Arnold Schönberg: Verklärte Nacht op. 4 (1899)
Programme notes


“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” (Richard Dehmel to Arnold Schönberg, 12 December 1912). Arnold Schönberg composed his op. 4 in just three weeks in September 1899, while vacationing in Payerbach at Semmering with Alexander von Zemlinsky and Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde – who would become Schönberg’s first wife. The final version of the manuscript is dated 1 December 1899. The subject of this programme music, which “restricts itself to sketching nature and expressing human emotions” (Schönberg), is Richard Dehmel’s poem “Verklärte Nacht,” from the collection “Woman and World” (“Weib und Welt”) published in 1896. Before the first World War Dehmel was one of Germany’s most highly regarded lyric poets. His principal work, “Two Figures: A Novel in Romances” (“Zwei Menschen. Roman in Romanzen,” 1903), essayed eroticism and sexuality within the context of stylistic conceptions of art nouveau (Jugendstil). The first main piece of the “Novel” is “Verklärte Nacht” (a poem already once published, but without title), which is carried by the “pathos of a new, anti-bourgeois sexual morality [and] the idea of an all-conquering Eros that shuns every convention” (Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt). The five verses of the poem sketch in sections of clearly contrasting content: a forest scene with two figures (Nos. 1, 3, 5); the words of a woman who loves one man but is expecting a child from another, and who thus reproaches herself (No. 2); the words of the man, who comforts the woman and accepts the child as his own (No. 4). Dehmel’s poem drew upon an autobiographical episode, insofar as it alludes to his liaison with Ida Auerbach, whom he met as she was already carrying a child by her husband, Consul Auerbach. The daughter in an upper-class Jewish family played an essential role in the constellation Stefan George – Richard Dehmel – Arnold Schönberg: George elaborated upon his unspoken love for her in his autobiographically composed “Book of the Hanging Gardens” (“Buch der hängenden Gärten”), fifteen poems of which Arnold Schönberg would set as op. 15. The genre of programme music appears to have occupied Schönberg intensely in the year preceding composition of his op. 4. So much, at least, is suggested by those compositions which remain as fragments: “Hans, the Lucky One” (“Hans im Glück”), “The Death of Spring” (“Frühlingstod”), and “Blind Corner” (“Toter Winkel”), the latter also a string sextet. His blossoming relationship with Mathilde Zemlinsky in 1899 may also have been decisive in his specific choice of programme for op. 4. As a one-movement form, “Verklärte Nacht” represents a conjunction of two developmental trends in the music of the late 19th century: the inclination towards the one-movement sonata (Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B-minor stands as historical model) and the one-movement symphonic poem. The formal arrangement in Schönberg’s op. 4 by and large adheres to the literary model, whereby the narrative sections (the woods scenes) and internal episodes (direct discourse) find their parallel in rondo form. The first section unfurls in dense motivic mastery and epic gestures a picture of a clear, moonlit night, that in the second section, through the confession of a tragedy (the first theme is linked by D minor to the preceding episode), leads to a “dramatic outburst” (Schönberg, 1950, in his Programme Notes to “Verklärte Nacht”). The first section now clearly set off by a fermata, the second theme follows in B-flat minor to illustrate the misfortune and loneliness of the woman. A third theme in C minor elucidates the compulsion for fidelity: after the woman “finally obeyed her maternal instinct, she carries a child from a man she does not love. She had even considered herself praiseworthy for fulfilling her duty towards the demands of nature.” This section of Dehmel’s poem is expounded by a fourth theme in E major, which in its further elaboration quotes motives from material heard previously and leads to a distinct caesura. There follows a contrasting, homogenous passage, with new shadings of timbre, as bridge to the third formal section. This in turn draws upon the principal opening motive, thereafter continuing in the style of ‘developing variation’ (reminiscent of Johannes Brahms). The discourse of the man, “whose generosity is as noble as his love,” modulates in the fourth section to the ”extreme contrast of Dmajor.” Mutes and harmonics express in new sound effects the “beauty of the moonlight.” According to Schönberg, this episode “reflects the mood of a man whose love, in harmony with the splendor and radiance of nature, is capable of ignoring the tragic situation.” The fifth section assumes the function of an all-encompassing coda based not only on the opening motive, now transformed to major (and as its counterpoint the principal theme of the fourth section), but also on thematic components of the third section. At the end of 1939 the American publisher Edwin F. Kalmus approached Schönberg with the wish to publish a new edition of “Verklärte Nacht.” Schönberg agreed, provided it be an improved edition (alterations in dynamics, bowings, etc.) in an arrangement for string orchestra. Even as early as 1917 the composer had prepared for Universal Edition a version of op. 4 for string orchestra with a supplementary part for contrabass (the first known performance of the work in this form took place in the Leipzig Gewandhaus on 14 March 1918); but the experience of numerous performances had pursuaded him to reshape this version as well. When the contract with Kalmus failed to materialize, Schönberg approached Associated Music Publishers in New York. The modifications in the arrangement for string orchestra (which was issued by AMP in 1943) concern primarily dynamics and articulation, but also tempo markings. In a letter of 22 December 1942 Schönberg describes the essential improvements over the edition of 1917: “The new version [...] will improve the balance between first and second violins on the one hand, and viola and cello on the other, and restore the balance of the original version of the sextet with its six equivalent instruments.”

Therese Muxeneder
© Arnold Schönberg Center

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