Saturday, December 3, 2011

Schoenberg - Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)

Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951) wrote this work as a string sextet at the turn of the 20th century in 1899, and it was so modern that the Vienna Music Society refused to perform it. It was premiered in 1902 by the Rose Quartet (augmented by an extra cello and viola) at the Vienna Musikverein.  Between the highly chromatic music and its subject matter, the piece stirred up a lot of controversy.

This was Schoenberg's first important work and it showed the influence that Wagner and Brahms (whom Schoenberg always thought of as a 'modern' composer) had on the young composer. It is not so much a revolutionary piece of music as it is an evolutionary piece of music, a product of what the masters had done before Schoenberg and his desire to continue the 'evolution'.  It was written before Schoenberg developed his twelve tone technique and while Transfigured Night does go far afield in its harmonies it is still a work based on tonality. It is a rare example of a chamber music work that is also program music. It is based on a poem written by Richard Dehmel  called Transfigured Night.  The synopsis of the poem:

A woman and man are 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.

Schoenberg composed the piece in one movement and followed the poem closely in music that is rich, complex, and emotional. Frequent time signature changes and key changes charge the music with an intensity that finally resolves into a shimmering 'transfiguration' at the end.  The music was arranged by the composer for full string orchestra in 1917 and revised it in 1943. It is this version that is heard on the video.

Schoenberg's first compositions written within his twelve tone system are over a hundred years old, and they still sound rather sour to many ears. Anyone that has not heard Transfigured Night before hearing any of his twelve tone works may wonder if Schoenberg wasn't more of a theorist than a feeling, emotional composer. Transfigured Night has glimpses in it of where Schoenberg was headed, but to my mind it is a late romantic composition and shows that Schoenberg was much more than a theorist. He was a composer of the first rank.

The complete poem by Dehmel:

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.

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