Arnold Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht (sextet version)

(and for a delightful video of a live performance, check this out)

This is the best I could do with a reference to Boulez this week, and it’s a few days late. It’s actually not a piece of his, because I am still working my way up to that kind of serialism, but the performers are drawn from the EIC, an ensemble Boulez himself founded in 1976 (check them out!) Can’t quite get there yet. It’s from an album with his name on it. But this piece is the beginning of my efforts to get there. In an effort to do so, I knew the gateway to learning to appreciate this innovation was through the man himself, the very “inventor”. I’d never gotten through anything of Schoenberg, as I recall, and I even posted something to this effect on a classical music forum to ask where/how to start. The logical suggestion was to start with his earlier pieces, or at least this one, written in a more classical idiom. I quote Classical Notes:

Arguably the most influential composer of the twentieth century, and perhaps of all time, Schoenberg’s fame arose from his escape from tonality and his innovation of the serial method. While detractors still demonize him for having destroyed music, the largely self-taught and hugely inventive Schoenberg saw his work as a logical evolution of cherished tradition.

“…demonize him for having destroyed music.” Wow. Well, he certainly has a lot of attention from both the traditional and modern camps, and granted, this piece is NOT written in anything near the full-blown serial idiom he invented and developed later. In fact it isn’t serial at all. While it has its moments where it veers from “classical” or traditionally expected harmonies, these should not be mistaken for serialist ideas.
The Boulez association is just coincidence. I assume he just conducted other selections on this album, but it just so happened I wanted this to follow the Mahler 1 writeup. I was going to do another Sibelius after Mahler like I did last time (his first symphony as well), but I was more interested in (or surprised by) a chunk of a listen I gave to Mahler’s 8th a few weeks ago. It is shockingly different and far more progressively tonal than any of his other music I’ve heard up to this point. I didn’t finish it, but it was kind of a sneak peak. (I have this weird image in my head of the perfect conditions under which I want to hear Mahler’s 9th for the first time, so I will be avoiding that one for a while. It could be a year or more until I am able to take a stab at that one.) In any case, Mahler had heard some of Schoenberg’s works and admired them. Many people seem to agree he would have continued down a far more modern and “atonal” path if he had been able to continue writing past an incomplete 10th symphony. In this respect, Schoenberg could have been a big influence on the late Mahler that never was. I find that interesting, but frankly it’s something I don’t understand for a number of reasons.
1. I don’t understand “normal” (traditional) classical music on the first go-round.
2. I don’t know anything about Mahler’s later music save what I’ve been told.
3. I understand even less about Schoenberg and serialism, and when the time comes for me to address things like his suite (op. 29), I have no idea what I will be able to say.
This piece, while I have come to find a striking raw beauty and impressive genius in it, is still not easy to talk about for me, although easier after having spent a few weeks listening and reading.

It was composed in 1899, and is considered his earliest important work. While Schoenberg only had one actual music teacher, one Alexander von Zemlinksy (a piece of whose we will be addressing in the coming weeks), he was apparently still under the spell (as apparently was much of the musical world at the time) of the Late Johannes Brahms, and I am told this piece bears out that relation. Zemlinksy himself was influenced by Brahms, and this style was passed down to what is probably Schoenberg’s most popular work. It is accessible in its tonality, though influence from Wagner is obvious in its “rich chromaticism… And frequent use of musical phrases which serve to undermine the metrical boundaries.” Having been written only two years after Brahms’s death in 1899, it was premiered in 1902, and was still controversial. In fact, the Wikipedia article says this about the premiere:

A particular point of controversy was the use of a single ‘nonexistent’ (that is, uncategorized and therefore unpermitted) inverted ninth chord, which resulted in its rejection by the Vienna Music Society. Schoenberg remarked “and thus (the work) cannot be performed since one cannot perform that which does not exist”.

(I would like this guy, I think).
What emerged was a sextet (two of each of violins, violas, and cellos), although a string orchestra version was produced by the composer in 1917 and revised in 1943, this version being the most recorded and performed today. It is based on the Richard Dehmel poem of the same name (text in German and English here, among many other places). This makes the piece one of the, if not the earliest examples of program music for a chamber ensemble. This was another shocking aspect of the piece at the time, to have a chamber piece of this scope and in this manner. The poem itself is in five verses, and so the piece also is in five sections, but not as defined as movements, in fact, not really much defined at all, although in my listening, I find there to be a few points of stark contrast in emotion and expression. Dehmel heard Schoenberg’s work and said something along the lines that he was trying to follow the music in the context of his poem, but eventually enjoyed the music so much that he got lost in it and gave up.
It kind of flip flops between an almost-harrowing dramatic intensity and a warm, touching, almost tender quality. The piece opens almost ominously but very richly; it does feel like the opening of a play. The cellos set the scene, and the higher notes in the harmony come in slowly. As the violin comes in at the very top, as the small climax of this beginning, it sounds almost pleading, mourning. I do love the harmonies here in the opening. The first section introduces corresponding to the first verse of the poem, sets the stage; it consists only of narration, no dialogue. There’s nothing terribly shocking going on here. The first verse talks about the moon and the cloudless night sky and the oak trees, and this first verse is nearly that peaceful, while still being ominous. The first motif I recognize comes in at about the two-minute mark, and shortly thereafter, there is a more dramatic passage, but we are still not yet to the next verse (are we?). I’m really not going to do a play-by-play of this. Just listen to the thing. But I will make note of a few high points that I find are pivotal to the piece, or that I really like. And then for the rest, just go enjoy it yourself.
The first important piece that I recognize is at 2:07, and this is one you’ll hear multiple times.
8:40 is apparently the first passage of truly atonal music in like the history of ever, one that cannot be rationalized by any form of harmony or something. That’s what a comment on YouTube said.
At about the 9 minute mark, we get echoes of the opening phrase from the very beginning, but orchestrated differently from the opening. Then it shows up again at 11:56, three times, and again at 12:58.
There seems to be a false cadence at 15:14, and then at 15:25 there is an entirely different emotion that washes into the piece. This is a big change. It suddenly feels warm and accepting, like a comforting hug. I can only imagine we are at the man’s response to his woman’s plight, and everything from here on out is looking up. At 17:12, it even gets happy, and around 23:00 it starts to feel like it’s coming to a final section, 25:18 is even more final feeling, and by 26:00 it’s almost playful or joking, and the peaceful, quiet, warm sounds in the last few minutes sound like the credits rolling as the new, relieved couple walk off into the dark transfigured night.
While this piece is often described to be in five sections (again, corresponding to the verses of the poem), the string orchestra version I have with the Atlanta Symphony and Yoel Levi divides it into only four sections: two long ones (13 minutes and 15 minutes), then two short ones of almost three minutes each. Hmmmmm.
As a sextet, it has, for me, a far more intimate, personal feel, as well as one that’s more exposed, pared down, and even gritty in places, as opposed to the large, full-bodied scoring of an entire orchestra, although even the sextet has moments of thickly-textured sweeping harmony. It’s more limber and able to reach the vulnerable insecure lows of a piece like this as well as the highs. It’s intense.
(As a side note, I’ve never performed as part of an ensemble this small, and it’s fascinating to see how six players [without a conductor, obviously] interact and rely on and feed off of each other. It adds a whole new intensity to the experience, seeing the individuals work in combination with one another to produce this piece. It’s a journey for them too.)
I find it interesting that this piece is, in the strictest sense, tonal, as it has harmonies that DO revolve around a central key. To an unfamiliar ear, however, at first impression, (as it did to me at first in some places), to be very “atonal”, which is not the case. While it begins in Dm and ends in D major (with modulations along the way), it does drift and waver from this tonal center, with heavy dissonances. That being said, dissonance does not equal atonality. A dissonance out of context may sound really awful or illogical, but within the context of a phrase or entire piece of music, it may make perfect sense, and that’s what I think makes the difference here: understanding the logic or plot (landscape, layout, etc.) of the piece and how it all fits together. With enough time and resources on my hands (as well as a much stronger grasp of music theory), I would scour the score and look at all sorts of relationships between sections, motifs, harmonies, modulations, and their significance to the piece, but to be perfectly honest, I am out of my depth here. Program notes from a performance by the LA Philharmonic state:

“Schoenberg achieves this realization through the interpenetration and juxtaposition of themes identified with the woman, man, and narration respectively, with the Brahmsian technique of thematic variation and development. In this way he not only expressed the idea of the poem but, perhaps in a more profound way, an expression of himself “simply by reflecting in music what your poems stirred up in me.” With this work Schoenberg resolved, at least for himself, one conflict, the Brahms/Wagner controversy.”

(More history references there. If you’re not aware of the Brahms vs. Wagner thing, check out The War of the Romantics. Sounds epic, no?)
Even so, my intentions here are not to analyze things to that extent. Others have, and even reading over their research doesn’t help me a ton, at least the bits describing in explicit detail what Schoenberg is doing or did here. Does it help me appreciate/admire Schoenberg as a composer more? Yes. Does it help me have a greater appreciation for  the piece emotionally? Negligible. Perhaps the best I can do is include many of the links I used in researching this piece, as many of them have written it more succinctly and professionally than I could. Aside from that, take some time, perhaps even outside on a chilly evening with a hot beverage, familiarize yourself, if you want, with the story it is to tell, sit back and listen. It may sound more frightening at first than touching, but there is something personal, private, raw, and stunningly beautiful about this piece, and the narrative is mesmerizing once you hear it. To close, compare the first and last lines of Dehmel’s poem:
Zwei Menschen gehn durch kahlen, kalten Hain
(Two people are walking through a bare, cold wood)

Zwei Menschen gehn durch hohe, helle Nacht
(Two people walk on through the high, bright night)

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