Verklaerte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4 (1899)

Passionate, utterly romantic and sinfully beautiful, Verklaerte Nacht is the most often performed work of Schoenberg, and yet his reputation among the "mainstream" concert audiences seems to be that of a destroyer of tonality, father of dodecaphony and inventor of the serial technique. Although at this time we shall be dealing just with the former, I'll take a short detour and re-tell (I cannot recall the source and this is not a verbatim quote, but the meaning is close) the answer Schoenberg gave to the question: "Why don't you compose music as beautiful as your Verklaerte Nacht?" - "I do, you just have to learn to hear it."

Verklaerte Nacht began its life as a string sextet, written by a 25-year-old Schoenberg inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel with the same title. In 1917 Schoenberg transcribed it for a string orchestra, and the revised orchestral version appeared in 1943.

Two people walk through the bare, cold woods; the moon runs along, they gaze at it. The moon runs over tall oaks, no cloudlet dulls the heavenly light into which the black peaks reach. A woman's voice speaks:

I bear a child, but not by you. I walk in sin alongside you. I sinned against myself mightily. I believed no longer in good fortune but still had mighty longing for a full life, mother's joy and duty; then I grew shameless, then horror-stricken, I let my sex be taken by a stranger and even blessed myself for it. Now life has taken its revenge: Now I have met you, you.

She walks with clumsy gait. She gazes upward' the moon runs along. Her somber glance drowns in the light. A man's voice speaks:

The child that you conceived be to your soul no burden. Oh look, how clear the universe glitters! There is a glory around All, you drift with me on a cold sea, but a peculiar warmth sparkles from you in me, from me in you. It will transfigure the strange child you will bear for me, from me; you brought the glory into me, you made myself into a child.

He holds her around her strong hips. Their breath kisses in the air. Two people walk through high, light night.

The sections of the music clearly correspond to those of the poem, and one can quite prudently follow both, easily finding musical depictions of the words and actions. For most listeners, however, this will not be necessary in order to enjoy the composition, as it is an equally strong and convincing work loosely connected to a mood-setting poem, or as a totally abstract piece of music.

A few years ago one interviewer asked me if I would choose to be a musician in my "next life". It did not take me long to give a sincere affirmative answer, but thinking of it made me realize how badly I envy the real gods, the composers. I would give anything to know what it feels like to experience the music being born, to hear it inside one's head for the first time. I guess that interview must have happened during the time I was rehearsing or performing Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht, as every time I come back to this composition, something triggers this thought to visit me again.