Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 2

The Maestro's Choice

by Boris Brott / October 2, 2002

Version française...

Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)

I love music that touches the soul–music that gives both audience and performers goose bumps–music appreciated on many different levels, from the most academic and analytical to the most emotional. Arnold Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht is just such a work.

One hundred years after its composition, most of Arnold Schoenberg's music still inspires fear in the average concertgoer. It is a measure of the man's achievement that 50 years after his death, much of his music can still empty any concert hall on earth. This statement does not apply to his Verklarte Nacht, which is an excellent place to start discovering this 20th century genius who stood music on its ear and whose "serial" method of composition became the bedrock of musical modernism for the rest of the century.

Verklärte Nacht is pure program music. One can analyze each stanza of Richard Dehmel's poem, on which it is based, and compare it to a melodic element of Schoenberg's score or a shift in his late romantic post-Wagnerian harmony. With the exception of a few unorthodox chords, nothing in this piece hints at the atonal convulsions that Schoenberg was soon to let loose.

The poem itself was very controversial for its time. Critics and audiences at the turn of the last century considered it too sexually explicit. Even today, its frank depiction shocks many of us and yet warms our souls with the triumph of romantic love. In short, the text describes a couple walking in the cold moonlight. She confesses that she has been unfaithful and that she is carrying another man's child. She had lost belief in love and surrendered herself to a stranger. He speaks: Let her not burden her soul with guilt. See the moon's chill waters, but a flame from each other will transfigure the child she bears him. They sink into each other's arms. Their breaths meet in kisses in the air. Two mortals wander through the wondrous moonlight!

Transfigured Night is an uncanny depiction of the moods of each of the two lovers. The music traces the transfiguration of its initially gloomy, agitated materials into an incandescent serene resolution. The point at which the man begins to rely on the woman's confession is unmistakable in its shift from minor to major.

This long single movement work, escapes the confinement of textbook notions of the sonata, rondo or other forms. It is nevertheless intensely symphonic in the way it develops its musical ideas with a compelling blend of logic and imagination.

Schoenberg's music is hugely demanding on the technique, intonation, blending and emotional commitment of the musicians. As the conductor, I am looking forward to the challenge of shaping the extended phrases of this one-movement, thirty-minute work and keeping it interesting and alive. You will be blown away by the work's gut-wrenching, overt, romantic sentiments.

Suggested recording:

I have looked in my library and the only recording I can find is an old vinyl LP with Leopold Stokowski conducting. The interpretation is very personal but convincing nonetheless. I like it precisely because it brings the work to life. An interpretation is best when it gives you the feeling that the work is being created right there in front of you, at the very moment you are listening! (On the Seraphim label, a division of Angel records # s-60080).

Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht is the principal work for the second Connoisseur Concert of the McGill Chamber Orchestra on October 28, 8:00 p.m., at Pollack Hall, McGill University.

Boris Brott is Artistic Director, McGill Chamber Orchestra

Version française...

(c) La Scena Musicale