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Composed: 1899; arr. for string orchestra 1917; rev. 1943
Length: c. 30 minutes
In 1949, two years before his death, Schoenberg wrote: "It was not given to me to continue writing in the style of Verklärte Nacht… fate led me along a harder path. But the wish to return to the earlier style remained constantly within me, and from time to time I have given in to this desire…." The style referred to was, to state the case perhaps over-simply, that of Wagner, above all of his Tristan und Isolde, with lashings of Brahms. Schoenberg continues: "Nevertheless, I believe that a little bit of Schoenberg may also be found in it, particularly in the breadth of the melodies, in contrapuntal and motivic developments, and in the quasi-contrapuntal movement of harmonies and harmonic basses against the melody. Finally, there are even passages…of indeterminate tonality, which doubtless may be portents for the future."
It was Alexander von Zemlinsky, Schoenberg's first composition teacher (and later his brother in-law), who had suggested to the Vienna Tonkünstlerverein in 1899 that they perform the just-completed string sextet Verklärte Nacht. But they were not impressed, one observer dismissing it as Tristan und Isolde "smudged over." Yet four years later the same organization did present the work, the performers being the augmented Rosé Quartet.
Schoenberg, as noted, maintained a lifelong affection for his luscious early creation, arranging it for string orchestra in 1917 and again, with slight alterations, in 1943. The inspiration for the score came from Verklärte Nacht, by the German poet Richard Dehmel (1863-1920), whose sensual lyrics represented an extreme reaction to the prevalent naturalism of his time. The five main sections of Schoenberg's composition correspond to the five sections of Dehmel's poem:
Two people walk through the bare, cold woods. The moon, above tall oaks, accompanies them. Jagged peaks reach into the cloudless sky. The woman speaks:
I carry a child, but not yours. I felt such longing for meaning in life, for the joys of motherhood, that I gave myself to a stranger's embrace. Now life has taken revenge, for I have met you.
Walking with awkward steps, she looks up: Her dark glance is inundated with light. The man speaks:
Let the child you have conceived not be a burden. See how brightly all creation shimmers in the moonlight. A special warmth reaches from you to me, from me to you. That warmth will transfigure the child. You will bear it for me, from me. You have brought radiance into me, made me a child myself.
He embraces her. Their breath mingles in the air. Two people pass through the exalted brightness of the night.
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.