Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4, for string sextet (1899)
A work in one movement for string sextet by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), his first true masterpiece, which is perhaps his most enduring composition. Composed in a highly harmonically advanced post-Romantic idiom, this work demonstrates that the young Schoenberg, aged 25, had already surpassed all his contemporaries in their style; it is little wonder that he would go on to search for new modes of composition and musical expression, pioneering atonal, expressionist and twelve-tone music. Even in this early work, the extensive use of chromaticism, modulation, dissonance and unorthodox harmonies made it very controversial when it premiered in 1902. In particular, Schoenberg used a certain "nonexistent" inverted ninth chord (it was nonexistent because it was uncategorized, and hence forbidden by convention), and this led the Vienna Musical Society to reject the composition.
"Verklärte Nacht" takes as its subject a poem by Richard Dehmel that describes a man and a woman walking through a dark forest at night. She confesses a secret to him: She is pregnant with the child of another man. He reflects on this revelation in silence, and eventually comes to accept and forgive the woman. Schoenberg was inspired by his feelings for Mathilde von Zemlinsky, the daughter of his teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky and his future wife.
This classic performance by the Hollywood String Quartet dates from 1955.
English translation of Dehmel's poem:
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.
A woman's voice speaks:
"I am carrying a child, and not by you.
I am walking here with you in a state of sin.
I have offended grievously against myself.
I despaired of happiness,
and yet I still felt a grievous longing
for life's fullness, for a mother's joys
"and duties; and so I sinned,
and so I yielded, shuddering, my sex
to the embrace of a stranger,
and even thought myself blessed.
Now life has taken its revenge,
and I have met you, met you."
She walks on, stumbling.
She looks up; the moon keeps pace.
Her dark gaze drowns in light.
A man's voice speaks:
"Do not let the child you have conceived
be a burden on your soul.
Look, how brightly the universe shines!
Splendour falls on everything around,
you are voyaging with me on a cold sea,
but there is the glow of an inner warmth
from you in me, from me in you.
That warmth will transfigure the stranger's child,
and you bear it me, begot by me.
You have transfused me with splendour,
you have made a child of me."
He puts an arm about her strong hips.
Their breath embraces in the air.
Two people walk on through the high, bright night.
Hollywood String Quartet: Felix Slatkin, Paul Shure (violins), Paul Robyn (viola), Eleanor Aller Slatkin (cello)
with Alvin Dinkin (viola) and Kurt Reher (cello)