ARNOLD SCHOENBERG – Transfigured Night

Austrian Early Modern composer Arnold Franz Walter Schoenberg [1874–1951] wrote four string quartets. The work under discussion was written in 1899 as a one-movement string sextet – in this instance, a string quartet ensemble augmented with an extra viola and cello. It was based on Richard Dehmel’s poem Verklärte Nacht and is normally played in five movements, corresponding to the five stanza structure of the poem. It was later arranged for orchestra by the composer – both versions are stunning. Details relating to the programmatic nature of the composition, the personal circumstances surrounding it, and the poem itself, can be found here on Wikipedia. I believe that this would be Schoenberg’s most popular composition, and yet it doesn’t really sound like him.

The work commences with low, sustained murmurings from the ensemble. Out of this formless soundscape a melody slowly emerges, gradually moving from long tones to a lamenting passage which drifts into the violins’ high registers. A brief intense moment ensues, before the violins again bring further peace. Now the music becomes very dramatic as it crosses the line into the second movement.

This is most animated, but soon moves into a sparse section, only to be interrupted by a questioning violin with an answering ensemble. The melodies here have a lyrical purity about them as a slight crescendo is heard before a return to sparsity. A melodic phrase is repeated by the ensemble and is further developed – all the while, a tremendous sense of lamenting is present. Suddenly, the music erupts briefly and brings forth a strongly melodic passage, and then a reduction in the dynamic level. Wonderful, flowing melodies are very engaging, until another brief crescendo again changes the mood with a passage of abstraction, replete with assertive melodic statements and string sound effects. A further intense passage is orchestral-like and very foreboding. Nearing the end, the texture reverts to a single violin expressing a feeling of loneliness with the occasional ensemble interjection. The violin is totally solo as the movement concludes.

A brief third movement follows without pause and is of a solid, somewhat tempestuous nature, with several iterations of the opening movement theme heard. A short solo violin passage is followed by a series of slow, rich chords, in which the cello is prominent.

Again the next movement begins without pause. A strong, hymn-like melody which evokes Charles Ives is present and then, harmonised in a wistful manner, with the first violin leading the ensemble. The introduction of an ascending melodic line brings to the music a sense of charm, with occasional pizzicato and string sound effects adding to the development. A Romantic style is heard as two violins drift in a perfunctory manner across a rich harmonic tapestry – this mood is sustained for some considerable time, before returning to the dramatic nature of some of the earlier sections. Now some fabulous slightly dissonant melodies are heard, and the intensity again builds to near-chaos, before settling back into the predominantly peaceful nature of the work. Another soothing violin melodic section, featuring the sparsest of accompaniments, prevails to a transcendent end.

The final movement comes straight in with another handsome melody, slowly moving forward. The texture gently thickens and the violin lines are splendid. A new section is introduced with stunningly effective pizzicato and the peace softly concludes.

It’s been a while since I have heard this work and I had forgotten how beautiful it is. To think that, soon after, Schoenberg composed his First Quartet, also a stunning work, but one that illustrates his rapid stylistic development.

My review source is a 5-CD set containing the composer’s complete chamber music, performed by the Schoenberg Quartet, on the Chandos label. There are however, approximately fifteen single CD versions available on Amazon UK and US. I quite fancy two pairings, Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen for Strings, arranged for string septet, performed by Les Dissonances, or Korngold’s String Sextet by the Raphael Ensemble, but there are many other issues to be found.

There are several versions on Spotify and many of the sextet and orchestral arrangements on YouTube. A further eleven sextet recordings are on earsense.

Listenability: Brilliantly evocative work from a youthful Modernist master.


4 thoughts on “ARNOLD SCHOENBERG – Transfigured Night”

  1. Thanks, Steve.

    I’d forgotten how much I love this piece – it’s definitely one of a kind. I once heard the orchestrated version played by a youth orchestra in an old town hall. The conductor was diminutive, 80+, the full tails and long white hair – quite an experience – like something out of Fantasia, although as I recall Walt didn’t go there!


  2. John,

    I’ve been on holiday for a couple of weeks and didn’t get to respond until now. What a terrific appreciation of Schoenberg’s most famous work! I agree with his critics that it’s a little, um, overstuffed. But as you say, it’s an evocative work from a composer who was trying to dust off Wagnerian chromaticism and make it road-ready for the twentieth century. It’s definitely the nocturnal counterpart to the preternaturally sunny Chamber Symphony op. 9.

    I much prefer the sextet version of this work to the orchestral revision.

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