Transfigured Night, Op. 4 (1902)
- Composer: Schoenberg, Arnold
- Conductor: Mannino, Franco
- Performance Date: 1986-02-19
- Recording courtesy of CBC Radio 2
Sep 13, 1874 - Jul 13, 1951
Transfigured Night is a hyperemotional musical interpretation of a poem – a poem about love, a love so deep, sincere and true that the night itself becomes transfigured. Learn more
Born in Vienna, September 13, 1874;
died in Los Angeles, July 13, 1951
Today, nearly sixty years after the death of Arnold Schoenberg, many listeners are still trying to come to terms with his music. There is no point trying to disguise the fact that many of his compositions are difficult to understand. But there are also many that are not. Some of these are among the most fascinating, compelling and emotionally expressive works ever written. Let’s take a look at the man who wrote pieces with intriguing titles like Transfigured Night, Anticipation, Pierrot in the Moonlight, The Book of the Hanging Gardens and A Survivor from Warsaw.
A Composer from Vienna
Vienna is known the world over as the musical Mecca, yet few of the great composers associated with this city were actually born there, and even fewer spent their entire lives there. (Schubert and Johann Strauss II were among them.) Arnold Schoenberg too was one of the city’s native sons. In fact, he was the most important Viennese-born composer since Johann Strauss (born in 1825). But Schoenberg left Vienna in 1925, spending eight years in Berlin, then immigrating to the United States, where he remained for the rest of his life. In America, in deference to English speakers and publishers who had never encountered an umlaut before, he changed the spelling of his name from Schönberg to Schoenberg.
Few composers have had the impact on the continuing history of music as has Arnold Schoenberg. Perhaps only Bach, Beethoven and Wagner can match him in this respect. Ironically, he was almost entirely self-taught. Here’s how it all came about:
His Musical Career Begins
Schoenberg began his musical career in the late 1890s after spending five unhappy years working in a bank. His first compositions came right out of the late-romantic world of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. His first mature, major work was Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), composed in 1899 for pairs of violins, violas and cellos. In 1917 Schoenberg expanded the scoring for string orchestra, then, in 1943, further revised it into the form we usually hear it today.
The Story of Transfigured Night
Set to a poem by Richard Dehmel, the voluptuous music follows a pair of lovers walking through the woods in the cold moonlight. The woman has a terrible confession to make: she is with child, but not by him. She had earlier sought emotional fulfillment in sensuality and in childbearing. But this former lover was a stranger, and deceived her. The man she now walks with in the moonlit woods assures her the child will be no burden; his true and deep love for the woman will make the child as his own. A strange radiance fills the night air while the warmth of the couple’s love transforms the child from “hers” into “theirs.” The two mortals continue walking in the exalted brightness of the transfigured night. The music is drenched in romanticism and hyperemotional expressivity, as befits the subject matter. Understandably, after more than a century, Transfigured Night remains Schoenberg’s most popular score.
After Transfigured Night
Schoenberg then went on to create several more works in this style, including the 45-minute symphonic poem Pelleas and Melisande (a tragic love story) and the colossal Gurre-Lieder (Songs of Gurre), a hundred-minute work for supersized orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists. It incorporates all the trappings of late Romanticism: an abnormally heightened emotional climate, an all-consuming love affair, sensuality, mystery, the theme of love doomed by Fate, nature imagery, a remote castle in a faraway time and place, defiance of heaven, ghostly riders on a macabre hunt, the purifying love of benevolent Nature, cyclic return and apotheosis.
The Road to Atonality
But as music around him became increasingly removed from tonal anchors in the early years of the new century, Schoenberg began seeking new means of organizing harmony and other compositional procedures. In the final movement of his Second String Quartet, he added a soprano whose text includes “I breathe the air of another planet” - prophetic words indeed! By the time Schoenberg had composed such scores as the Five Pieces for Orchestra (1909), the ghoulish monodrama Erwartung (Anticipation, or Expectation, 1909), and Pierrot lunaire (Pierrot in the Moonlight, 1912), atonality had become the basis of his harmonic thinking.
What is Atonality?
No longer was there any semblance of a tonal center (D major, for example, or G minor). In fact, there was not even the gravitational influence of a single pitch. Essentially what Schoenberg accomplished was the emancipation of dissonance from its ties to traditional harmony. In his world of atonality, a “dissonant” note or chord no longer had any contextual relationship to surrounding pitches; it existed in and of itself. “Tonality is not an eternal law of music,” he proclaimed. Hence, the concept of being “in” a key such as G major or A minor was abandoned and replaced by a kind of democracy of the notes.
Pierrot lunaire, in addition to being an atonal composition, contained a further novelty: a whole new style of vocal declamation called Sprechstimme (“speech-voice”) and its closely related Sprechgesang (“speech-song”) - a kind of cross between singing and speaking. In Pierrot lunaire, a text is “delivered” (remember, neither spoken nor sung, but a mix of the two) against a background of instrumental music. Sprechgesang is a highly flexible, somewhat eerie vocalism that perfectly accords with the exaggerated world of Expressionism that was sweeping the artistic world of early twentieth-century Europe.
What was expressionism?
Expressionism was one of the leading artistic movements of the early twentieth century. The Expressionist painters attempted to portray inner, psychological states in external, visible form. Expressionism does not attempt to present pictorial likenesses; it deals with the subconscious, the soul and states of mind, rendering them in deliberately distorted images. Schoenberg himself painted a number of Expressionist canvases, including his self-portrait. The surreal, fantastical, nightmarish world of Pierrot - his moondrunk despair, his macabre images of crime and punishment, and melancholic remembrances of things past - were the perfect subject matter for musical Expressionism. And who is Pierrot? He is the legendary, white-faced, happy/sad clown of puppet shows and pantomimes held across Europe. He appears in Russia as Petrouchka, in Italy as Pagliaccio and in French-speaking lands as Pierrot. “Lunaire” refers to moonlight.
The Next Step: Dodecaphony
Schoenberg had one more step to go to bring his evolving new theory of harmony to its logical conclusion. He described it as the “method for composing with twelve tones related only to one another,” or, in simpler terms, the twelve-tone method (and it is a method, or procedure, not a style, as Schoenberg repeatedly insisted). In twelve-tone writing, or dodecaphony, the composer chooses a random ordering of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale, an ordering that renders all of them equally important in contradistinction to the hierarchy that had prevailed in tonal music. This ordering of pitches (known as the tone row) serves as a kind of molecular code containing genetic information that determines both the thematic and harmonic structure of the composition. In addition to its original form, the row can be reordered in inversion (as a mirror image of itself), retrograde (backwards) and in retrograde inversion. Each of these forms, or fragments thereof, can also be transposed to begin on any of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale, thus providing a pool of 48 complete permutations and thousands of possible fragments. This is what confers internal unity on the music. The whole procedure may seem mathematical in principle, but it is the music’s emotional message that counts, just as it as it does in Mozart or Tchaikovsky or Brahms. Schoenberg’s first completely twelve-tone composition was his Piano Suite, published in 1923.
A radical new system? To many people, yes. But Schoenberg thought otherwise. He saw himself as a conservative, growing logically and inevitably out of the time-honored tradition of Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. He liked to describe himself as “a conservative who was forced to become a radical.” But he pursued his mission with an almost religious fervor. You could see it in his fanatical gaze and bulging eyes. “I believe what I do and do only what I believe; and woe to anybody who lays hands on my faith,” he proclaimed.
Like Felix Mendelssohn, Arnold Schoenberg was born a Jew and later converted to Lutheranism, more for reasons of convenience than of faith. But unlike Mendelssohn, Schoenberg formally reconverted, in 1933 (shortly before he fled Europe for America) as a gesture of protest against the Nazis as well as for religious reasons.
The Nazi Horror
The horrors perpetrated by the Nazi war machine affected Schoenberg personally and directly. His brother was murdered in a Nazi hospital by lethal injection. He lost a cousin, a niece and several former students to the concentration camps. A Survivor from Warsaw (1947) was the composer’s immediate reaction to news of his niece, and generally to the flood of reports from Jews who had survived by living in the sewers of Warsaw. It was to be a work in commemoration of the victims of Nazi brutality and a scream of protest against the tyranny the Jews had suffered all those terrible years.
A Survivor From Warsaw
The music is written in Schoenberg's twelve-tone system, with all twelve pitches brutally hurled forth in the first measure by the trumpet fanfares accompanied by shrieking violins and double basses. The nightmarish world of the camps and the Warsaw sewers is portrayed with graphic realism, both in the orchestra - which employs the full panoply of Expressionistic devices such as fluttertonguing, harmonics, col legno (playing with the wooden part of the bow) and sul ponticello (bowing directly on the bridge of a stringed instrument) - and in the text (Schoenberg’s own, incorporating reports by survivors he interviewed personally), delivered by a narrator. Obviously, such music cannot be “pretty.” But its emotional impact is devastating. This is twelve-tone music at its most trenchant.
For much of the twentieth century, especially from about 1940 to 1980, Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system guided several generations of composers and influenced the thinking of hundreds. Like Berlioz, he left to posterity a significant treatise summarizing his life’s work, the Harmonielehre. According to his wife, his last word before expiring (it was on a Friday, the thirteenth), was “harmony” - a fitting finale to a life that changed the course of music history.
Concert Program Notes
Arnold Schoenberg : Born in Vienna, September 13, 1874; died in Los Angeles, July 13, 1951
Drenched in romanticism and hyperemotional expressivity, Schoenberg’s tone poem Transfigured Night is, after more than a century, still his most popular work. It is the direct descendent of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, both in its musical language and its subject matter. And if you want to be technical about such matters, it is actually nineteenth-century music as well, composed in the last months of the last year of the century.
Transfigured Night was Schoenberg’s first major score, and his first mature music. He originally wrote it as a sextet for two violins, two violas and two cellos. Most of the work was done in a three-week period during the summer of 1899; numerous small details were adjusted over the next few months, and the score was in its final form by December 1. The first performance was given by the Rosé Quartet and two additional musicians in Vienna on March 18, 1902. In 1917, Schoenberg expanded the scoring for string orchestra, in which form he himself conducted the first performance in Vienna two years later. Then, in 1943, he revised the string orchestra version into the form we usually hear it today by moderating some of the performance directions and pruning some of the more densely scored passages. Most listeners agree that the fuller sonorities of a string orchestra heighten the emotional intensity of the music. Balletomanes also know Transfigured Night under the title Pillar of Fire in Antony Tudor’s choreography.
Transfigured Night, in its original string sextet form, is one of the very few examples of chamber music to incorporate programmatic elements. (Other works that come to mind include Smetana’s first string quartet, From My Life, and Janáček’s second quartet, Intimate Letters.) Schoenberg’s score is a musical depiction of the poem “Zwei Menschen” (Two People) by Richard Dehmel (1863-1920), a leading German poet and playwright of his day.
The story involves a pair of lovers walking through the woods in the cold moonlight. The woman has a terrible confession to make: she is with child, but not by him. She had earlier sought emotional fulfillment in sensuality and in childbearing. But this former lover was a stranger, and deceived her. The man she now walks with in the moonlit woods assures her the child will be no burden; his true and deep love for the woman will make the child as his own. A strange radiance fills the night air while the warmth of the couple’s love transforms the child from “hers” into “theirs.” The two mortals continue walking in the exalted brightness of the transfigured night.
The layout of Schoenberg’s score follows the five stanzas of Dehmel’s poem, though there is no formal division into separate sections. Three passages of “walking music” (the first and third sections are relatively brief; the fifth is more extended) alternate with “speaking music” (second section for the woman as she explains her plight, fourth section for the man as he assures her he will accept the child as his own). Listeners will have no difficulty in identifying each appearance of the “walking music,” heard initially in the opening moments of the score as a gravely plodding, descending figure. In addition to the “walking” motif, Schoenberg introduces, develops, fragments, combines and recombines numerous other melodic ideas in a process of continuous transformation he learned from Wagner and Liszt.
The transfiguration of the title affects the music as well as the story, for, as the composer explained, the final section “consists of themes of the preceding parts, all of them modified anew, so as to glorify the miracles of nature that have changed this night of tragedy into a transfigured night.”
Transfigured Night is sometimes called a drama without words or a narration in tone. The specific events of the unfolding story are best left to each individual to imagine for him- or herself, as Schoenberg gives musical expression to a great range of human emotions, including anguish, fear, tenderness, forgiveness, intimacy and ecstasy, against a beautiful nature setting. Even the poet Dehmel, after hearing Schoenberg’s music, declared: “I had intended to follow motifs of my text in your composition, but I soon forgot all about that, so much was I under the spell of the music.”Robert Markow
This Year in History: 1902
History, Politics and Social Affairs
- Edward VII is crowned king of the United Kingdom following the death of his mother, Queen Victoria.
- The first Victoria Day is celebrated on May 24th.
- End of Boer War. Great Britain and the Boers resume peace talks in Pretoria. They will sign the treaty on December 31. Canadian troops return home to great acclaim.
- Boer War sets precedent for Canadians as peacekeepers.
- From 1902 until 1912, over 1.5 million British emigrants leave for Canada. More immigrants are to arrive after the Second World War.
Nature, Science and Technology
- Marie and Pierre Curie isolate radium, a radioactive element.
- The Electric Theatre, the first motion picture theatre, opens in Los Angeles.
- Mont Pelée erupts, destroying the town of St. Pierre, Martinique and killing 30,000.
The Arts, Literature and Entertainment
- Ray Knight stages the first Raymond Stampede in Raymond, Alberta. In so doing, he coined the word "stampede," thus launching his career as the world's first rodeo producer and stock contractor. The Raymond Stampede is now Canada's oldest rodeo.
- The Winnipeg Art Society is formed.
- The first Canadian comic strip, Raoul Barré's "Pour un dîner de Noël," appears in Montréal's La Presse.
- Four members of the Toronto Art Students' League found Carlton Studios, an innovative advertising and publishing firm, in England.
- The Toronto Camera Club exhibition marks the advent of pictorialism in Canada.
- The oldest continuously operating symphony orchestra in Canada is founded in Quebec City.
- Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip To The Moon), a 14-minute silent film by Georges Méliès, becomes the first science fiction motion picture.