We’ll be listening this week to Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night). The piece has become somewhat of an obsession for me. I listen to it nearly every day and show no signs of stopping. Some might say I need an intervention. But before you become too alarmed at my (admittedly shaky) mental state, you must listen this incredible piece.
I have always been a fan of Schoenberg. My teacher Eva Gruesser, who played as the first violinist of the famed Lark Quartet, released a masterful recording of Schoenberg’s string quartet (which I would highly recommend you listen to). Schoenberg bridges the gap between Romantic and Modern music like no other composer. Whereas Ravel and his explorations in Impressionism are clearly on the Romantic side of things and Shostakovich is undoubtedly a Modern era composer, Schoenberg can’t seem to decide. For instance, the passages around 4 and 7 minutes into the piece are shockingly modern while the melody at minute 17 could have been written by a teenage Felix Mendelssohn in 1860. A critic from the LA Philharmonic described it best: “Lush, dense, highly chromatic yet still just within the bounds of tonality, it can be regarded as a very late example of 19th century German Romanticism, a natural product of the trajectory from Beethoven and Schubert to Brahms, Wagner, and Strauss.”
Schoenberg wrote Verklarte Nacht in 1899 at the ripe old age of 25, perhaps reminiscient of a modern-day Mozart. It became his “jumping-off point” into a complex and fascinating exploration of atonal music and twelve-tone composition (commonly referred to as “serialism”) that would consume the rest of his life. Most of his colleagues and today’s historians are of the opinion that Schoenberg was a true genius; contemporaries wrote about his voracious intellect that was utterly impenetrable with even the most carefully prepared argument.
Verklärte Nacht is based on a poem by Richard Dehmel that was written in 1896. You may notice that the work does not have any movements, reflecting the structure of an actual poem and making Verklart Nacht one of the few legitimate tone poems in existence. In the poem, a man and a woman walk through the forest at night and speak of their unborn child, who, despite being conceived by another man, has their complete devotion. Over the course of the poem, the couple and the unborn child go through a transfiguration – from dark to light, sadness to joy, struggle to freedom. The poem reflects this by beginning with the following line – “Two people walk through a bare, cold grove” – and ending with “Two people walk through the lofty, bright night.” Schoenberg’s music reflects this change with incredible accuracy. He opens the work with brooding, dark tones in the cellos and violas and ends it in a violin solo that carries a sense of gratitude and grace. It can also be seen in the tonal transition from the key of D Minor to the key of D Major that occurs about halfway through the piece. This is powerful music. It is nuanced, invigorating, and impossibly dense; it is refined, forceful, and unflinchingly confident; it is relentlessly honest.
Many of the pieces of music I send out are chosen so that you can listen to them while you’re working or doing something else. This piece is not one of those. This is meant to be intently listened to, multiple times, with focused attention. It is simply too complex and too masterful a work of art to be relegated to the role of background music. (Save that for Handel and Haydn – I mean, come on, who likes them anyway?) 😉