About this Piece
The reputation of composer Arnold Schoenberg has been universally associated with controversy of one kind or another for approximately one hundred years. Conferences, books, dissertations, and debates devoted to his work have continued unabated since his death in July of 1951. This circumstance can only be interpreted as a testimony to the depth and humanity of his multifarious genius; a genius whose artistic legacy has been and continues to be simultaneously vilified and sanctified by both the professional cognoscenti and non-professional music lovers alike.
These opposing views arise from the complexity of Schoenberg’s searing intellect and forceful personality and the stern polemical stance issuing from his theoretical writings. For it must be remembered that Schoenberg was not only a composer of tremendous craft and imagination, but also a renowned theorist and teacher of great insight, as well as a painter and librettist. Add to this mixture the fact that he was an autodidact among conservatory-trained musicians and a lower class Jew without a university education, and it becomes clear that his courage, strength, and unflinching self-confidence (all traits which sound forcefully in his music) reflects to his audience either arrogance and contempt, or a respect for and challenge to their abilities to comprehend musical structures. In other words: no pandering, no sophistry, no compromise. And so the controversies continue.
Schoenberg’s voracious intellect found much to feast upon in the culture debates raging in fin de siècle Vienna, his native city. For it was a milieu rich in arts institutions with strong conservative proclivities reflective of a self-satisfied middle class sure of Vienna’s hegemony over European music. This view was counterbalanced by a strong critical reaction. Many artists and thinkers informed by an emerging modernist aesthetic were repulsed by what they perceived to be a stagnant, commercialized popular culture wallowing in the decay of late Romanticism. Schoenberg aligned himself with the modernist aesthetic, defending this position in music and in word for decades to come.
In addition to these generalized cultural conflicts, Viennese musicians were divided by the Brahms/Wagner controversy as to which of these two composers was the more progressive. In a nutshell, the argument centered upon the contrast between the Brahmsian aesthetic of a pure “absolute” music developmentally self referential and abstract, and the Wagnerian aesthetic reliant upon extra-musical programmatic elements for its discourse.
This was the cultural context in which the young Schoenberg composed Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) between September and December 1899. During the four preceding years (1894-97) Schoenberg wrote several instrumental works that were self-consciously expressive of the Brahmsian view toward the autonomy of musical structure and technique that he was later to describe as “developing variation”. However, in 1898 he made the very important discovery of the volume of poetry Weib und Welt (Woman and World) by the modernist poet Richard Dehmel. In these poems Dehmel articulated a philosophy of transformation that sought to reconcile the contradictions such as male-female, subject-object, god-nature, light-darkness etc., through the unity of poetic forms which he further hoped would bring about reconciliation of the individual with the universal. His poems challenged the reigning modes of expression, suggesting that modernity and innovation were essential to cultural change.
The influence of Dehmel’s poetry helped Schoenberg to bridge his first neo-Brahmsian phase with his second pseudo-Wagnerian phase. In a letter to Dehmel dated 13 December 1912, he wrote: “For your poems have had a decisive influence on my development as a composer. They were what first made me try to find a new tone in the lyrical mood. Or rather, I found it even without looking, simply by reflecting in music what your poems stirred up in me.” What these poems stirred up in Schoenberg was the desire to innovate new forms expressive of an organic unity not yet realized in his work.
The over-all form of the poem Verklärte Nacht is obvious enough in its ABACA structure, wherein A functions as a refrain in which a narrator describes two people walking. The B section consists of a woman informing a man that she is pregnant (by another man), while C recounts the man’s response. The symmetry is classical in design and, as with all classical structures, contains the duality of conflict and resolution. However, the conflict inherent in this text is not so much resolved but, as the title suggests, it is transfigured. The poem does this by raising the two protagonists to a higher level of humanity, indeed to a greater unity based upon sympathy and compassionate understanding.
For what really occurs in this poem is a celebration of new life, both literally and figuratively. The process by which this happens is through a kind of mystical impregnation or, better still, interpenetration of a human warmth from the woman into the man and vice versa. As the man states: “But a special warmth flickers/From you into me, from me into you./It will transfigure the strange man’s child.” The woman and man have radically transfigured the artificiality of societal convention to merge with a radiantly confluent universe.
Schoenberg’s musical setting follows the large form defining sections of the poem faithfully. However, just as the woman and man have transcended the moral taboos of bourgeois mores to form a new unity, Schoenberg has created, in the inner workings of his material, not a musical mirror of the poem, but a “new tone in the lyric mood.” The program of the poem, indeed the poem itself, becomes, in the Wagnerian sense, a metaphor for what music can express immediately and essentially without the mediation of language. Schoenberg achieves this realization through the interpenetration and juxtaposition of themes identified with the woman, man, and narration respectively, with the Brahmsian technique of thematic variation and development. In this way he not only expressed the idea of the poem but, perhaps in a more profound way, an expression of himself “simply by reflecting in music what your poems stirred up in me.” With this work Schoenberg resolved, at least for himself, one conflict, the Brahms/Wagner controversy.
Verklärte Nacht was originally scored for string sextet, making it the first chamber music written as a symphonic poem. Schoenberg arranged the original string sextet for string orchestra in 1917. He later revised it in 1943, the version heard on this concert.
Following is a translation of Dehmel’s poem Verklärte Nacht 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
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.
— Steven Lacoste is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Archivist.