I had the pleasure of recently attending a
Philharmonic Orchestra concert at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
featuring music by Arnold Schoenberg (the orchestral version of Verklärte Nacht) and Gustav
Mahler (the classic Symphony No 5 in C sharp minor). Although Mahler was the
main course, I must say I was utterly blown away by Schoenberg’s Verklärte
Nacht. It truly was music of transfiguration.
This was helped along considerably by the beguiling Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare, who I am still not sure even now whether he is some kind of faunic creature owing to his magnetic physical presence. It is fair to say with him the baton becomes a magical wand carving out sigils and omens under whose spell the orchestra falls. Diminutive in stature, with a mass of afro hair and exaggerated features, he is every bit the caricature of a nineteenth century conductor, dressed in enormously extravagant coat tails, and contorting himself into every note in the manner of an electrified marionette. Without a doubt he is the most expressive conductor I have ever seen.
Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4, is a string sextet in one movement composed in 1899 in just three weeks, it is considered Schoenberg's earliest important work. It was inspired by Richard Dehmel's poem of the same name, combined with the influence of Schoenberg's strong feelings upon meeting Mathilde von Zemlinsky (the sister of his teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky), whom he would later marry. The movement can be divided into five distinct sections which refer to the five stanzas of Dehmel's poem. Dehmel's poem describes a man and woman walking through a dark forest on a moonlit night. The woman shares a dark secret with her new lover: she bears the child of another man.
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.
Artist Schiele Bildnis portrait of
Arnold Schönberg 1917
Verklärte Nacht was controversial at its 1902 premiere. This was due to the highly advanced harmonic idiom, although Schoenberg did receive praise for his inventiveness. Some reaction was due to the use of Dehmel's poem as inspiration, questioning the viability of setting its themes to music, or being concerned about the situation of the woman in the story.
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"