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Arnold Schoenberg was 25 when he dashed off Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) in a flurry of inspiration during a three-week period in September of 1899. At the time, he was vacationing in the scenic Austrian countryside near the mountain resort of Semmering. His first large-scale work was also one of the most passionate pieces he ever penned. As such, it remained close to the composer’s heart throughout his life. 

In both its original setting as a string sextet and the later arrangement for string orchestra made in 1917, Verklärte Nacht enjoys a reputation as one of Schoenberg’s most popular works. Nonetheless, this sensuous score suffered the fate of many of his creations — getting off to a rocky start with the public. Although its lush Post-Romantic sounds are perfectly accessible to today’s ears, the piece was greeted with hisses and horrified gasps at its premiere in Vienna on March 18, 1902. Several aspects of the work provoked this reaction.

Though composers had attached programmatic ideas to chamber music in the past, no one had ever applied the symphonic scope that Schoenberg brought to his Op. 4 when he wedded the tone-poem concept of Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss to a work for small string ensemble. The subversive infiltration of Wagnerian harmonies into such an intimate musical setting was likewise unsettling. Further fueling the controversy was the shockingly erotic poem (by turn-of-the-century standards, anyway) that gave its title to the piece and served as Schoenberg’s programmatic inspiration.

From a collection published in 1896, entitled Weib und Welt (Woman and the World), Richard Dehmel’s poem chronicles a poignant conversation between a man and a woman as they walk through the moonlit woods on a cold, clear winter night. Tormented by guilt, the woman confesses that, wishing to fulfill herself through motherhood, she had become pregnant by another man before meeting and falling in love with her companion. She ends with a heart-rending lament: “Now life has taken revenge, for I have met you — ah, you.” As the woman stumbles tearfully on in silence, the man considers the situation, then speaks: “Let the child you carry not burden your soul.” He assures her that because their love is so strong, the unborn child will become his. Redeemed by his love and forgiveness, her world-weary heart is lightened. They embrace, “their breaths joined in the air as they kiss” — and as they continue their walk, the night takes on a transfigured aura.

Played without break, the music mirrors the five sections of the poem: an introduction, which sets the scene in the shadowy forest; the woman’s depressed trudge and anguished confession; the man’s deep-toned, comforting forgiveness; the enraptured love duet in an optimistic major mode; and the ethereal apotheosis, representing the “transfigured night” itself. The first part of the score hovers around a despairing and anxious D minor. Then, the second section evolves through a more hopeful D major, as the scene and music pass from dark to light, from guilt to forgiveness. Throughout this process, Schoenberg continuously transforms themes and motifs to render an intensely expressive musical depiction of the powerful human drama of Dehmel’s poem.

After hearing the Vienna premiere, Dehmel himself wrote to Schoenberg: “I had intended to follow the motives of my text in your composition, but soon forgot to do so, I was so enthralled by the music.” And indeed, the music completely holds the listener’s imagination as Schoenberg’s magical score travels the road from the first line of Dehmel’s poem to the last: “Two people walk through bleak, cold woods... Two people walk through exalted, shining night.”

— Kathy Henkel

 

Composer Kathy Henkel has written program notes for many Southern California organizations. In 2012 she was principal guest composer at the 28th annual New Music Festival at Youngstown State University’s Dana School of Music in Ohio, and her Summer’s Echo – written for the LA Phil’s Carolyn Hove – was performed at the 2013 International Double Reed Conference in Redlands.