Schoenberg, Arnold: Op. 4, Verklärte Nacht

To most of those who recognize it on a concert program, the name ‘Arnold Schoenberg’ carries connotations that might charitably be described as ‘mixed’. Cold overtones of abstraction and exaggerated theorizing hang in the air before a note is played. But whatever force drove Schoenberg through his musical life and works, it certainly wasn’t a cold one… and whatever force drove him to write Verklärte Nacht was frankly overheated with all sorts of passions: for music, for poetry, for lust, for love, and all sorts of other things which suffer when assigned a name.
The full title of Schoenberg’s work in manuscript is Verklärte Nacht von Richard Dehmel, which says that the poet has been given first rank in its meaning. And it is true: to hear (or play) Schoenberg’s string sextet with knowledge of the text to which it refers, is to know that Verklärte Nacht ist an extraordinary spilling over of word and meaning into music. 
To begin, then, a bit of poetic background: Dehmel’s poem is in five parts:

  1. Two people walk in the woods.  The moon follows.
  2. A woman’s voice speaks — she carries a child from an affair with a ‘stranger’ 
  3. She walks in the woods, stumbling.  The moon follows.
  4. A man’s voice speaks — he accepts child and universe
  5. The two walk together in the woods, and the night is bright.

How precisely Schoenberg matches words to musical text could be the subject of some research and argument, but some relationships are unmistakable.  Walking-darkly-in-the-woods is connected to a falling line over long pulses (or steps) in the cellos. This material appears three times in the music, parallel to the ‘walking’ parts of the poiem (the first, third, and fifth sections). The ‘woman’s voice’ (of section 2) is clearly marked by a viola solo, with which the words “Ich trag ein Kind, und nit von Dir” (“I carry a child, but not from you”) match stress-for-stress.  The ‘man’s voice’, which marks a transformative midpoint to the poem, is given just as clearly by a generous moment in the cello; this voice plainly opens up the universe and the night. And even beyond these milestones, the passionate inner conflicts of the woman — conflicts between desire, longing, sin, and consequence — make a plain, and plainly erotic, impression; the general opening-up to the brightness of the universe is just as palpable.  In these ways, the plot is laid bare.
It probably would be a loss, though, to go too far with merely analytical thinking. There are fine and wonderful details to be found in reading, hearing, re-reading, and re-hearing… but there’s only so much time.  And to lose the time of a performance to speculating “This must be the part where X happens” might just bring the name ‘Arnold Schoenberg’ back out into the cold, where it doesn’t belong.
If that isn’t convincing, it’s worth bearing in mind that Richard Dehmel himself wrote to Schoenberg after the premiere: ‘I had intended to follow the motives of my text in your composition, but soon forgot to do so, I was so enthralled by the music.’ And of course he was right to forget to do so.  To be enthralled is also to follow the piece, which carries in its text, subtext, and tone something powerful about what it means to be enthralled, by music, by text, or by longing.