Program Notes



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 Schoeberg 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.

Program notes by David Yang

'Transfigured Night' (Verklärte Nacht)
(English translation by Mary Whittall)

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.