at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and as Marcello (La Bohème) at New York City Opera. He has also appeared in a variety of roles at Santa Fe Opera, Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Seattle Opera and in productions of the Canadian Opera Company. During the 2010/2011 season, the singer made guest appearances as Carbon (Cyrano de Bergerac) with San Francisco Opera, as the King’s Herald (Lohengrin) at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and as Alfio (Cavalleria rusticana) and Tonio (I Pagliacci) with Kentucky Opera. In 2011/2012 he took on the title role in Verdi’s Rigoletto in Toronto and the role of Carlo Gérard in Giordano’s André Chénier at the Bregenz Festival. Under the auspices of the Marilyn Horne Foundation, Lester Lynch regularly gives recitals, in which he has also given the premiere of Six Songs on Poems by Raymond Carver by Lowell Lieberman, which were commissioned for him. As a concert soloist, he has worked with orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Lester Lynch made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 2012 in three concert performances of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
Thomas Quasthoff, who set standards on the international stage for almost four decades, brought his singing career to a close in January 2012. He does however maintain his connection with the world of singing – as a lecturer at the Academy of Music Hanns Eisler Berlin, or giving masterclasses all over the world, and as a speaker in concerts and readings. As one of the leading lieder and concert singers of our times, Thomas Quasthoff appeared with many international top orchestras, including regularly from 1997 with the Berliner Philharmoniker. He worked closely with conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Christoph Eschenbach, James Levine and Sir Simon Rattle. Thomas Quasthoff has received numerous national and international awards, including the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the European Culture Prize and the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in London. In the autumn of 2012, he made his acting debut with the Berliner Ensemble in the role of the Fool in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. At the beginning of March this year, he made his first appearance as speaker in a chamber concert of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation with the Belcea Quartet, and in April, he took part in the performance of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde as part of the concert celebrating the 10th anniversary of the education programme.
Burkhard Ulrich was born in Aachen. He studied piano, organ, singing and music education at Cologne University of Music and the Mozarteum University in Salzburg. An award winner in many competitions, and following engagements in Koblenz and Kiel, he has been an ensemble member of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin since 2001. His repertoire includes Basilio (Le nozze di Figaro) and Monostatos (Die Zauberflöte), Schuysky (Boris Godunov) and Valzacchi (Der Rosenkavalier). In recent years he has appeared as Arturo (Lucia di Lammermoor), Aegisth (Elektra), Pollux (Die Liebe der Danae), Goro (Madama Butterfly), Pang (Turandot) and Gaston (La Traviata) at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. The tenor has worked with conductors such as Christian Thielemann, Lothar Zagrosek, Riccardo Muti and Marc Minkowski. His guest appearances have taken him to the operas in Leipzig and Basel, the Opéra National de Paris, to the festivals in Salzburg, Bayreuth, Bregenz and Aix-en-Provence, the Ruhrtriennale, and to the Arts Center in Seoul. Since 2005, he has made many guest appearances with the Berliner Philharmoniker, most recently in March 2011 in concert performances of Richard Strauss’s Salome under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle.