Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)

Notes by TŌN cellist Jordan Gunn

The Story
Arnold Schoenberg based his famous Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) after a poem by Richard Dehmel. The poem depicts an evening stroll in the moonlit forest, where a woman admits to her partner that she is carrying a child belonging to another. Desperate to find happiness through motherhood, she had been with a man she did not love. Now, being with a man she does truly love, she feels incredible guilt and anxiety. As they walk on, the man reveals to her that he cares for her deeply and will treat her child as his own, that their love will transfigure this child into one that is theirs. They embrace and continue their walk with a new transfigured perspective on life. It is true that Verklärte Nacht depicts many variations of the night, which drove Schoenberg to create a dark and moody quality of sound, but it also more importantly depicts the transfiguration of people during their darkest times. The woman came into this walk embarrassed and afraid, and left as a comforted and confident mother-to-be.

The Music
The piece starts in D minor with slow and dark footsteps by the lower instruments, creating a certain heaviness with a still, uncertain quality. The piece rises and falls dramatically in the first three movements as the woman tells her story, but most excitingly, the fourth movement blossoms into D major. A wave of warmth and confidence is brought out with a singing cello melody that dances through the instruments. In my interpretation, this is the point of transfiguration, when she feels the warmth and confidence and love from her partner. The work ends with a sense of peace and exuberance produced through harmonics, creating the fresh feeling of the early morning, just before the sun rises.