The Verklärte Nacht Project
© Alessandro Maria Carnelli, October 2016
I first conducted Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) in 2010. I was at the Vienna Musikverein, where this crucial masterpiece was given its first performance, and felt the need to investigate the context from which, apparently all of a sudden, it came. Three years later I published my book on Verklärte Nacht ('Il labirinto e l'intrico dei viottoli') in which an abundance of new data are collected, as a result of researches which changed my perspective and suggested a different approach to performing it. Finally, a new recording is now available ('Towards Verklärte Nacht' - Brilliant Classics - Gabriella Sborgi, mezzo-soprano, Sextet of the Orchestra da camera di Mantova) in order to allow the listener to perceive at least some of these elements: my goal was, and is, to connect musicology and performance in a reciprocal dialogue.
Schoenberg wrote Verklärte Nacht when he was 25 years old, virtually self-taught but extremely skilled at assimilating what interested him. Wagner's influence on the young Schoenberg is well known and evident, whereas the influence of Brahms and contrapuntal technique are less evident to the ear: there is a surprising and intriguing interrelation among different, even opposite influences. Schoenberg's twelve-tone techniques demonstrate his interest in counterpoint but the first glimpses of this are found already in Verklärte Nacht: the Wagnerian surface, in other words, hides a complex compositional net. In the recording, Ricercar a 6 from Musical Offering by Bach symbolizes this interest: it is a six-part piece, like Verklärte Nacht and, since instrumentation for Ricercar a 6 is not specified, it may be performed by a string sextet: an uncommon, but highly satisfactory choice.
Brahms profoundly influenced Schoenberg; this influence later extended to Schoenberg's students. The three Songs by Brahms, Schoenberg and Berg presented in the recording are chosen in order to reconstruct this genealogy and also allow us to verify that the string sextet (the unusual setting chosen by Schoenberg for Verklärte Nacht) was just around the corner in the Songs of Brahms (who also composed two Sextets) and of Schoenberg himself. The piano, in fact, strongly alludes to the writing for string instruments - it is not by chance Berg's transcription of Die Nachtigall for string orchestra is paradoxically closer to the writing for sextet than to the standard writing for string orchestra.
The friendship between Zemlinsky and Schoenberg was also important: in 1899 both men composed pieces that combined their interests for the string sextet, the composition of Songs, and instrumental pieces inspired by short poems, in particular those of Richard Dehmel (Verklärte Nacht is inspired by a Dehmel's poem). An uncommon reciprocal influence took place between them: this is an extremely interesting chapter in the reconstruction of the context of Verklärte Nacht. Zemlinsky wrote a string sextet fragment (Ein Stück aus dem Leben eines Menschen - World Premiere Recording) and a song for mezzo-soprano and string sextet (Maiblumen blühten überall). The fragment bears witness to the dawning realization of the need for the string sextet: Zemlinsky interrupted his first draft for string quartet and restarted, keeping the original four-instrument beginning and adding the second viola and second cello where the first draft had been interrupted.
Schoenberg's interest in the string sextet, combined with suggestions coming from short poems, led him to start work on three string sextet pieces, remaining to us as mere fragments (two of them are World Premiere Recordings). These fragments, along with those of Zemlinsky, provide the context in which Verklärte Nacht was conceived. This close connection is further demonstrated by Schoenberg's use of empty space in the manuscript of one fragment when writing sketches for Verklärte Nacht.
The decision to compose an instrumental piece for string sextet blended successfully with a Dehmel text: Verklärte Nacht. What did make the difference in comparison with the fragments? This poem has characteristics that render it particularly suitable to the principles of musical composition: its organization, alternating between a narrator (stanzas 1, 3, and 5) and the monologues of the woman and the man (stanzas 2 and 4), and the repetition of keywords between those same stanzas, corresponds to the five sections of the piece, as does the motivic material between sections 1, 3 and 5 and sections 2 and 4. Furthermore, in the poem we see an overall evolution from a situation of crisis to a happy ending, corresponding to the tonal evolution from D minor to D major, a model that goes back to Beethoven (seen primarily in Symphonies 5 and 9). This means that Schoenberg found in the way Dehmel tells his story a parallel with his own idea of music as a process, an idea he inherited from Beethoven and Brahms.
With regards to performance, my researches made it clear that the enormous number of written indications for fluctuations in tempo and dynamics are restricted to the structural parameter (they clarify at which speed each section is to be played and the way to connect each section to the next). This doesn't mean that each single section is to be played strictly in tempo: as Schoenberg clearly wrote in his essays, tempo indications can merely apply to the first bar, and the way many motives are clearly shaped to the Song and Opera traditions clarify that Schoenberg took for granted that performers would accordingly play with sensitive phrasing. A confirmation comes from the fact that where he wanted something different he had to write it: interestingly, it is in the few instances of what Schoenberg dictates not be performed (accelerando, crescendo, and so on) that we find confirmation of the obvious standards of the time. Finally, the reconstruction of the compositional process and of the characteristics of the motivic materials has clarified that the number of motives, the constant reiteration and fragmentation of the elements, the numerous changes in dynamics, tempo, metre and rhythm are in fact unusual characteristics, which must be enhanced by the performance.
The manuscript of Verklärte Nacht allows us to follow its unusual compositional process almost as if we were looking at Schoenberg himself when seating at his desk and working at the score. For instance, he realized many times that he had hit a blind alley and retraced his steps back to the main path, over and over (the definitive version of each group follows each crossed-out group, meaning Schoenberg rejected them immediately after writing them, not during a later revision process). The autonomy of each afterthought with respect to the others and to the final version, makes it impossible to envisage a performable version. It is, however, possible to reconstruct the first version of the beginning (this is presented as an Appendix in the recording - it is also a World Premiere Recording): Schoenberg created new versions of some bars, glueing scraps of paper onto the manuscript and re-sequenced many microsections: a surprising (and highly uncommon) process. At times he re-wrote on sheets inserted into the score, and at times with cross-references indicating where to move the sections. He also re-worked some bars enhancing the contrapuntal coherence of the piece. Looking at this mish -mash of instructions, Schoenberg must have realized it would be better to create a new manuscript (unfortunately lost) presenting everything in an orderly fashion. Five bars (between the final bars 45-46) make up the last phase of this reorganization: in the extant manuscript they are present and not yet crossed out, but were later deleted from, or probably not even transcribed to, the final manuscript.
All this is now available to music lovers who wish to deepen their knowledge on Verklärte Nacht, to experience the background of the young Schoenberg and 'have a look on Schoenberg's desk'.
Gabriella Sborgi (soprano), Sextet of the Orchestra da Camera di Mantova conducted by Alessandro Maria Carnelli
Brilliant Classics 95288 (live recording November 2015, Teatro Bibiena, Mantua, Italy)