Transfigured Night

During his years of permanent exile in America, Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951) once remarked “There is nothing I long for more intensely than to be taken for a better sort of Tchaikovsky. People should know my tunes and whistle them”.

This seems a bit odd coming from the composer whose uncompromising music, if it moves audiences at all, it is usually in the direction of the exit doors. For many, Schoenberg’s full-frontal assault on the traditional foundations of classical music left ugly, smoking ruins. The distinguished contemporary critic, Julius Korngold (father of the composer Erich Korngold) was blunt. “We are facing a movement of regression: music now wants to crawl again on all fours, in a complete abnegation of the natural fundamentals of music – a relapse into primitivism, all with a maniacal worship of ugly sounds.”

For those who know Schoenberg’s music only from brief snatches on the radio (usually the time taken to switch channels), it comes as a pleasant surprise to discover his earlier works, in particular the ravishing and lyrical string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) which was first performed in 1902 (a version followed for string orchestra in 1917). It was his first major success and, in a pattern that would become familiar throughout his career, its first performance caused an uproar.

Portrait of Arnold Schönberg (1905). Richard Gerstl
Portrait of Arnold Schönberg (1905). Richard Gerstl

As a young man, Schoenberg cut a striking figure. He was short, wiry and prematurely bald, Stravinsky noting that “His eyes were protuberant and explosive and the whole force of the man was in them”. He regularly frequented the cafés Landtmann and Griensteidl in Vienna where he could be seen holding court with the artist Gustav Klimt and the writers Karl Kraus and Theodor Herzl among others. He was largely self-taught and his talent for orchestration and composing was plain for all to see, although Richard Strauss later thought he would be better off “shovelling snow” and Mahler would find him overweening, once describing him as a “conceited puppy”.

Steeped in the literature and poetry of the period, he was particularly inspired by Richard Dehmel’s erotic poems Weib und Welt (Woman and World). These poems scandalized Vienna on their publication in 1896 and Dehmel was tried (unsuccessfully) for obscenity and blasphemy.  Schoenberg wrote to Dehmel saying “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”.  Richard Strauss, Max Reger and Kurt Weill all wrote Lieder on Dehmel’s poetry but Schoenberg instead wrote a daring Straussian tone poem for string sextet on one of the less racy poems from Weib und Welt, Verklärte Nacht. This poem is also thought to have inspired Gustav Klimt’s most famous painting, Der Kuß (The Kiss).

Schoenberg wrote Verklärte Nacht in three weeks during a summer stay in Payerbach in 1899 with Mathilde Zemlinsky and her brother Alexander who was a friend and mentor to Schoenberg and a noted composer in his own right. Schoenberg would marry Mathilde in 1901 and the emotional tensions from the sojourn are palpable in his masterly score.

The story takes place at night in which ‘Two figures pass through the bare, cold grove’. They are in love but the woman confesses ‘I am carrying a child, and not yours’ and she fears her lover will reject her. But they are overcome with the beauty of the evening and their love for each other (‘How brilliantly the universe shines! It casts a luminosity on everything’). He accepts the child as his own and they embrace (‘Their kisses mingle breath in the night air. Two humans pass through the high, clear night’).

There is much symbolism here. For instance, woods and forests can be secret or hidden but dangerous places, free from the constraints of society and where illicit love can be consummated. The journey into the forest is as much a journey into the inner self and for Sigmund Freud in the fin de siècle Vienna, forests in dreams signified repressed sexual desires. Schoenberg would later return to this Freudian landscape with his expressionist musical drama, Erwartung using  a starkly different musical language.

Verklärte Nacht is a sumptuous masterpiece of late romanticism, which in places wallows in luxuriant, sensuous string writing reminiscent of Richard Strauss. He wrote in the year before he died that “[Verklärte Nacht ] does not illustrate a particular action or drama, but is limited to depicting Nature and expressing human feelings”. He did however identify musical phrases and motifs which represented the lovers’ conversation and noted that the blissful, radiant conclusion contains the various themes which have “modified anew, so as to glorify the miracles of Nature that have changed this night of tragedy into a transfigured night”.

Portrait of Arnold Schönberg (1917). Egon Schiele
Portrait of Arnold Schönberg (1917). Egon Schiele

Schoenberg had difficulties getting the work performed, thanks to the conservative Viennese musical establishment. He was speechless with rage when the work was rejected by the Wiener Tonkünstlerverein (Vienna Musicians’ Club) for a ‘compositional error’ – a dominant ninth chord in the fourth inversion which he was told “does not exist”. “And thus cannot be performed”, Schoenberg thundered, “as one cannot perform that which does not exist!” When the work was finally performed on 18 March, 1902, Schoenberg said that “it was hissed and caused riots and fist fights”.  One critic clearly put off by its rampant Wagnerian tone and dissonance, dismissed the piece saying “it sounded as if someone had smeared the score of Tristan und Isolde while it was still wet”.

Soon however, Schoenberg seemed to regard bad reviews as a sign that he was doing something right and it stiffened his resolve. He was caught off-guard on occasions by good receptions, such as the ecstatic response to his monumental Gurrelieder  which was first performed long after he had abandoned lush romanticism to become the self-styled ‘emancipator of dissonance’. He later complained “I was rather indifferent, if not even a little angry. I foresaw that this success would have no influence on the fate of my later works”. When asked why he no longer composed music like Verklärte Nacht he replied “I still do compose in the same way, but it is not my fault if people do not realise it”.

Gershwin painting Schoenberg (1937). Courtesy of
Gershwin painting Schoenberg (1937). Courtesy of

Years later, and living as an émigré in Los Angeles, he was once invited to a party given by Ira Gershwin. An astonishing number of famous names lived in his neighbourhood, from Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninov, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Artur Rubinstein to Bertold Brecht, Thomas Mann, Man Ray and Jean Renoir. Noticing the rather taciturn and aloof Schoenberg at the party, the famous society hostess Elsa Maxwell tried to engage him in the entertainments. Leading him to the piano, she exclaimed “Come on Arnold, give us a tune!”


Kevin Painting

Published 7 October 2015 on primephonic


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