Program Notes for TRANSFIGURED NIGHT
Front Range Chamber Players, April 12, 2016
Before a concert starts, audiences are often encouraged to “sit back, relax, and enjoy the show,” and that’s often good advice. Tonight, however, you may find yourself sitting forward a bit more than usual, taking in the sometimes complex narratives presented in these two very different masterworks of the chamber music literature.
The works on tonight’s program are from two tremendously creative and forward-looking Viennese composers, one near the beginning and the other near the end of the Romantic period of music history, as we now call it. Earlier in the eighteenth century, Mozart and Haydn were termed “romantic” composers for their inventiveness and the beauty of their melodies. Beethoven is often thought of as the first true Romantic composer, though, because he achieved such a comprehensive extension of expression and technique, especially in the piano sonata, the symphony, and the string quartet.
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59, no. 2
Beethoven’s eighteen string quartets span nearly his entire career as a composer, from 1798 to 1826. The eighth, composed in 1806, was the second of the three “Rasumovsky” quartets. They were commissioned by Count Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna and a very able violinist. His mentor, violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, formed a professional quartet in 1804 to give public quartet concerts – a radical innovation at the time. The accomplishments of Schuppanzigh’s quartet are believed to have encouraged Beethoven to stretch the technical demands on the players to match his ambitious musical conceptions.
The first movement of the E Minor Quartet is certainly athletic for the first violinist, who must negotiate leaps and figurations over a range of three full octaves. (As Joseph Kerman remarked, from a historical perspective “it is probably not too much to say that Op. 59 doomed the amateur string quartet.”) Full of nervous tension, the movement opens with just two terse chords followed by an “empty bar,” silent except for the lingering resonance of the chords. The chords and the silence practically summarize the mood of the entire movement. Out of the chords arises the violin melody in broken triads, punctuated by measured silences and never allowed to spin out very long. A wavering half-step drone in the viola leads to the somewhat more relaxed second theme, in the relative key of G major, which soon closes with a series of explosive, hammered chords and syncopations. These motifs are reworked continuously, enhancing the sense of disquiet that pervades the movement.
II. Molto adagio (Con molto di sentimento)
The second movement stands in serene contrast to the first. Beethoven directs that it be played very slowly and “with great feeling.” The pianist Carl Czerny, who knew Beethoven, wrote that this movement occurred to Beethoven “when contemplating the starry sky and thinking of the music of the spheres.” The opening is like a hymn, solemn and solid. Beethoven, a master of the theme and variation form, soon starts embellishing the hymn in a multitude of ways. The violin adds soaring ornaments, as in the first movement. Triplets and then dotted rhythms add new energy, yet without disturbing the timeless feeling of the whole.
III. Allegretto, Maggiore – Theme russe
The third movement, essentially a scherzo and trio, is in five sections rather than the usual three: an Allegretto in E minor, a contrasting Maggiore section in E major, a literal repeat of the Allegretto, then the Maggiore again, and back to the Allegretto a final time. The Allegretto is lopsidedly and rather humorously rhythmic. In the Maggiore, Beethoven settles down to a Russian folk song, Glory to the Sun, perhaps as a nod to his patron. However, as Joseph Kerman trenchantly remarks, “the gentle listener had better beware. … It sounds as though Count Razumovsky had been tactless enough to hand Beethoven the tune, and Beethoven is pile-driving it into the ground by way of revenge.” The viola sounds the theme innocently enough, and the second violin accompanies it with busy triplets. Each instrument follows in triple counterpoint, and the tune becomes a loud and almost savage caricature of itself. Then, like a dust devil, it suddenly dissipates, ending almost lyrically before returning to the Allegretto section.
IV. Finale, Presto
The final movement is quick and deceptively simple. One kind of deception comes at the very beginning, where it sounds as if the key will be a lovely C major. Before long it becomes clear that the key really is E minor. Beethoven loved to use the sixth degree of the scale in this way (C for E minor), and it became more and more prominent in the works of later Romantic composers. (The other piece this evening, Verklärte Nacht, has it in spades.) In this movement, the forward energy hardly ever lets up. Beethoven gives the listener some relief in several distinct ways: reducing the volume to pianissimo; breaking up the texture so that only one or two instruments are playing at a time; slowing the rhythmic pace by having most of the instruments play longer, sustained notes; and, near the end, by using bold statements and measured silences, just as he did in the first movement. In the end these really increase the tension rather than relieve it. The listener may ultimately come away feeling as if the movement, and most of the quartet, has been a fast gallop indeed.
A Poem by Richard Dehmel
Translated by Stanley Appelbaum
Two people walk through a bare, cold grove;
The moon races along with them, they look into it.
The moon races over tall oaks,
No cloud obscures the light from the sky,
Into which the black points of the boughs reach.
A woman’s voice speaks:
I’m carrying a child, and not yours,
I walk in sin beside you.
I have committed a great offense against myself.
I no longer believed I could be happy
And yet I had a strong yearning
For something to fill my life, for the joys of
And for duty; so I committed an effrontery,
So, shuddering, I allowed my sex
To be embraced by a strange man,
And, on top of that, I blessed myself for it.
Now life has taken its revenge:
Now I have met you, oh, you.
She walks with a clumsy gait,
She looks up; the moon is racing along.
Her dark gaze is drowned in light.
A man’s voice speaks:
May the child you conceived
Be no burden to your soul;
Just see how brightly the universe is gleaming!
There’s a glow around everything;
You are floating with me on a cold ocean,
But a special warmth flickers
From you into me, from me into you.
It will transfigure the strange man’s child.
You will bear the child for me, as if it were mine;
You have brought the glow into me,
You have made me like a child myself.
He grasps her around her ample hips.
Their breath kisses in the breeze.
Two people walk through the lofty, bright night.
Ein Gedicht von Richard Dehmel
Zwei Menschen gehn durch kahlen, kalten Hain;
der Mond läuft mit, sie schaun hinein.
Der Mond läuft über hohe Eichen;
kein Wölkchen trübt das Himmelslicht,
in das die schwarzen Zacken reichen.
Die Stimme eines Weibes spricht:
Ich trag ein Kind, und nit von Dir,
ich geh in Sünde neben Dir.
Ich hab mich schwer an mir vergangen.
Ich glaubte nicht mehr an ein Glück
und hatte doch ein schwer Verlangen
nach Lebensinhalt, nach Mutterglück
und Pflicht; da hab ich mich erfrecht,
da ließ ich schaudernd mein Geschlecht
von einem fremden Mann umfangen,
und hab mich noch dafür gesegnet.
Nun hat das Leben sich gerächt:
nun bin ich Dir, o Dir, begegnet.
Sie geht mit ungelenkem Schritt.
Sie schaut empor; der Mond läuft mit.
Ihr dunkler Blick ertrinkt in Licht.
Die Stimme eines Mannes spricht:
Das Kind, das Du empfangen hast,
sei Deiner Seele keine Last,
o sieh, wie klar das Weltall schimmert!
Es ist ein Glanz um alles her;
Du treibst mit mir auf kaltem Meer,
doch eine eigne Wärme flimmert
von Dir in mich, von mir in Dich.
Die wird das fremde Kind verklären,
Du wirst es mir, von mir gebären;
Du hast den Glanz in mich gebracht,
Du hast mich selbst zum Kind gemacht.
Er faßt sie um die starken Hüften.
Ihr Atem küßt sich in den Lüften.
Zwei Menschen gehn durch hohe, helle Nacht.
Arnold Shoenberg: Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 (1899)
The poem, Verklärte Nacht (1896), was edgy stuff in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century. Its author, Richard Dehmel (1863-1920), took a frank approach to social problems in his poetry, pushing the boundaries of the prevailing morality and often using suggestive and even erotic language. Although he attracted the ire of the censors and was once prosecuted for obscenity, he also attracted the admiration of a good many readers in the German-speaking world. Richard Strauss, Max Reger, Kurt Weill, and others composed Lieder using Dehmel’s poetry as the lyrics. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) did so as well in the last few years of the nineteenth century. Verklärte Nacht became Dehmel’s best-known poem in large part because it inspired Schoenberg to write the string sextet on tonight’s program.
The sextet, Verklärte Nacht (1899), turned out to be pretty edgy too. Schoenberg composed it in the late German Romantic style of his teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky, an expert on Brahms and Wagner. This emotional, expressionistic style – a style that we hear in movie soundtracks to this day – was well-suited to Dehmel’s poem. Like the poem, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht pushed boundaries, because of its subject matter and also the fact that the piece had a subject matter. Verklärte Nacht is said to be the first work of chamber music that was programmatic, that is, an instrumental work that overtly portrays a complete story. Until then, programmatic music would usually be a symphonic work like Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz. Some criticized Verklärte Nacht for its structure and harmonic style, especially a particular unresolved inverted ninth chord that certain tastemakers of the day declared completely unacceptable. The premiere in Vienna in 1902 “was hissed and caused riots and fist fights,” as Schoenberg wrote later, but it also effectively launched Schoenberg’s career.
Schoenberg later became an extraordinarily influential and controversial composer, music theorist, and teacher of composition. In the 1920s, he developed the “twelve-tone technique,” in which he substituted ordered series of all twelve tones of the chromatic scale for the traditional key-centered hierarchy of tonic and dominant. Although the earlier Verklärte Nacht is thoroughly tonal, its harmonies drift far and wide and often seem to become unmoored from the home key. Schoenberg blends adventurous, highly dramatic harmonies with the concept of “developing variation,” a term coined by Schoenberg to described Brahms’s style of continually reworking themes and gestures over the course of a piece or a movement. Schoenberg sought to extend, one might even say to transfigure, traditional forms and patterns into a kind of music that is unpredictable, enticing, and radiant.
The piece, like the poem, is in five sections. The first, third, and fifth sections portray the deeply intertwined feelings of an unnamed woman and man, newly in love, walking together in the cold, moonlit night. They are often represented by the first violin and the first cello. The second section, very agitated, expresses the woman’s painful revelation that she is pregnant, “but not by you,” she says to the man. She had married a man she did not love, she says, though she also expresses satisfaction at having followed her “yearning” for motherhood. The fourth section, in a sudden and glorious D major, portrays the man’s answer and assurance to her that they will raise the child together. By the end, they are walking, not in a “bare, cold grove,” but in the “lofty, bright night,” surrounded by glittering stars.
Some of the poem’s sentiments, such as the “heroic” representation of the man, may now seem cloying or paternalistic, and Schoenberg himself said later that he had grown to dislike the poem. He never disavowed his composition, though, and he made an arrangement of it for string orchestra that is often heard on the symphony stage. From Dehmel’s striking imagery, Schoenberg created a successful tone poem and a deep psychological portrait of love, acceptance, and understanding.
By Charles Tucker
With thanks to Barbara Thiem