at Ravinia

June 26, 1987

The number of musicians needed to perform Arnold Schonberg’s Gurrelieder is so enormous that it is rarely performed. The Chicago Symphony has never done the work in Orchestra Hall, and it has remained for the Ravinia Festival, under James Levine’s baton, to bring this glorious expression of romanticism to the Chicago public.

Whether Gurrelieder is defined as a cantata, a symphonic tone poem for voices and orchestra, or a song cycle of post-Wagnerian, epic proportions doesn’t matter–the score has elements of each. It tells the story of the tragic death of Tove, the beloved of King Waldemar of Gurra, at the hands of his jealous queen. In his bitterness over the loss of his love, Waldemar challenges God’s right to take Tove. He is then condemned to spend the rest of his nights with his huntsmen in an endless wild hunt. Only when he seeks divine forgiveness for his blasphemy does he find redemption and peace.

The Gurrelieder was based on a German translation of a series of Danish poems by Jens Peter Jacobsen. Schonberg set to work on the project in 1900. It took him more than 12 years to complete the work–not because his creativity weakened, but because his financial resources were so limited that he had to drop work on the piece in order to orchestrate and arrange operettas by other composers simply to keep body and soul together.

The score was so rich and complex, Schonberg needed special music paper of 48 staffs. The tremendously expanded orchestra calls for four harps, five oboes, seven clarinets, ten horns, and four Wagner tubas (invented by Wagner for special coloration); other unique instrumental parts include a rattle, iron chains, and a gong. The score also requires a speaker, three four-voiced men’s choruses, an eight-part mixed chorus, and five soloists of extraordinary vocal power and musical understanding.

Levine, who conducted the only other local performance of this epic work (at Ravinia in 1976), elicited brilliant, moving performances from his huge cast, and he himself brought to it dramatic romantic fervor that swept the artists and audience along in a highly charged voyage of emotional intensity. If at times the orchestra seemed to overpower the singers, Levine was able to restore it to chamber delicacy in “The Song of the Wood Dove,” exquisitely sung by Tatiana Troyanos, as she recounts Tove’s death. Gary Lakes, a remarkable tenor, as Waldemar, was the ardent lover opposite Tove, sung with touching sensitivity by Marita Napier. Later, during the Wild Hunt, Lakes’s voice rang out with authoritative ease.

The other soloists matched them in eloquence–Philip Creech as the Fool and Richard Cohn as the Peasant were just right. Nico Castel, the Speaker, whose delivery in speech-song that offered hints of the Sprechgesang that Schonberg would later develop so ingeniously in Pierrot lunaire, was the clear voice of sanity after the hunt.

The Chicago Symphony Chorus, prepared by Margaret Hillis, proved again that this large ensemble is more than capable of performing the most complex music.

For those who believe that Schonberg composed only atonal, serial works, Gurrelieder is a revelation. The music, especially in the later section of the piece, contains many harmonic hints of the direction in which Schonberg was inexorably moving, but the complete work is a triumph of the last romantic impulse of the early 20th century.