Transfigured Night

Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840) “Utterwalder Grund”

As we all hunker down indoors, “socially distanced” and grimly tracking the progress of COVID-19 across our communities, I thought some kind of distraction might be welcome. In particular, I’ve been thinking about revisiting favorite works from the last nineteen (!) seasons of NCMF. Of course, any such list of favorites will be highly subjective. One friend recently provided me with his personal ranking system:

1. Desert island works
2. Great works but maybe not masterpieces
3. Good works that you enjoy playing and listening to
4. Pieces that you are happy you heard once
5. Pieces you wish you never heard

Since I only program music for NCMF that I like, I assumed the hardest part would be deciding where to begin. However, once I started to look over old programs the decision was obvious. In these dark times, let’s begin with music that is uniquely life affirming: the string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) by Arnold Schoenberg.

The first page of the manuscript to Verklärte Nacht (1899)

Here are my notes from 2012:

It is undeserved that people flee for the exit when they see Schoenberg’s name. While his later work can be difficult, “Transfigured Night” is some of the most stunning music ever written. Based on the eponymous poem by German expressionist poet Richard Dehmel, both are divided into five parts (the music is played without any audible break between sections): the first stanza describes a man and woman walking through a dark forest on a moonlit night; the second, a woman’s impassioned confession of a sin she committed before they met (she is pregnant) and her fears of rejection; the third stanza her stumbling walk as she waits for the hammer to drop; the fourth, the man’s loving acceptance of her and the child; and the fifth, the couple walking through a world now transformed from a “bare cold wood” into a “high, bright night.”

Dehmel believed that a single act of compassion can transform the world and Schoenberg wanted both the piece and the audience to undergo a transformation. Apart from a literal harmonic transformation (the piece starts in D Minor and ends in D Major) there are musical references to the poem throughout the piece: listen for the anguished confession of the woman near the beginning played by Viola I, or the loving acceptance of the man played by the Cello I after a turbulent section that ends in darkness and doubt. Schoenberg felt that music can be “pure” storytelling and the poem was, in fact, superfluous; in this way the piece breaks free from the text from which it takes its inspiration.

I first heard Transfigured Night at Lincoln Center as a teenager and I remember the performance vividly. I knew none of the philosophy but had heard of Schoenberg and was curious what the fuss was about. By the brooding entrance of the violin, viola, and cello in the second measure I was hooked; three-quarters into the piece the tears began to flow. Read the poem, yes, and then....put it away. Sit back and let sound wash over you in a journey that begins in darkness through fear, dread, and despair but eventually leads to hope, acceptance, and, for me, a joyous sense of wonder.
This is a complete recording by the legendary LaSalle String Quartet from 1984. These guys specialized in works from this period.

At the risk of being self-aggrandizing, here is a link from a live performance of my group Ensemble Epomeo performing at the Deal Festival in England.

The poem upon which Transfigured Night is based was originally written in German. This is an English translation by Stanley Applebaum. It is a luminous tale of unconditional love.

TRANSFIGURED NIGHT
by Richard Dehmel (1863 - 1920)

Two people walk through a bare, cold grove;
The moon races along with them, they look into it.
The moon races over tall oaks,
No cloud obscures the light from the sky,
Into which the black points of the boughs reach,
A woman's voice speaks:

I'm carrying a child, and not yours,
I walk in sin beside you.
I have committed a great offense against myself.
I no longer believed I could be happy
And yet I had a strong yearning
For something to fill my life, for the joys of motherhood
And for duty; so I committed an effrontery,
So, shuddering, I allowed my sex
To be embraced by a strange man,
And, on top of that, I blessed myself for it.
Now life has taken its revenge:
Now I have met you, oh you.

She walks with a clumsy gait,
She looks up; the moon is racing along.
Her dark gaze is drowned in light.
A man's voice speaks:

May the child you conceived
Be no burden to your soul;
Just see how brightly the universe is gleaming!
There's a glow around everything;
You are floating with me on a cold ocean,
But a special warmth flickers
From you into me, from me into you.
It will transfigure the strange man's child.
You will bear the child for me, as if it were mine;
You have brought the glow into me,
You have made me like a child myself.

He grasps her around her ample hips.
Their breath kisses in the breeze.
Two people walk through the lofty, bright night.

If anyone ever needed an excuse to stay indoors, this is it.

Be safe,

David Yang, Artistic Director

Herr Doktor Schoenberg in California ready to rumble on the tennis court with his offspring

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