The Kennedy Center

Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4

About the Work

Arnold Schoenberg Composer: Arnold Schoenberg
© Richard Freed

Both of the works for strings in the first half of the present concerts were composed by young men. Webern was only 21 when he composed the Langsamer Satz, and Schoenberg, his teacher, was just 25 when he completed the score of his remarkable tone poem Verklärte Nacht, in its original form as a string sextet, on December 1, 1899. Much about this work—widely known now by its English title, Transfigured Night—speaks to us of the nineteenth century, and might even strike us now as a reluctant farewell to that century, which on that date had only another 13 months to run. This music is warmly and expansively Romantic, giving no hint of the style with which its composer was to become identified only a dozen years later as founder of the so-called Second Viennese School and formulator of the "method of composing with twelve tones." It was nonetheless a new departure in that it represented an elaborate Straussian tone poem appearing for the first time within the realm of chamber music. To be sure, Bedrich Smetana, the father of Czech national music, had produced an "autobiographical" string quartet which he called From My Life, but Smetana's concern with the conventional four-movement format was as much a factor for him as the work's descriptive content, while Schoenberg simply allowed his literary model to determine the form of the present work as well as its substance.

It was perhaps because of this and, to a certain degree, the particular literary subject that gave rise to this work, more than any characteristic of the music itself, that the first performance, as Schoenberg himself reported, "was hissed and caused riots and fist fights." That is not to suggest that there were not purely musical objections: the premiere was delayed because certain conservative elements in Vienna's musical establishment were put off by the work's Wagnerian character and its one moment of dissonance. When the event finally took place, on March 18, 1902, even one of the less demonstrative members of the audience declared that the piece "sounded as if someone had smeared the score of Tristan und Isolde while it was still wet." In 1917, ten years after Schoenberg brought his "first period" to a close with his First Chamber Symphony, and five years after his shatteringly different Pierrot Lunaire, a great deal had changed forever throughout Europe, and in Vienna particularly, as well as in Schoenberg's approach to composing, but at just that time he returned to Transfigured Night and made an arrangement for string orchestra that was to circulate far more widely than the original sextet version, and which in fact became his one truly popular work.

As late as 1946, Schoenberg was introduced to a University of Chicago lecture audience, not as the father of dodecaphony, nor as the mentor of the avant-garde whose very name struck terror in the hearts of conservative music-lovers, but as "the beloved composer of Transfigured Night." By no means irritated or embarrassed by the persistent popularity of this work of his youth, he had demonstrated his own affection for it only three years earlier by revising the string-orchestra version. This further polishing was apparently stimulated by his positive reaction to Antony Tudor's use of the music for his ballet Pillar of Fire, which had been introduced by Ballet Theatre in New York on April 8, 1942.

Schoenberg's inspiration for Transfigured Night, somewhat expanded upon in Tudor's ballet, was a poem of the same title, from the collection Weib und Welt ("Woman and World"), by Richard Dehmel, one of the most admired lyric poets writing in the German language at the end of the nineteenth century. Henry E. Krehbiel, a respected American music critic and scholar, wrote the following prose paraphrase of the poem, as part of a program note for a New York performance in the 1920s:

"Two mortals walk through a cold, barren grove. The moon sails over the tall oaks, which send their scrawny branches up through the unclouded moonlight. A woman speaks. She confesses a sin to the man at her side: she is with child and he is not its father. She had lost belief in happiness and, longing for life's fullness, for motherhood and mother's duty, she had surrendered herself, shuddering, to the embraces of a man she knew not. She had thought herself blessed, but now life has avenged itself upon her, by giving her the love of him she walks with. She staggers onward, gazing with lackluster eye at the moon which follows her.

"A man speaks. Let her not burden her soul with thoughts of guilt. See, the moon's sheen enwraps the universe. Together they are driving over chill waters, but a flame from each warms the other. It, too, will transfigure the little stranger, and she will bear the child to him and make him, too, a child. They sink into each other's arms. Their breaths meet in kisses in the air. Two mortals walk through the wondrous moonlight."

Less than a year before his death, Schoenberg wrote, in a note of his own which he illustrated with examples from his score, that Transfigured Night "does not illustrate a particular action or drama, but is limited to depicting Nature and expressing human feelings." At the same time, however, he cited musical phrases and motifs which represent specific parts of the lovers' conversation, and indicated that the work's two larger divisions break down into five smaller ones corresponding to the five sections of Dehmel's poem. The last is a radiant extended coda in which the various themes are, again in Schoenberg's words, "modified anew, so as to glorify the miracles of Nature that have changed this night of tragedy into a transfigured night."