Schoenberg Ensemble, Recorded: Utrecht, 4/1984
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From The Past To The Future
The string sextet "Verklarte Nacht," written in 1899 by the self-taught Arnold Schoenberg, then not yet 25 years of age, is at once an original contribution to the musical traditions that gave it birth and a brilliant synthesis of them. Under the influence of his composer friend, Alexander von Zemlinsky, the Brahmsian Schoenberg fell under the spell of Wagner, with the result that, "in my 'Verklarte Nacht,' the thematic construction is based on Wagnerian 'model and sequence' above a roving harmony on the one hand, and on Brahms's technique of developing variation - as I call it - on the other" ("My Evolution," 1949).
Although the music sounds inoffensively nineteenth-century to our ears nowadays, the piece at the time of its composition was still so modern that a Viennese society refused the first performance "because of the 'revolutionary' use of one - that is one, single uncatalogued dissonance."
"Verklarte Nacht" derives its title from a poem by Richard Dehmel which, according to an introductory note that Schoenberg wrote shortly before his death, corresponds line for line with successive themes in the music. In the same note Schoenberg rightly made clear that his music is also to be understood without the poem - that it is perhaps even better to forget the poem altogether.
Although the work can be heard in its original strength of six solo instruments in the present recording, due regard has been paid to the second, revised version for string orchestra (1943) in which Schoenberg, drawing his conclusions from practical performance of the piece, made numerous changes and adjustments of shading in terms of tempo, instrumentation, dynamics, and tone colour.
Almost half a century separates the late-Romantic "Verklarte Nacht" from the last of Schoenberg's dodecaphonic chamber works, the String Trio, Op. 45 (1946) and the Phantasy for violin and piano, Op. 47 (1949). The Trio is probably the only piece in musical history inspired by the composer's own death. When Schoenberg began work on it on August 20, 1946 he had barely recovered from a severe heart attack three weeks earlier, as a result of which he had been for some moments clinically dead. He himself called the work - with rather bizarre wit - "a humorous representation" of his illness and recovery.
Although this biographical fact perhaps explains the freakish, sometimes nightmarish nature of the music, the Trio is well able to stand, as absolute music, on its own two feet.
There is no trace of the increasing scholasticism in Schoenberg's American period to be found in this music. Although the piece bears some superficial signs of classical thematic form (to which Schoenberg remained faithful almost all his life), it stands, in its fragmentary construction, close to the works from the period of free atonality, around 1910.
The Phantasy, too, recalls little of the classical, tonal world of form. Its music, however, differs markedly in mood from the Trio and seems more related to the expressive world of the Serenade Op. 24 and the serenade-like parts of "Pierrot Lunaire."
Schoenberg intended his last instrumental work to be a genuine solo piece for violin, in which the piano would fulfil the modest role of "something added" (orig, "etwas Hinzugefugtes"). To this end he composed first the complete violin part and restricted himself as far as the piano was concerned to the broad indications of the complementary note rows to be worked out later. In a sense the piano part of the Phantasy is the first written-out basso continuo in dodecaphonic music.
- Elmer Schoenberger