by Pierre Mak
Arnold Schönberg wrote this song cycle in 1908-1909, it was premiered in Vienna in January 1910, by the Austrian mezzo-soprano Martha Winternitz-Dorda and the pianist Etta Werndorf.
Together with his ‘Drei Klavierstücke Op.11’, it marks the beginning of Schönberg’s ‘atonal period’.
The poems were written by the German poet Stefan George (1868-1933), whose ‘Bücher der Hirten- und Preisgedichte, der Sagen und Sänger und der Hängenden Gärten’ were published in 1895. The work contains three collections of poems, Schönberg chose 15 out of the 32 of the last one: Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (The Book of the hanging Gardens). The collection tracks, through the eyes of the young man, the forbidden and failed love affair of two adolescent youths in a garden, ending with the young woman’s departure and the disintegration of the garden.
Schönberg composed the cycle during a difficult period in his personal life: in 1908, his wife Mathilde left him and their two children for the painter Richard Gerstl, a close friend of Schönberg’s, for whom Mathilde often modeled. Eventually she returned, but meanwhile, Schönberg had discovered George’s poems and began drawing inspiration from them.
The 15 poems (which are of high quality and very beautiful) do not describe a story or follow a time line: they show much more the inner process of the young man and the way he deals with this emotions; each of them is a ‘snap shot’ of a certain moment or mood in the development of the love affair from the young man’s point of view.
Schönberg saw Das Buch der hängenden Gärten as a breakthrough in his composition style: he finally found the courage to follow his inner path and to leave traditional and functional harmony and the idea of central tonality, and to use dissonants as a free medium for expression, equal to consonants. So, he made the step to ‘atonality’ here.
The full title of the work is: 15 Gedichte aus ‘Das Buch der hängenden Gärten’ von Stefan George für eine Singstimme und Klavier Op. 15.
Schönberg does not indicate a voice type. Yet, the range is very wide and high G’s, G#’s / A♭‘s and A’s frequently appear. The cycle suits high mezzo or soprano with a good low voice best.
You can find the text and documentation at the site of the Arnold Schönberg Center
Recommended recording: on youtube by Helen Vanni, mezzo-soprano and Glenn Gould, piano