Arnold Schoenberg, 1874-1951
Schoenberg composed his Op. 4, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) for string sextet in 1899 when he was twenty-five. Despite an earlier, well-received string quartet, it is considered Schoenberg’s first important work, a masterpiece that remains his best known and most accessible music. Lush, dense, highly chromatic yet still just within the bounds of tonality, it can be regarded as a very late example of 19th century German Romanticism, a natural product of the trajectory from Beethoven and Schubert to Brahms, Wagner and Strauss. But while it stands virtually at the end of this great tradition, it was, for Schoenberg, only a beginning, a remarkable demonstration of early mastery that became merely a point of departure. Schoenberg would become one of the central pioneers of modern, 20th century music, moving first into atonality and then into his own new system of composition based on a twelve-tone technique eventually known broadly as serialism. Schoenberg exerted a major influence on generations of composers but has tended, with his later music, to leave many listeners unmoved if not alienated. His early chamber music is an exception: his first string quartets are rich and rewarding and Transfigured Night is one of the most exquisite works in the entire chamber repertory.
Transfigured Night is a rare example of programmatic chamber music. Based on a poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel written in 1896, it is a long, highly articulated single movement work that can be regarded as a chamber music tone poem. The close literary association, the use of an extended single movement form and the nearly expressionist exploration of a personal, inner psychological state characterize Transfigured Night as a harbinger of new 20th century tendencies despite its Romantic cast. Though not explicitly marked in the score, the purely instrumental music is closely organized around the five stanzas of the poem yielding five distinctive sections of highly charged and deeply expressive music.
The poem describes a woman and man walking through the woods on a moonlit night. In love, but ashamed, she reveals that she is pregnant with another man’s child, a man she never loved. The man responds with loving acceptance of her and the child as though it were his own. The unborn child, the man, the woman and the night itself are transfigured from darkness into light. The poem concisely represents this transformation in the first and last lines: “Two people walk through a bare, cold grove” versus “Two people walk through the lofty, bright night”. The five stanzas of the poem can be summarized: dark natural setting, woman’s plea, illuminated natural setting, man’s reply, transfigured natural setting. Schoenberg’s music unmistakably expresses the narrative: a brooding introduction, an angst-ridden confession full of unresolved longing, a brief return of the dark but moonlit setting, a deeply loving reply, noble and equal longing, and a final transfiguration into radiant grace and serenity. Despite the dense chromatic and rapidly modulating harmony, the music reflects the fundamental dramatic transfiguration of the poem: the first half is based in d minor (the woman’s plea), the second half in D major (the man’s reply) with the opening theme appearing first in the dark, and again at the end, bathed in shimmering light.
The music is rich and complex, full of nuance and subtle articulation, a variety of sonic effects, frequent key and time signature changes, the score dense with intricate musical directions. In a manner unique to early Schoenberg, the music is strongly reminiscent of both Wagner and Brahms, a rare unification of two historically divergent forces. Highly contrapuntal, intense and intimate, Transfigured Night is quintessential chamber music that nonetheless enjoys other successful transcriptions: Schoenberg transcribed it for string orchestra and Eduard Steuermann, a student and close associate of Schoenberg, transcribed it for piano trio in 1932, the version performed tonight.
Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)
By Richard Dehmel
English translation by Stanley Appelbaum
Two people walk through a bare, cold grove;
The moon races along with them, they look into it.
The moon races over tall oaks,
No cloud obscures the light from the sky,
Into which the black points of the boughs reach,
A woman’s voice speaks:
I’m carrying a child, and not yours,
I walk in sin beside you.
I have committed a great offense against myself.
I no longer believed I could be happy
And yet I had a strong yearning
For something to fill my life, for the joys of motherhood
And for duty; so I committed an effrontery,
So, shuddering, I allowed my sex
To be embraced by a strange man,
And, on top of that, I blessed myself for it.
Now life has taken its revenge:
Now I have met you, oh you.
She walks with a clumsy gait,
She looks up; the moon is racing along.
Her dark gaze is drowned in light.
A man’s voice speaks:
May the child you conceived
Be no burden to your soul;
Just see how brightly the universe is gleaming!
There’s a glow around everything;
You are floating with me on a cold ocean,
But a special warmth flickers
From you into me, from me into you.
It will transfigure the strange man’s child.
You will bear the child for me, as if it were mine;
You have brought the glow into me,
You have made me like a child myself.
He grasps her around her ample hips.
Their breath kisses in the breeze.
Two people walk through the lofty, bright night.