Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night”: At the Tonal Precipice

Famously, in the early years of the twentieth century, Arnold Schoenberg plunged over the precipice into the world of atonality. A natural outgrowth of late Romantic chromaticism, the new music gave equality to all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and abolished the kind of hierarchy that allowed for a tonal center of gravity. Schoenberg adapted the system of Serialism to manipulate the resulting twelve tone rows.

Standing at the tonal precipice, Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”) is music which came before all of that. Composed in three weeks in September of 1899 by the 25-year-old Schoenberg, it is a tone poem scored for string sextet. (A string orchestra version was created in 1917). It can be heard as a lush musical farewell to late Romanticism, and a jumping off point for what was to come. In the hands of Schoenberg, the harmonic language of Wagner and Strauss meets the thematic variation technique of Brahms. Aesthetic adversaries of the 19th century were unified at long last.

Schoenberg’s inspiration for Transfigured Night was a poem written three years earlier by Richard Dehmel. Inhabiting a shadowy, Freudian landscape, it outlines the moving conversation of a man and woman as they walk through moonlit woods on a cold, clear night. Consumed by guilt, the woman confesses that, out of a desire for motherhood, she is pregnant by another man whom she never loved. Having met a man she truly loves, she tearfully laments that “now life has taken revenge.” As they walk, the man reassures her that, through the strength of their love, the unborn child will become his. Through forgiveness and the power of Eros, the night is transfigured. Darkness turns to light. We are reminded of the epic moment of transfiguration at the end of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, as well as the conclusion of Richard Strauss’ 1889 tone poem, Death and Transfiguration.

Progressing from D minor to D major, Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night unfolds in a single movement, broken into five sections (ABACA) which follow the poem’s five stanzas. The piece begins with a haunting evocation of the dense forest, which returns as a kind of narrator’s refrain. In the second section, quiet dread erupts into a passionate expression of angst and longing. The third section returns to the world of nature and the moonlit forest. The fourth section brings the man’s compassionate reply. It is a majestic wordless aria. The serene shimmering final bars celebrate the transfigured night.

Although the music follows the dramatic outline of the poem, Schoenberg did not consider it to be purely programmatic. In 1950, he commented that “it does not illustrate any action or drama, but was restricted to portray nature and express human feelings…in other words, it offers the possibility to be appreciated as ‘pure’ music.”

In a 1912 letter to Schoenberg, Dehmel wrote,

Yesterday evening I heard your ‘Transfigured Night’, and I should consider it a sin of omission if I failed to say a word of thanks to you for your wonderful sextet. I had intended to follow the motives of my text in your composition; but I soon forgot to do so, I was so enthralled by the music.

This English translation of the poem is by Stanley Appelbaum:

Two people walk through a bare, cold grove; The moon races along with them, they look into it. The moon races over tall oaks, No cloud obscures the light from the sky, Into which the black points of the boughs reach, A woman’s voice speaks:

I’m carrying a child, and not yours, I walk in sin beside you. I have committed a great offense against myself. I no longer believed I could be happy And yet I had a strong yearning For something to fill my life, for the joys of motherhood And for duty; so I committed an effrontery, So, shuddering, I allowed my sex To be embraced by a strange man, And, on top of that, I blessed myself for it. Now life has taken its revenge: Now I have met you, oh you.

She walks with a clumsy gait, She looks up; the moon is racing along. Her dark gaze is drowned in light. A man’s voice speaks:

May the child you conceived Be no burden to your soul; Just see how brightly the universe is gleaming! There’s a glow around everything; You are floating with me on a cold ocean, But a special warmth flickers From you into me, from me into you. It will transfigure the strange man’s child. You will bear the child for me, as if it were mine; You have brought the glow into me, You have made me like a child myself.

He grasps her around her ample hips. Their breath kisses in the breeze. Two people walk through the lofty, bright night.

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Featured Image: “Moonlight Night” (1860), August Friedrich Piepenhagen

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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