Sunday, February 26, 2006
Arnold Schönberg: Verklärte Nacht
Schönberg found the inspiration for his string sextet in Richard Dehmel's poem 'Verklärte Nacht', which was first published in the collection 'Weib und Welt' and later incorporated in Dehmel's novel 'Zwei Menschen'. Although Schönberg expressly uses the term "programme music", in the note he wrote on the work in 1950 he makes a careful distinction: "My composition was, perhaps, somewhat different from other illustrative compositions, firstly, by not being for orchestra but for a chamber group and secondly, because it does not illustrate any action or drama, but was restricted to portray nature and express human feelings... in other words, it offers the possibility to be appreciated as 'pure' music."
Richard Dehmel confirms the effect the sextet makes as autonomous music in a letter to Schönberg (12 December 1912): "Yesterday evening I heard Transfigured Night, and I would consider it a sin of omission if I did not say a word of thanks to you for your wonderful sextet. I had intended to follow the motives of my text in your composition, but I soon forgot to do so, I was so enraptured by the music." Schönberg wrote back (13 December 1912) that he was "reflecting in music" what Dehmel's poetry "stirred up" in him.
Schönberg follows Dehmel's poem in the structure of the sextet: he divides the single-move-ment work into five sections of differing expressive character. Parts 1, 3 and 5, describing the two people and the atmosphere of their surroundings as they walk through the moonlit wood, frame two episodes, the woman's confession and the man's reply. But in spite of these divisions, the form can be understood in more ways than one. 'Transfigured night' prefigures a form of construction which Schönberg was to perfect in his succeeding instrumental works: 'Pelleas and Melisande' op.5, the D minor Quartet op.7 and the Chamber Symphony op.9. Each of these single-movement works can be regarded with equally good reason as an expanded first-movement sonata form, or as a complete symphony in which the movements are connected. In the sextet, too, the statement of themes is followed by complex developmental working, and in the fifth section the thematic complexes which have programmatic significance are brought together, so that this part of the work assumes the general character of a recapitulation. Again, the second section of the work, where the woman speaks and which itself falls into five parts, can be interpreted as the principal movement of a cyclic work; in turn the man's reply can be seen as performing the function of the slow movement in a symphony. It would be amiss, however, to interpret the form overall as a rondo with recurring refrains: although the theme from the introduction permeates all three of the "moonlit wood" sections, they are transformed in expression and function as they absorb and prolong the emotional atmosphere of the episodes. After the woman's excited outburst the theme from the introduction returns 'fortissimo' and marked "schwer betont" (with heavy emphasis), and rising quaver (eighth-note) figures make it more urgent, until the music gradually calms down and the third section dies away on sustained E flat minor chords. In the final section the theme floats radiantly in gentle 'pianissimo' above the arpeggios of the second violin: in the poem the surroundings have been transformed from a "bare, cold wood" to "high, bright night".
There is an abundance of thematic material in part 2, the woman's confession. One group after another builds up to a climax of intensity: a virtuoso display by Schönberg of Brahms's technique of developing variation. This section ends with an expressive recitative-like passage which leads without a break into the "moonlit wood" theme and the third section. Although there are thematic links with what has gone before, the second episode, the man's answer, is also complete in itself. After the anxious E flat minor ending of the third section, the establishment of D major and the powerful, introductory cello cantilena have a liberating effect. A further change in mood is created by muted F sharp major harmonics, ornamented with rapid semiquaver (16th-note) figurations, which, Schönberg wrote, "express the beauty of the moonlight" which suffuses the man's comforting words. The significance given to thematic working and the interweaving of the sections is reminiscent of Wagnerian leitmotive technique. That, and the serious engagement with the Lisztian precedent of symphonic single-movement form, show the influence that the legacy of the New German movement had on Schönberg. In the article "My Evolution" (1949) he explained which where the Wagnerian and Brahmsian elements he had incorporated in his own style in 'Transfigured Night':
"The thematic construction is based on Wagnerian 'model and sequence' above a roving harmony on the one hand, and on Brahms's technique of developing variation - as I call it - on the other. Also to Brahms must be ascribed the imparity of measures ... But the treatment of the instruments, the manner of composition, and much of the sonority were stricly Wagnerian. I think there were also some Schönbergian elements to be found in the breadth of the melodies...in contrapuntal and motivic combinations, and in the semi-contrapuntal movement of the harmony and its basses against the melody. Finally, there were already some passages of unfixed tonality which may be considered premonitions of the future".
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