Arnold Schönberg’s early masterpiece, Verklärte Nacht, op. 4, was written in mere three weeks in September of 1899, while vacationing in Payerbach at Semmering with Alexander von Zemlinsky and his sister Mathilde, Schönberg’s future first wife. At this point in his life Schönberg started to turn away from the music of Johannes Brahms and towards Wagner and his ideas of Gesamtkunstwerk (theories of the fusion of the arts). Schönberg chose Verklärte Nacht, a poem written by Richard Dehmel, to be his first attempt at “Programme” music. Schönberg has noted that Verklärte Nacht “…does not illustrate any action or drama, but was restricted to portray nature and to express human emotions. “ Verklärte Nacht is a truly revolutionary work because of its originality and complexity. The correlation between the music and its textual inspiration is a superb example of Schönberg’s capability to translate human emotions into music. The clear division of the poem directly relates to the separation of principal themes and tonalities in the composition itself and presents the listener with a comprehendible look at the characters’ emotions through music.
The poem Verklärte Nacht is a part of the collection “Woman and World” (“Weib und Welt”) published in 1896 which was inspired by an autobiographical episode of the author’s affair with Ida Auerbach who was expecting a child with her husband Consul Auerbach. Richard Dehmel, one of Germany’s most esteemed poets of pre WW I era was one of Schönberg’s favorite authors. This and other poems revolved around the complex relations between men and women and the sexual ethics concerning this affiliation that have been rapidly changing at the time. The poem has three major characters: the narrator, a woman who is carrying a baby of a man (presumably her husband’s), and a man who the woman is truly in love with. There are five stanzas in the poem. The first, third and fifth stanzas belong to the narrator who is describing the mood, the surroundings, and the action of the man and the woman. The second stanza is the woman’s heartfelt confession of being pregnant with another man whom she doesn’t love to which the man replies in the fourth stanza. He proclaims that the child will transfigure through their love and will become only his and hers. Schönberg’s reaction to Dehmel’s poems can be summed up in this quote from a letter to Dehmel. “Your poems have had a decisive influence on me as a composer. They were what first made me try to find a new tone in the lyrical mood. Or rather, I found it without even looking, simply by reflecting in music what your poems stirred up in me.” It is clear that Schönberg himself recognizes the direct reflection of the poem in his music. However, in the 1950 liner notes, Schönberg noted “It seems that” . . . “my composition has gained qualities which can satisfy even if one does not know what it illustrates; or, in other words, it can be appreciated as ‘pure’ music. Thus, perhaps, it can make you forget the poem which many people today might call repulsive. Nevertheless, much of the poem deserves appreciation because of its highly poetic presentation of the emotions aroused by the beauty of nature, and for the distinguished moral attitude in dealing with a staggeringly difficult human problem.” It seems here that Schönberg wants to disassociate himself from his youthful and total admiration for the poet Dehmel. He admits that people might be repulsed by the poem, but it is a question if that is due to the poem’s graphic nature or due to the style in which it is presented.
Verklärte Nacht’s original instrumentation includes two violins, two violas, and two cellos. It was first published in 1899 by Universal Edition. Nevertheless, Schönberg started to work on a revision as early as 1917. At the end of 1939, Schönberg was approached by the American publisher, Edwin F. Kalmus, who wished to publish a new edition which Schönberg agreed to and provided an improved edition which is arranged for a string orchestra. This contract with Kalmus never came about so Schönberg then published the modified version for string orchestra with the Associated Music Publishers in New York in 1943. In a letter from the 22nd of December 1942, Schönberg talks about his improvements over the version from 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.” The revisions became very popular with the general public and were praised because they were more pleasing to the ear than Schönberg’s other atonal works. Schönberg mentions “It should not be forgotten that this work, at its first performance in Vienna, was hissed and caused riots and fistfights. But it soon became very successful.”
Verklärte Nacht can be divided into rondo-like sections that directly draw a parallel to the structure of the poem. The introduction starts out at a slow pace with the outline of a d pedal (d minor hexachord), as the melody moves above, carefully avoiding the dominant. In measure eleven, we start seeing rhythmic fragmentation of the melody with increasingly present chromaticism culminating one before B with an f sharp diminished seventh chord. Through a transition of seven measures, with a plagal-like momentum, we then arrive at Etwas bewegter, which signals the beginning of the first main motive and consecutively the new stanza in the poem. The first viola introduces a theme that outlines an expressive half-step between D – C sharp, continuing on through to the first violin. This, the voice of the woman, is an expressive solo carrying high above the complex chromatic line of the accompanying instruments as to express the emotional turmoil that she is about to reveal. The second part of the first theme can be found in measure fifty, clearly separated by the fermata in the previous measure. Here we see the arrival of b flat minor with the inversion of the theme between the first cello (D flat – C – A – B flat – E flat) and the first violin (F – A flat – G flat – F) in the first measure. It continues on through a whole tone section in measures 63 and 64 that leads us to transitional material starting at letter E, which introduces a quintuplet motive that really is a driving force leading us to Lebhafter in measure 75. This section with the continuing quintuplet motion continues energetically for six measures, bringing us to a large scale sequence between the sections of Etwas belebter and Wieder belebter. Schönberg introduces other related material before concluding the first section with a closing statement (Schwer betont) that refers to the third stanza of the poem. Schönberg states, “The first half of the composition ends in e flat minor of which, as a transition only B flat remains, in order to connect with the extreme contrast in D major.” In the closing section, Schönberg reuses material from the first stanza of the poem where letter L directly corresponds to letter B of the score.
In a sudden change of texture, we are presented with a chorale-like theme in D major presented by the cello. This male theme is in sharp contrast to the highly chromatic female theme because of its chordal texture. Schönberg describes this section as follows: “Harmonics, adorned by muted runs, express the beauty of the moonlight and introduce, above a glittering accompaniment, a secondary theme which soon changes into a duet between violin and cello. This section 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 child you bear must not be a burden to your soul.’” 6 The material gradually builds up to the “transfigured” scene between the seventh and eighth measures after letter S. This is the true climax of the composition outlined by a triple fortissimo in all participating instruments. We can see a literal “transfiguration” of the key signature that leads us to believe that this, in fact, is the transfigured night. “It finally leads to another new theme which corresponds to the man’s dignified resolution: this warmth ‘will transfigure your child’ so as to become ‘my own’.” The music representing the entire fourth stanza seems to be strongly influenced by Wagner. There is a lingering resemblance between Wagner’s motive of fire in The Ring of the Nibelung and Schönberg’s section four measures before letter N, which could then represent the direct line “but a special warmth flickers”. The entire depiction of the man’s feeling in this section is much simpler than the one of the woman. We see a simplistic, a childlike, unpretentious response to the perplexing situation that the woman expressed. “You have made me like a child myself.” 8
In the extended closing section, we see a morphing of all the previous themes. “A long coda section concludes the work. Its material consists of themes of the preceding parts, all of the modified anew, so as to glorify the miracles of nature that have changes this night of tragedy into a transfigured night.” 7 This coda brilliantly combines the two primary voices of the man and the woman from the first and third stanzas.
Several theorists have tried to label Verklärte Nacht into a standard sonata form. “In Verklärte Nacht, the first of his one movement sonata compositions” . . . “Schönberg was to transcend by such means the tonal principles of sonata exemplified by the neo-Classicism of Brahms, Bruckner, and Strauss.” To label this composition as such, would mean a total restriction on the text-to-music relationship. Since each one of the stanzas has its completely unique character, one cannot fit this composition into the category of sonata form. Schönberg’s liner notes provide conclusive evidence to his own intentions with the structure of Verklärte Nacht and we are sure it is not the one of a sonata form.
In conclusion, Schönberg might have recalled his tonal compositions as a work of a man in the process of development, but we can clearly identify the genius of this progressive work. His use of chromaticism has pushed tonality ever closer to its brink and the structural and instrumental aspects of this composition can be labeled as truly ground-breaking. The composition, as Schönberg has noted, can truly stand on its own, but presence of the poem makes it possible for the listener to associate musical ideas with the literary ones. This composition is one of the greatest examples of program music and it would be practically impossible to separate it from its factual inspiration.