Arnold Schoenberg: “Verklärte Nacht”
Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, originally composed for string sextet, is the first ever chamber music piece to be openly based on a programme. This caused a sensation at the premiere. Even half a century later the composer recalled: “One must not forget that this work was greeted with hisses at its first performance in Vienna, and resulted in disturbances and fistfights. But it very soon enjoyed great success.”
Schoenberg’s first instrumental work published with an opus number contains key ideas that stayed with him throughout his entire oeuvre: formal elements such as the evolving variation which allows everything to emerge from one another, the rhythmic relationship of the motifs and the ambiguity of form – but above all, the conviction that music should be written about man in his time. On this point the young composer found ample inspiration in the poems of Richard Dehmel. The poet stormed against inhibitions and moral constraints, he wrote in a high tone about desire and lust like few before him, about man and woman and everything that goes on between them.
Against inhibitions and moral constraints
At the turn of the century, Schoenberg set a whole bundle of Dehmel texts to music, culminating in the string sextet Verklärte Nacht in 1899. In the original, five-part poem, “two people” walk through the night: she confesses that she is pregnant by another man; he wants to accept the child as his own. Discourse and counter-discourse, of about the same length, are framed by three shorter scene descriptions. The night is cloudless, the moon is shining, and what seems “bare” and “cold” at first appears “high” and “bright” at the end.
It was such descriptions of nature, combined with spiritual experience, that Dehmel’s contemporaries found appealing. Small changes of perspective offer completely different vistas: a treasure trove of colour shading and sophisticated tonality. Schoenberg follows the outline of the poem and overlays this structure with hints of the sonata form, as can also be found in a classical symphony: The opening theme of the “walk in the wood” can be recognised quite clearly, a long dramatic arc spans the two parts dedicated to the woman and the man, and a concluding coda is bathed in a redemptive D major. But as a listener you can lose yourself, as the poet did. When Dehmel heard the music a few years after the premiere, he wrote to Schoenberg: “I had intended to follow the motives of my text in your composition; but I soon forgot to do so, I was so enthralled by the music.”
Musical richness of colour
In Schoenberg’s work, all the musical ideas are closely related, and yet each has its own unique contours; the dramatic potential of the themes is gradually unfolded and intensified. Although the moral discrepancy between the sexes postulated in Dehmel’s poem, the self-abasement of the woman and the overwhelming forgiveness of the man, is difficult to accept today, the music fortunately goes far beyond words. In the arrangement for string orchestra (written in 1916, revised in 1943), the richness of colour becomes even more intense, and in the differentiated alternation between tutti and solo, with and without mute, the music speaks even more succinctly.
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 4
Johannes Brahms needed a long time to approach the genre of the symphony. The shadow of Beethoven hung ominously over him, and the works of Schubert and Schumann, which he admired, did not make the task of being a worthy successor any easier for him. Only at the age of 43 did Brahms present his “First”, and promptly saw it described by well-meaning devotees as “Beethoven’s Tenth”. Undoubtedly a misinterpretation. For, from a completely different understanding of life, Brahms had long since found his own sound. Beethoven’s humanity-embracing pathos of freedom was far from his mind. For Brahms, being free also meant being lonely; melancholy instead of hope formed the keynote of his work.
In his Fourth Symphony, written during the summer months of 1884 and 1885, his eye is drawn even further back in history. His veneration for Bach is incorporated, which, almost paradoxically, opens the door to the future. Almost hesitantly, the first movement reveals the innermost of thoughts. Between the melody (a sequence of notes that can be understood as a chain of thirds), the interlocking accompanying figures and the chords of the winds that fill up the sound, a dense musical network is created. The second movement echoes musical antecedents, heard in the ecclesiastical tone of the melody of the first theme. The sound is built up layer by layer, two themes are presented and repeated with variations, in a delightful “mixture of the familiar and the strange” (Egon Voss). In the scherzo-like third movement, the music darts about, again and again its driving momentum is abruptly halted then accelerated, at the same time creating an almost tumultuous, exuberant false ending.
Bach and Beethoven as models
In the last movement, Bach comes into play. The structure of his violin chaconne (which Brahms had once arranged for piano) is also known as a passacaglia: an eight-bar bass line is repeated unchanged as the foundation of a sequence of variations. Brahms bases the final movement of his Fourth Symphony on this principle, something which even close friends did not notice for a long time when they puzzled over the form of this piece. Brahms also takes up Beethoven models (the C minor Piano Variations and the final variations of the Eroica), distancing himself far from him in the process. For while Beethoven initially sets out his themes clearly and then takes them apart, Brahms lets them gradually grow from small cells. And so there is no actual “theme” from which variations are derived, but 32 miniature essays on an idea that is only present in the background: “In a theme for variations, it is almost only the bass that means something to me. But this is sacred, it is the solid ground on which I then build my stories. What I do with the melody is just playing around.” In this “playing around”, the theme sometimes appears subtly in the background, sometimes it takes up the opening gesture again. In contrast to Beethoven, who composed in an increasingly two-dimensional way towards the end of his work, Brahms interweaves more and more ideas: music that – almost in a reversal of the symphonic model – does not address itself to the crowd that is to be inspired by something, but to the sensitive person who knows how to listen.
Brahms himself doubted whether this music would find favour at all. But his fears were unfounded. When the composer was preparing for the world premiere, conducted by himself, Hans von Bülow, later the first chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, was also listening. His impression is still relevant today: “Just back from the rehearsal. No. IV gigantic, very singular, completely new, brazen individuality. Breathes unprecedented energy from A to Z.”