The Maestro's Choice by Boris Brott
/ October 2, 2002
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
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
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.
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