About this Recording
8.557534 - SCHOENBERG, A.: String Quartet No. 1 / Verklarte Nacht (Fred Sherry String Quartet and Sextet) (Schoenberg, Vol. 13)

Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951)
String Quartet No 1, Op 7 • Verklärte Nacht, Op 4 • Four Canons


I am probably the last of the modern composers who has occupied himself with tonal harmony in the sense of the oldest masters. – Arnold Schoenberg¹

Verklärte Nacht and the First String Quartet, written by the last of the great tonal masters and the first of the great twelve-tone masters, have a number of similarities: both pieces, in D minor with codas in D major, are based on programmatic elements and unfold in a more or less uninterrupted flow; each underwent extensive cuts by the composer before arriving at their final lengths; and they were given their premieres by the Rosé Quartet, who were persuaded to perform them by Gustav Mahler. Schoenberg noted another similarity when discussing the First Quartet: “Again, as with Verklärte Nacht, parts of understandable smoothness could not calm down the public or reassure them.”²

String Quartet No 1 in D minor, Op 7 (1904/05)

“The supreme commander had ordered me on a harder road.”³ Schoenberg’s statement defines the change that took place between Op 4 and Op 7. The new road of composition consisted of the invention of families of themes which derive from each other and have great modulatory possibilities. Schoenberg’s contrapuntal innovations expanded upon Wagner’s practice of combining leitmotifs; the younger composer fashioned new themes out of subsidiary material and allowed them to coexist by the use of variation and transformation. It is the malleability of these themes which enables the harmonic changes which propel the first quartet through its exploration of so many expressive subtleties. Schoenberg also mentions Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony as the formal model for the development of this large-scale work. The First Quartet is the work of an idealistic and optimistic young man (his brother-in-law Zemlinsky’s description) at work and play in a field which included the music of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms as well as Reger, Wagner, Liszt, Schubert and others. In his fertile ear he absorbed as much from these masters as he added ideas of his own invention.

Usually taking morning walks, I composed in my mind forty to eighty measures complete in almost every detail. I needed only two or three hours to copy down these large sections from memory.4

A one-page text glued to the back cover of Schoenberg’s 1904–1905 sketchbook has been identified as a private programme for the piece. Below is an example from the first section:

  1. (1) a) Revolt, Defiance; b) Longing; c) Rapture.
    (2) a) Dejection; Despair; Fear of being engulfed; unaccustomed feelings of love, desire to be wholly absorbed. b) Comfort, Relief (She and He) c) New outbreak; Dejection, Despair; and d) Transition to
    (3) Struggle of all the motives with the determination to begin a new life. e) Mild disagreement

In 1940, when Leonard Stein asked about this programmatic description, Schoenberg replied, “One does not tell such things anymore!”5

The composer wrote in 1937: “[The] First String Quartet played an important rôle in the history of my life. On the one hand the scandals provoked by it were so widely reported the world over that I was known at once to a considerable part of the public. Of course I was primarily regarded as the Satan of modernistic music; but, on the other hand, many of the progressive musicians became interested in my music and wanted to know more about it.” [Schoenberg reported Mahler’s remark after seeing the score to the First Quartet:] “I have conducted the most difficult scores of Wagner; I have written complicated music myself in scores of up to thirty staves and more; yet here is a score of not more than four staves, and I am unable to read them.”6

Schoenberg felt that the First Quartet represented a new direction in that it was more purely musical and that it set in motion the formal ideas that would be picked up in his next composition, the Chamber Symphony, Op 9, which he considered to be his first mature work.

Verklärte Nacht, Op 4 (1899)

Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) represents a departure from the accepted forms of chamber music in the straitlaced Vienna of 1899, and it is, in Schoenberg’s estimation, the first tone poem for a chamber ensemble. In 1950 the composer stated that “[Verklärte Nacht] does not illustrate any action or drama, but was restricted to portray nature and to express human feelings.”7 With that caveat in mind, he described with musical examples (not shown here) how the Dehmel poem was reflected in the work. For instance, the opening theme, “Promenading in a park,” leads to the extension of that theme, “in a clear, cold moonlit night” to the section where “the woman confesses a tragedy to the man in a dramatic outburst.” Inevitably, “A climactic ascension, elaborating the motif, expresses her self-accusation of her great sin.” Further along, “the voice of a man speaks, a man whose generosity is as sublime as his love” and in the second part, “Harmonics, adorned by muted runs, express the beauty of the moonlight” lead to a secondary theme introduced “above a glittering accompaniment.” Sentiments such as the “warmth that flows from one of us into the other” are illustrated with new themes. Finally, “A long coda section concludes the work. Its material consists of themes of the preceding parts, all of them modified anew, so as to glorify the miracles of nature that have changed this night of tragedy into a transfigured night.”

Much of the music is tonal and in distinct keys, but, as the composer noted, “There were already some passages of unfixed tonality which may be considered premonitions of the future.”8

The history of Schoenberg’s music is dotted with harsh and unjust treatment by audiences and critics. The composer noted that “It shall not be forgotten that [Verklärte Nacht], at its first performance in Vienna [1903], was hissed and caused riots and fist fights.” But he went on to say that “very soon it became very successful,”9 and the piece was eventually embraced as one of the composer’s greatest achievements. Schoenberg revisited the score of Verklärte Nacht in 1917 for the first string orchestra transcription and again in 1943 for the second, in which subtleties of orchestration were changed and, as in the 1935 transcription of Op 9 for full orchestra, he translated the German markings into Italian and provided metronome markings for the various sections of the piece. Sehr langsam becomes Grave, quarter (crotchet) = 46, etwas bewegter becomes Poco più mosso, quarter (crotchet) = 72, etc. In order to “go the distance” in the preparation of Verklärte Nacht, the musicians on this recording consulted the Richard Birnbach first edition (score and parts), the 1917 and 1943 transcriptions, the critical edition, and the autograph with its surprising number of bars that were cut by the composer. We also listened, with deep attention, to Schoenberg’s 1928 truncated recording of the 1917 transcription. It was decided that the changes in Schoenberg’s attitude towards this piece were not inconsistencies, but instead proved that there is a vast amount of room for interpretation inside this fascinating score.

Four Canons from Thirty Canons (1905–1949)

Schoenberg wrote: “Brahms’s mental gymnastics were certainly not of an easy-going sort. We know that it was his habit on his Sunday excursions in the Wienerwald to prepare ‘enigmatic canons’ whose solutions occupied his companions for several hours. Subsequently I was stimulated to try also the difficult types of canons. There were some which required much work…”10

Canon XIX (March 12, 1934) Schoenberg’s annotation: “If none of the four singers has forgotten his clefs it should go together, but alas there is a hindrance: the people do not seem to be quite together. Every now and then—or do they have to?—one sings twice as fast, or twice or four times as slow. How they yet come together—this is the puzzle.” What follows is one line of music with no clef and no time signature.

Canon XXV (1938) Four-part infinite double canon at the octave.

Canon XXVII (June 7, 1943) Four-part mirror canon.

Canon XXVIII (March 1945) Four-part infinite canon at the unison. Schoenberg presented this canon to the conductor Artur Rodzinsky on the birth of his son, Richard, sung to the text “I am almost sure, when your nurse will change your diapers, she will not sing you one of my George Songs, nor of my Second String Quartet; but perhaps she stills you: Sleep, Richard, Sleep! Dein Vater hat dich lieb!” The final two bars are the melody of a well-known lullaby.

Verklärte Nacht is more widely appreciated by the general listener than any other work by Schoenberg. In 1937 Schoenberg wrote:

This work has been heard, especially in its version for orchestra, a great many times. But certainly nobody has heard it as often as I have heard this complaint: ‘If only he had continued to compose in this style!’

The answer I gave is perhaps surprising. I said ‘I have not discontinued composing in the same style and in the same way as at the very beginning. The difference is only that I do it better now than before; it is more concentrated, more mature.’11

Most Schoenbergians agree that the techniques which the composer employed in his early works are the same used in his later music, but with a different affect and effect. Schoenberg did not reinvent counterpoint or melody to compose his later music. One only needs to hear his Third and Fourth String Quartets to understand this.

The Janus figure Arnold Schoenberg could just as easily hear back into musical history as he could take steps forward into his own musical future. The evidence that Schoenberg did not chart this journey was written in 1950, one year before his death:

I am embarrassed to say that until a few years ago I had not become aware of my age and was still considering myself as the young composer who had not yet ceased to do youthful nonsense. Thus I have not had the chance to watch the development of my personality.12

Fred Sherry

¹ Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Tonality and Form, 1925’, in Style and Idea, Ed. Leonard Stein, University of California Press, 1984, p. 256.
² Ibid., ‘How one becomes lonely, 1937’, p. 84.
³ Ibid., ‘On Revient Toujours, 1948’, p. 109.
4 Ibid., ‘Heart and Brain in Music, 1946’, p. 61.
5 Joseph Auner, A Schoenberg Reader, Yale University Press, 2003, pp. 48-49.
6 Schoenberg, Op. cit., ‘How One Becomes Lonely, 1937’, p. 42.
7 Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Programme notes to a recording’, in Self-Portrait, Ed. Nuria Schoenberg, Belmont Music Publishers, 1988, pp. 119–123.
8 Schoenberg, ‘My Evolution, 1949’, in Style and Idea, p. 67.
9 Schoenberg, ‘Programme notes to a recording’, in Self-Portrait, p. 123.
10 Schoenberg, ‘Heart and Brain In Music, 1949’, in Style and Idea, p. 67.
11 Ibid., ‘How One Becomes Lonely, 1937’, p. 30.
12 Ibid., ‘My Technique and Style, 1950’, p. 110.

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