Darkness. Tchaikovsky comes to my mind. Oppression. Shostakovitch is not far. Fear… may be Rachmaninov? But then there is light! Strauss! It must be Strauss. It isn’t. It’s Arnold Schönberg. Wait, the rebel from Vienna, he cannot have written such a piece? There is tonality. And chromaticism*. And melody and all you would not expect. Well, Schönberg wanted to go beyond the existing means of musical expression, but to get there, he first had to work his way through precisely those traditional means of musical expression.
The string sextet “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night) Op. 4, written for two violins, two violas and two cellos, was composed in 1899, at the beginning of Schönberg’s career. It was inspired by a controversial love poem by Richard Dehmel about an unfaithful woman, her illegitimate child and her bad conscience. The sextet also seems to reflect at least partly Schönberg’s growing love for Mathilde von Zemlinsky, the daughter of his teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky. In 1917, he arranged the sextet to a concert for strings.
Passionate sorrow and tender love
The piece starts with a dark, sorrowful painting of two people walking through the night: the unfaithful woman and her husband. The violins play the sad melody, at some point the violas fall in with a song-like melody, full of tender love, but it does not grow strong enough to prevail over the violins. The passionate confession of the sinful woman, the feeling of guilt and remorse, is the theme of the second part: She gave herself to a man she does not love as she longed to be a mother and now she is expecting an illegitimate child. A dramatic dialogue between the first violin, first cello and viola develops.
Union and supreme happiness
Part three takes up the themes of the first movement, but this time the two melodies are on equal foot. Man and woman walk through the night in harmony as the man has compassion and declares he will accept the child as if it were his own. Dehmel writes in his poem: “[E] ine eigene Wärme… die wird das fremde Kind verklären, du wirst es mir, von mir gebären…” (a warmth of your own will transfigure the alien child, you will give birth to it for me, through me). The cello expresses this idea, while the violin illustrates the lasting tender love of the woman. The final part expresses the union of the couple as it walks on through the night in supreme happiness.
Transcending Richard Wagner
Beautiful, isn’t it? I knew the piece – performed by a sextet – from recordings, but I heard it yesterday night in Luxembourg performed by the strings of the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg under the direction of its former conductor Emmanuel Krivine. Familiar faces then and an interesting program with Richard Strauss’ “Metarmorphoses” and Schönberg’s “Transfigured Night” back-to-back. I deeply experienced the sensitivity of the piece when I heard it performed live. I imagine what it must be like to hear it performed on an open air stage during a summer night!
What fascinates me with Schönberg is how you can study the evolution of classical music in the early 20th century just by exploring his successive works. Starting point is the legacy of Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms. The piece “Transfigured Night” follows this tradition. Gradually Schönberg developed his personal style by going beyond traditional means of expression – the 2nd String Quartet, that I discussed in an earlier post – is a good testimony for these experiments – until he comes up with serialism* as the composing technique for Op. 23 “Five Piano Pieces”, written in 1923 at the culminating point of his career.
Op. 4 has been recorded by the English Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim.
© Charles Thibo