Schoenberg composed Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) in three weeks in September 1899. He originally wrote it for string sextet; in 1917, however, he reconceived it for string orchestra, softening the broodiness of the original. The music is a response of sorts to a poem by Richard Dehmel from a collection called Weib und Welt (The Woman and the World). It was first published in 1896, but republished as part of Dehmel’s 1903 verse novel Zwei Menschen (Two People). The poem was modern for the time in which it was written, especially in regard to its realistic, rather lurid subject matter, in which a woman reveals to her lover that she is pregnant with another man’s child. The five stanzas are of uneven length, the silence between the third and fourth stanzas marking the moment in which the woman’s lover decides whether or not to forgive her (he does).
Schoenberg admired Dehmel but communicated with him only once, remarking uncharitably that Transfigured Night merely reflected what the poem had stirred up in him. Later in his career, when his opinion of the poet had cooled, he claimed, unconvincingly, that the music of Transfigured Night “can make you forget the poem, which people today might find repulsive.”
In order to distance his work from its source, Schoenberg, in his liner notes for a 1932 recording of Transfigured Night, offered not a translation of the Dehmel poem, which now embarrassed him, but a description of the musical ideas it contained. He listed nine instances of what he called the “unconscious” relationships between the themes and one instance of “conscious” invention: the chorale-like passage in D major that marks the moment the heroine is forgiven her crime of passion.
In the opinion of Schoenberg’s devoted student Anton Webern, the first theme, which represents the couple walking in the moonlight, was “suggestive of deep sorrow.” The beginning of the second section offers “the passionate plaint of the woman, full of remorse. There follows an episode evocative of the “longing for maternal happiness” and a return of the opening moonlight music. The fourth section “begins with the comforting reply of the man.” The piece ends as “the first tragic motif now relieved of its melancholy, sounds as if removed from the earthly plane.”
In schematic terms, the form of Transfigured Night can be likened to a rondo, with the narrative material of the opening section (A) recurring in ethereal variation halfway through at the end. The music of the B section is associated with the woman’s speech; that of the C section with the man’s response. The actual unfolding of the music is more complex than this simple description suggests, of course. Rather than describing what the characters in the poem themselves experience, Schoenberg sought to convey his own intense and troubled personal reaction to their plight. Subjective experience translated directly into compositional practice, without regard for the rules of harmony and tonality. The technique became known as Expressionism, an aesthetic related to the emerging theories of Sigmund Freud and concerned with the inner life of the mind.
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Arnold Schoenberg began by writing tonal music in the late Romantic style: highly chromatic and expressive, yet still traditional in form and harmonic function. Hoping to free his own creativity from any constraints and express raw, unadulterated emotions in his music, Schoenberg developed a new approach to harmony known as atonality. Atonal music (Schoenberg himself preferred the term “pantonal”) is not grounded in a single key; rather, it uses the full chromatic spectrum of pitches instead of the hierarchy of seven in a traditional diatonic scale, and relies on dissonant harmonies instead of consonant triads.