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Transfigured Night

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Transfigured Night

Arnold Schoenberg, by Egon Schiele, 1917

Several posts back I rather arbitrarily put up a performance of Arnold Schoenberg's chamber piece for strings (originally for sextet, but also in a version for string orchestra) Verklärte Nacht, composed in 1899. I've known this piece for a long time as I had a vinyl recording of the string orchestra version decades ago. But the performance I posted,  by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, was so compelling that I keep coming back to it. I sent it to a friend of mind with five decades of experience as an orchestral musician and she was bowled over, saying she had never heard anything like it. Indeed, this is one of the finest classical music performances I have ever heard. Here it is:


Let's talk a little bit about why this is so extraordinary. First, the staging: with one exception, every performer is dressed in the plainest of black garb. For most of the performance there is absolutely minimal lighting. They play without music and without a conductor. Instead, all the musicians are deeply tuned into what one another are doing. This is a chamber orchestra that truly plays as a chamber ensemble. Then the performance: deeply committed to simply delivering the music in the finest and most expressive way they can. No egos here, either. It is the music that is on display, not the performers.

Arnold Schoenberg has long been notorious for inventing or discovering atonal music (which he preferred to call "pan-tonal") and is sometimes accused of being able to empty any concert hall. He was the teacher of two other great modernist masters, Alban Berg and Anton Webern who have achieved their own notoriety. But alongside the side of Schoenberg that is known for being an iconoclast is a deeply traditional facet. His textbooks on composition, for example, restrict themselves almost exclusively to examples from Beethoven. And in his earlier years he composed some superlative examples of late romanticism such as this piece and his large-scale cantata Gurre-Lieder.

The present piece, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) is a real oddity: a piece of chamber music, traditionally the most abstract musical genre, turned into program music, as it is based on a poem by Richard Dehmel. Here is the beginning of the poem. See the Wikipedia link to the piece for the rest.
Two people are walking through a bare, cold wood;
the moon keeps pace with them and draws their gaze.
The moon moves along above tall oak trees,
there is no wisp of cloud to obscure the radiance
to which the black, jagged tips reach up.

 The piece was premiered in 1902 and attracted controversy not only for the program, but also for its use of a ninth chord in last inversion. This last I have never understood for two reasons: the chord is merely passing harmony connecting two other chords and besides, Beethoven already used this inversion in one of his string quartets. But I suppose critics at the time were looking for any old stick to beat Schoenberg with.

I have always really liked this piece, but hearing this performance, it occurs to me that this is a truly great piece of music. It both summarizes the 19th century and gazes into the future, hinting at the turmoil of the 20th century.

Just one thing puzzles me: why is one of the violists wearing a red jacket?



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