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We think of winter as a time of stillness and inertia, both physical and spiritual. Yet music suffused with the frozen aura of winter launched the dynamic career of Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), arguably the most influential composer of the 20th century. Schoenberg’s impact would stem from his innovations in atonal composition that revolutionized serious music. But in 1899 that lay well into the future. “Verkl�rte Nacht,” his very first and, ironically, most popular published work, is ardently romantic, intensely sensitive, and steeped in traditional feeling. The difficulty of Schoenberg’s later work tends to deter listeners from exploring his innovative mastery. But “Verkl�rte Nacht,” written by the Austrian (later American) composer in a three-week burst of inspiration, is a welcoming introduction to his art and the beginning of Schoenberg’s story. MUSIC ON THE BRINK “Verkl�rte Nacht,” which means “transfigured night,” was inspired by a mystical poem by German writer Richard Dehmel. Walking through moonlit woods, a woman confesses to her lover that she carries the child of another to whom she yielded for fulfillment without love. After brooding meditation, he resolves that their love will make the child their own. They embrace and walk on, the barren night transformed by their devotion. Admittedly, such cloying sentimentality is hard to take seriously nowadays. Indeed, Schoenberg later called the poem “repulsive” and urged appreciation of his work as a portrayal of nature and an expression of human feeling — pure music, rather than a depiction of the specific action of the text. Even so, Schoenberg authorized David Tudor to dramatize his work as a 1944 ballet, “Pillar of Fire,” complete with additional characters and a background plot. Although its specific tangible elements spoil the score’s deeply suggestive power to evoke universal longings, the ballet served to popularize the piece beyond sporadic concert performances. The musical style of “Verkl�rte Nacht” reconciled the two poles of late-19th-century musical aesthetics by melding the traditional formal variations of Brahms with the innovative, sensual sonorities of Wagner. In one sense, though, “Verkl�rte Nacht” was novel: as the first chamber music with a narrative flow, extending Liszt’s and Strauss’ orchestral tone poems into that more intimate realm. This is music on the brink — not only looking historically both backward and forward, but precariously poised on an emotional edge between despair and faith. Bittersweet and gorgeous, it readily transcends its source and era with vast emotional resonance, fully anticipating our current yearning for stability in an uncertain future amid fragile social fabrics. Rejected by the cultural gatekeepers of the time for its bold harmonies and “forbidden chords,” “Verkl�rte Nacht” sounds far more comfortable and comforting to modern ears. Structured as an arc from the cold despair of D minor to the ardent resolve of D major, it’s colored by intense chromaticism, often traveling the long way around the circle of fifths. Schoenberg was especially proud of an extreme transition from E-flat minor to D major, linked only by a sustained B-flat. Its first performance came in 1903 led by Arnold Ros�, the first violinist of the Vienna Philharmonic. Ros�’s rehearsals attracted the admiration of the orchestra’s conductor, Gustav Mahler. In the few remaining years of his life, Mahler, to his credit, championed Schoenberg, even while admitting that he didn’t fully understand the music. Schoenberg, in turn, admired Mahler for baring his soul in his art. After “Verkl�rte Nacht,” Schoenberg went on to write “Pelleas und Melisande,” a lush 45-minute score based on the same symbolist play as Debussy’s contemporaneous opera, and “Gurrelieder,” a sprawling two-hour oratorio for mammoth instrumental and choral forces. And then, Schoenberg plunged into the future. SETTING THE NOTES FREE While detractors still demonize him for having destroyed music, the largely self-taught and hugely inventive composer saw his work as a logical evolution of tradition. Frustrated that tonality seemed exhausted, Schoenberg felt that music had to transcend the constraints of the harmonic system of the past 150 years, in which melodies, harmonies, and transitions all relate to the fundamental tone of a given key. His solution was to equalize the seven “diatonic” and five “chromatic” notes, releasing them from the standard anchor points and predictable progressions so that they could freely interrelate. Although most called it anarchy, Schoenberg found atonality liberating, an open-ended approach empowering composers to follow their creative impulses while expanding upon, rather than rejecting, the approaches and techniques of the past. But to function effectively, even freedom requires fundamental rules. Schoenberg structured his approach through serialism, a system in which all 12 tones are assembled into a “row” whose order (whether original, transposed, inverted, or reversed) organizes a composition. Each note is used before any is repeated. Serialism has one overriding problem, however, and it’s a huge one, even after nearly a century of exposure: While some musicians and theorists are fascinated, and while analysis of the scores reveals intriguing abstract patterns, audiences mostly hate the results, and performances are rare. To all but the most advanced ears, the logic is elusive and the result sounds like a random, dissonant jumble, with wrong notes hard to distinguish from correct ones. Schoenberg, though, had no regrets. Despite the richness and variety of his own 12-tone work and theoretical writing, he felt that he had just opened a door for future generations to explore possibilities, develop styles, and establish conventions. Indeed, in his compelling critical writing, Schoenberg astutely observed that most masterworks were misunderstood in their time, and he urged frequent and expert presentations of truly modern work to cultivate genuine appreciation. Only an accustomed public would come to regard modern music with genuine enthusiasm and not merely as a curious intrusion in otherwise pervasive performances of past repertoire. A WEALTH OF EXPRESSION Schoenberg wrote “Verkl�rte Nacht” as a sextet for two violins, two violas, and two cellos, all instruments that he himself had mastered. The first recording of the original version came about only in 1950, after the enterprising Hollywood Quartet had played it for the composer at his home. By then sick, reclusive, and notoriously difficult, Schoenberg was at first highly critical but was left speechless when they finished. He agreed to write liner notes for their 10-inch Capitol LP record and sent them an inscribed photo thanking them for playing “with such subtle beauty.” The Hollywood Quartet’s playing is indeed fresh and volatile, although the rich sound (now available on a Testament CD) is a bit blurred and dynamics are compressed — perhaps intentionally, since the quartet’s members, who all led movie-studio orchestras, knew how to overcome the recording deficiencies of the time and sound good in front of a microphone. A more recent sextet version of “Verkl�rte Nacht” was recorded by members of Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble InterContemporain (1984, Sony). Despite the wiry sound of early digital recordings, it allies sharp precision with riveting intensity for a deeply involving experience that evokes the late Romantic style with wide vibrato and expressive solo flights. Schoenberg arranged “Verkl�rte Nacht” for string orchestra in 1917 and again in 1943, adding a part for double bass, varying the texture between ensemble and solos, and inserting tempo and accent markings. The first recording of an orchestral version was in 1934 by the Minneapolis Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. The recording evokes 19th-century style, heartfelt and lush with lots of “portamento” (sliding into notes), the rich, smooth texture heralding the “Philadelphia” sound that Ormandy would later achieve with that city’s orchestra. Yet the work’s essential tension is slighted by this focus on overriding beauty, an approach later taken to the extreme by Yoel Levi and the Atlanta Symphony (1994, Telarc), who luxuriate in a 35-minute performance of the half-hour work. The full depth and majesty of Schoenberg’s orchestration is revealed in the acclaimed recording by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (1973, DG). Despite frequent markings in the score urging “warmth,” feeling seems wholly absent, leaving an overall impression of cold beauty appropriate to Dehmel’s poem. In a 1957 recording for EMI, Leopold Stokowski and “his” otherwise unnamed orchestra soar spiritually and revel in the color and richness of the massed sonorities, to produce a sumptuous, deeply passionate reading with an intensely human touch. Taking an intriguing middle course between the intimacy of the original sextet scoring and the power and textural variety of the later orchestrations, the 15-member Orpheus ensemble (1990, DG) plays with superb cohesion and emotional resonance. (That compelling unity of expression arises from within, for the ensemble performs without a leader.) The most powerful “Verkl�rte Nacht” reading of all is a spectacular concert by Dmitri Mitropoulos leading the Vienna Philharmonic (1958, Music and Arts). Combining agonizing tension, eternal profundity, and seething intensity with an explosive emotional release, it leaves no doubt of Schoenberg’s status as the culmination of Romanticism — even as he was about to turn the cultural corner to face the challenges and opportunities of the 20th century.
Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. Music articles by the author are posted online.

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