Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

Born: September 13, 1874 in Vienna
Died: July 13, 1951 in Brentwood Park, Los Angeles, California

Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4

Completed: December 1, 1899. Arranged for string orchestra in 1917 and revised in 1943.
First performance: March 18, 1902 by the Rosé Quartet with an extra violist and cellist at the Vienna Tonkünstlerverein.
Instrumentation: originally a string sextet.
string orchestra divided into first and second violins, first and second violas, and first and second cellos, with double bass parts occasionally reinforcing the bass line.
Duration: ~30 minutes.

Even today the name Arnold Schoenberg (he changed the spelling of his name from Schönberg after coming to the United States in 1933) causes vague trepidation for many concert goers. Which Schoenberg is going to be on the program: the lush late romantic composer of works such as the Gurrelieder and Verklärte Nacht or the horribly atonal dissonant modernist twelve-tone iconoclast who not only abandoned tradition but destroyed it?

Schoenberg was aware of this perception, writing in 1927: “I usually answer the question why I no longer write as I did at the period of Verklärte Nacht by saying: ‘I DO, but I can’t help it if people don’t yet recognize the fact.'” Schoenberg himself did not see a contradiction between his early and later styles. In the late 1930s he wrote that he was “composing in the same style and in the same way as at the beginning. The difference is only that I do it better now than before; it is more concentrated, more mature.”

Schoenberg composed Verklärte Nacht when there was still a fierce rivalry between the Wagner/Liszt camp and the supporters of Brahms. Schoenberg’s work shows influences from both rival musical camps. The 1890s was also the height of Richard Strauss orchestral symphonic poems. He unites Wagner’s chromaticism with Strauss’ programmatic element with the Brahmsian technique of “developing variation” and for the first time produces a tone poem in a chamber music medium. Continuing and developing these traditions, he later succeeded in out-Straussing Strauss with his Pelleas und Melisande Op. 5 which is a genuine tone poem.

The idea that Schoenberg’s early music is much more approachable than his later work is quite ironic since we must remember that initially there was fierce opposition to Verklärte Nacht. After the premiere, one critic compared the string sextet to “the sort of six-legged calf one might see in a side-show!” Schoenberg, never at a loss for words, replied that a string sextet would make for a “twelve-legged calf!” A reviewer for the Vienna Musicians Union said that “[it looks] as if the score of Tristan had been smeared while the ink was still wet.” Verklärte Nacht’s early reception stayed with him. In a 1946 essay entitled Criteria for Evaluation of Music, Schoenberg wrote that a concert society rejected the work “because of the revolutionary use of one — that is one single uncatalogued dissonance!”

Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht illustrates a poem from the collection Weib und Welt (“Woman and World”) by Richard Dehmel (1863-1920) that was published in 1896. The string sextet was composed mostly in September 1899 and the final version was finished on December 1. In 1917 Schoenberg revised it for string orchestra and returned to it again in 1943 for a final revision. It is this version that is most frequently performed.

The poem itself is in 5 sections. The odd numbered sections are brief narratives. Sections 2 and 4 are monologues. The first section sets the stage: two people are walking through a desolate moonlit grove. In the second section it becomes clear that the two people are a man and woman. The woman confesses that not only she is pregnant but that the child is not his. In the brief third section she gazes at the moon. The man responds in the fourth section. He forgives her and eases her conscience by saying that a “special warmth” between them will transfigure the child; it will become as his own. In the final section they continue to walk together in the now no longer desolate moonlit night.

Schoenberg never turned away from the music he wrote before he felt the air from another planet. In August 1950, the last year of his life, he wrote program notes for Verklärte Nacht. They are available online at the Arnold Schoenberg Institute’s website. He includes examples from the score which illustrate the actions in poem: Promenading in a park, the wife confesses etc..

The poem itself develops themes. Compare the first and last lines – a transformation which Schoenberg brilliantly portrays:

Two people walk through a bare, cold grove;

Two people walk through the lofty, bright night.

Zwei Menschen gehn durch kahlen, kalten Hain;

Zwei Menschen gehn durch hohe, helle Nacht.

Schoenberg’s music is divided into two sonata sections with a final coda. The first part begins in D minor and concludes gloomily in E flat minor. The second part dispels the gloomy mood (transfigures it perhaps) and moves to D major. Schoenberg describes how the themes return in the coda, “modified anew, so as to glorify the miracles of Nature that have changed this night of tragedy into a transfigured night.”

True artists must evolve. Time and again in music history we see composers criticized for abandoning their earlier “better” work. Why did Beethoven have to write those “difficult” late string quartets? Why did Copland abandon his Appalachian Spring style after 1950 for works like the Piano Fantasy (1957) which uses serial techniques? Woody Allen addressed this issue (somewhat self indulgently) in his 1980 movie Stardust Memories about a director whose fans preferred his “earlier, funnier movies.”

Time changes perceptions. Schoenberg writes “It shall not be forgotten that this work, at its first performance in Vienna, was hissed and caused riots and fist fights. But very soon it became very successful.”

Transfigured Night


Two people walk through a bare, cold grove;
The moon races along with them, they look into it.
The moon races over tall oaks,
No cloud obscures the light from the sky,
Into which the black points of the boughs reach.
A woman’s voice speaks:

I’m carrying a child, and not yours,
I walk in sin beside you.
I have committed a great offense against myself.
I no longer believed I could be happy
And yet I had a strong yearning
For something to fill my life, for the joys of
And for duty; so I committed an effrontery,
So, shuddering, I allowed my sex
To be embraced by a strange man,
And, on top of that, I blessed myself for it.
Now life has taken its revenge:
Now I have met you, oh, you.

She walks with a clumsy gait,
She looks up; the moon is racing along.
Her dark gaze is drowned in light.
A man’s voice speaks:

May the child you conceived
Be no burden to your soul;
Just see how brightly the universe is gleaming!
There’s a glow around everything;
You are floating with me on a cold ocean,
But a special warmth flickers
From you into me, from me into you.
It will transfigure the strange man’s child.
You will bear the child for me, as if it were mine;
You have brought the glow into me,
You have made me like a child myself.

He grasps her around her ample hips.
Their breath kisses in the breeze.
Two people walk through the lofty, bright night.

Verklärte Nacht

Zwei Menschen gehn durch kahlen, kalten Hain;
der Mond läuft mit, sie schaun hinein.
Der Mond läuft über hohe Eichen;
kein Wölkchen trübt das Himmelslicht,
in das die schwarzen Zacken reichen.
Die Stimme eines Weibes spricht:

Ich trag ein Kind, und nit von Dir,
ich geh in Sünde neben Dir.
Ich hab mich schwer an mir vergangen.
Ich glaubte nicht mehr an ein Glück

und hatte doch ein schwer Verlangen
nach Lebensinhalt, nach Mutterglück

und Pflicht; da hab ich mich erfrecht,
da ließ ich schaudernd mein Geschlecht
von einem fremden Mann umfangen,
und hab mich noch dafür gesegnet.
Nun hat das Leben sich gerächt:
nun bin ich Dir, o Dir, begegnet.

Sie geht mit ungelenkem Schritt.
Sie schaut empor; der Mond läuft mit.
Ihr dunkler Blick ertrinkt in Licht.
Die Stimme eines Mannes spricht:

Das Kind, das Du empfangen hast,
sei Deiner Seele keine Last,
o sieh, wie klar das Weltall schimmert!
Es ist ein Glanz um alles her;
Du treibst mit mir auf kaltem Meer,
doch eine eigne Wärme flimmert
von Dir in mich, von mir in Dich.
Die wird das fremde Kind verklären,
Du wirst es mir, von mir gebären;
Du hast den Glanz in mich gebracht,
Du hast mich selbst zum Kind gemacht.

Er faßt sie um die starken Hüften.
Ihr Atem küßt sich in den Lüften.
Zwei Menschen gehn durch hohe, helle Nacht.