Verklärte Nacht, op. 4

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         While he was the leader of the musical revolution centered in Vienna in the early twentieth century, whose precepts led to completely new foundations for the composition of music, Arnold Schoenberg certainly possessed nothing of the personal aura of a revolutionary.  Born into a poor family of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and almost completely self-taught as a composer, he struggled most of his life to provide for his family as a teacher of music theory and composition.   He was a quiet, intellectual, and somewhat dogmatic man, and certainly realized that, for all of his wide reputation and approval by eminent musicians, he could never hope to earn a living from compositions, alone.  Audience and critics’ reactions to his challenging musical style saw to that.  He limped along from one teaching engagement to another.  The advent of the Third Reich put paid to his time in Vienna, and he had the perspicacity to move his family out very early on.  In the late 1930s they ended up in southern California, where he taught first at the University of Southern California, and then at UCLA.  Poor health dogged him for most of his life, and he retired on a very small pension, dying in 1951 in Los Angeles.

            His youth and the period of his musical apprenticeship was thoroughly grounded in the chromatic harmony of Wagner and the structural integrity of Brahms—he adored them both.  So, naturally, his early efforts in musical composition were absolutely an outgrowth of the late Romantic traditions of conventional Germanic art.  Nevertheless, his innate sophistication led him to extend, push, and challenge these precepts.  So, his early style is somewhat of a bridge between the lush conventions of late romantic music, and the stark upheavals of the next century.   The first work that brought him recognition is, of course, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), composed for string sextet and later arranged by him for string orchestra.

            The work, inspired by a poem by the controversial poet, Richard Dehmel, lies in one continuous movement, although there are five somewhat subtle, but perceptible, sections that correspond to the poem’s five stanzas.  The dense weft of melodic lines, in a harmonic scheme that pushes the limits of tonality, creates a dark Teutonic mood so characteristic of fin-de-siècle Vienna.  And certainly, the work is a perfect complement to the poem, which like so much of the art and literature of the times, pretty much challenged the good, conservative folk of Vienna.  The art of Egon Schiele may come to mind in this context.

            The poem concerns a troubled couple walking in the gloom and dark, the woman confessing her pregnancy by another man, her shame at her transgression, and her fear of thereby destroying her relationship with her true love.  The last stanza turns upbeat as her lover declares, no matter, the child will be ours.   The sexual content was controversial enough, but coupled with the music’s advanced harmonic idiom, it was sufficient to hinder the acceptance of what is clearly Schoenberg’s first masterpiece.  Soon enough, though, this little symphonic poem for chamber orchestra gained its rightful place as not only an invaluable marker along the road to musical modernity, but also as a testament to the intrinsic genius of the composer’s intellect and musicality.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2015 William E. Runyan